Until J.K. Rowling's new novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, comes out on Thursday at its worldwide on-sale time of 8 a.m. GMT (so 3 a.m. ET and 12 a.m. PT), the book's contents had, before now, been carefully protected and its secrecy ensured, with publisher Little, Brown and Company demanding non-disclosure agreements signed by reviewers who received early copies of the book. Even New Yorker writer Ian Parker, whose profile of Rowling appears in this week's magazine, had to sign a NDA, for instance, "that initially barred him from taking notes while reading Vacancy in the publisher’s office." Over at the Independent, Matthew Bell balked at this treatment and explained that even the non-disclosure had a non-disclosure: "The arrival of The Casual Vacancy has been more remarkable for showing the ruthless, bullying side of publishing that has become all too common," he writes. "And, given Rowling's history of litigation, one can only imagine she has done little to discourage it. My colleague, Katy Guest, our literary editor, was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement before her reviewer could be 'hand-delivered' a copy of the book. Embargoes are normal, but within the legalese, Guest found a clause stating that even the existence of the agreement could not be mentioned. A sort of publishing superinjunction."
All this was to make sure that how the book was seen to measure up to past efforts from the Harry Potter author (already we knew that as an adult book it would be very different, sexy, even, and sans magic in plot) would not appear until the publisher and author were ready. Until now. The A.P. has released their review of the book—a day early!
The non-disclosure agreement and the embargo are a weird vestige of things past, in some ways. News simply doesn't work that way, or work that way that well, when writers and reviewers can blog and hit publish more easily than we can read through and sign non-disclosure agreements. Information is power, and disseminating it a further power. We operate online at least under some premise that first is best, as long, of course, as you don't get it wrong. And if you do, you know, you can change it. So why wait? Waiting is against everything we've been taught.
Still, the publishing world, with printing and paper and all that goes with it, tends to operate a little slower than the Internet. It's not hard to understand why a company would ask reviewers to wait until the release date of a book (or another specified time), whether in hopes of controlling information or holding that review momentum off until there's one huge rush of it. They want to be the ones to pull the trigger on that "start" gun, and maybe those in the review business have agreed generally to this because it lets them avoid that incessant scramble to always be first. But it's also not surprising that given the online writing pace and form many of us have grown accustomed to, some reviewers might break an "agreement," or not agree to it at all. The latter is exactly what the A.P. did, with this note in their review, written by Deepti Hajela:
Published in the US by Little, Brown and Company and in Britain by Little, Brown Book Group, The Casual Vacancy is scheduled to come out on Thursday and has been held under tight control, with media outlets required to sign non-disclosure agreements before being permitted to see the book. The Associated Press declined to sign such an agreement and instead purchased a copy early.
(Where that copy came from has not been revealed.)
This review is the first we will all be reading to the certain consternation of folks at Little, Brown and Company, the book's publisher, and perhaps Rowling herself. And, yet, a review is not and should not be a spoiler. What's really so wrong with an early review?
Here, essentially, is what it reveals:
1. The book is not Harry Potter. "So look, here's the thing: This. Is. Not. A. Children's. Book. If you're looking for what made Harry Potter magical – Wizards! Spells! Flying Broomsticks! – you're not going to find it."
2. The book is about what we knew what it was about, with a setting that had been previously disclosed: "set in the small British village of Pagford," it "tells the story of what happens after the unexpected death of a town official leaves a vacancy on the town's governing body. A long-simmering conflict over what the solidly middle-class village should do about the residents of a poverty-stricken, drug- and crime-infested housing project on the edge of town gets heated, interwoven with the personal lives and problems of Rowling's characters."
3. The book both does and does not compare to Potter. This, perhaps, is the main question people will have, and the reason for all the non-disclosure grief: Is it as good? The A.P. review explains that it's not as easy to immediately fall in love with (and this, at least in this writer's view, is a key difference in many an adult-Y.A. book comparison). The people can't be saved, are unlikeable, even terrible, are "unhappy in one way or another, even if the only people who know that are themselves, if that." This is a damaged population of individuals more like Voldemort than like Harry and his friends. But the book gets saved, even if the people don't: "But what could have been an unreadable story becomes something else in Rowling's hands, thanks to her gift of being able to make her characters complex and really, just human." If emotion and heart make something magical, so is the book.
4. The book is pronounced "worth it." This is where all the non-disclosure and rush-to-be-first stuff gets the silliest. Bell argues that "Two million orders are thought to have been placed worldwide for The Casual Vacancy before its release. Yet nobody knows if it's any good." True, what if it's horrible? That no one has said so before people were "forced" (not really) to buy it is a clear disservice to readers. Yet that assumes that the majority of the reading public reads and is informed by reviews. I'd guess that especially in this case, people were going to buy the book anyway, and so they did. We're talking about the author of one of the most well-read and best-selling series in the world. More people than usual, though, will also be reading the reviews—especially this first one—too.
Will the A.P.'s move help change the way we look at book publishing non-disclosures? I'd lean toward yes. A non-disclosure can't stop people from talking about a book before its release, and publishers wouldn't want it to. It's hard to cap the lid on discussions the reading public is bent on having (and for good reason; they're excited, you know, having not had a new Rowling book in years!) That talk also drums up more interest and, yep, the book is now number 1 on Amazon, surpassing No Easy Day.
At the same time, embargoes and non-disclosures and self-imposed times-to-publish make less and less sense in an online world in which the information, once there, can be immediately delivered to an endless stream of readers. You only need one person to find the book and go ahead and review it, and your whole embargo has failed. But also, for book reviewers, if you can't be first, you have to be better. The A.P. sneakily and maybe wisely jumped ahead this time, but that's sort of a one-trick pony. Best case scenario, the lifting of the non-disclosure model could be good for everyone's writing—and therefore, our reading, too. The publishing industry perhaps feels differently. Then again, The Casual Vacancy just got a pretty great review.
Update: The A.P., contacted by the Atlantic Wire for comment, responded thusly, via Director of Media Relations Paul Colford: "We purchased The Casual Vacancy, as we have purchased other high-profile books in advance of their official publication date, and we wrote about the novel after reading it closely, given the enormous interest in J.K. Rowling’s first work for adult readers." Colford added, "We have written about the contents of a number of other books, before their official publication dates, after we’ve been able to buy the books ahead of time from a bookstore or other vendor. I’m sure you can appreciate that we would not identify those sources."