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‘Senate Torture Report’ in bookstores before New Year’s

(Courtesy of Melville House)

The Senate Torture Report will be available in bookstores before New Year’s Day, the indie publisher Melville House has announced.

The 528-page document is a declassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s five-year investigation of the CIA’s interrogation of terrorism suspects during the years following the Sept. 11 attacks. The report details the sometimes brutal treatment of more than 100 prisoners, who are named for the first time. (The committee’s full, still-classified study runs longer than 6,000 pages.)

The Senate Torture Report can be read for free online here. Amazon currently offers a Kindle version of the report for $2.99, but the forthcoming version from Melville House will be reformatted for paperback and available for $16.95.

Wednesday morning, Dennis Johnson, the co-publisher of Melville House, said, “We’re working round the clock to turn the low-res PDF released by the government into something we can lay out and print. The enormous number of redactions (the heavy black lines over the text) makes that a trick, so we’ve got our editorial team slaving over that. Ours will be perfectly typeset and designed, whereas anything you’re seeing this quickly as the ebooks you cite are simply copies of the government’s low-quality PDF — essentially, a Xerox of a Xerox.”

Working this quickly poses special challenges for a publisher, particularly a small one such as Melville. Johnson says, “Our marketing team — both of them — have been doing outreach to booksellers, letting them know this is coming and how they can get it. As the book is being ‘crashed,’ there’s no time to get it in all the various seasonal catalogues and such, so retailers will be aware of it and have the capacity to order it. Our production department dropped everything to design the cover and do all the layout, which they’re doing piecemeal as the editorial team turns the PDF text into a workable document, while also begging our printer to let us cut the long holiday line to get the book printed and shipped to the warehouse, which will happen with remarkable speed.”

Johnson expects to have a first printing of 50,000 paperback copies available by Dec. 30.

“A printed book is still pretty superior technology,” Johnson says, “It’s portable, affordable, share-able, long-lasting — and in this instance, perhaps, a far easier way to read a 525 page low-resolution PDF. It’s hard, on a screen, to flip through, go back and forth, and simply read such a report in the way reports are read. And I think — I hope — that teachers and professors and parents across the country are going to want this edition to read together and talk about.”

Johnson consulted with a few “famous political writers” to write an introduction to the report, but in the end decided against adding any additional material. “It should be just the text,” he said, “unfreighted by other opinions; a document for the left, right, and middle.”

There are precedents for commercial publication of government reports. Most notably, in 2004, W.W. Norton published and distributed “The 9/11 Commission Report,” which was issued by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Although that report was also available for free online, the book version became a bestseller and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction.

Melville House is not paying anything for the text of the Senate Torture Report because it’s a public document. Johnson notes, “In the past, the government has given preferential treatment to certain publishers, giving them early, exclusive copies of the report — even, in at least one instance, giving them money to help with the printing! As a publisher, beyond the unfair anti-competitive nature of that, I never understood the legality of that: They’re publicly owned reports paid for by the taxpayers. But [California Sen.] Diane Feinstein seems to have been opposed to that kind of preferential treatment this time, and that in turn seems to have turned off big publishers. Probably, the fact of the timing of the release also contributed to such a lack of interest by bigger houses. It’s hard to get a book in a bookstore in the days before Christmas.”