Publishing during the Sesquicentennial

Reader James McCorry asks what I think the Civil War book market will look like during the 150th celebrations, adding, "I feel there will not be a big spike commercialy."

I tend to agree. There's going to be some overlap with the Lincoln Bicentennial which could generate a bit of commercial symbiosis, but probably not. Lincoln's Bicentennial sets the table for the Sesquicentennial, nevertheless. Let's tackle the Lincoln effect on the Sesquicentennial first.

As you can tell from this blog, I feel that there will be a backlash against Lincoln scholarship nationwide on the theme "this is not scholarship." Certainly, college-based Lincoln scholars will need to hold tight onto their chairs once the general academic population gets a whiff of what has been passing for "contending schools of thought" and "rigorous discispline" in this little history niche. The backdrop for this specific negativity will be a more general, pop culture disgust with the endless and pointless "Lincoln facts" and other "bright spots" in "enlivening" the news day after day.

Remember 1976? The country got a little worn down by an empty, largely idiotic national Bicentennial celebration as translated into the minute-media culture, into newspaper columns, into worthless punditry, and into the mass marketing of gimcracks painted red, white, and blue. And that 1976 society was much more tolerant of banality than today's society. In today's world of niche marketing and acquired tastes, expect a disengagement and disgust to set in early.

Ergo, I'm expecting a content-free Lincoln Bicentennial to have a dampening effect on a potentially content-rich Sesquicentennial. One possible effect will be that a book market overloaded with worthless Lincoln titles drives down editors' appetites for worthwhile new Civil War titles. At least where they think Lincoln = Civil war.

So much for speculation. Now, analysis.

With the failure to start a national (federal) Sesquicentennial commission, we have a strong indicator that there will be no national events generating media coverage in the mass market. The trend is towards local only - strong state commissions with a lot of sites (hello, Virginia) will claim regional news coverage.

This anniversary is going to be about tourism to states with busy Sesquicentennial calendars. National news spots and magazine articles will feature tips and tricks for having the best tour experience. Book publishing will follow with the emphasis being on tour guides. I shudder to think how many.

Tour guides are different enough from the run of nonfiction that a glut of tour guides failing en mass on the sales front should not have a major impact on the number of Civil War histories being published. I hope.

There is also a risk that someone like Goodwin or McCullough will try to write a cash-cow general history of the war that becomes a big deal and generates some copycatting but I'm betting against their breaking through what are normal sales levels for them.

I feel there is some danger of a Ken Burns-like figure striking a deal with the author of a cash-cow junk history book to produce a movie or series to exploit that project across other media during the Sesquicentennial. Consider the deal Spielberg made with Goodwin to film a Lincoln movie based on a book Goodwin had not yet written. If the Goodwin/Spielberg Lincoln film dies at the box office next year, we will have dodged a bullet and be free of the threat of another such project appearing in the Sesquicentennial. If their movie succeeds, some bright guy will pitch Hollywood on a Civil War equivalent.

The success of a Sesquicentennial movie could pollute Civil War publishing with derivative work for some time, based on the degree of success of the movie.

Let's boil this down to a few propositions and calls.

Major publishing thrust of the Sesquicentennial?
Tour guides.

Effect on enrollment in relevant college courses:

Effect on ACW magazine circulation:
Slight bump.

Junk history gusher?
No, a sprinkle not a gusher.

Hit TV series or movie?
No, Spielberg/Goodwin will fizzle, demotivating producers.

Total number of craptastic general war histories from bestselling authors:
I'll guess five: Goodwin's threatened us with a Grant biography. That's one for sure.

Long-term market effect after the Sesquicentennial:
A drop in the future number of guidebook titles.

Got a prediction? Join the fun.