The surprise second novel from Harper Lee, set for release this summer over 50 years since To Kill a Mockingbird was published, will be “the most sure-fire hit of the century” according to Waterstones.
Booksellers have reacted with giddy anticipation to today's news that the 88-year-old Lee is to release a rediscovered manuscript - titled Go Set A Watchman and featuring narrator Scout as an adult - albeit that it was penned in the 1950s, before her classic To Kill a Mockingbird was written or published.
Chris White, fiction buyer for Waterstones, told The Bookseller: “If the reaction of everybody I’ve spoken to in the last half an hour is anything to go by, this will be the most sure-fire hit of the century.”
Foyles’ Jonathan Ruppin said: “This is as big as it gets for new fiction. We can close the book on the bestselling novel of 2015 right now. At Foyles today, we're absolutely fizzing with excitement and frenzied speculation: it's the only topic of conversation.”
Booksellers warned of the danger of sequels not living up to the original text, but said the unique situation surrounding the rediscovered Go Set A Watchman manuscript was set to avoid this potential pitfall. “I’m tempted to say that sequels are always tricky but honestly I couldn’t be more excited,” White said. “I think if you were to come up with a wishlist of writers you most wanted to publish another book, there is nobody who would be above Harper Lee.”
Laura Macaulay, publisher at Daunt Books, said: “Big news - the idea of a sequel to a great work of literature would usually fill me with dread, but as this is Harper Lee, I’m intrigued.”
Ruppin added: “Even though it's long been acknowledged as a classic, one of those very rare books that's a genuine must-read, To Kill a Mockingbird is a book that still surprises new readers with its power. Its story is arresting and profound, its characters vivid and entirely convincing, so the prospect of a follow-up, after all these years, is giddyingly thrilling.”
Ed Scotland, manager of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, who gave his daughter the middle name Scout in tribute to Lee’s narrator, said that the book was destined to be a huge commercial success. “It is the greatest compliment you can give a book – at least here between staff and customers in the shop – to say it is like To Kill A Mockingbird," he said. "For that reason I know it will be huge hit with our customers. For it to contain some of the same character – that is big." He added: "I was going to name my daughter Scout, but in the we settled for it has her middle name, Clementine Scout. That is the kind of impact To Kill a Mockingbird had. I think everyone will want to know what it is like and everyone will want it to be good.”
Other industry commentators have also reacted with glee to the shock news, saying it will also be a hit with schools, where To Kill a Mockingbird was a set text for many years. Jake Hope, a reading development and children's book consultant, told The Bookseller: "One of the things that quite often happens with set texts is they kill a love for literature, and what’s been remarkable with To Kill a Mockingbird is that hasn’t happened. People feel incredibly fond of it, and people are going to want to read the new novel. I can see it being really big.”
Sheryl Shurville, co-owner of the Chorleywood Bookshop, agreed: “It is a publishing phenomenon and I think the schools will really go in for it too after To Kill a Mockingbird’s influence on the syllabus.”
Go Set a Watchman was written by Lee in the mid-1950s, before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, but it is "essentially" a sequel to he story. It features Scout (Jean Louise Finch), who has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father Atticus and is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand both her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.
Lee said she was not aware that Go Set a Watchman had survived, and was “surprised and delighted” when it was rediscovered by her friend and lawyer Tonja Carter last autumn, attached to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird.
It was written before Lee's classic, but Lee's editor was so taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood featured in the novel that she persuaded her to write another from the point of view of the young Scout, which became To Kill a Mockingbird. "I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told," Lee said. She added: "I thought it a pretty decent effort. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years."
Doubts have been raised about the “rediscovery” of Lee's manuscript. Speaking to International Business Times, Lee’s biographer Charles Shields said: “I have a theory why the book is being published this year. It's because her sister is dead. Alice [who died in November, 2014 at the age of 103] was in control of Harper’s life, of what she signed. But now the lid’s off, and a book written half a century ago is going to be published.”
Rumours about Lee’s ill health have also persisted in recent years. Gawker reported last year that Lee would sign things her representatives gave her.
Charlotte Bush, director of publicity and media relations at Cornerstone, said: “As you can see from the photograph I released yesterday Harper Lee is in excellent health and not only has she approved publication but she is excited to see the book re-emerge after so many years.”
Penguin Random House told The Bookseller the manuscript would be published in its original form and that no alterations would be made before its release. While the UK publisher said it was too early to determine a print run in Britain, the US publisher HarperCollins said it planned an initial print run of two million copies.