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Publishers are racing to turn the Mueller report into a book

Robert Mueller prepares to testify before Congress in 2004.

It takes months to publish a book. Publishers want to turn the Mueller report around in 1 week.

As America waits with bated breath to find out if the Department of Justice plans to release the Mueller report, publishers are feeling a special urgency. Three publishing houses have already announced plans to publish the report in book form after it’s released to the public, and more may follow soon. Expectations are riding high. The Skyhorse edition, the first announced, is already a best-seller on Amazon.

And if the Department of Justice chooses not to release the report after all?

“Then we don’t have a book to release,” says Dennis Johnson, the publisher of Melville House.

Melville House, along with Scribner and Skyhorse, has committed to putting out copies of the Mueller report as soon as possible after the Department of Justice makes it public. That’s not unusual with major government reports: There was a similar scrimmage over the Starr report and the 9/11 Commission Report.

That’s because major government reports consistently occupy an ideal position for publishers. There is a built-in readership of people interested in reading the reports after hearing them debated heavily in the news, and they are automatically in the public domain, so anyone can publish an edition without having to pay royalties. It’s a high-reward and comparatively low-investment proposition.

And publishers are arguing that the Mueller report is an especially vital document for Americans to read.

“This report is the most important document coming out of the US government since the 9/11 report,” Tony Lyons, the publisher of Skyhorse, told Vox. “Every American, whether they are a Democrat, a Republican or an independent, should read it carefully.”

“The Mueller report is the most anticipated investigative document of this century, and its findings are of vast importance to the United States and to the rest of the world,” said Nan Graham, senior vice president and publisher of Scribner, in a press release.

But since the report will be in the public domain, few people will actually have to buy it as a book to read it. If you have internet access, you’ll be able to go online and read it for free. So why are publishers betting that readers will spend money on a book version of the report? And why are readers interested enough to make the report a best-seller before it’s even released?

“Sure, read it for free online if you can,” says Johnson. “Our feeling is, nobody does.”

There is data to support that feeling. Industry tracker NPD BookScan says the 9/11 Commission Report was published in 28 different print editions, all of which sold a combined 1.17 million copies. (BookScan does not track electronic sales, so there were almost certainly more copies of the report sold as ebooks.) That’s 1.17 million people who could have read the report for free but opted to buy a book version instead.

Johnson theorizes that these books sell because the versions of these reports released by the government usually aren’t very easy to consume. “They don’t want you to read it,” he opines.

The text isn’t searchable, so you have to scan and scroll through the entire report to find specific information instead of being able to jump around. And since the reports are often in the thousand-page range, they are extraordinarily unwieldy.

“Personally, I like printed books, well-designed and professionally produced, rather than a pile of paper,” says Lyons. “As far as the ebook version, it’s difficult to read a manuscript online unless it’s been properly formatted.”

But getting that properly formatted book out to the public is not an easy task.

Planning to publish a government report requires dealing with a host of unknowns

The quest to publish a copy of the Mueller report has become an arms race of sorts, with each publisher scrambling to put together its own edition of the report as quickly as possible.

Although each publisher has listed a release date, all of them are quick to admit that the dates are dummies. They have no idea when the book will actually come out. But they do have goals.

Melville House is aiming to have its edition — a low-cost mass market paperback plus an ebook — out within 10 days of the drop. Skyhorse is shooting for a six- to seven-day turnaround for its edition, which will feature a foreword by emeritus Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. And Scribner says it expects to release its edition, with an introduction from Washington Post reporters Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky, within two or three days as an ebook and five to eight days as a paperback.

That is a much, much shorter timeline than is traditionally required to produce a book. Skyhorse has a reputation for putting books out rapidly — “They specialize in getting books out quickly and on the shelves,” Skyhorse author Jerome Corsi told Talking Points Memo earlier this month — but a one-week turnaround is moving fast even for them. Tony Lyons declined to say how long production usually takes at Skyhorse, but commented, “Needless to say, it usually takes much, much longer” than the planned timeline for the Mueller report.

Johnson says that at Melville House, the editorial and production process combined usually take about 18 months, which also gives the sales team time to put the word out about the book. Once a book is completed, copy edited, and typeset, he says, it takes a month to print and then another month to distribute. In this case, the entire process is happening in 10 days.

But all of these timelines depend upon a plethora of unknown factors.

For one thing, publishers have no idea what format the government will release the report in. “We’re hoping this thing drops as a PDF,” says Johnson. “Which usually government documents are. Sometimes they’re in good shape and sometimes they’re not.”

Johnson points to The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, which Melville House published as a book in 2014. “The torture report was released on a Friday afternoon in a barely readable JPEG,” he says. “It was a slow and painful process to extract it … and then we had to go over that text line by line.”

That report was also heavily redacted, Johnson says, and “there is no way to typeset a redaction.” Melville House had to set the report’s black redaction bars into their pages by hand.

Publishers also have no idea how long the Mueller report will be. “The rumor is that it’s a shorter document than expected,” Johnson says. “We don’t know what that means, though!”

Because publishers have no way of knowing how long the report will be, they can’t estimate firmly exactly how long it will take to publish. They also can’t set a firm price for the book.

Skyhorse currently has a price listed of $12.99 for the paperback and $7.99 for the ebook. “We hope this will be the final pricing,” Lyons says. “If the document is much shorter or much longer, we may have to adjust.”

Melville House is listing the price as $9.99 for the paperback and $1.99 for the ebook. “We hope to go down,” Johnson says. “We pray we don’t have to go up.”

Each publisher is setting a different price point for the book

You may have noticed that all of these publishers are projecting different prices for what is essentially going to be the same book. (Scribner declined to discuss its editorial process with Vox, but it is currently listing its edition at $15 for the paperback and $7.99 for the ebook.) How is that possible?

Part of the pricing discrepancy depends on what each publisher plans to add to their edition:Both Scribner and Skyhorse will have to pay their introduction writers, while Melville House is choosing to publish the report by itself without any additional material. Scribner seems to be betting that trust in the Washington Post is high enough to establish its edition as the premium Mueller report experience, thus justifying the $15 price point. Skyhorse, in the meantime, is standing by its Dershowitz foreword. “The foreword by Professor Alan Dershowitz by itself will undoubtedly be worth the price of admission,” Lyons says.

Additionally, these publishers are all planning to release the report in different formats. Scribner and Skyhorse both appear to be planning to release their editions as trade paperbacks, with generous margins and widely spaced, easy-to-read print. But Melville House is breaking with tradition to release its edition as a mass market paperback, the cheapest format in publishing, with the text set closely together to save paper. It will be the first mass market paperback Melville House has put out in history.

“We consider it our civic duty,” Johnson says. “This is the people’s version of the book. It’s going to be as inexpensive as possible.”

What we can be certain of is that as long as the Mueller report gets released as expected, it will be available as a book at some undetermined point in the future. You can preorder any of these three copies from bookstores now.

About Aaron Rupar

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