Canadian readers will have to wait until next week to get their hands on The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s eagerly awaited sequel to her dystopian bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale, even after the online retailer Amazon shattered elaborate security plans for the book by accidentally shipping as many as 800 copies to customers in the U.S. and Australia this week.
The book has been held under lock and key, and seen by very few people even within its own publishing house, subject to the sort of security provisions that guard government budget announcements that could move stock markets.
The handful of critics and judges of book awards who received advance copies of The Testaments were required to sign strict non-disclosure agreements. A number of judges for the Booker Prize told The New York Times this week that they had received copies hand-delivered by couriers who refused to leave the copies with anyone else, with their names watermarked across each page in large grey letters.
The security controls did not, apparently, dampen their enthusiasm: On Tuesday, the Booker jury named The Testaments to the prize’s short list – 33 years after The Handmaid’s Tale lost out on that honour to Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils – and on the long list of Canada’s Giller Prize.
An executive with the book’s Canadian publisher confirmed Wednesday that the book’s official publication date of Tues., Sept. 10, would not change, even though some readers posted photos to social media on Tuesday showing they had received their preordered copies early from Amazon.
“We have an on-sale date we’ve all been working toward, and everything’s lined up to that,” said Jared Bland, vice-president of Penguin Random House Canada and the publisher of McClelland & Stewart, the imprint publishing The Testaments in Canada.
“We’ve seen incredible early excitement for the book, for months and months, since we announced it last year. I think [the breach] will further that excitement. I’m of course pleased and gratified that the reviews” – from a number of U.S. outlets that had received early advance copies and then rushed to publish their reviews after the breach – “have been as positive and exciting as they are.”
Bland added that he was delighted The New York Times had coaxed its long-time book critic, Michiko Kakutani, who left the paper two years ago, “effectively out of retirement” to weigh in on The Testaments – with a glowing review.
One independent bookseller said he was pleased Penguin Random House Canada did not scramble to push up the on-sale date. When embargoes have been broken in the past, Rupert McNally of Toronto’s Ben McNally Books said that publishers have sometimes prioritized early shipments to large chain stores, leaving shops such as his trying to explain to customers why they cannot help them.
Still, the episode highlighted a simmering resentment among some independent booksellers, who said that they likely would be punished by a publisher delaying shipment of the next big book if they were to break an embargo, but believe there will be no such consequences for Amazon.
“It’s really annoying,” said Chris Hall, a co-owner of the Winnipeg-based independent bookstore group McNally Robinson.
“It feels like there are different worlds that as booksellers we exist in. We exist in a world where we have to abide by these embargoes, and if we don’t, we’re punished, and we don’t get the next one on time. And the Amazons of the world – and it’s not just them – big companies of the world just do what they please. In that level, it goes way beyond annoying."
Other booksellers expressed similar frustrations online.
Asked for comment about Hall’s characterization of the industry landscape, a spokesperson for Penguin Random House Canada did not respond by deadline.
The publisher has printed approximately 180,000 copies of The Testaments, an extraordinary figure for the Canadian market. Bland estimated that Penguin Random House had sold about 270,000 copies of The Handmaid’s Tale in Canada since an acclaimed television adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss and shot in and around Toronto and Hamilton, began airing in the spring of 2017.
Set amid a civil war in the United States, where the federal government has been overthrown by a male-dominated theocracy and part of the country has been rechristened Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by a woman forced to serve as a breeder for a military commander and his infertile wife. In the wake of the election of Donald Trump to the White House, activists and others have drawn frequent parallels between Gilead and rising strains of nationalism and theocratic, anti-female influence in modern-day U.S. politics.
The Testaments is set 15 years after the conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale, narrated by Offred’s oppressive female overseer, Aunt Lydia.
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