Book sales and new thinking: Sears

[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.]

In the ravaged commercial landscape of Centennial doctrine (the consensus of Allan Nevins, T. Harry Williams, Kenneth Williams, Bruce Catton, and the editorial board of American Heritage, among others ), there remains one giant remnant of past success: Catton protégé and American Heritage staffer Stephen Sears.

His Gettysburg, issued in the middle of last year, closed out 2003 with almost 30,000 hardbacks sold by his trade publisher Houghton Mifflin (4,804, Ingram). Let me point out that a first edition press run of 30,000 – 50,000 copies is the print order placed for a best-selling author. Sears certainly lived up to his publisher's expectations with this volume.

It is when we push past new sales of new titles that we see an unusual picture. Unlike the mutually-reinforcing strength of Stephen Ambrose's releases, there is marked decay in Sears' backlist.

Start with the book that made his reputation, George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon. Kept in print by the smaller trade house Da Capo, this paperback sold about 270 copies last year (44, Ingram), not enough to justify a reprint when the stock runs out. His reference work, the Civil war Papers of George B. McClellan (also issued by Da Capo) sold about 120 copies last year (20, Ingram).

Sears' account of the Peninsula Campaign, To the Gates of Richmond is in print courtesy of the trade house Houghton Mifflin and about 600 copies of this softcover moved last year (98, Ingram) - a quantity not sufficient to maintain the interest of his commercial publisher. His Antietam title, Landscape Turned Red, enjoys healthier sales through Houghton at nearly 1,500 purchases in 2003 (244, Ingram). Although decent as a university press showing, this sales level is not going to result in a reprint in the trade sphere.

When you get into more eccentric editing projects, the Sears magic fails entirely. His extensive revision of Douglas S. Freeman's monumental study Lee's Lieutenants was issued in 2001 by Scribner and sold just 522 copies last year (87, Ingram). It has never been released in paperback and it is not competing with any full edition of Freeman. (As nearly as I can tell, the Freeman version was last reissued in 1971.) Sears' American Heritage work tends to be out of print entirely (see, for example, here, here, and here).

He appears, therefore, to be a "must read" author within Civil War circles, one who can move the entire first printing of a hardback in six months but who cannot sustain sales year-over-year. Where his George B. McClellan once crossed Civil War boundaries to reach a general audience intrigued by this Victoriana, Sears' appeal is now less universal.

As the only remaining member of that Centennial entourage whose work is commercially viable, Sears lacks shoulders on which to raise up new followers. He is not an influential professor, nor the head of an historian's guild, and he seems to get out and about very little. Considering the old doctrine, his views admit the most variety (and deviance) of any of that set; and when he chooses to defend himself, he takes to the semi-private world of Civil War glossies, where the readers are already friendly to his Centennial notions. Sears will occasionally help a friend get published (Edwin Fishel, for example), but that seems to be the extent of his outreach.

This is not the stuff, personally or commercially, needed to sustain an orthodoxy. As the single best-selling author still representing a coherent 1950s/60s viewpoint, Sears can keep the ideology public and respectable, but he lacks the horsepower needed to restore its momentum.

Tomorrow: a wrap-up surveying the public's appetite for work by the Centennial doctrine's lesser lights.

(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.)