Just days before the embargoed release of Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoir Living History (S&S), Jean Westcott, manager of Olsson's Books Arlington/Courthouse store in Arlington, Va., got phone calls from three area reporters calling separately to ask for copies of the book. With Harry Potter "on the brain," Westcott decided that the practice of selling an embargoed book at midnight might work for Clinton's memoir. Only days before the book could be sold, the store decided to open at 11:45 p.m. on a Sunday night and stay open until 1 a.m. Because of the last-minute nature of the promotion and because it was Westcott's idea, the company decided to stage it only at the Arlington store, which Olsson's Alicia Greene noted is "close to the city."
Olsson's, which has eight stores in and around Washington, D.C., was joined by three other booksellers in this venture: a Barnes & Noble in New York City and two Books-A-Million stores in the D.C. area also were open at midnight to sell the book by the former First Lady and current senator from New York.
While the midnight sale at Olsson's drew 12 customers and 10 reporters and sold 24 copies of the book, Westcott told PW, "It was worth doing. I made my customers happy and helped keep reporters busy. It was also a good dry run for Harry Potter." She quipped that the 24 copies sold are "a lot more than I would normally sell at that time," adding that the publicity has been astounding. "A lot of people are calling saying they've seen us on TV. They know we have the book, and that's important."
A few people who did not appear at the store asked that their purchases be rung up during the hour "to make a statement" and would pick them up later, said Westcott.
Westcott called the publishing of Living History a "singular event," in part because Senator Clinton is "such a lightning rod. People want to buy the book to say they support Hillary. That's why this book is different from most others." She also characterized the book itself as "Washington's Andy Warhol Diaries, where everyone looks in the index for their own names." Westcott told PW that were the company to do the event again, it might change the site and hold it at a downtown Washington store.
Books-A-Million, which has nine stores in and around Washington, opened two of its stores for an hour at midnight: the Dupont Circle store downtown and its Old Town store in Alexandria, Va. "We sold 100 copies at our Dupont location," said Terry Finley, executive v-p Books-A-Million Inc. "That was the most successful of our midnight sales. We also opened all nine stores earlier than usual the following morning at 7 a.m. to capture the traffic of people on their way to work."
"Living History has been huge for us—not only in D.C. but across the country," Finley told PW. "It's certainly the biggest book this year—although I'm sure it's about to be knocked off by Harry. But it's been phenomenally successful. We've done midnight sales previously, but there are very few books that merit it. It's highly unusual for two to come along in one month."
On the subject of embargoed books, Finley believes less is more. "We think too many books are embargoed," he stated. "The majority of books embargoed today simply don't warrant it based on consumer demand before publication. It's a lot of work for stores. Last week I went into one of our stores and saw a dozen books lying around with signs saying they couldn't be shelved until a specific date. It's getting harder and more cumbersome for booksellers to have to manage these embargoes. Publishers want to coordinate publicity with on-sale date. But the mechanics of holding a book off sale has gotten a little out of hand. I don't think I'm alone feeling this way. The music business has a coordinated release date, every Tuesday and they market to that. In our business, we have multi-release dates, without much return on the energy it takes to manage."
In New York City, the Barnes & Noble store on Broadway near Lincoln Center stayed open until 1 a.m. and drew "a couple hundred people," according to B&N's senior v-p of corporate communications Mary Ellen Keating. In addition, B&N's store in the Georgetown section of Washington opened at 7 a.m., three hours earlier than usual on the day of release.
Of course, Living History sold well its first day. Publisher S&S estimated some 200,000 copies, or 20% of its one million print run, were sold through in the first 24 hours. The company ordered reprints totaling 300,000 copies with more to come.
During its first day of release, Barnes & Noble and B&N.com sold more than 40,000 copies of the book, setting a one-day sales record for a nonfiction book. For its part, Borders sold nearly 40,000 copies.
Although Amazon.com wouldn't release sales figures, Bill Carr, director of book merchandising at Amazon.com., did tell PW, "It looks like Living History is the biggest nonfiction new book release in Amazon.com's history from preorders through the actual release date."
Politics and Prose, a Washington store that might have been a likely candidate to open at midnight, decided instead to open at 8 a.m. on June 9, an hour earlier than usual, for "all the early birds." In an e-mail and on its Web site, the store explained: "Frankly, we feel that we can only open at midnight once this month and Harry P. got there first."
Dave Simpson, owner of the Lafayette Bookstore in Lafayette, Calif., told PW that sales were so strong that "In the first 48 hours after the book went on sale, we made three trips to what we call our alternative distributor—Costco, where we got copies at basically a 45% discount. All our traditional distributors were out of the book, but we were able to keep her book in stock that way. We were able to sell 10 times our initial order."
One of Senator Clinton's big events on the day of release was a signing at B&N's Rockefeller Center store, which Mary Ellen Keating called a "huge success. We couldn't be more delighted with turnout." Clinton signed books for some 450 customers who began lining up "in the wee hours of the morning."
More than 750 copies were sold prior to a June 16 signing at The Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem. "People were thrilled to be in her presence and get her to sign a book," said co-owner Rita Ewing. "People were here when we opened at 10 and started a line for her 1:45 appearance. She started right on time and signed for an hour and a half."
Second Story Book Shop in Chappaqua, N.Y., made living history of its own last Saturday when it hosted the Senator (whose New York residence is in Chappaqua) for a speaking and signing event. The bookstore has sold more than 1,000 copies of Living History—"That's the most copies of any book that we've ever sold in our 31-year history," said owner Joan Ripley. "We had taken preorders on between 400 and 500 books."
The WalMart in Fairfax, Va., held an autographing with Senator Clinton on Wednesday where she signed more than 2,000 copies. "She was supposed to start signing at 7:30 p.m. but she came out early," said Laurie Smalling, manager of corporate affairs. "We had 2,000 books delivered on Monday and by 7 p.m. Wednesday, we had no books left to sign. We even pulled books from displays." The store allowed people who had receipts from other retailers to join the line and get their books signed. "We figured even if they bought books elsewhere, they were probably WalMart customers, so we invited them in," Smalling told PW.
Clinton was supposed to sign books at the Fairfax WalMart until 9 p.m. but wanted to finish the line. "At 9:30 we had a meeting to decide what to do with all the people in line," Smalling said. "At that point we told people that she had to leave at 10 and could only sign one book per person. She stayed until 10:15. There were a lot of very happy customers when she finished the line and left. It was a wonderful event. We were all exhausted by the end. It was the most successful signing this store has ever had. The previous best signing was when we sold 1,500 copies of Jimmy Carter's book."