Thankful, part one

Things to be grateful for in ACW publishing - it was a good topic for Thanksgiving that spiralled out of control and is now almost unmanageable in blog format. I'll try to summarize.

Decrees. The consensus on Civil War history that formed after WWII and that triumphed, not through give-and-take but through the editorial decrees of a group of like-minded pop authors, is now in decline. This group no longer has at its disposal a popular mass magazine with a single editorial line (American Heritage); it no longer has pride of place in reviewing ACW books for other publications; it no longer has sufficient numbers of teaching positions to dominate student interpretations of the war; and it no longer has a level of sales to allow it to credibly advise the editors of publishing houses about which new titles to bring out. The support system for the issuance of decrees has broken down.

Revivals. The media phenomena that freakishly prolonged this old consensus will never happen again. There will be no more Killer Angels novels, no more "Gettysburg" movies, no more Ken Burns' specials to drive millions of ignorant readers into the books of Nevins, Catton, Sears, McPherson, or suchlike. New cross media phenomena - when they happen - will deliver new readers to an ACW publishing arena that is more eclectic, more contentious, and generally sounder. Nor will any new producer be able to blueprint scripts based on a single (fake) "authoritative" voice.

Readers. The smaller, more informed ACW readership of today will no longer reward the conscious and deliberate exclusion historical evidence from its books, as has been the case since the Centennial. The line between pop historians and scholars will be redrawn. And the do-it-yourself research enabled by digital media and stoked by re-enactment, geneological, and local history interests will provide a check on the sweeping judgements issued by the next would-be King of Civil War Historians.

Sales. The powerful sales once achieved by authors operating on the American Heritage editorial line (Nevins, Catton, Sears, McPherson, et al) have faded at the front-, mid-, and backlist levels; no trade publisher can any longer identify automatic sales success with keeping to a specific editorial line. Trade publishers releasing Civil War titles are taking thematic risks, more often operating outside the old consensus than not.

Prestige. The prestige-building activity undertaken by Nevins' intellectual heirs is now defensive. Where, just 10 years ago, unfavorable reviews could be deployed to destroy the credibility of any new thinking, the diminishing energy of this group is now devoted to finding reviewers to praise their own stuff. Their prizes continue to be restricted to a predictable circle of friends (and disciples), but prize-giving is by definition defensive.

In the next few weeks I'll give sales figures to illustrate shifts in Civil War publishing.