At the BEA on Saturday I attended a panel discussion about book embargoes.
From time to time publishers don't want anything about a partiular book published before a particular time. Recent examples would be Bill Clinton's, Jane Fonda's, and Bob Dylan's exercises in autobiography.
In the case of the Dylan opus, when I was asked by the publisher to consider it for review -- a request accompanied by an announcement that the book would be embargoed and that no review copies would be available until the publication date -- I replied that I might have been interested if I hadn't known that the New York Times would have a review out the very same day the book hit the stores ... because the Times would have somehow been given a copy beforehand.
The publisher responded by agreeing to provide a review copy on condition that I sign an agreement promising not to release anything about the book prior to its pub date. I signed, they sent the book, and music critic Tom Moon had a piece about the book the same day it book came out.
The BEA panel included freelancer John Freeman (who reviews regularly for The Inquirer), San Francisco Chronicle book critic David Kipen, Chicago Trubune book editor Elizabeth Taylor, and former Nation book editor Art Winslow. Unanimously, they declared that they had never, ever signed any such agreement, and never would. Freeman had the best reason: He'd be signing for himself, not on behalf of some large entity like a metropolitan daily newspaper, and would be personally liable. Under such circumstances I probably wouldn't sign either.
Otherwise I beg to differ with all of these distinguished colleagues of mine. Except for Freeman, all seemed to think that not signing was some kind of badge of honor, a demonstration of some sort of purity of motive and intent. Nobody seemed to be thinking about what the readers of their respective publications might want. The sort of books that get embargoed aren't usually the kind book review editors care that much about. But lifestyle editors and pop arts editors do care about them. They would like their readers to read about them as soon as possible, certainly as soon as readers of the New Yoprk Times can.
No one on the panel brought up what may be obvious from what I said above: What bothers me is that the same publisher who would keep me from getting a review copy of a book won't be so careful to keep the Times from getting one.
As for the fact that, by signing, I'm aiding and abetting the publicity campaign on behalf of the book -- well, folks, all those booths outside the room where the panel was taking place were put there by businesses. The BEA, mirabile dictu, is a business convention. Books are a product, a commodity, and if they don't get sold, the only thing any of us will be signing is a foreclosure document.