Melville House’s blog has an interview with Peter Malkin, the owner of Traverse City, MI bookstore Brilliant Books, discussing why Brilliant Books has begun offering refunds to all its customers who unknowingly purchased Go Set a Watchman thinking it was a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.

The problem with the way the book was marketed is that HarperCollins has been pitching it as a pre-written sequel to To Kill a Mockinbird, but it’s actually not—it’s a first draft that was later substantially revised into a much better book. What’s more, HarperCollins urged bookstores to hold midnight readings and other promotions—to try, Malkin suggests, to get people to buy the book before they had time to realize what it was.

But I do think this whole episode points to a much larger issue in the publishing world. There’s a much repeated myth that independent bookstores are thriving. They aren’t. Some might be, and yes, there are more of them than ever, but that increase in capacity isn’t matched by an increase in overall book sales at independent bookstores.

Malkin also points out that bookstores that accept publisher reps, and paid promotional appearances by authors, are in the awkward position of being unable to turn something like this down—which is why Brilliant Books avoids reps.

I would suggest it might point out another issue in the publishing world—that publishers’ profits are so reliant on blockbuster titles now that they effectively feel the need to make one up. Malkin notes that Go Set a Watchman should have been sold as an academic piece to scholars and other people who would like to see what the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird looked like—but that wouldn’t have resulted in the kind of huge sales HarperCollins wanted. So they chose to market it as a “new” book instead, because they needed it to be.

As a result, Brilliant Books felt they couldn’t continue to sell it in good conscience without letting people know what they were getting, and refunding people who felt they had been misled by marketing—making them one of few bookstores to do so.

I wonder what this episode portends for the future of the publishing industry? It doesn’t seem to me as if manufacturing a best-seller is the best long-term strategy—you run the risk of turning off your customers by making it a bit too obvious that you’re just after their money. I also wonder what it means if it’s true that independent bookstores aren’t thriving after all.

(Found via The Passive Voice.)


  1. I can’t remember where I saw it, but some site had it listed as Go Set a Watchman (To Kill a Mockingbird #2). It really does seem as if the marketing of a book has become secondary to the book itself. Who cares if the book is good or what it is about just as along as it can be successfully marketed to readers.

    I’ve said it before, never believe in marketing campaigns.

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