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Why publishers are scrambling to print the January 6th report, which is in the public domain

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is set to release its report on Dec. 21, just before Christmas. What's inside is a mystery to you, to me and to the many book publishers hoping to rush the report to the printers and be the first to get it into your hands. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more on why they're in such a hurry to put out something you can get online for free.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Dennis Johnson is the co-founder of Melville House, one of at least six book publishers who've announced they'll be releasing the January 6 report. But he doesn't have any inside scoops on what the report will contain.

DENNIS JOHNSON: It's a public document paid for by the citizens of the United States. And we, just like everybody else, wait for it to show up on the government's website as a PDF, most likely.

LIMBONG: Hopefully it's a high-quality PDF that's searchable and isn't formatted all weird. And also, hopefully it isn't too long.

JOHNSON: If it's a 6,500-page report with, you know, 10,000 pages of transcripts, yeah, I'm going to let somebody else publish that. (Laughter) Yeah. I'm going to hold them to it. I'm going to make Penguin, or whoever it was, live up to their promise to publish it.

LIMBONG: Or HarperCollins or Hachette or Macmillan. It takes a lot of work to get a book from PDF to page. There's the layout, the typesetting. If there are a bunch of redactions, that can be a whole other can of worms. But for Johnson, he sees it 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 some government website. It's also a way to make sure things don't go unnoticed. In 2014, the Senate released the torture report, their investigation into the CIA's detention and interrogation program. It was an unassuming drop, a few weeks before Christmas.

JOHNSON: It just appeared. Nobody knew it was coming. And obviously, it was an attempt to kind of squash the impact of the report. And 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.

LIMBONG: There's also the chance that the book could be a huge hit.

CRAIG WARREN: It's not very often that a government report, you know, has the opportunity to reach this many Americans.

JOHNSON: That's Craig Warren, English professor 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.

WARREN: Most government reports read like the instruction manual to a microwave oven. You know, they're really tedious. They're stilted. They are dry. They're usually technical language. And when the 9/11 report was published in the summer of 2004, it didn't sound anything like that.

LIMBONG: It was written with a sense of narrative thrust of drama, and Americans devoured it. People who weren't usually the types of people to read government documents bought and read it, making it a bestseller. Of course, the January 6 report is entering a very different America. Some publishers are choosing to include their version of the document with a foreword.

The one from HarperCollins will be by MSNBC anchor Ari Melber. The Penguin Random House version includes a foreword by Congressman Adam Schiff. Skyhorse is publishing one with a forward from a President Trump ally named Darren Beattie, whose website regularly publishes election denial conspiracies. Dennis Johnson from Melville House is opting to release theirs without an introduction at all.

JOHNSON: Because we think the document should speak for itself and that people can read this. We can - you know, you can have a little faith in the average American reader to take this primary material and assess it for themselves.

LIMBONG: Could the report heal the political fractures in this country? Sure. Will it? Who knows? But either way, it'll be a part of history.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEXICAN INSTITUTE OF SOUND SONG, "MEXICO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.