Will you read the Jan. 6 report cover-to-cover? These publishers hope so.
Dennis Johnson is the co-founder of Melville House, one of at least six book publishers who’ve announced they’ll be printing the House panel’s report on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. But so far what’s inside the report is just as much a mystery to him as it is to anyone.
“It’s a public document paid for by the citizens of the United States,” said Johnson. He’s waiting, “just like everybody else,” for it to show up on the government’s website, most likely as a PDF.
Sources familiar with the panel say the report is set to drop on Dec. 21. Other publishers who’ve announced their versions of the document include HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Celadon Books and more.
It takes a lot of work to get a book from PDF to page. Publishers have to deal with the layout and the typesetting. If there are a bunch of redactions, that can be a whole other can of worms. Publishers are hoping that whatever the House releases is formatted reasonably well, and is searchable. But Johnson sees the work as a public good — to solidify the public record in a way that’s more accessible than a hard-to-read document at the bottom of a government website.
It’s also a way to make sure things don’t go unnoticed.
In 2014, the Senate released the Torture Report — its investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. It dropped unassumingly, a few days before Christmas. “It just appeared. Nobody knew it was coming,” said Johnson, who saw its quiet release as the Senate’s attempt to “squash the impact of the report.”
“It was such an important document that we literally worked around the clock. We had staff in 24 hours a day for a little over a week laying it out and actually making the book,” he said.
There’s also the chance that a report released in book form could be a huge hit. “It’s not very often that a government report has the opportunity to reach this many Americans,” said Craig Warren, professor of English at Penn State. In 2007, he published an article in the Journal of American Studies about the 9/11 Commission Report and its impact on the American reading public.
“Most government reports read like the instruction manual to a microwave oven,” he said. They’re tedious, stilted, dry and stuffed with technical language. But the 9/11 report was different. Harvard historian Ernest May worked as a senior advisor to the commission, and he worked with them to craft a real narrative. “He wanted them to be storytellers,” said Warren.”
“And what most surprised readers was that they employed elements that are commonly found in fiction, like suspense and foreshadowing and irony and metaphor. And as a result, readers were captivated not only by the contents of the report, but by its literary artistry,” he said.
And it worked. The 9/11 report became a bestseller. As did Melville House’s Torture Report. And The Mueller Report in 2019.
Of course the Jan. 6 report is entering a very different America. And the announced plans by the publishers reflect that. The HarperCollins version will come with a forward from MSNBC anchor Ari Melber. Penguin Random House’s will come with one by Congressman Adam Schiff. Skyhorse is publishing theirs with a foreword from Darren Beattie, an ally of former president Trump whose website regularly publishes election denial conspiracies. Johnson is choosing to release Melville House’s version without any framing. “We think the document should speak for itself,” he said.
But while Johnson does see it as a moral duty to publish the report, there is one thing that’ll stop him from putting it out at all. If it’s a 6,500 page report with 10,000 pages of transcripts, I’m going to let someone else publish that,” he joked. “I’m going to make Penguin live up to their promise to publish it.”