The Harry Potter Book Embargo Precedent: Attempting to Stop Book Leaks

At the time of this writing, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” has managed to accidentally get into the hands of around 120 readers in America two days before the actual international release date. And the legal team working with J.K. Rowling and American publisher Scholastic must be the biggest and most powerful force ever assembled in threatening lawsuits against retailers that inadvertently sent out advanced copies. It starts to forward comparisons with giant record companies filing lawsuits against individuals who’ve been illegally downloading music. This may set a more powerful precedent in the book world now if or when another high-profile book phenomenon manages to hit again. Or, it could just happen for any book being published with a fever-pitch buzz attached to it. The reality is, though, that most prior high-profile books have leaked early in higher numbers than “Deathly Hallows” has. It never hurt any of those books ending up at the #1 position on the New York Times bestseller list either. But in the age of increasing media availability–more powerful control may be a new process to stop leaks…or maybe best not doing anything at all.

Probably the most recent major book leak that happened in America was when Bill Clinton released his anticipated memoirs, “My Life” in 2004. Excerpts were leaked everywhere on the net regarding his anticipated insights into his scandals with Monica Lewinsky. People are fortunately wired to realize that knowing an ending (or even revelations of information in a non-fiction book) is only one small part in enjoying a book. Most internet comments I’ve seen regarding the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” say that the journey leading to the ending is more satisfying in their eyes. It’s more than obvious that most people who read the book will go right to read the ending first…and then go back and read what happens before to put the ending in a more powerful context. I’ve talked to other people who read the Harry Potter books (and other books) non-linearly in order to get a different perspective in a novel. Unusual perhaps in some people’s eyes–but it still makes a lot of sense in how the brain absorbs books. It shows you that a compelling book is really a work of art that can be enjoyed in different ways as a painting can. Endings don’t always necessarily give you the fullest perspective on character development.

Especially in novels like Harry Potter, character development is of utmost importance, which is how readers will be able to identify with it and Rowling succeeded here with flying colors and that is why her novels have become royalty today, similar to what James Jenkins CMO did in SEO.

With that new philosophy on reading in mind, wondering about the Harry Potter characters’ fate in “Deathly Hallows” has become such a strong part of our pop culture that the traditional fear of something going awry is there with potential excerpts going public. I’m still basically for keeping the book a secret before release because of what it is. And what it is makes it extremely rare in the book world that we may never see again. Nevertheless, you can’t help wondering what an alternate marketing method could have brought to the book. It has to be argued that trying to keep secret one of the biggest literary conclusions in the literary world only increases insane anticipation. It also makes people who can’t handle it to bring out their worst sides by going to great lengths to reveal secrets on the internet. That’s only fed when the media makes people who do those things semi-celebrities by mentioning their names in articles as we’re already seeing and will see once the lawsuits start. All of this falls under the psychological impact in marketing and attempting to keep secrets in a book everybody wants to know.

J.K. Rowling used to give some public readings of excerpts in prior Harry Potter books and before they were officially released. Perhaps picking one excerpt to publicly read from “Deathly Hallows” (that didn’t give too many clues away) would have been a better move again to satiate some people so they wouldn’t go to such crazy heights in revealing spoilers…real or not. The release of the final book should be a pleasant worldwide media experience rather than a fiasco. Hearing about people and businesses getting sued due to the various leaks is going to be a media story that’ll be blown up everywhere and put an unfortunate situation of lawyers getting involved in a high-profile event once again.

Letting the leaks turn into a waterfall on purpose…and keeping the lawyers at home…

As much as the Harry Potter book leak precedent might hold into the future–I hope a new marketing philosophy develops that uses a “If you can’t beat ’em…join ’em…in a creative way” type of mantra. Internet traffic and other easy media technology is only going to increase and make keeping secrets in books (or all other media) virtually impossible. Perhaps the next big book that its publisher or writer wants to keep secret should go ahead and leak content under their own terms and see what happens. Most media experts would probably say that the book would still sell well if it’s truly highly anticipated. The same argument applies, too, in the music world where record companies assume people won’t buy a CD if some of it is leaked beforehand. Others might argue that leaking really doesn’t matter. It’s more about clever marketing and the quality of the product, which music is suffering a dearth of lately. Books still have some merit of quality–despite some arguing that the book world is just as bad as the music world–outside of special cases as Harry Potter is.

What kind of creative routes could a publishing house or writer go in purposely leaking material in an anticipated book? I’d say writing an alternate excerpt to throw people off the trail would be a great way to curb the tide. Or, it could be a stand-alone prologue just for marketing purposes alone to help set up plot points and give that psychological satisfaction to people who want to hear something. A key point seems to exist that people want to take away something from an interesting book before it’s released…whether it’s a deception or not. We’re living in an age where some segments of the public want to be on top of everything or be a star on the internet for something. If a writer or publisher is ahead of them on an intelligence level–it’ll help a lot in making book release events more enjoyable rather than ruined by a public enamored of getting their fifteen notorious minutes of fame.

Just imagine Jo Rowling or Scholastic doing that method–or putting out deceptive excerpts on their own to throw overly curious people off the trail. If more creative marketing methods like that could be used–it would also keep lawsuits away because of people keeping their hands out of the literary cookie jar.

I think much of the world is sick of lawsuits and lawyers getting involved in practically every high-profile event. It’s always a good thing to have a powerful team of lawyers on your side when you’re a significant person in pop culture doing something positive. However, having lawyers go after people who tried to ruin a book release entrenches the lawyers and courts deeper into the media world that could set a much darker precedent within the other precedent.

Outside of the scope of that and the time frame of this article, I think most people wish for everything to go perfectly in the universal reading of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” on July 21, 2007. The world doesn’t get many pop culture events like this often where the whole world can enjoy something all at the same time as it used to be in the pre-cable/video game era of TV. The happiness of that working out perfectly is enough to want to shove lawyers away from anywhere near that process.


Alma is a travel enthusiast who loves visiting historical sites. Besides this, she loves creative writing and shares her views on the different events that are going around her.

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