Book sales and new thinking: more context

We've been setting up some context for our review of Civil War book sales, the purpose of which is to correlate current commercial success (or lack of same) to a specific, dominant historiography.

Yesterday we looked at the figures for a couple of non-ACW Stephen Ambrose titles by way of background information. Ambrose was, of course, a popular historian, entirely narrative-driven, with plenty of venerable backlist titles still active in the marketplace.

I think Shelby Foote is worth mentioning now in terms of a certain commercial dynamic. The currently available three-volume paperback version of Foote's opus, The Civil War, was most recently released in December of '86 by Vintage, a trade publisher, and last year sold about 2,900 copies (474, Ingram). Three things are remarkable here: the edition is nearly 20 years old, it represents a three-volume set listing at $75 (of which the publisher earns 50-60%), and it is essentially "unsupported" by other nonfiction Foote writings.

Thus, where Simon & Schuster could expect a stream of "hits" from Stephen Ambrose, with each new title supporting his backlist, Foote's Vintage sales have had to stand on just two legs. And although 2,900 copies sold per year might be a little low for a trade papberback, the higher per unit prices could sustain it as an interesting commercial proposition into the near future.

In absolute terms, Foote's Civil War is a remarkable nonfiction publishing success story, one we will revisit when the time comes to discuss McPherson. (If you want to tantalize yourself a little between now and then, consider which you think more successful, Foote or McPherson.)

The astute reader notices I have left off talking about Foote's novels. I do not understand the commercial interplay between his novels and his history, so I have left that out of the picture. Do let us talk about ACW novels now, but not Foote's.

Michael Shaara's Killer Angels is still available in hardback and paperback editions. The current hardcover dates from May '01 and was brought out by the trade publisher Ballantine. Last year it sold nearly 4,500 copies (749, Ingram), and that is a strong showing for even a new trade release, as I said yesterday about the sales of Ambrose's Undaunted Courage. The papberback, also by Ballantine, sold about 85,000 units last year (14,167, Ingram) and that is a sustained publishing phenomenon.

To give you an idea of how strong that is, when I was studying the book publishing industry over 30 years ago, Ayn Rand's novels were held up as paragons of backlist strength. They still tell an exemplary sales story but The Fountainhead, in paperback, sold "only" 40,600 or so copies last year (6,766, Ingram) – currently a little soft compared to Killer Angels. (Of course, Rand's run has lasted so much longer.)

Jeff Shaara has met with similar success. His Gods and Generals, in Ballantine hardcover, did about 5,400 in sales in 2003, a number (again) representing the sellout of an entire run for a new hardback release. In paperback, sales were near 46,000 (7,646, Ingram), topping the perennial favorite Rand by almost 6,000.

These figures are not offered to validate the worth of these books but to benchmark success for our discussion of ACW publishing.

Tomorrow, we'll visit a few bigs from the Centennial school of thought that so dominates Civil War interpretation today.

(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.)