Obama memoir could be booksellers’ savior

By Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris

Shortly after President Barack Obama left office in 2017, in the aftermath of a contentious election that cost his party the presidency, he sat down with a yellow notepad and began writing an account of his time in the White House.

Nearly four years later, Obama is preparing to release his book in the wake of another volatile and polarizing presidential race. His memoir, “A Promised Land,” arrives at a moment of deep political, cultural and social unrest — tensions that have been heightened by a global pandemic and an economic crisis.

It’s a challenging environment, to say the least, in which to release a book, even one of the most highly anticipated of the decade. Bookstores have limited their foot traffic to comply with public health measures, and many customers are still wary of in-person shopping. At the same time, supply chains are under intense strain as capacity issues at printing presses have delayed dozens of books this fall.

But in spite of such setbacks, “A Promised Land” is shaping up to be one of the top-selling political memoirs of all time, and a potential lifeline for booksellers whose sales have plummeted during the pandemic.

Crown is printing 3.4 million copies of “A Promised Land” for the U.S. and Canadian market and another 2.5 million for international readers. The book, which runs to 768 pages, is being released simultaneously around the world, and will be available in 19 languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Finnish, Romanian and Chinese (translations into six other languages are still underway). Demand among American customers is so high that Penguin Random House, Crown’s parent company, has printed 1.5 million copies in Germany to bring over on cargo ships.

It still may not be enough to meet demand.

Barnes & Noble is stocking around half a million copies of the book, but the chain expects to sell even more than that, based on the preorders for “A Promised Land” and the strong sales of Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” published two years ago.

“We are taking as many as Penguin Random House will give us,” said James Daunt, chief executive of Barnes & Noble. “If there was an unlimited supply, we would take more. I think we will end up selling an enormous number.”

Big-box stores are also placing large orders. ReaderLink, which supplies books to major chains like Target, Walmart and Costco, expects to receive 890,000 copies by the end of the month, chief executive Dennis E. Abboud said.

For struggling independent stores, Obama’s book — with a $45 list price — could prove crucial in recovering some of the losses suffered during the shutdown.

Kramers, a bookstore in Washington, D.C., is opening its doors for a midnight release Nov. 17, the sort of fanfare more typical for a new Harry Potter book than a political memoir.

Politics and Prose, another D.C.-area independent bookstore, has placed a substantial order, for more than 2,000 copies. Bradley Graham, the store’s co-owner, said the book could have a ripple effect, since shoppers who flock to buy big bestsellers often pick up other titles as well.

“It should make a significant difference in helping to boost sales at a time that we desperately need it,” Graham said.

Even before its release, “A Promised Land” was exerting a strong gravitational pull on the industry. The Booker Prize decided to move its award ceremony, scheduled for Tuesday, to Thursday to avoid overlapping with the publication. (Obama will make an appearance at the Booker Prize online ceremony, alongside novelists Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, where he will talk about what he has taken from reading past Booker-winning novels.)

A representative for Obama said the timing of the release was dictated by his writing schedule, which continued into this summer, when the election cycle was already in full swing.

“President Obama was completely focused this fall on helping elect Joe Biden, so there was never a thought given to having it come out in the lead-up to the election,” said Katie Hill, communications director for Obama.

Now, Obama is promoting his book at a tense and delicate political moment, as President-elect Biden seeks to lay the groundwork for his administration while President Donald Trump refuses to accept the results of the election. As a former president who retains high approval ratings with the public, Obama will no doubt be called on in interviews to address the current climate of partisan division, and to deliver his views on how Biden should navigate it. But Obama also wants to avoid stepping into Biden’s spotlight.

“President Obama is very aware, as he will be out there talking about his book, that he’s not the leader of the Democratic Party,” Hill said. “He does not want to be out there in any way overshadowing Joe Biden.”

Of course, the biggest obstacle to any plan in 2020 is the coronavirus. As the virus continued to spread through the summer and early fall, it became clear that Obama would not be able to conduct a book tour with appearances in front of large audiences, like Michelle Obama’s nationwide tour for “Becoming,” which involved events in major sports arenas. Obama isn’t holding any in-person events, except for select interviews. Instead, he will rely on reaching readers through his large social media following — he has more than 125 million Twitter followers, and around 90 million followers on Facebook and Instagram combined — and interviews with traditional outlets like “60 Minutes,” “CBS Sunday Morning,” Oprah Winfrey’s Apple TV show and The Atlantic magazine, as well as on podcasts and youth-focused media outlets. He may also hold some live virtual events, Hill said.

Initially, Obama planned to cover his eight years as president in a single volume, but it became clear as he was writing that such a book would have been too vast and unwieldy. “A Promised Land” covers Obama’s youth and his political awakening, and ends with him meeting the Navy SEAL team involved in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

After Obama finished the book, a handful of trusted readers got early copies, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Wilkerson said Obama’s book was more introspective than a standard political memoir. “I found it to be a balance of grandeur and intimacy,” she said. “He’s very frank.”

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