Go Set a Watchman — Harper Lee’s hotly contested sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird — set off discussion and debate with its nationwide July 14 release. Thanks to the Harvard COOP Bookstore, Cambridge readers were all in on the dialogue.
Serving the Harvard and MIT communities, the COOP, which has been operated by Barnes & Noble College since 1995, created a buzz with a series of events designed to heighten anticipation and boost sales. For four days before the novel’s release, fans could vote for their favorite To Kill A Mockingbird character by taking a photo in front of a book display at the COOP’s first-floor information desk, which entered them into a drawing to win a $50 store gift card.
The Saturday before the release, a free outdoor screening of the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, which brought the story of racism and stereotyping to an even larger audience than its earlier readers, drew 200 moviegoers to the outdoor movie theater. With chairs set up for easy viewing and plenty of popcorn, the movie event was a true partnership, held in co-sponsorship with the Harvard Square Business Association and the Cambridge Arts Council, which lent use of its equipment. “It was a magical night,” said The Harvard COOP Trade Book Manager Nancie Scheirer. “The weather was just perfect, and moviegoers were enthralled for the entire 2-hour and 10-minute screening. It was amazing to watch!”
The evening drummed up publicity for Go Set a Watchman and garnered coverage by The Boston Globe and Publisher’s Weekly, and brought in 70 pre-orders from COOP Society members, who were entered into a drawing for prizes if they pre-ordered via a promotional email they received.
Two days later, the COOP Bookstore held a midnight release party, complete with a scavenger hunt, trivia contest, prize drawings, and in homage to the book’s setting, Southern-style lemonade, sweet tea, and cookies. Book sales started promptly at midnight.
Watchman, originally submitted in 1957, was Lee’s first attempt at writing a novel. It featured a character named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as an adult, returning home to visit her father in Alabama. Under the direction of her editor, the author revised the draft to focus on Scout’s childhood. The result was the Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, which went on to sell more than 40 million copies, and is still among the most commonly assigned books in American schools.
“As booksellers, we often don’t get the opportunity to interact in book discussions, but The Wall Street Journal had just released the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman and many participants had read it or other reviews and commentaries. There was a lot of very interesting discussion,” said COOP Bookseller Kim Leigh-Manuell. “It became a more academic conversation, ‘Could Atticus have always been a racist? Or was it a case-by-case basis?’ It could not have come out at a better time for our national conversation on race,” she stated.
Watchman posted the largest first-day sales for adult fiction in Barnes & Noble’s history. That popularity, along with a series of promotional events held at the store, was also seen at the COOP, which sold 400 books over the four-day period. “Our big takeaway,” Scheirer stated, “was that a multi-faceted ‘countdown’ approach was the way to go — and a good model for future planning.”
Just after midnight on the day of the launch, a woman walked into the store looking to buy her copy. Once she made it to the register, book in hand, she began to doubt her purchase due to the intense controversy. “Our bookseller, Laura, explained that the only way to truly join the conversation would be by reading the book herself,” Scheirer recalled. “Laura told her to think of the book as an ‘exercise in the editorial process.’ That sealed the deal; the woman walked out of the store with a copy of the book!”
It certainly seems like auspicious advice. As Atticus advised Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”