July 31, 2015
Why Brilliant Books is offering refunds to customers who purchased Go Set A Watchman
by Alex Shephard
The publication of Harper Lee‘s Go Set A Watchman has been controversial. But while many have raised questions about Harper Lee’s involvement in the book’s publication, the role of her lawyer Tonja Carter, and the merit of the book itself,few have made explicit arguments about the novel itself—that may be because there are still so many unanswered questions, or it may be because the book is an enormous hit (it has sold well over a million copies since it was published just over two weeks ago).
Brilliant Books is something of an exception. An independent bookstore located in Traverse City, Michigan, the bookstore released a statement shortly after Go Set A Watchman was released condemning its publication and offering refunds to customers who felt duped:
We at Brilliant Books want to be sure that our customers are aware that Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel or prequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. Neither is it a new book. It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected. The book, and some of the characters therein, are very much a product of this era in the South.
We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel. This situation is comparable to James Joyce’s stunning work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and his original draft Stephen Hero. Hero was initially rejected, and Joyce reworked it into the classic Portrait. Hero was eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans—not as a new ‘Joyce novel’. We would have been delighted to see Go Set A Watchman receive a similar fate.
It is disappointing and frankly shameful to see our noble industry parade and celebrate this as “Harper Lee’s New Novel”. This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved American classic (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted.) We therefore encourage you to view Go Set A Watchman with intellectual curiosity and careful consideration; a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.
The statement quickly went viral, partly because it was arguably the harshest criticism of the book’s publication to date and partly because it came from a retailer. I talked with Brilliant Books’s owner, Peter Makin, about the publication of Go Set A Watchman and independent bookselling.
What led you to release the statement about Go Set A Watchman? Had you been following the story for a while, or did something happen in store that led you to release it?
We had been disappointed in the way the book was marketed from the beginning. We knew the history of Go Set A Watchman and it wasn’t congruent with the marketing: “Harper Lee’s New Novel” “with many of your favorite characters from To Kill A Mockingbird.”
The real eye-opener was from a loyal paying member, who had only become aware of the reality over the previous weekend. She was saddened. She explained that TKAMB was her favorite book of all time and she had been so looking forward to reading GSAW, but now she knew it wasn’t the book she had been led to believe it was.
I immediately apologized, and offered her a refund, which she accepted. I realized then that we needed to offer the same thing to all our customers, of which there were dozens across the country, and explain why. Hence the opinion piece.
What have your conversations about Go Set A Watchman been like over the past five months, both internally and with customers?
Internally, we were bemused by the urging of HarperCollins for booksellers to hold midnight readings, screenings of the movie, all manner of inducements, to get the book sold on day one. Add to that the strict embargo that excites the public, but gives booksellers a wry, knowing smile.
Maybe we’re cynical, but it all pointed to a desperate attempt to get folks to buy the book before they realized what it actually was.
In the statement, you call the publication of Go Set a Watchman “shameful” and “exploitative.” Would you like to expound about that? Do you think the publication of Watchman is unique, or do you think it points to large issues in the publishing world and literary culture?
Exploitative and shameful in that the publisher claimed this book to be something it wasn’t. It isn’t “Harper Lee’s New Novel”. They also used the line: “with many of your favorite characters from To Kill A Mockingbird.”, which seems a shameful lure of an unsuspecting reader thinking they’ll have yet more TKAMB. Joe Nocera in The New York times put it best.
We believe GSAW should have been an academic piece for scholars and fans, as we said. Not marketed as the next big thing.
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.
Also for bookstores in the rep circuit, GSAW is something that had to be embraced enthusiastically. Imagine if you will, that your small bookstore is about to host yet another HarperCollins author, allocated to you by your HarperCollins rep, and whose expenses are paid by HarperCollins. If this happens regularly you are unlikely to be in a position to decline GSAW, let alone advise folks against buying it. This is why we decide long ago to avoid reps. We don’t get authors, but we do get independence.
We also get to buy virtually everything by you guys, as we do for Europa, for example. We appreciate when imprints and smaller publishers deliver consistent quality in content and presentation. But I don’t think any rep is ever going to advise that we use our budget to do that.
Have you been surprised by the response to the statement so far?
Yes! It has been overwhelmingly positive, humbling and touching. What was especially surprising is the response from the UK and Australia, as we well as national media here.
Are you still selling Go Set A Watchman?
We are still selling it. We are a bookstore, so we wouldn’t not carry it, but we do explain to folks what it is, so that they buy it with their eyes open.
What other books are doing well for you this week? What would you recommend customers read instead of GSAW?
That would depend on the individual. We try hard to understand what the specific reader wants, then we’ll recommend a book. We tend to avoid the pile-em-high approach. We trust each other’s judgements and try to refer folks to the right bookseller.
Tell me a bit about Brilliant Books. How long have you been open? What makes you unique?
We opened in the village of Suttons Bay (pop 600) in 2007, and moved to the big town Traverse City (pop 15,000) in 2010
We are a 21st century bookstore. I had never worked in a bookstore, but I knew what it was I loved about them. I also knew what I hated. In a previous life, I traveled frequently and endured too many airport bookstores piled high with ‘bestsellers’ and last year’s mediocre offerings presented as “new releases”. My disappointment that land-based bookstores were rarely that different made me determined to create a haven for literature, the classics, the best of every genre, an intelligent bookstore where the kids section isn’t full of Disney tie-ins and pop stars.
Our staff is proud that we are a truly independent, independent bookstore. We are committed to our readers, not the preferences and enticements of our suppliers. We can select and display whatever we choose. There are no authors we ‘must’ carry, and many you’ll find only here.
It’s that reader focus and commitment to intellectual integrity that makes us unique. We believe that in the 21st Century the reader who prefers a tangible object wants a space of knowledge and comfort that reflects that luxury. This is where we believe the ABA and traditional booksellers get it very wrong. Rather than considering what a 21st century retail reader wants, there’s an apparent desire to force the old ways to keep working. Which leads, for example, to bookstores being encouraged to increase their margins by carrying more non-book items. Thus, in our mind leading to their eventual demise.
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.