As I mentioned last month, the publication of the print version of the novelization of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is being delayed until January to avoid letting spoilers get out, but the e-book will be available on Friday. The Bookseller reports that this holds true in the UK, also, with Penguin Random House UK publishing the novelization (or “novelisation,” UK spelling being what it is) as an e-book on Friday, the day after the movie releases Thursday. And it confirms the reasoning behind it:

The Bookseller understands the decision to release the title as a digital-first edition, with the hardback release missing the key Christmas trading period, was taken after conversations with Disney to avoid “the risk of a copy getting into the wrong hands” since the storyline for the high-profile franchise, owned by Disney, is “so top secret”.

It’s not hard to see why. As I said last time I mentioned it, print books have a distressing tendency to leak early. Many retail stores are accustomed to treating embargo dates as just “suggestions.” Retail chains such as Wal-Mart operate on just-in-time stocking, with trucks coming in all the time but not a lot of storage space in their back rooms. If they get a product early, they tend to stock it early. It’s easy for publishers to insist that special cases must be observed, but the people at the stores are the ones who have to deal with their stockrooms filling up, and they might not assign the same importance to holding back one particular product when they habitually put everything out as soon as they get it.

That happened for more than one of the later Harry Potter books, which leaked through being stocked early by a Wal-Mart. At least one Wal-Mart put out its display of Go Set a Watchman a couple of days early, despite big prominent orange “Do not sell or display before Tuesday, July 14, 2015” labels. When a customer complained, “The manager shrugged and asked me what I was gonna do about it.” (And what do they have to lose? It’s not as if any publisher is going to stop doing business with one of the biggest brick-and-mortar retail outlets in the USA over something like that, any more than they’re going to stop selling books to Amazon even though Amazon is also their greatest irritant.)

Even Amazon tends to ship pre-ordered embargoed products so they arrive in a customer’s mailbox on the first day of their official release—but shipping times are notoriously inexact. I’ve received my copies of pre-ordered DVDs a day or two before the street date before. If copies of the new novelization showed up in Amazon customer’s mailboxes a couple of days before the movie released, plot details would be all over the Internet within hours.

Even holding back the print book may not be sufficient to block out spoilers altogether. A story cropped up last week of a Wal-Mart stocking a The Force Awakens action figure toy early, and said toy by its very existence conveyed spoilers for the movie. Star Wars fans bought and shared photos of the toy, and Disney promptly slapped them with a DMCA takedown notice. (And after Disney retracted the claim, it slapped them with another DMCA notice. What the heck?)

So, delaying the novelization until January 1 is probably one of the smarter decisions Disney could have made. Even if it does leak a few days early due to speedy distribution networks doing their work, it will still be well after the movie premieres tomorrow. You wouldn’t see this for just any movie, but Star Wars is a special case in a lot of ways.

Traditionally, the point of a novelization has always been to advertise the movie. With a few notable exceptions, no great care has been taken with what went into the book—novelizations are written from early versions of the script, and generally don’t incorporate subsequent changes into their revisions. The moviemakers care more about having that nice-looking cover facing out in all the bookstores so people see it and are reminded to buy their tickets than they do about having people actually buy and read the book. After all, the movie theater is where the big money is.

This is also why books that are adapted into movies usually get new editions with movie-poster covers prior to the movie’s release, to help promote the movie. Hence, Andy Weir’s The Martian, which had been recognized by Design Observer as one of the 50 best book cover designs in 2014, nonetheless got Matt Damon slapped on the cover when the movie came out.

If there’s one movie this century that doesn’t need that kind of advertising assistance, it’s The Force Awakens. Everybody already knows about the movie, and seeing the cover in a bookstore or Wal-Mart isn’t going to prompt them to go out and order tickets if they weren’t already planning to. And given that a new study has shown spoilers can adversely affect enjoyment, having the book out early could potentially harm attendance more than it would help.

Of course, that would be true of any movie, but most movies aren’t the kind of mega-million-dollar blockbusters that a new Star Wars film will be. The Force Awakens had passed $100 million in ticket sales before the first theaters even started showing it. So, the magnitude of spoilers’ financial effect on the box office would be a lot greater for that kind of movie, at the same time as the need for advertising is less. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why they’d push the paper book back—even if it has exceedingly good sales, it couldn’t make up even a fraction of the potential financial loss. (This would especially be true in the much smaller UK market, where even the most popular Star Wars title didn’t quite sell 100,000 copies.)

The whole controversy brings to mind some interesting observations about the changing role of physical goods in an increasingly digital world. It’s a reminder that movies are a lot more expensive and a lot more profitable than books are ever likely to be—even the books of popular movies. It also points out that information is more important than form factor—it doesn’t matter if a book is print or electronic; the information contained in it would still leak just as easily. And it’s rather amusing that this is a case where e-books’ instant deliverability is an even more valuable asset to Disney than it is to customers who want instant gratification.

Finally, speaking as a moviegoer who plans to see the movie for the first time Friday morning and has been trying to avoid all spoilers, I must say that appreciate with all my heart Disney’s strict efforts to try to keep as many of them out of the public eye as possible. I’m looking forward to sitting in a darkened theater and seeing what all the fuss is about.

Until then…may the Force be with you!

(Found via The Passive Voice.)


The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail