Book sales in 2005 - great expectations

In starting this short series surveying Civil War book sales in 2005, I thought it might be interesting to look at some titles for which there were serious results expected.

The omission in today's writeup will be Doctorow's novel March. (Forgive me, I couldn't rouse enough interest to check the sales figures and if I had, I would not have known how to interpret them.)

Let me start with a book aimed at a broader audience than Ciivil War readers, one that had excellent reviews amidst wide press coverage and top notch product placement in chain bookstores: John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by Whitman biographer David Reynolds. Issued in April by the prestigious trade house Knopf under its even more prestigious marque Borzoi, the book made a surprisingly lackluster showing in the first eight months of its debut, selling just 1,808 copies through Ingram.

If the publicly available Ingram figures are multiplied by six - the industry rule of thumb for guessing total sales - Mr. Reynolds saw about 12,000 books sold. On a trade scale, this is a marginal success. Perhaps trade scale does not apply to Borzoi - it may have dispensation to behave like a small press. Note also what one reader told me last year - that the Ingram rule of thumb does not predict sales to libraries and this is certainly a title for libraries.

Do you remember the press and hype surrounding Tripp's Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln? Released in January by Free Press, it had the entire year to rack up a Dec. 31 Ingram's figure of 1,686 copies sold, slightly less than John Brown which launched later in the year. I think that's surprisingly low, given the controversy about its content - I imagine that the extrapolated figure of about 10,000 in total sales is a serious disappointment to the publishers. The book may have suffered from what political consultants call "message rejection."

What would a 2005 roundup of ACW-themed pop-nonfiction be without reference to Goodwin's Team of Rivals? The book appeared late in the year - early October - and had just two months to collect its 2005 sales totals. I'll risk talking about the results anyway. Ingram sold 2,236 copies including pre-orders (I checked the pre-orders in August). Extrapolate that and you have about 14,000 sales at the peak of public interest in the Christmas season on a press run that must have been at least 250,000 copies for the first edition. Will Doris have to pay back some of her advance? How many more appearances on the Don Imus morning show will she need to sell that first run? Ingram is telling us "a bunch." We'll check in with her again in mid-2006.

These are three books that transcend Civil War readerships and I have chosen them to show that era titles with broader appeal are in as much trouble as Civil War titles generally ... more on which later this week.

Let me here digress briefly into the career of David Hackett Fischer who has been writing Revolutionary War pop history and who offers a point of comparison. In early 2004, Fischer released Washington's Crossing
: at the end of 2005, Ingram's had sold 2,858 copies in hardback. There is nothing in Civil War nonfiction currently going that strong into its second year - not that I can identify. The paperback edition of his 972-page Albion's Seed, a book with no narrative and tons of analytical sociology, sold 908 copies through Ingrams last year. That's for a 1991 title focused on Colonial America. And that's more than half the annual sales level for McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom (to which we'll return in a later post). Maybe it's required course reading but I like to think of it as my personal beacon of hope for readers sick of storytellers.

So we have a 2005 fireworks display that fizzled - the starbursts popped, hissed, and fell to earth.

On the fiction side, I think people expected Gingrich and Forstchen to do well with their ACW alternative history novel Never Call Retreat but that book did better than well. It sold 20,738 copies just through Ingram. That's putting the trade in trade publishing, by gum. Shaara the younger moved just 1,195 copies of Gods and Generals through Ingram in '05, a sharp decline from '03 and '04.. His late father continues strongly with 8,549 Ingram sales of Killer Angels. Both books have been out awhile and the earlier work of G & F is not sustating sales at these levels.

The all time midlist fiction champs, again by way of comparison, are Ayn Rand's novels and last year the Fountainhead, in paperback, sold 7,327 copies via Ingram. For Killer Angels to be in that sales league year after year is special.

(Later in this series I'll look at the fate of more "name" authors in 2005; the fate of the new faces; the outcome of the Grant publishing bubble; and I'll summarize some general ACW publishing trends since 1999.)

Related posts:
Amazon sales rankings explained
Amazon top sellers of 'o4
Barnes & Noble top sellers of '04

The 2004 sales overview is here and '04 series posts are linked at the bottom of this post.
My overview of the publishing industry is here.
Ingram numbers are explained in that overview post (above) and referred to here.