When Robert Mueller addressed the nation about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Americans clung to his every syllable. These revelations were two years in the making. Attorney General William Barr’s summary had already made the rounds, but that was really just the trailer to the movie that everybody hoped to see when Mueller finally spoke at the end of May, just over a month after the full redacted report had been released. Would there be clarity? Would a president be damned, an electoral process salvaged?
Mueller had this to offer: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” His tone called to mind that of a professor eyeing a lecture hall of hungover, unprepared students: Don’t come to class if you didn’t do the reading.
What with the stakes being unusually high — i.e. are we a democracy or aren’t we? — it seemed clear that Mueller believed concerned citizens should not rely on Barr’s TL;DR version of the thing, which had perhaps done more to confuse the public than to inform. But would Americans with so much else going on (impending climate apocalypse, concentration camps in Texas, Big Little Lies with Meryl Streep) really take the time to read the 448-page document for themselves?
It turns out the answer is quite the resounding yes. People are reading the Mueller Report in droves. Or, at least, they’re buying it. Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election from the Department of Justice is this year’s Gone Girl. At press time, The Mueller Report is at no. 1, on the New York Times’ paperback nonfiction bestseller list. Because several editions of it are in print, it’s also occupying the no. 5 and no. 12 spots.
Interest has swelled beyond print to the stage; the Ten Bucks Theater Company recently staged a reading in Maine, and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage is hosting a marathon reading of the report in July, which will be free to attend. And a smattering of celebrities, including Robert DeNiro, star in a video from NowThis News, asking that viewers read the report based on the (apparently incorrect and, honestly, rude) assumption that Americans haven’t bothered to do just that.
That top slot on the Times list is held by Scribner’s edition of the report, a collaboration with The Washington Post that includes an introduction and supplemental analysis by reporters Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky. No. 5 is from Skyhorse, which has an introduction by Alan Dershowitz, the incendiary lawyer and Harvard law professor who has emerged as a reliable defender of President Donald Trump. And 12 is Melville House, which has a track record of publishing these wonky-but-newsworthy government documents: They published the Torture report in 2014 and the Climate report six months ago.
“This is the most anticipated book of my life,” Dennis Johnson, Melville House publisher (theirs is at no. 12 on the Times list), told ThinkProgress. “This is Harry Potter on steroids. People have been talking about this book for two years, waiting for it. Many people thinking it was going to save the democracy. I’ve just never seen anything like this, and I think sales are proving me right… It’s really astonishing.”
Johnson says Melville House is still getting follow-up orders, with retailers ordering “thousands of copies.” Many retailers are “giving away the book,” Johnson says, and paying for them out of pocket. BookBar in Denver gave away over 200 copies of the Melville House edition. “I was so moved by that,” he said.
“We’re selling it like crazy,” Mark LaFramboise, book buyer for Politics and Prose, told ThinkProgress. “I thought it would die down, but it’s not. It’s still doing something like 20 a day. It ranks up next to Michelle Obama. It’s extraordinary.” He anticipates the store will sell over 1,000 copies, which puts it next to smashes like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. “But Woodward did a lot of promotion and events. Usually there’s something driving it, like an author. And Mueller has been famously quiet. He’s the opposite. He’s the anti-promoter.”
Well, he tries to be the anti-promoter. “When Mueller gave his spoken statement and he said, ‘My report is my testimony,’ we did see a spike in sales instantly,” Colin Harrison, Scribner’s editor-in-chief, told ThinkProgress.
Though President Trump has bragged about how the Mueller Report wholly exonerates him (it does not), for some reason he has seen to it that this proof of total innocence is easy for Americans to discern. The Mueller Report is theoretically free and available to the public; practically speaking, it is a barely legible, not-searchable scan buried in the bowels of the Justice Department website.
This is pretty much what Johnson was expecting. “We knew that they’d put it out as a PDF copy of a JPEG, like a Xerox of a Xerox. Things that are hard to read, hard to search.” That distribution model, such as it is, “is not serving the people.” It reminded Johnson of the Torture Report (released on a Friday afternoon during the Christmas season) and the Climate Report (which came out the day after Thanksgiving, “the lowest media attention day of the year”). The Mueller Report’s publication belongs to a grand American tradition of “the government [trying] to hide these documents.”
To Johnson, that the Mueller Report is a surprise summer blockbuster is proof of civic life. “Part of the story here is that the document triumphed,” Johnson said. “It’s the government thinking their citizens are stupid, and I think the citizens are speaking back to that kind of superiority from the government.”
How do you prepare to publish a book whose contents, length, and publication date are a total mystery? When you know some of it will be redacted, but not how much? What if the whole thing was just one long black bar?
“We agonized over that,” Harrison said. “And that was just one point of agony.”
Harrison said that discussions about publishing the report at Scribner started back in December, when “we didn’t know if it would be 3,000 pages long or 40 pages long.” As points of comparison, Scribner looked to the 9/11 Commission and the Starr report. Knowing the considerable heft of those documents, Scribner made the call to go with a trade paperback edition, which would keep a book at “a price point that made it more available to people.”
The Mueller Report was released to the public at around 11:00 a.m. on a Thursday. While some of the Washington Post content was written in advance, new material needed to be written and finalized after the report came out. By 11:00 p.m., Harrison said, “we had copyedited and reviewed all the new copy, answered formatting questions, and dealt with paginations and so forth.” By 3:00 a.m. on Friday, the Scribner ebook was for sale. The audiobook was out that Saturday morning, and the physical book was rolling off the presses on Monday. (For context, production of a book typically takes three to four weeks.) “Our intention was to be first and best,” Harrison said. “I know we were first and I would like to think we are best.”
For Melville House, publication prep began as soon as Mueller was announced as special counsel. They quickly made a cover and obtained an ISBN (essentially a commercial book’s social security number). And they prepared to print the inevitable redactions, which is trickier than one might think. “There is no typesetter mark for a black square like that, so the thing that the government releases is very difficult to work with.”
Johnson’s sense is that other publishers “basically reprint the Xerox… but we wanted to replicate the redactions perfectly, because often you can tell what’s been redacted by the length of the redactions. And it’s dramatic and important, I think, to see when page after page has been blocked out.”
Johnson is a reprinting purist: Unlike the Scribner edition, the Melville House book is nothing but the Mueller Report: No additional reporting, no introduction. “It’s my opinion that that gives the book a bias,” he said. “I don’t want to read something that Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post is going to frame for me. I don’t agree with his politics, nor do I agree with Alan Dershowtiz,” who wrote the introduction to the Skyhorse edition. “He’s a Trump supporter. That doesn’t make sense to me, as somebody setting up the reading of the Mueller Report.”
“I think we should have more faith and confidence in the reader,” Johnson said. “We should just give them the documents and trust them to be smart enough to come to their own conclusions about it.”
Melville’s edition is a mass market paperback — a relatively uncommon size for a book these days, “because you can’t charge that much money for it.” The Scribner book’s list price is $15.00; Skyhorse’s is $12.99, and Melville House’s is $9.99.
“I’m literally going to have to sell hundreds of thousands of this book to make any money,” Johnson said.
There’s no real way to gauge who is buying the book just to have it and who is actually reading it. (Except for the occasional GOP Congressman who admits they have not read it — but it is probably safe to assume they didn’t buy it, either.) But even assuming that for some segment of these readers, the Mueller Report is an aspirational purchase whose spine might never be cracked, there’s still something significant about that acquisition — that a document that is available for free still feels vital to own and have on hand.
Johnson remembers that, when he was a kid, his parents “got a little mass market paperback of the Pentagon Papers, just because they thought it was an important book that should be in our home library — which was like, a shelf and half. I think a lot of people feel this way about the Mueller Report: They should own it. These are all good signs for democracy. This is a real interaction by the average citizen with their government. And after all, they paid for this book with their taxes.”
“We’re all aware that we’re living in an extraordinary time and we’re going to look back on this [report],” said Politics and Prose’s LaFramboise. “Is this a souvenir of the Trump era?”
Any journalist will tell you that the first rule of online writing is to never read the comments, but Harrison has found the Amazon reviews of the Mueller Report to be very heartening. “A number of reader comments say it is really a civic, patriotic duty, to buy and to read the book,” he said.
“It tells you something about the importance of books to the people of this country,” Johnson said. “We’re a country that in many ways was founded because of the book. That terrible winter at Valley Forge, George Washington read Thomas Paine to his troops! That’s in the DNA of this country. And I think we’re seeing that right now.”
“It’s a dark time, and the institutions seem to be meaningless, in correcting obvious problems of our government,” Johnson went on. “Something like this, this many people in agreement on a thing, is encouraging. I wanted to believe there were enough people in America who gave a damn to get this book, and I’m very heartened to see my suspicions were right.”
And for a government document, the Mueller Report is actually a juicy read. “I’ve talked to people who’ve read it and they’ve all talked about how pleasantly surprised they are by how readable it is,” LaFramboise said. “It’s a really good story! You can almost read it as novel.”