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Barack Obama’s new memoir sells nearly 890,000 copies in 24 hours (sorry, Michelle)

President Obama speaking at an event in Oakland in 2019
President Obama speaks at the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Summit in Oakland in 2019.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land” sold nearly 890,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada in its first 24 hours, putting it on track to be the bestselling presidential memoir in modern history.

The first-day sales, a record for Penguin Random House, includes preorders, e-books and audio.

“We are thrilled with the first-day sales,” said David Drake, publisher of the Penguin Random House imprint Crown. “They reflect the widespread excitement that readers have for President Obama’s highly anticipated and extraordinarily written book.”

The only book by a former White House resident to come close to the early pace of “A Promised Land” is the memoir by Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama, whose “Becoming” sold 725,000 copies in North America its first day and has topped 10 million worldwide since its release in 2018. “Becoming” is still so in demand that Crown, which publishes both Obamas and reportedly paid around $60 million for their books, has yet to release a paperback.

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As of midday Wednesday, “A Promised Land” was No. 1 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s website. James Daunt, chief executive of Barnes & Noble, said that the superstore chain easily sold more than 50,000 copies its first day and hoped to reach half a million within 10 days.

“So far it has been neck-and-neck with Michelle Obama’s book,” he said.

“A Promised Land,” out Tuesday in a worldwide release, eloquently and ruefully documents the first two and a half years of Obama’s presidency.

By comparison, Bill Clinton’s “My Life” sold about 400,000 copies in North America its first day and George W. Bush’s “Decision Points” around 220,000, with total sales for each memoir currently between 3.5 and 4 million copies.

The fastest-selling book in memory remains J.K. Rowling’s seventh and final Harry Potter installment, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” which came out in 2007 and sold more than 8 million copies within 24 hours.

Obama’s 768-page memoir, which came out Tuesday and has a list price of $45, had unusually risky timing for a book of such importance to the author, to readers and to the publishing industry. It came out just two weeks after election day and could have been overshadowed had the race still been in doubt, or perhaps unwanted by distressed Obama fans if President Trump had defeated Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

But Biden won, and his victory likely renews interest in an era when he was Obama’s trusted and popular vice president.

Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep, Beyoncé and Bob Dylan were among the stars in Barack Obama’s orbit during his presidency, as remembered in his new book.

Obama himself acknowledges that he didn’t intend for the book, the first of two planned volumes, to arrive so close to a presidential election or to take nearly four years after he left the White House — months longer than it took for “My Life” and two years longer than it took for “Decision Points” to hit the shelves.

In the introduction to “A Promised Land,” dated August 2020, Obama writes that “the book kept growing in length and scope” as he found he needed more words than expected to capture a given moment — a bind many authors well understand.

He was also working under conditions he “didn’t fully anticipate,” including the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matters protests and, “most troubling of all,” how the country’s “democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis.”

Because of the pandemic, Obama will not go on the all-star arena tour Michelle Obama had for “Becoming.” But he benefits from the attention of any memoir by a former president and by his rare stature among politicians of writing his own books and of attracting as much or more attention for how he tells a story than for the story itself.

In his surprisingly confessional book “A Promised Land,” Obama dissects his failures as well as his successes. It offers great advice for a new president.

Obama has already written two acclaimed, million-selling works, “Dreams from My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope,” which came out in 2006. His new book covers some of the same time period as his previous ones, while continuing his story through the first years of his presidency and the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALS.

Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, anticipates selling about 1,000 copies by the end of the year, a number which makes “a HUGE difference” for annual revenues, she wrote in an email. Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan, said she sold around 600 copies in the first 24 hours, a pace exceeded only by the final Harry Potter book.

“It’s not hard to be a bright spot this year, a year when we would have gone out of business without federal aid,” McNally said. “But Obama does feel like a savior, as do our customers for buying this from us.”


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