Book sales and new thinking: Davis and Gallagher

[If you are joining us late, we are tracing the decline of a school of thought that used mass market sales to leverage itself into a position of doctrinal dominance.]

William C. Davis and Gary Gallagher are names that Civil War readers recognize immediately. A few years ago, I would say these two professors seemed to be racing for title of most prolific author; lately, Gallagher's production has slowed while Davis keeps chugging along. With a minimum of one new book out per year, these two have a pretty big footprint among Civil War readers

Known as a specialist in Confederate matters, Davis's occasional treatments of Union issues show him to be a close adherent of the Centennial doctrines of Nevins, Williams, et al. He has made it a particular point to write "as beautifully" as Bruce Catton, which can be a major irritant:

As they left Farmville behind, the Kentuckian rode past Lieutenant Joseph Packard, an artilleryman without a command now, who observed that "his calm, buoyant manner was very impressive." Breckinridge, it seemed, was one of those born to shine in a crisis.

In commercial reach, William C. Davis seems to outrank James M. McPherson in that, unlike McPherson, Davis seems to have easy access to trade publishers. The problem with Davis, as with Sears, is that his backlist performs feebly, endangering his reprint potential; and unlike Sears, his frontlist is not generating impressive numbers by trade standards. This points to both declining interest and reduced influence.

Davis's Honorable Defeat appeared in paperback in May of 2002 via Harcourt and last year sold about 1,000 copies (156, Ingram) a viable quantity for university presses but a setback for a commercial operator.

His book Look Away came out in paperback in April, 2003 via Touchstone, a marque of Simon and Schuster: from April to December it sold 1,650 copies or so (270, Ingram),

Switching publishers this way suggests a pattern of disappointing relationships. His focus on Southern topics dilutes his ability to spread the gospel of Catton, and his sales record suggests a reduced profile in the years to come.

Gary Gallagher switches between Union and Rebel topics, with an emphasis on Southern fare. He is very much part and parcel, ideologically, of the American Heritage editorial line of the 1950s-60s.

Gallagher's Fighting for the Confederacy is still in print in hardback after a 1989 release by the University of North Carolina Press. And it sold 59 copies last year through Ingram (by trade house projections that might possibly be about 360 total – this would be quite a decent showing for an academic house with low print runs). The paperback version was released in March of 1998 and sold 270 copies through Ingram last year (a possible total of 1,620 – quite good for a university press).

The same publisher brought out his Wilderness Campaign in hardcover in 1997; Ingram sold 19 of those last year which might represent a total sale of 120. Lee and His Army appeared in 2001 (hardcover) and Ingram sold 86 of those, which may represent, at best, global sales of 525 or so units. Lee the Soldier, a reference work, sold five copies in hardback through Ingram last year and the paper edition sold 26 through that channel. This was via the University of Nebraska Press and multiplying by six may (or may not) produce an inaccurate sales estimate.

Gallagher's latest book, a review of Lost Cause historiography, is most suited to the scholarly press treatment but was brought out by Stackpole in October of this year, Stackpole being a specialty house with a Civil War line and trade house aspirations. It will be interesting to see if Gallagher can transition from storytelling and anthologizing to historiography and make it pay.

Gallagher, in sum, is a university press writer who suffers from weak backlist performance and occasionally good frontlist earnings and who has now decided to experiment with the non-commercial topic of historiography. This cannot be a comeback strategy for any author with a pop history following.

Neither Davis nor Gallagher writes consistently from the Union perspective, so their commercial results are not tied to the old Centennial doctrine of history. They are both, however, upholders of that consensus to the extent their topics allow, and both are well known among the ACW reading public. They circulate, give speeches, write blurbs for books, and make the symposium scene. As they become less bankable, opportunity to support Centennial doctrine declines.

We have reached a point in time where, in combination with Sears and McPherson, these writers represent a wholly inadequate commercial bulwark for defending the doctrinal traditions of the mid-20th Centrury against the spread of new thinking in Civil War studies today.

Tomorrow: the end of this thread and what it all means.

[If you had trouble with any industry terms or concepts in this post, please read this. To understand the point of this exercise, read this.]