sorry you thought you were buying a good book


That’s unfortunate.

Brilliant Books, an independent bookstore in Traverse City, MI, has offered an apology and an offer of a refund to customers who preordered Harper Lee’s “recently discovered” new novel, Go Set A Watchman, and felt blindsided by the book they actually got.

As you probably know, the book’s publication has been clouded in confusion and scandal. Lee, who never published another book after To Kill a Mockingbird (and said she never would), is now elderly and in frail health. Her sister and protector, Alice, died last year; her lawyer (a former colleague of Lee’s sister) now claims to have found the manuscript of Go Set A Watchman just before Alice died. It seems pretty clear, though, that the manuscript was actually found in 2011 and was an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. (If you want more detail, The New York Times has a good accounting of the contretemps, as well as a rich description of the amount of work Lee’s editor did on Mockingbird back in the late 1950s.)

From Annie Laurie Williams [Lee's original literary agent]'s papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

From Annie Laurie Williams [Lee’s original literary agent]’s papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Despite mostly dreadful reviews and vast numbers of bummed-out readers distressed at Atticus Finch’s new portrait as a Klan-meeting-attending racist, Go Set A Watchman has been the fastest-selling book in HarperCollins’s history.

Peter Makin, Brilliant Books’s owner, decided he was uncomfortable.


Oh, dear.

“We had been disappointed in the way the book was marketed from the beginning,” he told Alex Shephard, director of digital media for Melville House (an independent publisher, which reported the story on its blog). He continued:

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.


Ah, well.

Makin wrote an opinion piece for the bookstore’s blog, explaining that he felt the book should never have been published. (Parents David and Christen Epstein obviously agree; after the book came out, they changed their 14-month-old son’s name from Atticus to Lucas. No word on whether either parent tattooed their son’s name on their flesh.)

“It is disappointing and frankly shameful to see our noble industry parade and celebrate this as ‘Harper Lee’s New Novel,'” Makin wrote. “This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved American classic (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted).”

Oh, dear.

Tell everyone it’s a chicken.

The bookstore will offer refunds to those customers who want them, but will also continue to sell the book, with the caveat that readers should approach it with low expectations, “with intellectual curiosity and careful consideration; a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.”



The bookstore didn’t publish the book. There’s no need for Makin to say “sorry.” And granted, offering an apology and a refund is savvy publicity. But for those who really are distressed and taken aback, hey, getting a chance to commiserate with the staff of your favorite bookstore about your disappointment is worth something.





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5 Responses to sorry you thought you were buying a good book

  1. Arturo Magidin says:

    I heard an interview with the bookstore owner on As It Happens (unless it was a different bookstore that was doing something similar), and he explained that they were not offering refunds to people who bought the book and didn’t like it; rather, they were only offering refunds to people who had pre-ordered it when it was first announced and marketed as a “sequel to “To Kill a Mockinbird”” or “the new novel by Harper Lee”, and who were possibly misled by this (as it was not emphasized that it was an early draft of a rejected novel, etc). So it’s not really about readers being distressed or taken aback, but rather the owner argues that the booksellers misled the public and the bookstore is offering refunds to those who were misled by the early publicity. So it’s not really “refunds to those who want them”.

  2. tanita says:

    I hope the commenter is correct, otherwise I kind of want to vomit on this guy’s shoes. I mean, really?!? Is this the future of book sales, where the bookstore owner can lead the charge on who’s offended by what? This pushes my buttons a bit because it seems like a book challenge at a public school – people who haven’t even read the book are trying to get rid of it because SOMEONE somewhere was disappointed in it. It seems an odd way to look at literature.

    • Arturo Magidin says:

      Looks like the same guy. Here’s a link to the story I heard:

      Some quotes:
      ” “We had dozens of people pre-order the book,” Makin tells As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. Despite the surge of advance sales, the independent bookstore owner saw his customers’ displeasure once early reviews of the book went public. ”

      ” Like many, Makin feels the novel was mislabeled as “the latest great summer novel.” He suggests Stephen Hero (the original version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) as a more appropriate model for release. “It was published for what it was . . . an early draft . . . an academic piece . . . it wasn’t published and marketed as James Joyce’s new novel or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Two: Portrait of the Slightly Older Man.'” Makin admits that he has not read the book. But insists his shop is “not offering refunds based on the quality of the book . . . that would be quite odd . . . we’re doing this because we were complicit,” he says. “The marketing goes through us . . . I believe I have a duty to my customers to offer them a refund.” ”

      In the radio interview he goes further and says he is not offering refunds to those who bought the book and didn’t like it, and only to those who pre-ordered it under what he believes to be “false pretenses”.

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