Success of 9/11 Commission Report Surprises

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Less than a week after publication, the early success of The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Norton) can be best described as surprising -- sending its publisher back to the presses, booksellers scrambling to fulfill orders, and garnering good reviews in the media. The compelling, 567-page 9/11 Commission Report debuted this week at number two on the Book Sense Paperback Bestseller List in the nonfiction category, and booksellers who spoke to BTW reported that -- though they expected the report to sell well -- they underestimated demand. Even Norton President W. Drake McFeely acknowledged that the report's sales outpaced his company's predictions.

"It is absolutely a surprise," McFeely told BTW, and said that, after a first print-run of 600,000, Norton has printed another 200,000 to satisfy backorders and is discussing a third printing. "Obviously [with an initial print run of 600,000] we had some expectations -- it was clear there was strong interest in the book."

While strong sales for the book is good news, McFeely stressed that Norton -- which was one of several commercial publishers approached by the Commission -- did not publish the report to make profits, but as a "public service." The Commission went with a commercial publisher because it wanted high speed and high volume printing with rapid distribution, he explained. The Commission was "concerned that consumers should be able to read the report a little in advance of the 'spinmeisters,'" he noted. "They wanted it on-sale alongside the press conferences." The report has a suggested retail price of $10.

The 9/11 Commission Report has been especially in demand in the nation's capitol. Carla Cohen of Politics and Prose noted that the report outsold even former President Bill Clinton's memoir, My Life (Knopf). "I don't think we've sold anything more quickly," she said, and added that the store has sold 324 copies since Thursday. "We ran out of it after three days…. We probably would have sold 500 if we had had it [in stock] over the weekend. I think it's extraordinary."

Jean Westcott of Olsson's Books & Records' Arlington Courthouse store in Arlington, Virginia, said it has been a constant battle just to keep it in stock. "It is selling faster than we can get it -- we're in almost constant communication with our Norton rep!" Westcott reported.

In Austin, Texas, BookPeople "sold out the first day," said Steve Bercu. "We have 26 special orders right now." He said that the strong sales were a surprise, "to some degree," because "I don't think that anybody knew that people would want to read [the whole government report]."

Just over a two-hour drive north of New York City, in Albany, New York, Dan Schreffler of Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza reported that the store "couldn't keep up with [the demand] the first day. We didn't get it until Friday and then sold out in a few hours.... It's flying."

Northshire Books in Manchester Center, Vermont, also sold out of the 9/11 Commission Report in one day, which "did catch us off guard [since] you can get it free on the Internet," Chris Morrow told BTW. He added that the report's popularity might be due in part to "our proximity to New York or feelings regarding 9/11 -- people are interested in delving into it, which is kind of heartening."

The only question booksellers had was whether the 9/11 Commission Report has "legs." Many of the booksellers who spoke with BTW believe that sales could taper off after a few weeks. "I don't know how long it will last," said Book House's Schreffler. "People will want it in the next week or so, so there's not much of a backlist life."

On the other hand, Norton's McFeely is hopeful that demand for the report would continue since it doesn't just detail the events of 9/11, but is forward looking - for one, it details the Commission's recommendations on combating terrorism, which will be the focus of a special session of Congress this August. Additionally, he expects the report to generate a great deal of "word of mouth" sales since it is so well written. -- David Grogan