Book sales and new thinking: the fading Cry

[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.]

James M. McPherson has said that he was not especially interested in the military side of the Civil War until his former professor, C. Vann Woodward, arranged for him to receive a commission to write a Civil War volume in the multivolume Oxford History of the United States.

In the early 1960s, McPherson had landed his first (and only) academic job at Princeton, thanks to the influence of C. Vann Woodward; from then through the 1980s, McPherson's output included work such as The Abolitionist Legacy: from Reconstruction to the NAACP, Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, Ordeal by Fire: the Civil War and Reconstruction, and such unconventional items as How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors.

As a learner trying to catch up with the current "best thinking" in Civil War studies, and as a writer tasked to prepare a mainstream American history series with views to the broad public, McPherson, in the late 1980s wound up aggregating great packets of Centennial Civil War doctrine.

On the one hand, McPherson was a youthful contemporary of the Williamses, Catton, and Nevins and their followers; their views were not strange to him, they represented great personal commercial success … and popularization of scholarship, a cause dear to his heart. On the other hand, he was old enough to recall the many high quality interpretations of the ACW that were displaced by the Centennial's leading pop historians.

McPherson well understood that he was making major historiographic choices with his OUP project: "I don't think there is any such thing as objective history, and most informed, thinking members of the public realize it." He would take sides and the non-Centennial viewpoints would disappear as if they didn't exist.

But what the hell: the stakes were low – he was writing a mere series filler – and acknowledging the dominant doctrines would not irritate anyone who could retaliate. It might even make new friends.

Battle Cry appeared in 1988 and won the Pulitzer the following year.

The public that had been saturated with a uniform, single set of editorial and historical judgements since the 1950s opted for this single volume, a "Reader's Digest" summary of everything they thought they already knew about the Civil War. It was a nice bit of marketing Kismet for Oxford University Press.

With television producer Ken Burns entering the mix shortly thereafter (as videographer of McPherson's aggregated Centennial views), the Nevins/Catton/Williams interpretations would enter an Indian summer of at least 25 more years.

Nothing has worked as well for McPherson since and his book sales tell an interesting story.

Before going into numbers let me say that where McPherson's publisher is Oxford, we are dealing with neither fish nor fowl. Oxford is a colossus among university presses but the mightiest such is but a small fry among the ranks of trade publishers. Therefore, in applying the Ingram x 6 calculation to arrive at his sales figures, we will definitely be overstating those sales because Oxford is distributed in fewer channels than commercial titles. Keep this in mind when considering my generous estimates below.

McPherson's Gettysburg anniversary title, Hallowed Ground, a hardcover recently issued by trade house Crown, sold about 5,150 copies last year (856, Ingram) and as of Thanksgiving, sold some 1,125 this year (186, Ingram). This is a pretty strong showing for a brand new author trying to move a first printing of 5,000 – 10,000 books. It must be a disappointment to Crown, however, and I note that no paperback is available. Hunch: it won't be a Crown paperback when it does appear.

McPherson's Antietam anniversary book, Crossroads of Freedom, did, however make it to paperback. Published by Oxford in hardback in July, 2002, it sold in the same numbers as Hallowed Ground (856, Ingram again; are the exact same readers returning to the stores?). This year, as of this evening anyway, sales are way down near 1,300 (217, Ingram). These are, by the way, handsome numbers for any old university press. I don't know if they satisfy mighty Oxford.

The paperback version of Crossroads appeared in March, and with less than a year's exposure, has sold about 6,000 copies, from March through mid-December. This, again, would be strong for anyone else, but for McPherson it is not so good. Neither the hardback nor the paperback sales levels here would interest trade publishers.

I would like to look at one older title now, For Cause and Comrades, which appeared in July of '98. Also issued by Oxford, the hardback is still available and sold 150 copies or so last year (25, Ingram). This year Ingram has sold just three copies. In its paperbound version, it did better, selling around 2,500 copies (415, Ingram) in 2003, which if an accurate calculation on my part, should please the publisher, given the age of this title. There was a little overreaching at Oxford, however; a large print edition of this book was manufactured and it sold around 200 copies last year (33, Ingram).

If I had to characterize McPherson's current sales profile, I would say he has found a niche: he is with a press that can scale its efforts to match his (non-commercial) sales levels. He earns a good royalty income, one which Oxford won't mind paying as long as his advances are standard and his contract is vanilla.

How likely is that? It depends. If Oxford sees McPherson as a star on the verge of issuing a major new work, then its expectations will bloat his advances, inflate the number of books printed, and cause misery and disappointment in their relationship. On the other hand, if the suits view him as a writer whose steady stream of minor works benefit a little bit from the immense past success of Battle Cry, then they may guage their project outlays within reason and preserve harmony.

In such a situation, the ancillary success of the little works hinges on how Battle Cry is doing. If it is doing poorly, then the outlook for the lesser titles is not good, not with this publisher.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the many various iterations of Battle Cry and try to untangle the sales story told in those numbers.

(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.)