Book sales and new thinking: in summary

[If you are joining us late, we have been tracing the decline of a school of thought that used mass market sales to leverage itself into a position of doctrinal dominance. This concludes the thread: previous postings are linked at the bottom of this entry.]

In surveying the commercial edifice of what might be called the Centennial-era interpretation of the ACW, there is both good and bad news.

The good

The late founders of consensus history are not getting sales; the bulk of their work is out of print with no prospect of returning to trade channels. The influence of Nevins, Catton, Williams, Williams, and their contemporary helpers is vast but now felt only indirectly.

Their leading, living champions are not getting new sales outside of the Civil War readership and their backlist tends to sell weakly. They cannot "move product" at the level of the late Stephen Ambrose or even David Hackett Fischer.

Their views share shelf space with increasingly eclectic ACW titles. Publishers cannot equate good sales with the monolithic Centennial interpretation of the Civil War.

Readers can now make observations hostile to Centennial views on Internet forums, including Usenet, chat groups, and online Amazon reviews. Adverse online reader reviews are taken very seriously by publishers.

Best-selling phenomena in Civil War publishing occur in novels, not in nonfiction. Novels, whatever the value of their historic content, offer content structurally outside of doctrine.

The most influential defender of the old thinking, that aggregator of Centennial content James M. McPherson, has given up the levers by which he could continue to influence the historiographical discourse, i.e. the presidency of the American Historical Association and his Princeton professorship.

The most bankable champion of the Centennial school of thought, Catton protege Stephen Sears, is a "must read" Civil War author but one with with little reach beyond the Civil War bookbuyers.

The bad

The story elements that defined Centennial ideology are now embedded in pop culture; in that sense, the ideology's work is done. For most readers, Lincoln found a general, Grant saved the Union, and the Republican newspapers of 1861-1865 had it exactly right ... there is very little perceived need for historical analysis.

There is a receptive market for creatively reworked Centennial doctrine. People know the story and expect new work to fill in the gaps and details.

Among the burgeoning ranks of editors of soldiers’ letters and papers, there is a tendency to tap the readymade historical context designed by Nevins, Catton, Williams, and Williams in which to set their protagonists.

Commercial Civil War publications (“glossies”) continue to use Centennial doctrine as their default editorial policy.

The inspiring

More than one reader contemporary with Centennial literature has recognized it for what it is: literature. One reader in particular was inspired by its low history content to begin his own personal, decades-long program of primary research. He was convinced, late in life, to share the results of this work as books, and the first volumes are beginning to appear.

Merry Christmas, Russel Beatie.

The primary material is more accessible than ever. We should all be Russel Beaties.

Postings in this series:

Publishing - an overview
Book sales and new thinking: some context
Book sales and new thinking: more context
Ingram and the fudge factor
The matrix
The colossus
A stillness in Catton country
The fading Cry
Vestigial Cry
Davis and Gallagher