All agog over Harper Lee's new hatchling

Despite painting Atticus Finch in a troubling light, Go Set a Watchman was doing a brisk trade at Love Books this week. (Nicholas Pfosi)

Despite painting Atticus Finch in a troubling light, Go Set a Watchman was doing a brisk trade at Love Books this week. (Nicholas Pfosi)

Exactly how Harper Lee’s sequel to the bestselling classic To Kill a Mockingbird came to be on shelves this week remains something of a mystery.

And there is still fierce debate about whether the new book, Go Set a Watchman, adds or detracts from the original. But booksellers have no reason for complaint.

“It’s like Real Meal [Revolution, the diet book by the increasingly controversial Tim Noakes] and 50 Shades [of Grey, the erotic novel from EL James] before that,” said Kate Rogan, proprietor of Love Books in Johannesburg. “The book trade needs these kinds of events.” At the bookstore on Thursday there was a steady flow of Go Set a Watchman out the door, often accompanied by a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird or other books. 

At the Book Lounge, an independent bookstore in Cape Town, sales of Watchman will total about 200 this week since its unveiling on Tuesday. This in an industry where South African authors would count themselves lucky for selling a thousand books in total over the entire lifespan of a book.

“For a lot of people Mockingbird was a school setwork, something they read as kids,” said local bookseller Louanne van Riet.

“Nobody has read Watchman yet – I haven’t read it yet – and there haven’t been any reviews because the embargo was so strict, so the controversy hasn’t affected sales.
People buy it because they are curious or nostalgic.”

Booksellers at chain stores throughout South Africa, all of which feature posters and prominent piles of books as close to the doors as feasible, reported similar results: buyers either walk in looking for their copy of Watchman or, more often than not, look past the new book, spot Mockingbird next to it, make the connection and walk out with Watchman under one arm.

After only a few days on shelves, hard sales figures for Watchman were not yet available on Thursday, but preliminary numbers suggested about 20 000 copies would be sold in the initial rush for the book, making it a South African bestseller many times over.

Barnes & Noble, the biggest book chain in the United States, said Watchman had set a new record for one-day sales of adult fiction, although sales paled in comparison to various books in the Harry Potter series for young adults.

In the first day of sales in Britain, more than 105 000 copies of Watchman changed hands.

To Kill a Mockingbird, a story of racial injustice by first-time author Harper Lee, was published in 1960, adapted into a film in 1962 and staged as a play since the 1990s. It has been translated into more than 40 languages, sold more than 40-million copies and has never been out of print since its first publication.

Until this week it remained the only book Lee ever published, and for more than 40 years she maintained it would be her last book as she actively avoided the limelight.

Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and what were flashbacks in that original manuscript ultimately became the first book.

The first manuscript was considered lost until at least 2011, when it was rediscovered but apparently mistaken for a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, according to sometimes contradictory accounts by the individuals involved. Its publication came after the now 89-year-old Lee moved into a care facility and after the death of her sister and heir, Alice, in 2014.

In the new book, Mockingbird character Atticus Finch is shown to be a segregationist, contrary to his original portrayal.

“I don’t want to read it,” said Love Books’s Rogan. “Atticus is one of my biggest literary heroes and I don’t want to see that.”

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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