I was laying in bed Monday morning, pretending it wasn’t really Monday morning and that I didn’t have to get up to go to the day job again. Morning Edition was playing on the clock radio that I was studiously ignoring when Lynne Neary did a report on people who were ordering the new Girl Who book from overseas rather than waiting for it to be released here in the US, a good eight months after it had come out in Europe. Knopf took a chance, not realizing how popular the books would be, and staggered the release, hoping to build interest in the books. Except they took off, so instead of the extra time building interest in the series, it became an interminable and ultimately unnecessary wait. People started ordering the books from UK and European distributors or just picking them up when they were overseas. Knopf was shocked and horrified. They forced US bookstores who were ordering the books for their customers to stop immediately, and the publicity director actually encouraged people to buy only from US dealers and internet firms, to obey the law.
Except in this global age, that just ain’t going to fly.
It’s not like this is the first time this has happened. Scholastic got burned exactly the same way with the Harry Potter series. When Goblet of Fire came out in the UK months before it did here, kids and parents did the logical thing and hit Amazon UK. In the end, the lost sales were probably a drop in the bucket, but Scholastic learned their lesson and released the rest of the series simultaneously. Knopf failed to realize that in trying to generate interest, they might actually get interest, and wasn’t prepared to adjust to the new demand. Although the “building interest” philosophy is very old school publishing, and doesn’t take into consideration the new reality of blogging, tweeting and otherwise instantaneously sharing information. Buzz that once took months to build now takes days. Eight months might as well be eight years.
Another article later in the week on All Things Considered tied right into Knopf’s demand that people “obey the law”. In a piece on setting rules for kids, a psychologist from UC Berkeley lays out four categories of rules: moral rules, safety rules, social rules and personal rules. Personal rules are rules that kids consider to be about their personal business: who they hang out with, what they wear, what music they listen to, and almost all conflicts between parents and kids come from this area. The kids find these rules to be unfair and so don’t comply. Which is something we as grownups do as well. We decide what laws are fair and unfair every day and act accordingly, driving 70 in a 55 zone, downloading a song or TV show illegally when we already have or intend to buy the legal version, fudging a deduction on our taxes. And the idea that we can’t have a book that people have had in Europe for months is inherently unfair, and there is no way Knopf will get compliance with it.
I feel for print publishers, I really do. They are still functioning on a nineteenth century model when the reading public is hurtling through the twenty-first. Between globalization and the digital revolution, their old methods and functions don’t work anymore. Rather than catching up, though, rather than innovating and reinventing, they are trying to hold us the readers to the old rules. But that genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no way they can stuff us back in.