Book sales and new thinking; vestigial 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.]

In profiling James McPherson commercially, we saw a pattern yesterday of minor titles issued through a university press achieving good results.

For instance, the paperback issue of Crossroads of Freedom appeared in March for the first time and sold 6,000 copies through December 15, a nice performance, though not indicative of great demand.

A few counter examples suggest themselves: hoary old Gods and Generals, in hardback, sold around 5,400 copies last year and looks to do better this year. Killer Angels sold nearly 4,500 copies. David Hackett Fischer's immense, non-narrative, analytical study of early American folkways, Albion's Seed, sold 3,300 copies last year in paperback, despite having appeared in this edition in the early nineties. A most telling comparison is with the first Civil War book written by Jay Winik, a Washington policy analyst who reviewed the effects of Rebel and Union war-ending policies in a piece of pop history called April 1865.

Winik plays in McPherson's back yard: big-picture pop history with all the political and social trimmings. Appearing in spring, 2001, April 1865 sold about 2,125 hardcover copies last year (353, Ingram) and in softcover it sold 15,660 copies (2,619, Ingram). Winik, despite his success, remains utterly unknown to the general Civil War reader. And yet, he is not a phenomenon. He is an outsider who delivered a popularized interpretation of how the war ended and the public responded to it with steady interest. McPherson, whose oft-stated goal has been to popularize history, cannot play in the same leagues as Jay Winik. That is important to Civil War historiography.

Which brings us to the source of the wind in McPherson's sails.

According to a recent Baltimore Sun article, Battle Cry of Freedom, which appeared in 1988, has sold 600,000 copies. Anyone reading this blog would be more than delighted with that sales level for themselves, myself included, but I am compelled to bring some business perspective to this. This number (600,000) is how many copies of Hillary Clinton's last book sold in the first week after publication. The 600,000 neighborhood is inhabited by Customers For Life, Seven Keys to a Healthy Blended Family, Return of the Jedi Storybook, Small Time Operator, (an accounting and tax guide for small businesses), and of course "the classic Led Zeppelin history" Hammer of the Gods. The Barnes & Noble brick and mortar bookstores sold 900,000 copies of a Harry Potter book in one day.

All this is to say that there are phenomena and then there are phenomena.

The hardback edition of Battle Cry of Freedom sold 1,200 copies or so last year (200, Ingram). This year, it is positioned to do only half as well. The paperback was re-released late last year. This year it has probably sold about 9,700 copies (Ingram, 1,612 through Thanksgiving). Both editions were competing last year with the Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom, a picture book based on the original text.

Oxford's hardbound Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom has not made it to softcover. It was released in October last year and ran up sales of about 4,700 (771, Ingram). This year, January through Thanksgiving, it sold only about 1,700 copies (280, Ingram). Aimed at the lowest common denominator among bookbuyers, this reworking seems to have laid an egg. My own theory is that it was a loss-leader designed to stimulate interest in the McPherson brand and its core commodity. It is possible that those reissue sales levels of the all-text paperback - 9,700 or so copies - owe something to marketing the Illustrated edition. If I am right, the picturebook deployment was defensive, aimed at shoring up declining market interest.

The other sign of trouble for McPherson, was his one-off relationship with trade house Crown in 2002 after a nearly unbroken string books from Oxford. For him to have approached Crown at all, I think Oxford must have refused Crossroads, or refused the terms associated with it. And as noted yesterday, Crossroads seems to have failed Crown making both a beginning and end to McPherson's career as a trade author.

Can McPherson's championing of the Centennial body of Civil War doctrine survive another decade? I think not if the main engine of his influence is spinning just 10,000 sales per year in its most popular edition.

McPherson has given up teaching (no students to provide a book sales base) and he has given up presidency of the AHA (no more punishment and reward for agreeable historians). His newest output includes guidebooks (Hallowed Ground), picture books (Illustrated Battle Cry), and reworkings of old themes into anniversary commemorations (Crossroads of Freedom). These outreaches to mass audiences are reaching comparatively small audiences.

This author is making a comfortable living but is no longer in position to decisively champion the work of Williams, Williams, Nevins, and Catton. The school of thought he rejuvenated with his commercial success is fading with his own decline in popularity.

We all are familiar with his prestige; but that prestige is vestigial.

Tomorrow: Stephen Sears.

(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.)