The first reviews of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” began to trickle in days before its scheduled publication today. Not all of those earlier readers have been kind. Although the Guardian described the publication of the long-lost manuscript 55 years after its iconic predecessor “To Kill a Mockingbird” as akin to unearthing “a missing act from Hamlet hinting that the prince may have killed his father” and praises it as a “pleasure, revelation and genuine literary event,” Maureen Corrigan of NPR labeled it a “kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece.”
Whether or not Corrigan’s horrified conclusions prove correct when the dust settles and we’ve all had a chance to form our own views, one point she made is accurate: Nothing that she, or any other critic, says is going to stop any of us from buying and reading a copy of the novel for ourselves.
The publication of “Go Set a Watchman” could go down in the annals of 2015 as one of the year’s biggest media business sensations, as well as — or perhaps even instead of — one of its biggest literary phenomena. Even if Harper Lee’s second novel doesn’t bowl over readers and critics, here are five reasons why it’s already a slam-dunk business triumph.
1. The book is the most pre-ordered on Amazon and other websites since Harry Potter hung up his cloak of invisibility (and J. K. Rowling her Hogwart’s quill.) For a while that meant the book shared space with (gasp) E.L. James’s latest “50 Shades” tome on Amazon’s lists…
2. Many, many fans of the original book want to own the sequel in physical form — and not the e-book version — with hardcover pre-orders outselling digital ones by two to one. Harper Collins has printed some 2 million copies, taking an outsize bet that the demand will remain robust.
3. It’s an indie bookstore phenomenon. This is the perfect kind of title for independent bookstores to sell to loyal customers: an intelligent, literary novel, but one that that those customers already know to ask for. Indie booksellers have been struggling for years in a rapidly changing industry, battling not only behemoth rivals but e-books as well. And if customers come in to buy one book, odds are they’ll stick around and pick up more.
4. Big booksellers, too, are seeing a big swell of enthusiasm and sales. It’s not just “Go Set a Watchman”; walk into any Barnes & Noble and you’ll see copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird” prominently displayed, along with tote bags and related merchandise, such as the DVD of the movie starring Gregory Peck. To celebrate the release of the new book, many Barnes & Noble outlets are planning read-a-thons of “To Kill a Mockingbird” — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
5. Then there’s the fact that “Go Set a Watchman” itself is just the tip of the iceberg. Gregory Peck may no longer be with us to play Atticus Finch, but that probably won’t stop Hollywood from betting big bucks on a film version of Harper Lee’s second novel, with all the spending that entails. And Lee’s lawyer revealed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the author may have written a third novel bridging the other two.
Harper Lee may continue to live a secluded existence in Monroeville, Alabama, but the publication of her second book could yet prove to be a billion-dollar windfall for all of those poised to profit from her writings.