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Barack Obama memoir off to record-setting start in sales

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NEW YORK  — For­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land” sold near­ly 890,000 copies in the U.S. and Cana­da in its first 24 hours, putting it on track to be the best sell­ing pres­i­den­tial mem­oir in mod­ern his­to­ry.

The first-day sales, a record for Pen­guin Ran­dom House, includes pre-orders, e‑books and audio.

“We are thrilled with the first day sales,” said David Drake, pub­lish­er of the Pen­guin Ran­dom House imprint Crown. “They reflect the wide­spread excite­ment that read­ers have for Pres­i­dent Obama’s high­ly antic­i­pat­ed and extra­or­di­nar­i­ly writ­ten book.”

The only book by a for­mer White House res­i­dent to come close to the ear­ly pace of “A Promised Land” is the mem­oir by Obama’s wife, Michelle Oba­ma, whose “Becom­ing” sold 725,000 copies in North Amer­i­ca its first day and has topped 10 mil­lion world­wide since its release in 2018. “Becom­ing” is still so in demand that Crown, which pub­lish­es both Oba­mas and report­ed­ly paid around $60 mil­lion for their books, has yet to release a paper­back.

As of mid­day Wednes­day, “A Promised Land” was No. 1 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com. James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble, said that the super­store chain eas­i­ly sold more than 50,000 copies its first day and hoped to reach half a mil­lion with­in 10 days.

“So far it has been neck and neck with Michelle Obama’s book,” he said.

By com­par­i­son, Bill Clinton’s “My Life” sold around 400,000 copies in North Amer­i­ca its first day and George W. Bush’s “Deci­sion Points” around 220,000, with sales for each mem­oir cur­rent­ly between 3.5 and 4 mil­lion copies. The fastest sell­ing book in mem­o­ry remains J.K. Rowling’s sev­enth and final Har­ry Pot­ter nov­el, “Har­ry Pot­ter and the Death­ly Hal­lows,” which came out in 2007 and sold more than 8 mil­lion copies with­in 24 hours.

Obama’s 768-page mem­oir, which came out Tues­day and has a list price of $45, had unusu­al­ly risky tim­ing for a book of such impor­tance to the author, to read­ers and to the pub­lish­ing indus­try. It came out just two weeks after Elec­tion Day and could have been over­shad­owed had the race still been in doubt or per­haps unwant­ed by dis­tressed Oba­ma fans if Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump had defeat­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee Joe Biden. But Biden won and his vic­to­ry like­ly renews inter­est in an era when he was Obama’s trust­ed and pop­u­lar vice pres­i­dent.

Oba­ma him­self acknowl­edges that he didn’t intend for the book, the first of two planned vol­umes, to arrive so close to a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion or to take near­ly four years after he left the White House — months longer than for “My Life” and two years longer than “Deci­sion Points.” In the intro­duc­tion to “A Promised Land,” dat­ed August 2020, Oba­ma writes that “the book kept grow­ing in length and scope” as he found he need­ed more words than expect­ed to cap­ture a giv­en moment — a bind many authors well under­stand. He was also work­ing under con­di­tions he “didn’t ful­ly antic­i­pate,” from the pan­dem­ic to the Black Lives Mat­ters protests, to, “most trou­bling of all,” how the country’s “democ­ra­cy seems to be tee­ter­ing on the brink of cri­sis.”

Because of the pan­dem­ic, Oba­ma will not go on the all-star are­na tour Michelle Oba­ma had for “Becom­ing.” But he ben­e­fits from the atten­tion of any mem­oir by a for­mer pres­i­dent and by the spe­cial atten­tion for Oba­ma, who has the rare stature among politi­cians of writ­ing his own books and for attract­ing as much or more atten­tion for how he tells a sto­ry than for the sto­ry itself. Oba­ma has already writ­ten two acclaimed, mil­lion-sell­ing works, “Dreams from My Father” and “The Audac­i­ty of Hope, which came out in 2006. His new book cov­ers some of the same time peri­od as his pre­vi­ous ones, while con­tin­u­ing his sto­ry through the first 2 1/2 years of his pres­i­den­cy and the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden by the Navy SEALS.

Pub­lish­ers Week­ly praised the book as “shot through with mem­o­rable turns of phrase,” while oth­er reviews were more qual­i­fied, call­ing the book all too reflec­tive of Obama’s thought­ful, even-hand­ed style. The New York Times’ Jen­nifer Sza­lai wrote that the “most auda­cious thing” about “A Promised Land” is “the beam­ing por­trait” of Oba­ma on the cov­er. The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Car­los Loza­da not­ed that in “domes­tic pol­i­cy and for­eign affairs, in debates over cul­ture and race, Oba­ma splits dif­fer­ences, clings to the mid­dle ground and trusts in process as much as prin­ci­ple.”

“It turns out he is not a ‘rev­o­lu­tion­ary soul’ but a reformist one, ‘con­ser­v­a­tive in tem­pera­ment if not in vision.’ Behind those dreams, the audac­i­ty and all that promise is a stub­born streak of mod­er­a­tion,” Loza­da wrote.

Obama’s book is the high­light of publishing’s hol­i­day sea­son and for some inde­pen­dent book­stores, the poten­tial dif­fer­ence between remain­ing in busi­ness or clos­ing. Pub­lish­ing sales have been sur­pris­ing­ly sta­ble dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, but much of the ben­e­fit has gone to Amazon.com as read­ers turned increas­ing­ly to online pur­chas­es. The Amer­i­can Book­sellers Asso­ci­a­tion, the inde­pen­dent sell­ers’ trade group, has warned that hun­dreds of stores could go out of busi­ness if hol­i­day sales fall short.

Kris Klein­di­enst, co-own­er of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, antic­i­pates sell­ing around 1,000 copies by the end of the year, a num­ber which makes “a HUGE dif­fer­ence” for annu­al rev­enues, she wrote in an email. Sarah McNal­ly, own­er of McNal­ly Jack­son Books in Man­hat­tan, said she sold around 600 copies in the first 24 hours, a pace exceed­ed only by the final Har­ry Pot­ter book.

“It’s not hard to be a bright spot this year, a year when we would have gone out of busi­ness with­out fed­er­al aid,” McNal­ly said. “But Oba­ma does feel like a sav­ior, as do our cus­tomers for buy­ing this from us.”

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