Any book by a former first lady is a publishing event, but Michelle Obama’s upcoming memoir “Becoming,” out Nov. 13, is being marketed as a major cultural moment: She embarks on a 10-city arena tour across the U.S. starting in Chicago later this month, with special guests including Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon. VIP tickets offering the chance to meet Mrs. Obama cost up to $2,750, commanding even higher prices on resale sites.
The stakes are high. Her publisher, Penguin Random House, made a huge bet on Mrs. Obama and her husband last year when it jointly paid them an advance estimated at about $60 million for two books. It was “the highest advance ever paid in the history of book publishing,” said Thomas Rabe, chief executive of German media giant Bertelsmann SE, which owns 75% of the publishing house.
Booksellers are counting on strong sales. “We expect it to be the biggest book of the season, if not the year,” said Liz Harwell, senior director of merchandising, trade books at Barnes & Noble Inc. Her upbeat forecast reflects what she described as “significant preorders” for the title.
Her 426-page memoir, a copy of which was obtained by The Wall Street Journal, ranges widely, from her father’s death when he was 55 to the “lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder” she felt for Barack Obama when their romance began. She describes the “funereal” morning after the 2016 presidential election. “I will always wonder about what led so many women, in particular, to reject an exceptionally qualified female candidate and instead choose a misogynist as their president,” she writes of the election. Mrs. Obama writes that she will “never forgive” Donald Trump for having promoted the “birther” movement questioning then-President Obama’s U.S. citizenship, arguing that the accusations could have led to violence against her family. (Mr. Trump later conceded that Mr. Obama was born in the U.S.) She dismisses speculation about her own political future: “I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that.”
Asked Friday if he had a response to Mrs. Obama, Mr. Trump said he hadn’t seen what she wrote. “She got paid a lot of money to write a book,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “And they always insist that you come up with controversial.”
Mrs. Obama has never attempted a book this ambitious. Her one previous book, “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America,” has sold a solid 62,000 hardcover copies, according to book tracker NPD BookScan.
For her memoir to meet the high expectations placed on it, the writing must be compelling, industry watchers say. “A memoir is always dependent on authenticity,” said Lorraine Shanley, president of consulting firm Market Partners International. “The voice has to sound like Michelle.”
Penguin Random House’s Crown Publishing is printing 1.8 million hardcover copies for the U.S. and Canada, and an additional 1.2 million hardcover copies for other markets. Only two nonfiction titles published in the U.S. have sold more than 2 million hardcover copies since the start of 2010—Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” and Marie Kondo’s “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”—says NPD BookScan. David Drake, deputy publisher of Crown, declined to discuss the book’s potential revenue or profitability, but said, “We couldn’t be more optimistic.”
One New York publishing executive who asked not to be identified suggested that “Becoming,” which has generated strong foreign rights income, would be “very profitable” if it sells 2 million hardcover copies in the U.S. This person estimated the book could generate as much as $46 million in gross sales in the U.S. across all formats, more revenue than some imprints generate annually. That would go a long way toward recouping the total $60 million advance, which includes an as-yet-untitled memoir from Mr. Obama.
Early indications suggest a keen level of interest in her story. When tickets to the arena appearances went on presale in September, demand was so high that tour organizer Live Nation added two new dates the same day. The tour promotes itself as “an intimate conversation” with the former first lady moderated by celebrity guests, including former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, actress Tracee Ellis Ross and comedian Phoebe Robinson in addition to Ms. Winfrey and Ms. Witherspoon.
Standard tickets range from $29.50 through $179.50. In late October, packages offering extra perks for the Chicago appearance ranged from $2,500 to $2,750. “Demand for tickets to Michelle Obama’s book tour compared to other public speaking events is nearly unparalleled,” said Stephen Spiewak, manager for digital content marketing at Vivid Seats, a ticket resale site.
Mrs. Obama will visit bookstores in the U.S., and some booksellers have been selected to sell books, including previously signed copies, at the arenas where she’s speaking, says Mr. Drake.
She’ll also take the tour abroad, hoping to defy the conventional wisdom that American political memoirs tend not to do well overseas. Before year-end, she’ll visit three major European capitals in support of the memoir.
At a time when audiobooks have become increasingly popular with consumers, Mrs. Obama herself narrated the audiobook edition of “Becoming.” It has already generated more preorders than any audiobook previously published by Penguin Random House, said Mr. Drake.
There’s a proven appetite for Obama-related titles. Former White House photographer Pete Souza’s book “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” went on sale in November 2017 and has since sold more than 500,000 copies in print and digital, according to its publisher, Lagardere SCA’s Little, Brown & Co. Mr. Souza’s latest Obama book, “Shade,” out in October, is a best seller.
Earlier memoirs by such former first ladies as Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton were all national best-sellers. “First Ladies are celebrities, and this is a celebrity-driven society,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek. “There is an endless interest in the presidency and in anything to do with it.”