ACW book sales 2005 - Sears falters

One of the striking developments this publishing season is the stumbling sales performance of Stephen W. Sears' books, Sears (right) being the sales leader of ACW trade publishing nonfiction.

It is part of the picture of general weakness in the Civil War book market.

Appearing in hardback in June 2003, his Gettysburg racked up a superb sales number of 29,000 by year's end. But by 2004, sales of the hardcover dropped to about 3,200 without being tapped by paperback readers (a paperback edition was not released until November of that year).

In the month or so it was available before Christmas, the softcover edition sold 4,700 copies, which again is excellent except that since January only a further 1,750 have been bought, overall a poor showing for a trade paperback.

In considering Sears' sales late last year in tandem with these new numbers, the pattern Gettysburg presents suggests that his fans are buying new hardcovers (they can't wait to read him) and that he had only a weak appeal to readers beyond this fan base, "the Gettysburg 30,000."

The Sears fan base is clearly not transferrable given the performance of another recent Sears project, the revision of Douglas Southall Freeman's classic Lee's Lieutenants. Sears actually removed the notes and "digressions" from Freeman's three-volume study so as to make a one-volume pop history easy-reader. Sears' Lieutenants was then issued in hardback by trade house Scribners in April of 2001. By 2003, when I began looking into it, it seems to have sold 550 copies or fewer - decent for a university imprint but unacceptable in the commercial sphere. In 2004, the level was about the same, give or take 50 copies. This year, the book is on track to reach the same low level, the Scribner's edition having sold roughly 240 units through July.

Now, it gets interesting. Scribners has issued no paperback edition of Lieutenants. And in April of this year, a discount house named Konecky issued another hardcover edition of Sears' version of Lee's Lieutenants in the "special value" category. The list price of this hardback would be less than half that of the new book standard (Konecky asks $14.98 full retail).

But the Konecky discount edition is now on summer clearance at B&N, having been re-released into the market just four months ago. It is selling for $7.19 on B&N. Scribners has ditched Sears' Lieutenants. Konecky is shipping at near cost.

Sears' reprints at Da Capo are doing poorly as well. Young Napoleon sold about 150 copies last year and none this year, despite renewed interest in McClellan and an impressive sales debut for Ethan Rafuse's McClellan's War. Some five copies of The Papers of George B. McClellan have sold. Houghton Mifflin reprinted Chancellorsville in paperback, a 1998 release, and sold about 1,050 last year and under 600 so far this year. These are decent sales scaled to a university press but unpalatable to a trade house. Gates of Richmond is on track to sell another 1,200 paperbacks this year as it did last year and Landscape Turned Red may again post 1,600 in sales.

What to make of it? Sears on the trade side and McPherson on the university press side have been pillars of Civil War publishing. With interest in Sears slipping and interest in trade newcomers like Winik sustaining, I would hope we are seeing readers searching out new thinking.

Ah, the paradigm shift. But the data is too uncertain for that kind of conclusion just yet. Maybe next year.

The top salesman at an independent record wholesaling firm (records, remember them?) once told me that a mega popstar's hits moved all sorts of records out of stores: spoken word, Mozart, everything. He said people would come to the store for the major release and buy all sorts of other stuff as well.

Is there a superstar like that in Civil War publishing? Oddly enough, the answer is yes, emphatically yes, someone whose public dwarfs that of Sears' and I have found him; but no, he is not moving other people's nonfiction because he writes fiction. There's some sort of disconnect that does not carry over. Maybe people go to the store for a hit novel and carry off other novels...

Perhaps you know which new author(s) I'm referring to. By the same token, you'd be surprised at whose numbers are falling dramatically on the Civil War fiction side.

More tomorrow when we do novels.

(Last year's posts on this subject are all linked here. Yesterday's post is here. If you need an overview about estimating and publishing terms, go here.)