'Go Set a Watchman' sales beat records

A customer browses a copy of author Harper Lee's novel "Go Set a Watchman" at a bookstore in London, July 14, 2015.
Neil Hall | Reuters

People snapped up copies of Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" on the first day of sales Tuesday amid controversies surrounding main character Atticus Finch and whether the 89-year-old author wanted the novel published in the first place.

The long awaited book published by News Corp's Harper Collins depicts what The New York Times called a dark side to Atticus, the morally upstanding hero of Lee's first and only other novel, "To Kill a Mocking Bird."

Sales were explosive. "Watchman" and "Mockingbird" were numbers one and two on Amazon's best-seller list for Tuesday.

Barnes & Noble executive Mary Amicucci predicts that "Watchman" will be the top seller for the year. She noted that it dislodged E.L.James' "Grey," the latest in the "Fifty Shades" series, from the No. 1 spot for sales as of Tuesday morning.

Pre-orders for "Watchman" at Barnes & Noble beat the 2009 record from Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol," and continued to grow after the Times' front-page review revealed on Saturday the shocking depiction of Atticus as a racist. In "Mockingbird," he is a widowed father and a heroic lawyer who unsuccessfully defends a black man accused of rape in the South.

Harper Lee's new book hits shelves today
Harper Lee's new book hits shelves today

In Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, the Ol' Curiosities & Book Shoppe has seen tremendous support for the book.

"Sales have been great we've done 8,500 to 9,000 copies," said owner Spencer Madrie. "A lot of those were pre-ordered, but a lot more are on the way."

Read More A new book, but an old conspiracy theory

At The Strand, a large, independent bookstore in Manhattan, 15 copies of "Watchman" were sold in two hours Tuesday morning, marketing manager Whitney Hu said.

"We still see palpable excitement and curiosity among customers this morning, despite the NYT review," she told CNBC via email. "Most readers don't seem to mind discovering a more nuanced Atticus Finch, instead of a simplified heroic figure from the first book."

Sales of "Watchman" also reignited interest in "Mockingbird," with copies of the 1960 novel being scooped up by customers, she said.

In Oxford, Mississippi, hometown of William Faulkner, paperback copies of "Mockingbird" have already tripled the usual yearly average at Square Books, said owner Richard Howorth.

Read More

"Almost as soon as this was announced, people began to reread or read for the first time 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" he said. "The whole publication so far, what stands out to me is that it's given everyone an opportunity to re-evaluate 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'"

Howorth said that people have excitedly attended events centered on the two books at his store, and that customers were waiting outside Tuesday morning at 7:30 to get their hands on a copy of "Watchman."

People are very curious about the notion of Atticus as a racist, Howorth said.

"Some people say 'I can't believe this, I'm not going to read this,'" Howorth said. "I tend to think those are people who wouldn't read it anyways. Other people say, 'Get over it, I'm interested, I'm reading it.'"

Amicucci said readers will decide for themselves about Atticus.

Amazon senior editor Chris Schluep said the response in customer reviews for Kindle and print have been overwhelmingly positive.

Schluep said the ability to compare "Mockingbird" and "Watchman" is a reason to buy the book.

"Authors are supposed to write what they know, and I'm sure [Lee] knew many more men like "Watchman" Atticus than "Mockingbird Atticus," he said.

Sarah Crain, past president of the Virginia Association of Teachers of English, said "Mockingbird" is still a staple in high school libraries, and "Watchman" presents a new learning opportunity, but it shouldn't be just a history lesson.

"We should look at letting students explore this option and countless other options for how you maintain your humanity in the face of overwhelming prejudice," she said. "I would rather see this as a larger array of texts that students could choose from as opposed to seeing another teacher manual that had comprehension questions for every chapter."