'A Promised Land': Barack Obama's memoir is off to a record-setting start in sales

The book sold about 890,000 copies in the US and Canada in its first 24 hours

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2019, file photo shows former President Barack Obama speaking at the My Brother's Keeper Alliance Summit in Oakland, Calif. 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 best selling presidential memoir in modern history. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
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Former President Barack Obama's A Promised Land sold about 890,000 copies in the US and Canada in the first 24 hours of its release, putting it on track to be the bestselling presidential memoir in modern history.

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

"We are thrilled with the first day sales," says 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 on 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 about $60 million for their books, has yet to release a paperback.

Former US President Barack Obama's new book "A Promised Land" is seen in a bookstore in Washington, DC, on November 17, 2020. Former US president Barack Obama writes in a new memoir that he is still torn by his choices in the Arab Spring, acknowledging he was inconsistent in which leaders to nudge out of power. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM
Former US President Barack Obama's new book 'A Promised Land'. AFP

As of midday on Wednesday, November 18, A Promised Land was No 1 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com. James Daunt, chief executive of Barnes & Noble, says that the superstore chain easily sold more than 50,000 copies on 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 says.

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 about 220,000, with sales for each memoir currently between 3.5 and 4 million copies. The fastest-selling book in memory remains JK Rowling's seventh and final Harry Potter novel, 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 on Tuesday, November 17, 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 US Election Day and could have been overshadowed had the race still been in doubt or perhaps unwanted by distressed Obama fans if President Donald 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.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 04, 2008, US President-elect Barack Obama (L), his wife Michelle (2ndL), vice president-elect Joe Biden (R) and his wife Jill arrive for an election night party in Chicago, Illinois. Jill Biden is no stranger to the glare of the political spotlight. Her husband has been a Washington insider since they wed in 1977, and she was America's second lady for eight years. But if Joe Biden wins the White House, his 69-year-old wife will have the opportunity to push the role of first lady into the 21st century -- by keeping her full-time job as a professor. "Most American women have both a work life and a family life, but first ladies have never been allowed to do so," said Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University. / AFP / Emmanuel DUNAND
Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Jill Biden and Joe Biden arriving for an election night party in Chicago, Illinois, in November 2008. AFP

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 for My Life and two years longer than Decision Points. 

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", from the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter protests, to, "most troubling of all", how the country's "democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis".

Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks at the "Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama" event at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP)
Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks at the 'Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama' event in 2018 in Philadelphia. AP

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 the rare stature he holds among politicians for writing his own books and for attracting as much or more attention for how he tells a story than for the story itself.

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 two-and-a-half years of his presidency and the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden by the Navy Seals.

Publishers Weekly praised the book as "shot through with memorable turns of phrase", while other reviews were more qualified, calling the book all too reflective of Obama's thoughtful, even-handed style. The New York Times's Jennifer Szalai wrote that the "most audacious thing" about A Promised Land is "the beaming portrait" of Obama on the cover. The Washington Post's Carlos Lozada noted that in "domestic policy and foreign affairs, in debates over culture and race, Obama splits differences, clings to the middle ground and trusts in process as much as principle".

"It turns out he is not a 'revolutionary soul' but a reformist one, 'conservative in temperament if not in vision.' Behind those dreams, the audacity and all that promise is a stubborn streak of moderation," Lozada writes.

Obama's book is the highlight of publishing's holiday season and for some independent bookstores, the potential difference between remaining in business or closing. Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan, says she sold about 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 says. "But Obama does feel like a saviour, as do our customers for buying this from us."