Book sales and new thinking: A stillness in Catton country

[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.]

Bruce Catton was Allan Nevins' most important collaborator but unlike Nevins, Catton's sales levels earned him a household name.

His stint as editor of Nevins' American Heritage magazine came at the height of his success in books; in this position, he was uniquely placed to use the editorial policy of a popular periodical to shape Civil War doctrine and to help that doctrine's friends. Shape it he did, of course, issuing judgements on subjects with a finality that suggested (but did not demonstrate) thorough research and deep consideration.

If the opinions of Catton were viewed as a large electric board sporting thousands of switches, one for each judgement rendered, one could say that surprisingly few switch positions have been changed since his passing. Many books today represent nothing more than elaborations on themes and ideas originally presented by Catton. His intellectual debtors, however, tend to do better than he is doing now, commercially.

The top three Catton books on Amazon, ranked by sales, are A Stillness at Appomattox, This Hallowed Ground, and Never Call Retreat.

A Stillness at Appomattox – It's maintained in paperback in its 1990 edition by Anchor, a trade house. It sold nearly 2,250 copies last year (375, Ingram), a level not sufficiently rewarding for trade publishers. It is unlikely to be reissued in the mass market given these figures.

This Hallowed Ground – It was last issued in August of '02 in hardcopy by a non-trade outfit called "Book Sales." Book Sales may be a discount specialist as the tome is now listed as an out of stock "Special Value." The book is also available in paperback from Anchor, which sold nearly 2,350 copies in 2003 (388, Ingram).

Never Call Retreat – I am unable to find an active, in-print edition of this work; it is in third place among Catton sales on Amazon based on traffic in used copies; hardbacks are going for $1.79 and up as of tonight.

To round out the picture, let's randomly consider two more famous Catton reads: Grant Takes Command and Grant Moves South. Castle, a non-trade reprint specialist, was the last to issue editions of these works. Grant Takes Command sold 11 copies through Ingram this year and this might represent 66+ sales in all channels if the rule of thumb for book sales can be applied to Castle. It sold no copies last year. Grant Moves South is out of stock indefinitely, according to wholesaler Ingram.

To give you a sense of what these numbers might mean, consider two recent Grant authors, Jean Smith and Edward Bonekemper.

Smith issued his book Grant through Simon and Schuster in April 2002 and garnered around 1,400 hardcover sales in 2003 (233, Ingram). This is weak by mass market standards (and 2004 is shaping to produce half that figure in sales) but compared to the demand for Catton at present, Smith, an author unknown to Civil War readers, is almost in the same trade sales neighborhood.

Bonekemper's Grant book, A Victor, Not a Butcher, was issued this year in April by Regnery, a smaller trade house, and as of Thanksgiving had sold about 4,800 hardback copies (796, Ingram). Bonekemper is even less known than Smith and is producing almost double the number of hardcover sales that Catton's most popular work currently enjoys in paper editions.

There has been an unmistakable decline in commercial demand for Bruce Catton's material; the body of opinion that he crafted, currently steered by those of his admirers still publishing, is now running on fumes.

Tomorrow: James McPherson.

(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.)