NEW YORK – Reviews have been discouraging and conservatives are on the attack, but booksellers still expected the best as they braced for Tuesday's release of Bill Clinton's (search) "My Life," the year's most anticipated nonfiction book.
"It's like adult Harry Potter (search) mania. We haven't seen anything like this since J.K. Rowling came here," said Michael Link, a bookseller for Politics & Prose, a Washington-based store that stayed open late Monday night and begin selling "My Life" at midnight.
Outside a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan's Lincoln Center, anxious buyers began lining up at about 8 p.m. There were about 100 people standing outside by the time the first sale was made.
"It's a historic moment for me," said Margaret Woods, a billing consultant from Manhattan, who stood in line with her 8-year-old son. "When he was in office, the country was prosperous, people had jobs, the budget was balanced and we weren't at war. He gave a lot of people hope."
Alfred A. Knopf (search) has given the former president's memoirs a first printing of 1.5 million.
Promotion for the book began in early June, when Clinton was the keynote speaker at BookExpo America, the publishing industry's annual national convention. He has since been interviewed by "60 Minutes," Time magazine and the British Broadcasting Corp., among others.
Monday evening, Clinton was the guest of honor at a book party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Close to 1,000 people filled the Great Hall, including actress Lauren Bacall, folk singer Judy Collins, comedian Al Franken, recent presidential candidate Al Sharpton, and TV personalities Barbara Walters and Paula Zahn.
"This is a terrific book," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton told the crowd as she introduced her husband.
Clinton joked about his reported $10 million advance, saying, "I hope my publisher makes back its money."
He also quipped that despite the hefty advance, he worked on the book so long that "by the time I finished ... I was just about down to minimum wage."
Sixteen franchises of the Borders superstore chain were to stay open past midnight. Barnes & Noble was to begin selling "My Life" (search) at midnight, at one franchise each in New York and Washington.
At the Books-A-Million store in North Little Rock, Ark., a party with trivia contests was held for people who wanted to be there at the stroke of midnight to get their hands on a copy. About 80 people showed up, manager Candyce Spurlin said.
"I think he was a good president — I think he could have been one of the best presidents except for the scandals," said one of those in line, Garry Caldwell, 54, of Sherwood.
Clinton's political opponents already are taking on the former president. Citizens United, a conservative lobby group, purchased advertising time during Clinton's Sunday night interview on "60 Minutes" and accused him of failing to fight terrorism. Rush Limbaugh has said the book should be called "My Lie."
But the promotional tour itself reflects Clinton's well-documented fondness for pleasing all sides. Over the next month, he will visit independent booksellers such as Politics & Prose, the superstore chains Borders and Barnes & Noble, black-owned stores such as Harlem's Hue-Man Bookstore, and price clubs such as Costco.
Books by presidents have rarely been labeled works of literature; Ulysses S. Grant's memoir is the exception. Clinton seemed a good bet to break pattern. He is among the best-read of recent presidents and has noted proudly that he wrote the book himself, in longhand. His editor, Robert Gottlieb, has worked with Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, historian Robert Caro and other leading writers.
Critics, however, have so far deemed "My Life" about as interesting as Herbert Hoover. The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, in a front-page review Sunday, panned Clinton's 957-page book as "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull." Newsweek called it "hardly an edge-of-your-seat experience."
Bob Wietrak, a vice president of merchandising at Barnes & Noble, said reviews will "absolutely not" affect sales. "People are buying this book because they want to know what he says, not how he says it," Wietrak said.
With advance orders already topping 2 million, Clinton's book, which runs from his Arkansas childhood through his presidency, appears guaranteed to justify his reported $10 million advance and outsell the memoirs of Clinton's wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who received $8 million. According to her publisher, Simon & Schuster, Sen. Clinton's "Living History" has about 2.3 million copies in print, including both hardcover and paperback editions.
Pre-orders for "My Life" have tripled over the last week at Barnes & Noble and also increased by double digits for Borders, even though the Borders discount for the $35 book dropped from 40 percent to 30 percent for orders made after June 14.
Clinton's book also has been near the top of Amazon.com's best-seller list for the past month. Demand is so high at the online retailer that even the audio book and the large print edition were among the top 10 sellers Monday.