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.)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.
“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.
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).”
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.