Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale sequel just became a pawn in the war between indie booksellers and Amazon
It took Margaret Atwood 34 years to publish the sequel for The Handmaid's Tale, but Amazon couldn't wait the final six days. On Wednesday, the mega-retailer broke the airtight embargo on Atwood's follow-up, The Testaments, shipping the sequel to some readers almost a full week before it was due to hit bookstore shelves on Sept. 10.
It is surely not the first time Amazon has shipped a book to readers before the official publication date, but it is the most egregious case. It is also a startlingly clear example of the uncontested power of Amazon's monopoly, and the helplessness of booksellers and publishers alike when the company, maliciously or not, plays by its own rules.
Books like The Testaments don't come out every year. Set to be one of the biggest book sales events since the new Harper Lee was published in 2015, The Testaments rides in on the success of Hulu's popular adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale starring Elizabeth Moss. The novel was kept so tightly under wraps by its publishers that even the prestigious Booker Prize judges were forced to take "special precautions" to make sure nothing leaked. "Secrecy agreements were not required for the 150 other novels that judges read," The New York Times writes (The Testaments was named on the Booker Prize's shortlist Tuesday).
But as brick-and-mortar bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic promoted their Testaments release parties — including a massive, sold-out event at London's Waterstones, where Atwood has planned a midnight reading to be live-streamed on the store's website — readers who had preordered their books on Amazon started to receive their copies in the mail. At least 800 were put into readers' hands before publisher Penguin Random House "rectified" the "retailer error," The Guardian reports.
Did anybody else get the new @MargaretAtwood book THE TESTAMENTS sent to them a week early? I thought they’d just changed the date but checking it now it looks like this is an Amazon mix-up? I feel like I won the lottery! #TheTestaments pic.twitter.com/CZ34Zg8jjX
— Jason Adams (@JAMNPP) September 4, 2019
— Daniel Valentin (@DaValentinCCSD) September 3, 2019
With the embargo unequivocally broken, startled newspapers scrambled to put their prepared excerpts of The Testaments online. "The apparent early release means that exclusive extracts from The Testaments due to be published in newspapers around the world, including in [Australia's] The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, were at the last minute pushed forward to Wednesday evening," wrote The Sydney Morning Herald. The Guardian likewise published its "exclusive first extract" on Wednesday morning, despite Amazon having rendered it hardly "exclusive" at all. (Adding to the chaos, in an apparently separate snafu, the review embargo of The Testaments was broken Tuesday, with assessments going up hastily at NPR, The Washington Post, and The New York Times).
The biggest outcry, though, came from booksellers. Lexi Beach, who co-owns my local bookstore, the Astoria Bookshop, and is known for her Twitter threads examining the state of indie bookselling under American capitalism, tweeted Wednesday that she had been required to sign an embargo agreement in May to "ensure [The Testaments] is stored in a monitored and locked, secured area, and not placed on the selling floor prior to the on-sale date." Beach further explained in her thread that while book publishers have a normal procedure for when indie booksellers break embargoes — "traditionally, the publisher would then delay shipments of future releases to the offending retailer, preventing them from capturing first day sales" — Amazon is so big, so powerful, and so unchecked that even in the case of a breach as big as leaking The Testaments, there likely won't be any repercussions.
It is a dark assessment of the situation, but blistering because it is true. Amazon effectively "scooped" indie booksellers on the all-important first day sales of The Testaments, which already sat at #2 on the retailer's bestseller list as of Wednesday morning. And while "only" 800 books were reportedly sent out, the floodgates are now open and the playing field of indie booksellers' rendered even more uneven. Readers who received the book early, for example, can now theoretically tweet quotes and spoilers, or upload bootleg scans of the novel.
Even more damaging, though, is what this does to indie booksellers' reputation with customers. Because some readers received their copies of The Testaments early, there is now a perception that ordering online from Amazon can potentially result in a customer getting a product before it is out. Other booksellers can't offer a similar promise, because the potential of being blacklisted by a publisher as big as Penguin Random House is too threatening. Yet with Amazon's simple misstep, all of a sudden ordering the next big book from an indie bookseller and having to wait for the actual publication date looks a little less appetizing. Amazon has already crushed countless competitors with aggressive tactics like unmatchable price markdowns; now it has the advantage of access, too.
...to the bestselling The Handmaid’s Tale. In order to ensure our readers around the world receive their copies on the same day, our global publication date remains Tuesday, September 10.
— Penguin Random House (@penguinrandom) September 4, 2019
What's more, even if Penguin Random House did blacklist Amazon as a means of punishment, the publisher's book sales would be such a marginal part of Amazon's overall revenue that the gesture would be basically useless aside from the symbolism. Because of its massive size, Amazon can afford to "mix-up" shipping a book early, and thereby damaging the reputation of its bookselling competition, as well as easily withstand whatever slap on the wrist Penguin Random House comes up with. This power dynamic is grossly uneven; were Amazon to blacklist Penguin Random House for any reason, it would be a much tighter squeeze.
When Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale back in 1985, there was of course no Amazon. But in the short decades since, Amazon has become big enough and powerful enough that they can afford self-serving shipping errors, even when they concern the biggest, most secretive book event of the year. When one company controls half the print book sales in the country, and independent booksellers only control around 6 percent, this kind of show of force might even be expected. Despite Amazon backing off early shipments after getting caught, the damage is done. After 34 years, Atwood's The Testaments has been reduced to a pawn.