In the old days, we would persuade, cajole, wheedle, snoop — do anything in fact to obtain first sight of an about-to-be-published global blockbuster.
On newspapers, determined to get the story first, it was an art form, practised by silver-tongued reporters who would seeming stop at nothing to secure a copy ahead of the public.
Did I say old days? Bizarrely, given the pace of change and the advancement of technology, nothing has altered where book publishing and the media’s success in breaking embargoes is concerned.
Last week, journalists were being hurriedly dispatched to Spain when it emerged that Prince Harry’s bombshell autobiography Spare was on sale five days before its official publication date.
Shoppers, including hacks racing from London and elsewhere, were able to snap up copies of En La Sombra or In The Shadow for €21.90. The result was a deluge of revelations across the mainstream and social media. This, despite bookshops being under strict instruction not to sell the work before 10 January.
In Spain, the weekend prior to publication day marked a national holiday. The books were in shop storerooms in advance of the shutdown, known as Epiphany, when Spaniards traditionally exchange gifts. What better present could there be than Harry’s outpouring?
That’s certainly how some stores saw it. They were not prepared to let a money-making opportunity go missing — especially as the period after the break is quieter for sales.
So long as no trace came back to them, they were happy to sell and bust the carefully put-in-place security operation of the publisher, Plaza y Janes Editores, the Spanish subsidiary of Penguin Random House.
Purchasers were told they would not receive a receipt until 10 January and asked not to divulge the contents on social media. Some chance. Cue as well, translating from Spanish into English and other languages at breakneck speed.
This was not the only leak where Spare was concerned. The US platform, Page Six claimed to have a copy as did The Guardian. Intriguingly, The Guardian version came to the paper via Martin Pengelly, its New York breaking news editor, who delighted in describing the “stringent pre-launch security” surrounding Spare.
Pengelly has form in this regard. Says The Washington Post: “He’s the guy who somehow manages to get a contraband copy of each book first — and beat the world in spilling the most consequential and interesting details.”
Pengelly was the first to lay his hands on a pre-publication copy of Michael Wolff’s 2018 bestseller, Fire and Fury, about the Trump White House.
He was first to uncover gems in books by former FBI director James Comey, Trump’s niece Mary Trump, porn actress and alleged Trump paramour Stormy Daniels and ex-White House press secretaries Sarah Sanders and Kayleigh McEnany.
He had the heads-up too on former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s memoir. These are just some of his pre-publication scoops and publishers are known to be wary, if not despairing of him.
He’s 44, a Brit who seems to score in the US when local journalists can’t. He won’t say how he does it, preferring to speak in only vague terms of “having obtained a copy”.
Publishers send advance copies to writers for review but under the strictest embargo. They have been unable to identify journalists he might have struck cosy deals with in return for their review copies.
Another route is pure chance, that retailers do accidentally from time to time put a book on the display shelves when it should not be there. But Pengelly’s exclusives are consistent, suggesting it’s not left to luck.
Only once has he hinted at his source and that was in relation to Comey’s A Higher Loyalty. The book, he and a colleague said at the time, was “obtained by The Guardian from a bookseller in New York”.
As in Spain, the bookshop appears to be the weakest link. It’s been noted that Pengelly breaks his stories towards the end of the week before the release day — typically when shopkeepers usually receive their boxes of copies.
What has occurred with Spare is all reminiscent of what happened years ago with Harry Potter. Then, author J K Rowling was determined her army of fans should know the plot lines first. The most incredible security campaign swung into action. Even then it was not enough.
The Sun reported it had been approached by a man who wanted to sell them pages from the book. The paper was wary, realising the pages could only have been stolen and they did not want to be similarly accused.
The police were called and they established the would-be seller was a forklift truck driver from the printers. He was charged with theft, convicted and handed a community service order.
It’s clear that for all the effort applied to stop leaking, old-fashioned human nature will do its worst and the desire to make a quick buck will kick in. In the end, publishers do not mind so much, as a buzz is being built around their forthcoming title.
It’s a game, really, and the hype around security and the thrill of the chase feed the atmosphere and add to the clamour.
It’s also a rare instance of old tech holding sway. Newspapers have long switched to online first but that’s not true of book publishing, which depends on printed copies reaching people’s hands. When that happens exactly, they can struggle to control.