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Amazon sent out early copies of the Handmaid’s Tale sequel. Indie booksellers aren’t happy.

The online retailer broke a giant publishing embargo, but it probably won’t face consequences.

Amazon delivery vans are seen on May 14, 2019, in Orlando, Florida.
Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, is scheduled to come out in print on September 10. The day was all set to be a heralded unveiling — until Amazon mailed copies to its customers one week early.

Before Amazon sent its early shipments, very little information about The Testaments was available to the public. That was intentional on the part of the publisher, Penguin Random House imprint Nan A. Talese Books, and the secrecy required careful coordination.

Book critics (including me) had to sign a nondisclosure agreement to get access to early copies of the book. The judging committee for the Man Booker Prize, which put The Testaments on its shortlist earlier this week, was warned that if any judges leaked their watermarked advance copies of the manuscript, they would be personally held liable. And booksellers signed embargo agreements in which they promised not to sell any copies of the book before the release date.

All this paperwork is fairly standard for a splashy, highly anticipated new release. It’s not a foolproof method of keeping spoilers off the internet, but generally when these strategies fail, it’s due to the work of determined saboteurs, like the people who painstakingly photographed every page of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and posted the photos online just days before the book’s 2007 release. It’s not because the world’s biggest bookseller just decided not to abide by the terms of their embargo.

But on Tuesday, September 3, a week before The Testaments’ scheduled release date, something odd started to happen on social media. Jubilant Margaret Atwood fans were posting pictures of their new copies of the novel, explaining that the books had somehow arrived early, courtesy of Amazon.

The Guardian reports that all told, Amazon mailed out 800 copies of The Testaments to US customers ahead of the book’s official pub date. In a statement to Vox, an Amazon spokesperson attributed the early shipments to a “technical error” and apologized, saying, “We value our relationship with authors, agents, and publishers, and regret the difficulties this has caused them and our fellow booksellers.” Penguin Random House, meanwhile, describes the incident as “a retailer error which has now been rectified” and says the book will still come out as planned on September 10.

But for some indie booksellers, this error is deeply frustrating. The big issue, says Lexi Beach, who runs New York City’s Astoria Bookshop, is that it is overwhelmingly unlikely that Amazon will face any consequences for violating the embargo.

Traditionally, Beach says, if a bookseller violates an embargo, the affected publisher has the right to refuse to send the seller’s next shipment of books on time for publication date. She added that she used to have the job of getting booksellers to sign affidavits agreeing to those terms when she worked for a publisher. “But no publisher can afford to punish a large account that way,” she told me over the phone. “They still need Amazon to sell their books.”

For indie booksellers like Beach, it’s a different story. “We will probably get our shipment of The Testaments on Monday, and if I started selling that day, and it got out to my sales rep that I was selling it early, I personally would have to answer to that,” she said. “I’m a small enough account for them that what does it matter to them if they hold back shipments?”

Beach knows she would have to answer to such a breach personally because it’s happened to her before. In 2016, the script book for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was one of the most heavily embargoed titles of the year. Beach says that when her shipment of the book arrived at her store shortly before the release date, she snapped a picture of the carton of books and posted it on social media. (It was just a picture of the box, she emphasizes; the books themselves didn’t even appear in the frame.) The publisher called her and told her the photo was in violation of her embargo.

“I took it down immediately,” Beach said.

Publishers seem to believe that Amazon is too big to punish

The general idea behind strict bookselling embargoes is that if a book has a clearly defined release date, then all of its earliest sales, including preorders, count as part of its first week of sales. And because the biggest bestseller lists are updated every week, if all of a book’s early sales happen in its first official week of publication, it has a higher chance of debuting as a bestseller.

But if the book’s release date is fuzzy for some reason — if some parts of the country get it a week before other parts do — its early sales become diffuse. They get scattered across two (or more) weeks instead of one. Which, in turn, makes it harder for the book to debut as a bestseller.

For a book as highly anticipated as The Testaments, it’s unlikely that 800 early sales are going to make or break its placement on the New York Times bestseller list. And Beach doesn’t think the early release will have a measurable financial effect on her business (people who preordered from Amazon, she says, are “not necessarily my customers”). But the fact that Amazon can violate an embargo with apparent impunity, Beach says, only speaks to the company’s disproportionate power within the publishing industry.

“One of my colleagues said on Twitter that this whole mess is an ad for Prime,” she said. “What it’s telling people is, ‘If you preorder with us, you might get your book a week before anybody else has it.’ If I were just a reader, that’s really cool. People love getting things early!”

But Beach says she wouldn’t want to sell copies of The Testaments early even if she could. “I don’t want to screw up somebody’s marketing plan just because I could get $26 this week instead of next week,” she says. “We’re all in this together. Everybody in this weird industry.”