May 19, 2015

Two For Tuesday: Is Go Set A Watchman The Breakfast Buffet of Publishing?


Will Go Set A Watchman save the publishing industry? Will it also be delicious?

Will Go Set A Watchman save the publishing industry? Will it also be delicious?

Topics discussed: Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, HarperCollins, Rupert Murdoch, cocktail napkins, Reese Witherspoon, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Stephen Fry, the Wall Street Journal, Harry Potter, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, price elasticity, discounts, early bird specials, Mrs. Winner’s, Jan Weissmiller, Bradley Graham, Prairie Lights, Politics & Prose, To Kill a Mockingbird, City on Fire

If you have a question about any aspect of this column (including why it is so long and terrible) or the publishing industry in general, drop me a line at alex [at] We’ll answer your questions on a semi-regular basis.

Mark: Hi Alex! We were off last week due to some housekeeping, but . . . I don’t think anyone missed us! Michael Schaub didn’t send us tearful texts asking where our column was, and Mary Duffy didn’t tweet mournfully about our absence. Are we irrelevant, Alex? Did the world wake up to the fact that it may not need long, silly, joke-filled columns about the publishing industry?

Alex: Everybody who cares about this column should be thrown in jail. Thankfully, I think you could fit everyone who cares about this column on a rubber dinghy, which is a small boat I think.

That said, the world doesn’t need most things, but that’s not a good reason not to do something, so whatever, who cares. Anyway, who else will answer tough questions like, “Do blurbs make a difference or no?” (In case you missed that one, the answer was: sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.)

Mark: Yeah, we really nailed that one.

But okay, you’ve assuaged my anxieties. I’m now completely anxiety-free! Speaking of anxieties (we haven’t dropped such a sick segue in a while!), HarperCollins must be feeling anxious right now. (Can a corporation feel things? Of course it can! Corporations are, as the man who boxed the other man told us, people.) We’re about two months away from the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and while HarperCollins’s fate certainly isn’t riding on the book’s success (it’s probably riding on the success of Rupert Murdoch’s sons), a major publication with (what is surely) a huge advance and an enormous print run can make a huge dent.

We’ve spoken about Go Set a Watchman before, and there’s little new to say about its contents. The number of people who have read the thing is still, it seems, in double-digits, and the question of what exactly this book is–is it totally different from To Kill a Mockingbird? Is it the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird? Was it written on cocktail napkins?–will remain unresolved until early July.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s been no news related to The Biggest Event in Publishing in 2015. Reese Witherspoon is narrating the audiobook, which I guess is cool. (Are audiobook buyers lured by celebrity voices? I don’t know! All I can say is that I was pleased when I recently listened to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and discovered that it was narrated by Stephen Fry. But it’s not as if I wouldn’t have listened to it if it had been narrated by, say, Gary Busey.) And of course, booksellers are gearing up for what probably will be–but may not be!–an enormous sales success. The Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote a great piece about this exact thing:

Although there won’t be the 5,000-plus midnight parties that greeted 2007’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, chains and independent bookstores have placed sizable orders. Book retailers across the country are banking on the novel to lure in customers as they compete with e-commerce giant Inc.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in Trachtenberg’s article. What did you think about it, Alex?

Alex: When it comes to bookselling, I tend to have pretty controversial opinions like, “selling more books is probably good for everyone,” so, uh, I think it’s good! Guaranteed hits are pretty rare in the publishing industry and Go Set a Watchman is as close to a sure thing as is imaginable. In the last two decades, only the Harry Potter sequels have seemed like more of a sure thing.

Of course, an avalanche of bad press could do real damage, but now that questions about Lee’s agency have been addressed, I don’t see that happening. It’s possible, of course, that the lingering questions about *what* exactly this book is—it sure seems like a draft of To Kill A Mockingbird—could emerge but, thus far, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of interest in that topic. So yeah, two million seems like a good number because, holy shit, do I think this is going to be a big book!

If we accept that it is, in all likelihood, a big book, the question then becomes a bit more pedantic—who benefits from it being big? Judging by orders, indies are obviously expecting a windfall, but judging by the pricing war taking place between Amazon and Barnes & Noble, it looks like the majority of the book’s sales will take place where the majority of most books sales take place—on or in America’s favorite Amazon showroom, Barnes & Noble.

Per Trachtenberg’s report, Amazon is selling the book for $14.66—a 48% discount—while B&N is offering it for a slightly more expensive $16.79, or 40% off. That may change slightly after publication—I’m pretty sure only Barnes & Noble members get 40% off, while everybody else gets 30% off. (I’m also pretty sure that statistically speaking, no one is a Barnes & Noble member.)

I have two questions for you. The first pertains to one of my favorite industry topics: elasticity. What do you think of the price war that’s taking place here? Barnes & Noble’s astonishing discounting—keeping in mind that the standard discount for retailers is 50%—is clearly a response to Amazon’s 48% discounting. That’s become standard for big books like this, but is it a good thing? My sense is that Go Set A Watchman should be the kind of book that helps breathe some life into Barnes & Noble, but by discounting it so deeply, they’re undercutting its potential—at that price point, it strikes me as no more than a salve, regardless of sales volume. They’re paying to play, in other words, and may sell a shit ton of copies without really benefiting.

Second, at the end of the piece Trachtenberg writes about how B&N is trying to turn this book into a Harry Potter-y event: “The nation’s largest publicly traded bookstore chain, Barnes & Noble Inc., is already promoting the novel with window posters in each of its stores. The chain will open at 7 a.m. on July 14. Early birds will receive a free cup of coffee with purchase.”

The Harry Potter events famously took place at midnight, were mostly attended by children and young adults (many of whom were in costume—btw I dressed up as Fred Weasley for book 6). Barnes & Noble’s Go Set A Watchman event is starting at 7AM and involves a free cup of coffee. It’s literally an early bird special. So, is Go Set A Watchman a senior citizen Harry Potter, or something? Who on earth is going to be pounding on the doors to get this thing at 7AM? Is this the Old Country Buffet of books?

Mark: It’s rare that a Two for Tuesday column makes me hungry, but the words “early bird special” are calling to mind that magical moment in my life when, on the way to school, I used to stop by Mrs. Winner’s (America’s chicken champion–KFC and Bojangles are garbage by comparison) for a chicken biscuit. Those were the days. Why don’t we have Mrs. Winner’s in New York, Alex? We are being robbed.

But yes, the 7AM thing is odd. It’s hard to speculate about what’s going on here . . . but then again, that’s never stopped us before! I wonder if B&N is responding to Amazon Prime Now, which aims to get customers their products faster than you can say “labor violations.” (Well, not faster than that, but pretty fast. If you were to read some lawsuits against Amazon out loud, you’d probably have a copy of Go Set a Watchman waiting by your door by the time you finished.)

I wonder, too, if 7AM isn’t a good time for parents and grandparents who are either up early or want to buy their kids some reading material before they head to work. If I were still living in Atlanta, I could get myself an old-new Harper Lee book and a chicken biscuit from Mrs. Winner’s before 8AM! Maybe I’ll go to Atlanta on the 14th just to make this happen.

As for elasticity, I agree that this is strange. This would seem like the last book over which Barnes & Noble would want to get into a price war. The chain is assuming that by pricing the book at a steep discount, it will be able to lure away potential Amazon customers. But is this really going to happen? Shouldn’t the store try to discount it as little as possible–or as little as it can get away with without alienating its customers? If you’re in the store at 7AM on July 14th you’re not going to change your mind because the book is four dollars cheaper on Amazon. Or are you? Do I have elasticity totally wrong, Alex?

I want to call out one more thing in Trachtenberg’s piece. He quotes a couple of (excellent!) booksellers who are excited about the scale and the rollout but are less certain about the quality of the book. Given the skepticism this book has provoked (including from us!), it’s hard to know how much to read into their concern–is this just a case of well-informed insiders whose assumptions will ultimately have little to do with consumer behavior? Or should we take their uncertainty seriously?

We’ve been told throughout the entire pre-publication process that we should trust HarperCollins that this book is the real deal, and that it’s great. I don’t think it’s cynical to say that the quality of the book will not affect first-day or even first-week sales. But word of mouth isn’t a fiction, and the stakes will be high, and if readers tell one another that this book isn’t up to par, and the backlash spreads quickly, then caution might come to seem prudent.

Alex: I’m glad you brought up the bookseller response. Here are the two quotes in Trachtenberg’s piece:

“People are curious, but there isn’t a lot of sense that it’s going to be another To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Jan Weissmiller coowner, Prairie Lights Books

“We’re in the dark as to what’s in it. All this fuss being made about it gives me some pause about its real worth. But it’s going to hit with a huge splash.” —Bradley Graham, coowner, Politics & Prose

Those are interesting quotes, in large part because they seem to simultaneously get at questions about both the book’s commercial potential and its quality—and suggest that the two are, unsurprisingly, intermingled. I don’t want to read too much into them, but I do think that they suggest something about the larger mood about this book, not just the bookselling one.

It’s impossible to understate To Kill A Mockingbird’s longevity. That longevity was built on its exceptional quality, but also its consistent relationship to larger questions about race and American culture in general—questions that, sadly, are no closer to being resolved today than they were 55 years ago. To Kill A Mockingbird exists very definitely in a specific time and place, but it’s never been a relic. It lives on. The fact that it was Lee’s only book until very recently may have added something to that longevity, but I don’t think it’s added as much as some might think. To Kill A Mockingbird persists because it mattered and because it’s never stopped mattering.

Go Set A Watchman, at this juncture, at least, only has value in relation to To Kill A Mockingbird. Here, Weissmiller and Graham seem to suggest what everyone probably already suspects: this is a lesser work. How could it not be? Even if it wasn’t a draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, which it probably is, how could it not be?

Like you, I don’t think that will matter much when it comes to the first week of sales—maybe not even for the first month. But if the reviews start pouring out and the reviews say, resoundingly, “This is a lesser work,” I think that could have a significant effect. This book isn’t bulletproof, and I think that a lot of people may wait on its reception to decide whether or not to pull the trigger. That’s true for a lot of books, but it becomes all the more true when hype becomes involved. (I think a similar thing may happen with another big book of 2015, City on Fire, but that giant debut is a topic for another column. The galley has French flaps though! And there are 6,500 galleys! French flaps, Mark!)

Last week, I spent a lot of time in the Park Slope Barnes & Noble, which is a very good Barnes & Noble. My girlfriend was in the hospital across the street for a minor operation, so I’d go there to buy magazines and books and spend some time not smelling hospital or worrying too much. I have a crippling addiction to tweeting while in Barnes & Noble stores, because I am fascinated by Barnes & Noble, so I couldn’t help but take a picture of this window display featuring “New Releases.”

To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960, so it’s not exactly a new release—as far as I know the most recent edition was the 50th anniversary edition, published 5 years ago, though I think that Random House UK has a Watchman tie-in edition dropping soon. Either way, “new release” is, uh, a stretch.

That said, this is a totally reasonable display, aside from the labeling—To Kill A Mockingbird has gotten a lot of attention because of Go Set A Watchman (which is getting attention because of To Kill A Mockingbird) and foregrounding it is a smart retail decision.

But it also points at the bigger issue here: posterity. To Kill A Mockingbird is a book that has persisted and will persist. Go Set A Watchman is coming out in a very different (though, in some ways, very similar) cultural moment—it’s harder than ever for a work of art, particularly a book, to persist. I think the bigger question these booksellers are asking is “This book is going to make a huge splash now, but how long will it last?” We won’t know the answer to that for a long time, but I fear that this is going to be like when D’Angelo released his most recent album, Black Messiah. Everybody talked about it for two and a half days, and then people pretty much stopped talking about it. And I suspect that Black Messiah is probably a superior work. (Shoutout to Scharpling & Wurster.)

Mark: Your comparison of D’Angelo and Harper Lee is appropriately zeitgeisty, Alex. If this whole Director of Digital Media thing doesn’t work out for you, you can always make a living writing topical, publishing-themed analogies. #fresh #content, #bro!

I feel a little bad about continuing to imply that Go Set a Watchman won’t be great, because despite having read Charles Shields’s biography of Lee and drawing certain conclusions from it, I’m as ignorant about the contents of this book as everyone else in the world except for Lee’s lawyer, Lee’s agent, and some of the higher-ups at HarperCollins. (Also some foreign publishers, a handful of translators, and the odd copyeditor. All of whom have probably signed NDAs.)

Still, even if the book is great, what we’ve seen over the last few months is what one might call a shortcut to posterity. We’ve been told, again and again, that what readers will encounter on July 14th will be an American classic equal to–or at least in the same realm as–To Kill a Mockingbird. But even if the book somehow lives up to its predecessor on a qualitative level, it won’t just become a classic overnight. It certainly won’t come into this world a classic. As you said, part of what makes Mockingbird Mockingbird is its longevity–the accumulated opinions and impressions of generations of readers and critics. Book publishers employ many brilliant people, but one thing those brilliant people cannot do is substitute their own opinions for the opinions of millions. They can do a lot, but not that.

I should say here that I’m not unsympathetic to HarperCollins’s position. Once they acquired Go Set a Watchman, they really had no choice but to go hard. They couldn’t not call the book a great lost classic, because modesty isn’t exactly selling. Or it might be, but not at the volume that they’re looking for. But just because the choice was–to some extent–made for them doesn’t mean that they don’t have to deal with the consequences. They do. Lee’s lawyer and agent will be well compensated no matter how the book performs, but HarperCollins is on the hook in a big way. Anything less than an enthusiastic response commensurate with HarperCollins’s claims about the book could be hugely damaging.

Alex: And I hope that’s not the case! For a lot of reasons, many of them sentimental. Speaking of sentiment, let’s close out with two of my favorite songs from my favorite Beatle Paul McCartney’s best solo album, Ram.