​Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" sets sales records

Last Updated Jul 20, 2015 3:45 PM EDT

Take a beloved American book, a reclusive author and a controversy over her second novel, and you've got the makings of a bestseller.

"Go Set a Watchman," the second novel published by Harper Lee, is setting sales records, following months of speculation and debate over the discovery of its manuscript and the ethics of publishing the book. Barnes & Noble (BKS) said the first day sales of the novel, which was published on Tuesday, broke sales records for adult trade fiction books, although it declined to provide sales figures. "Watchman" is also currently the top-selling book on Amazon.com (AMZN).

The publication of "Go Set a Watchman" comes 55 years after Lee published her classic tale of race and justice, "To Kill a Mockingbird," which won the Pulitzer Prize and is required reading in schools across America. The controversy erupted earlier this year when Lee's publisher announced that the manuscript had been discovered by her attorney. Lee, for her part, said in a statement that she had previously believed the novel had been lost, but added that she thought the book was "a pretty decent effort."

Some fans, though, were skeptical of the account, given that the 89-year-old Lee is said to be currently suffering from dementia, which raises questions about whether she would be able to provide informed consent about its publication. Lee had also previously resisted publishing another book, reportedly telling a friend several years ago, "I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with 'To Kill A Mockingbird' for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.'"

The controversy only grew when The Wall Street Journal published the first chapter of "Watchman" on July 10, four days before the book's release date. That allowed readers to get an early taste of the novel, which features many of the same characters as "Mockingbird," although later in their lives. The attorney Atticus Finch, who in the earlier novel was portrayed as a man who acted on principal to buck the racist views of the day, is shown in "Watchman" to hold racist views.

The result, according to NPR reviewer Maureen Corrrigan, is "like Ahab turned into a whale lover or Holden Caulfield a phony."

Still, the controversy doesn't appear to be hurting sales, and the debate over its publication may have actually drawn more readers to pick up a copy to see what the fuss is about.

As a mark of how successfully the book has sold so far, Barnes & Noble noted that "Go Set a Watchman" has even surpassed E.L. James' "Grey" as the number one bestseller this year. "Watchman" is also outselling Dan Brown's 'The Lost Symbol," the retailer's previous bestselling book, which was published in 2009.

Barnes & Noble said it expects "Watchman" to reign as this year's bestselling book.

"'Go Set a Watchman' has proven to be one of the most exciting publishing events in our history," said Mary Amicucci, vice president of adult trade and children's books at Barnes & Noble, in a statement. "We could not be more pleased to see customers of all ages from across the country flocking to our stores to get their copy of 'Go Set a Watchman' and wanting to be a part of this historic literary moment."

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is also getting a boost from the release of "Watchman," with Barnes & Noble noting that sales of the classic have doubled since publisher Harper Collins announced the publication of "Watchman" earlier this year. On Amazon.com, "Mockingbird" is now the No. 3 bestseller, after a children's book called "First 100 Words."

HarperCollins said Monday, July 20, that sales of "Go Set a Watchman" in the U.S. and Canada, including print, electronic and audio editions, reached 1.1 million copies in the month of pre-orders and first week that copies were in stores.