Book sales in 2005 - the Grant bubble

The array of recent major trade house Grant biographies presents a mixed sales picture. In trade terms, the books are failures. On a small press or college press scale, they all represent modest success.

Whether a non-trade house could have achieved the same sales levels for these titles without the advertising, publicity, sales force, and widespread book reviewing that trade sponsorship delivers is an interesting question.

If trade house resouces are needed to turn annual sales of under 5,000 copies per title, then the Grant vein may have been mined out. Keep in mind that all these titles were inteded to be blockbuster nonfiction breakthroughs. I don't exclude the possibility that there are 5,000 bookbuyers who will buy any and every hardback Grant title that comes out, regardless of publicity. That may be the lesson from this exercise in publishing overkill. Nor can I rule out the possibility of huge library sales, invisible to me, saving some publisher's bacon.

These Grant books, not incidentally, are bad books one and all. They add nothing to our knowledge of the man; offer no new interpretations based on old or new materials; and they content themselves with rehashing the old "Lincoln Finds A General" motif, so thoroughly exhausted by the Centennial era writers.

It's as if the major publishers noticed that Catton was out of print and decided to do something about it - other than bring Catton back.

One can hope a good Grant book would have done much better - Brooks Simpson is preparing a second volume to his biography, for instance - but this raft of reworkings and retellings has probably spoiled his chances for some time.

Josiah Bunting's Ulysses S. Grant was brought out in 2004 by Time and I would guess had a minimum print run of 15,000 copies . In 2004, Ingram sold 1,152 copies, which using our rule of sixes, translates into a total sales estimate of about 7,000 copies - under half of my guesstimated press run for this kind of book. Last year, in a fairly predictable decay rate, the sales were at half that, with the Ingram total standing at 649. Continuing on that trajectory, the print run will not be sold out.

Now Bunting was the strongest performer in this pack., followed by Edward Bonekemper (pictured top right) and his tome A Victor Not a Butcher released through the small but strong and savvy trade house Regnery.

Victor appeared in April 2004 and sold 832 copies through Ingram, which may represent 5,000 total sales. I thought it was something of a hit at the time. The print runs for Regnery are going to be smaller than for Time Books and Bonekemper was a totally unknown author when he signed this contract. My guess is that Regnery printed no more than 7,500 to 10,000 copies of the first edition. Last year Ingram sold 121 Victors, a steep drop. Regnery may sell out its first run if the sales decay slows but it seems unlikely.

Jean Smith's late 1990s Grant is still puttering along. Ingram sold 151 in 2004 and another 84 last year. Smith intrigued me by drawing our attention to Halleck's numerous efforts to replace Grant with Hitchcock and/or Buell but he irritated me by Goodwinizing sources (failing to cite or block quote many borrowed passages).

It's odd that Simon & Schuster would keep Smith's book off the remainder tables at current sales levels but Grant is of special interest to the chief editor of S&S, Michael Korda, who released his own Grant book in 2004.

A senior executive at S&S with the publishing company his to command, Korda was able to move a mere 558 of his own Grant units through Ingram that year - maybe 4,000 sales all told. Last year that figure dropped to 262 via Ingram.

One supposes that trade publishers will be revisiting the landmark years of 2004 and 2005 for a long time to come should anyone ask for a meeting about new Grant manuscripts.

On a happier note: where a Grant book deals in substance, its chances run much better.

Timothy Smith's Champion Hill, released via the small press Savas Beatie, sold 151 copies through Ingram in 2004 - the year of its release - reflecting almost 1,000 units from a brand new publisher. Last year Ingram says it sold 84 copies, reflecting about 500 hardbacks. If the press run was 2,000, this new title - on a start-up press - has a shot at running through its first edition.

I don't know what the budget is for Champion Hill, but the results look good to me. Let the wannabe retellers take notice.

(Previous post with many background links here.)