Marketplace is community-funded public service journalism. Give in any amount that works for you – what matters is that you give today.
After the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol holds its final hearing — which might happen Thursday — it will release its report to the public. That’s expected to happen sometime before the November midterms. And whatever day that is will be a busy one for book publishers.
“There will be this fire drill period where the report does drop in the morning. We grab the file off wherever the committee is housing it, and then it’s a race,” said Sean Desmond, publisher and vice president at Twelve Books.
A race to reconfigure the report into a book, print copies, get them on booksellers’ shelves and into Amazon warehouses, and finish the audiobook.
Producing the audio version “could be, like, four or five days in the studio, morning, noon and night. It could be upwards of 40 to 60 hours,” he said.
Timing is important because the content of every publisher’s version — there are at least four going to print — will be the same cleaned-up copy of the report with some unique context from a writer. Twelve Books is working with The New York Times to add analysis and visuals by the paper’s staff.
“The report itself is a free document, and that’s why Twelve and The New York Times are trying to bring value to the reporting and offer readers something that’s special,” Desmond said.
You might be wondering what the audience is for something like this: government documents printed, bound and sold for $19.99.
Interest in these publications goes back to 1964 and the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John Kennedy. It initially sold a million copies and continues to sell because it’s a big piece of American history, said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University.
“We still debate today who really killed JFK. We still debate today the implications of the 9/11 attacks. And, of course, the Mueller Report touched on issues of great import to our democracy,” he said.
People’s interest in these publications shows they’re politically engaged, Lichtman added. And though the reports are often written as dry accounts of events, they’re sometimes downright juicy.
“The Starr report, it not only reads like a novel — it reads like a pornographic novel, which may account for some of its interest,” Licthman said about the investigation into President Bill Clinton’s Whitewater controversy that morphed into an examination of his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
When the Starr report was released in 1998, tens of millions of Americans logged on to their dial-up internet connections to read it. The book became a bestseller. Another publishing hit was the 9/11 Commission Report, which became a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award.
Even reports that don’t sell well make money.
“It’s low-hanging fruit,” said Rachel Deahl at Publishers Weekly. “These books are very cheap to do. They are public documents, and so they might be free or you might be sort of paying potentially a small fee if somebody’s doing a foreword.”
After paying fees to authors and booksellers and spending on marketing and printing, most books in the $15 to $20 range make around $1 per book for the publisher. But Deahl expects the profit margin on published reports to be bigger. And even when they’re not an instant hit, they have a long game.
“Backlist books are books that will continue to sell over time. They might be of value to schools and other organizations who might be putting them on a syllabus or something like that,” she said.
Plus, there’s always an appetite to reexamine the past, she said. For instance, the Mueller report made people look back at Watergate. In other words, history repeats itself.
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.