Book sales and new thinking: some context

Here is a randomly-chosen guidepost for non-fiction sales: Stephen Ambrose. I've chosen a couple of Ambrose books on which to orient ourselves.

Ambrose was a pop-history writer who enjoyed great success. Although he started his career with a Civil War book called Halleck, he spent the remainder of his writing life on other matters. Since we need to compare ACW book sales data to analagous information, Ambrose strikes me as fitting because he is very like a Civil War pop historian in his approach and appeal.

Ambrose's book Undaunted Courage is about Lewis & Clark. It was most recently issued (or reissued) in hardcover in February of '96 by trade publishers Simon and Schuster. Eight years later, it is selling at a rate of about 5,400 copies per year (896 in 2003 per Ingram). The entire first press run on a new trade nonfiction title will be from 5,000 up, so this level of annual sales is very satisfactory for trade backlist.

The paperback edition of this work appeared in June 1997, also via S&S. This is a "quality pb" listed at $17. In 2003, it sold about 46,800 copies (7,794 Ingram). To the publisher, this represents $374,400 at wholesale pricing and is a strong showing - especially seven years after its appearance (or reprinting) in this format.

I did not choose Courage to represent Ambrose because I thought it would show strong sales - quite the opposite, I find Lewis & Clark to be dreary. So let's take another, more typical Ambrose offering: D-Day.

D-Day was last (re)issued in hardcover in June of '94. Ten years later, Simon and Schuster is selling 1,450 copies per year (241 in 2003, Ingram). This might be just strong enough to deserve (in terms of trade press economics) a further hardback printing, should current stocks run out. However, S&S is liquidating its stock; Barnes & Noble, for instance, has discounted the $30 list price to about $5 retail. Interesting that the annual 1,500 sales mark might be a liquidation threshold for this trade publisher.

The softcover edition of D-Day now circulating dates from April '95 and last year sold over 10,600 copies (1,767, Ingram). This is a good showing for quality paperback backlist list priced at $17, particularly impressive almost 10 years after release.

Keep Ambrose's numbers in mind as a baseline example of trade press success as we go through the sales figures of our various dominant Civil War authors this week and next. I'll introduce many more reference points as we go along, but Ambrose provides an anchor for the analysis to come.

Tomorrow, we'll extend the context just a little by looking at the successes of Foote and the Shaaras. After that, we'll be in position on Friday to begin our review of the current sales performance of the co-founders of the current dominant historiography, Nevins and Catton.

(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.)