John Grisham's Favorite Mistake: Giving Away First Editions

Heathcliff O'Malley / Rex US

This goes back to my first novel, A Time to Kill. It was published in 1989. Of course, I was unknown then. My publisher was unknown, a small house in New York that went bankrupt the following year. When A Time to Kill was published, they printed 5,000 hardback copies and I bought a thousand of those. At the time, there was not a good bookstore in my small hometown. My idea was, I'd buy a thousand books, have a big book party at the local library, and all my friends would come. I'd sell all these books and it'd be easy. I could buy the books at wholesale, sell them at retail, and make a few bucks. That was my grand plan.

One day, in front of my tiny law office, a tractor-trailer pulled up and they unloaded the books. The publisher had sent me not a thousand, but 1,500 copies of A Time to Kill. There was no room to store them, so we stacked them in the reception area, around my secretary's desk, in the hallways, in my office. We couldn't move but for all of the copies of A Time to Kill. I called the publisher and said, 'Look, you screwed up. I only wanted a thousand, I'm only going to pay you for a thousand.' We went back and forth and then I shipped back 500.

Then I took all the books down to the local library and we had a big book party. When the party was over, I still owned 882 copies of A Time to Kill. I had this invoice that was due to pay for them wholesale, so I started giving books away. We took them back to my office and packed them in the reception area. The boxes were everywhere, and I would just give them away. If one of my clients wanted a book, I'd try to sell it. If not, I'd give it away. I'd sell them for 10 bucks, five bucks. I used them for doorstops. I couldn't get rid of these books.

Several months went on, and after I went to some libraries and book signings, I finally got rid of them. The book didn't sell when it came out, and there were never any more copies printed. These 5,000 books were the only first editions of A Time to Kill. That book today is worth about $4,000. I had 1,500 of them in my law office at one time. So that's my big -mistake—that's about $6 million, the way I do the math.

Doubleday, my longtime publisher, went back and bought the rights to A Time to Kill from this small company and reissued the book in 1991, and it's sold more than 20 million copies since then. That certainly was not the case in the summer of 1989.

We had no way of knowing then, but I sure wish I had some of those books back. I blew it.

Interview by Kara Cutruzzula



Begins career as a lawyer at a small firm in Mississippi.


Publishes first novel, A Time to Kill, and can't even give it away.


Becomes a full-time writer after The Firm is the bestselling book of the year.


Creates a nonprofit after Hurricane Katrina strikes the Gulf Coast.


Releases 26th book, Calico Joe, about a baseball rookie turned idol.