AUGUST 26, 2015
THE JULY 14, 2015 publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Lee’s only other novel, the intensely beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, was the most anticipated publishing event since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows almost exactly eight years before. The initial print run for the novel was two million copies. According to Nielsen BookScan, Watchman sold 761,000 print copies in its first week (dropping to 220,000 the following week).
It was a big deal, and HarperCollins, Watchman’s publisher, designed its prepublication campaign carefully. A bit of news about the book leaked out between February, when Watchman’s publication was announced, and July. Two newspapers — one in the United States, one in the United Kingdom — were granted rights to publish an excerpt from the novel before publication. HarperCollins secretly provided advance review copies to only a few outlets, major legacy publications with national and international reach, on the condition that their reviews would be embargoed until the official date of publication. All other publications were told that ARCs were not available to anyone.
The embargo didn’t hold, though. On July 10, New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani reviewed the novel on the newspaper’s front page, mildly positively, and the Wall Street Journal published its review, along with an excerpt from the novel, the same day. This breached the dike. Soon after that, other publications — Time (July 11), the Los Angeles Times (July 11), The Washington Post (July 12 — by former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey!), the Dallas Morning News (July 13), the London Guardian (July 13) — rushed out their own reviews in advance of the official publication date.
HarperCollins’ publicity machine declared itself disappointed that its embargo didn’t hold. “Am I angry at The New York Times? I’m not angry, but I’m not happy,” Newsweek quoted Tina Andreadis (senior VP and director of publicity) as saying. Andreadis called the Times’ move “a disservice” to customers, but it’s unclear quite what the disservice would be. More hype, more anticipation would seem to benefit Harper, not readers — for whom, presumably, reviews are written.
HarperCollins — a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp — provided reviewers with advance copies of Go Set a Watchman on July 10 so long as those reviewers agreed to observe the embargo. (HarperCollins’ publicity department declined to comment for this story.) But the Times and The Wall Street Journal seem to already have obtained copies, because their reviews ran that same day.
The Times wouldn’t confirm whether it had indeed received an embargoed advance copy when Harper provided them to the press on July 10. But that didn’t matter: the Times reviewed its own bootleg copy. “Our policy is that we do not honor embargoes if we obtain a book independent of publishers’ official channels,” Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha stated. How the Times got that copy is still a mystery.
After the Times and WSJ broke the embargo, it was a free-for-all. The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead — whose paper had published the UK’s authorized excerpt from the novel on the 10th (appearing in the Saturday July 11 print edition) — put reviewer Mark Lawson on notice to file his review a day early, but didn’t break the embargo until after the other American publications did so on the 11th and 12th.
In the United States, only a few prominent publications were given access to advance review copies. The Times had one, presumably; the other major outlets who had been provided with ARCs, seeing that the Times had run a review, rushed their own out. But most publications — including major metropolitan newspapers with very vibrant book sections and web publications like this one — were denied ARCs.
In the film business this is sometimes called a “cold opening” — critics are not allowed to see a film before the release date on the assumption that their savage reviews will depress the box office. Cold openings are designed to maximize sales before the bad news rolls in. Did HarperCollins fear pans of this novel (which was, as was widely reported even before publication, a rejected first draft of Mockingbird) and thus orchestrate a Hollywood-style cold opening? The intent isn’t clear. But those early reviews were decidedly mixed: they weren’t Transformers: Age of Extinction bad, but they certainly weren’t rapturous.
Either way, this embargo, and the division of favored publications and marginalized ones, was transatlantic. The Guardian’s Armitstead noted that “key UK reviewers were allowed to pick up copies on the afternoon of Friday 10th” so long as the agreed to observe the embargo. (She added that the “key” reviewers would have been from the London Times, The Telegraph, and The Independent, as well as The Guardian.) Implicit in that formulation, of course, is the fact that many others were not provided with ARCs.
Book review editors are worldly people, and they know the game. Giving ARCs to some publications and denying them to others is “an attempt to control the timing of the message, if not the message itself, for the most impact possible,” Laurie Hertzel, books editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said.
Nonetheless, this selective allocation of ARCs caused some ill feelings. Books editor Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — who was told repeatedly he couldn’t have a review copy until the date of publication — was “sad to see that [some] publications got special treatment.”
For these editors, HarperCollins’ caste system was ultimately counterproductive. “The Twin Cities has more than 50 independent bookstores and is consistently ranked at the top of the nation’s most literate cities,” Hertzel added.
The Star Tribune is in the top twenty in circulation in the country. We run book reviews three times a week — Mondays, Wednesdays, and two full pages on Sundays. All original, no wire. Our book reviews are widely read, widely shared online, and they often appear in other newspapers. There are more wonderful books out there than we can possibly review. The publishers need us more than we need them.
It didn’t help, either, that HarperCollins wasn’t honest about its ARC policy. Hertzel requested ARCs twice — in February and May — but both times was told by the HarperCollins publicity department that nobody would be receiving advance copies, so as to ensure a “level playing field,” in the words of HarperCollins’ Andreadis. The Post-Gazette’s Norman was also turned down both times he asked for an ARC. “Until I saw Kakutani’s review in the NYT,” Norman explained, “I wasn’t aware that any publication had an advance copy of the book or had been exempt from an embargo.” HarperCollins also told Tom Lutz, editor-in-chief at the Los Angeles Review of Books, that there would be no ARCs for anyone until pub date, and repeated this as late as June 13, even after the first reviews — most of them from ARCs — had already appeared.
It’s not surprising that HarperCollins would want to control the message, giving the major national legacy publications first crack at running reviews (that would then be likely to get widely shared on the web) and making the regional or web-native outlets wait until the pub date for their copies. Given the degree of media-ownership concentration, it’s surprising that the rollout of the novel wasn’t more controlled, more like the synergistic cross-platform launches of a tentpole movie. Still, the one outlet in the United States that ran a prepublication excerpt from Watchman — the Wall Street Journal — is another division of News Corp. (That the London Times, another News Corp publication, didn’t run the excerpt seems like an oversight of someone in the corporate office.)
The embargo and selective ARC provision aren’t the only distasteful things about the rollout of Go Set a Watchman. In their zeal to capitalize on what the Times’ Joe Nocera called a “phony literary event,” major media outlets seem to have lost their analytical faculties, and, with some notable exceptions (such as the Times, whose reporting on the Lee saga, Kakutani’s softball review aside, has been exemplary), served as publicity mouthpieces. On July 13 — the day before publication — PBS’s American Masters broadcast a short interview with Lee and Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer and the woman who brought Watchman to HarperCollins’ attention. Is PBS now working for HarperCollins’ publicity department?
The most important questions, though, are about the book itself. Why this version? Why now, after all these years? Harper Lee is aging — now 89 — and living in a nursing home. Her sister Alice Lee, a lawyer who looked after Harper for many years, passed away at the age of 103 on November 17, 2014. Almost immediately after that, Carter (who had worked in Alice Lee’s firm) brought the novel to HarperCollins’ attention. Carter stated that she had only discovered the existence of this manuscript in August 2014, but The New York Times reported that as early as 2011, Carter had been aware of — had in fact been present at an appraisal of — this very manuscript.
It doesn’t look very savory. The cynics read the situation thus: While Alice Lee was alive, but quite elderly, Tonja Carter insinuated herself into Harper Lee’s confidence. With this access, she was able to see the previously unknown manuscript of Watchman — the ur-version of Mockingbird, before Lee radically revised it in 1958–’9 with the guidance of Lippincott editor Tay Hohoff. After Alice Lee’s death, Carter became (in the words of the Times) “Ms. Lee’s chief liaison to [HarperCollins] and […] the main conduit for remarks from Ms. [Harper] Lee, who has not granted a formal interview since the mid-1960s.” Very soon after Alice Lee’s death, Carter approached HarperCollins and told them that Harper Lee wanted to publish the “just discovered” manuscript. Two and a half months later, on February 3, the publication was announced, and four and a half months after that, the book was in bookstores.
Whether Harper Lee was fully capable of making these decisions is unknown. Alice, in a 2011 letter, said that her sister “can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” Carter is sticking by her story, and HarperCollins has stated that they believe her.
But the Murdoch empire’s ethical track record can be most generously described as “sketchy” — from Fox News’ disingenuous “fair and balanced” programming to the phone-hacking epidemic in Britain. And when I worked in the early 1990s for Basic Books, then a prestige HarperCollins imprint (now independent), on at least two occasions our editor-in-chief received instructions from the top either to publish or scuttle books that would have directly impacted Murdoch’s business interests in China. Would HarperCollins skirt its ethical responsibilities when it comes to a sure blockbuster title from a potentially compromised author? Is there anything to suggest the company wouldn’t?
Nocera’s wrong that this is a “phony literary event,” though. It’s not phony, and it certainly is an event. Even if HarperCollins exaggerated slightly with its boast of 1.1 million sales in a week, the book’s rollout and marketing are one of the major events in English-language publishing in the last few years. And inadvertently, this event shows us the underside of the publishing business. With conglomeratization and consolidation, the major publishers look to the major legacy journalistic outlets as partners in the promotion of this book. Smaller, regional outlets with links to local bookstores and readers were shut out, as were web-based publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, which are increasingly the places where readers gather.
More concerning is the refusal of editors and reviewers at the favored few outlets to discuss the “event.” Both the books editor and the reviewer at the Los Angeles Times, for instance, refused to comment, and the books editor at The Washington Post did not respond to a request for a statement. All of this suggests a newspaper world more concerned with its complex relationship to publishers, and perhaps more importantly their parent media conglomerates, than to the free flow of information that is its stated mission. It’s distressing to see book reviewing going the way of entertainment reporting and the White House press corps — where the constant threat of curtailed access keeps reporters hemmed in by the agendas of publicists and the timidity of editors. The whole thing is, to quote HarperCollins’ Andreadis, “a disservice” to the reading public.