How Mad at The New York Times Is Harper Lee's Publisher?

Go Set a Watchman
A hand-painted mural showing a scene from "To Kill a Mockingbird" is on a building near where the homes of writers Harper Lee and Truman Capote once stood in Monroeville, Alabama. Verna Gates/Reuters

To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee is about to publish her first book in 55 years, and nearly everything we know about its content originated with a single source: a New York Times review.

That piece, written by veteran critic Michiko Kakutani and published four days ahead of the book's release date, was the first review of one of the year's most anticipated novels, Go Set a Watchman. It set off a furious wave of articles, think pieces and parental anguish stemming from Atticus Finch's newly revealed racism. And it was teased as an "exclusive"—a boast that rarely appears on the Times's main Twitter feed:

Exclusive: A Times review of Harper Lee’s new novel, in which Atticus Finch has startling racist views

— The New York Times (@nytimes) July 10, 2015

Readers might assume that the Times—one of the country's top newspapers by circulation—managed to negotiate an exclusive early review with the book's publisher, Harper, the flagship imprint of HarperCollins.

Not so. Reached via email over the weekend, a Harper publicist told a different story: "Oh they broke the embargo! That's for sure!"

Turns out the newspaper snagged a secret copy and went live with the review without waiting for Harper's strict embargo to lift. "Our policy is that we do not honor embargoes if we obtain a book independent of publishers' official channels," explained Danielle Rhoades Ha, communications director at the Times. (Asked how the newspaper managed to get its own copy of the book, Ha didn't answer. Kakutani herself did not respond to our email either.)

The Times's review prompted a flurry of other outlets to publish their own reviews, spinning the publisher's planned promotion schedule into a weekend of chaos. It's a cause of frustration for booksellers and publishing houses, though rarely one that involves a book as newsworthy as the Mockingbird sequel:

So does that mean that it's only the NYT who have breached the embargo then? #parforthecourse

— Jon Page (@BiteTheBook) July 11, 2015

It's disgusting that the almighty New York Times couldn't bring itself to respect the global embargo on Go Set A Watchman. They stole a copy

— Peter Donoughue (@peterdonoughue) July 11, 2015

The Harper imprint is not happy about the turn of events—but not surprised either.

"Am I angry at The New York Times? I'm not angry, but I'm not happy," said Tina Andreadis, a senior vice president and director of publicity at Harper. "I think it does a disservice to consumers who are out there wanting to buy the book. They read a review and they want to buy the book."

In other words: Don't hate the player, hate the game. "It's not just The New York Times, it's everyone," Andreadis said. What Harper would really like to know is how the Times managed to procure its copy of the book.

The 89-year-old author, meanwhile, resides at an assisted-living home in Alabama. Lee famously shuns media attention; the last time Newsweek interviewed her, Dwight Eisenhower was president.

Andreadis denied speculation that Lee didn't want this book, which was written before Mockingbird and shelved for half a century, to see the light of day.

"Our publisher just went to see her on June 30," she said. "She was pleased. She was happy."

But has Lee been keeping up with the hubbub online? Does the writer have an Internet connection?

"I have no idea," Andreadis said.

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