Book sales in 2005 - Battle Cry of Freedom

James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is an important barometer in booksales on two levels.

On the first, its commercial success as a midlist title tells publishers what their best outcome might be in backing a promising ACW manuscript. It sets the financial stakes for this kind of publishing. It also tells publishers what the successful form of a Civil War title should be: narrative, single volume, high levels of generalization, and recapitulations. TV tie in is a big plus too.

The second indication Battle Cry gives us is about the content of Civil War history. The mighty opinion-making machine built by Allan Nevins lost steam in the early 1980s. His magazine, American Heritage, had in two decades rolled off the plinth of a national readership of hundreds of thousands to the cliff edge of fiscal insolvency. The stream of successful companion military books it issued had also come to a halt. Its painstaking and strict editorial policies on the Civil War's historical questions could no longer be enforced from a strong platform that dominated Civil War publishing.

Into this early eighties scenario blundered an obscure race relations professor with very little knowledge of or interest in the Civil War. He clutched a commission from Oxford University Press - in a series edited by his former professor / sponsor/advisor - to plug the gap in a popular American history publishing series. He executed his commission by aggregating material millions of Americans had already read in American Heritage and in popular books by American Heritage's top article writers. His name was James McPherson, of course, and his book succeeded in aggregating Centennial output into a single tome, thus presenting one kind of compact retelling of the war to those working in other media:
James McPherson refers to a few of his many heavyweight predecessors in his Preface: Allan Nevins’s dual tetralogies, Bruce Catton’s three volumes on the Army of the Potomac and three-volume general history, Douglas Freeman’s four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, and of course Shelby Foote’s classic three-volume, three-thousand-page narrative.
It was this compactness with its level of generalization that attracted Ken Burns to Battle Cry. Another attraction was that it formulated information "people already knew" - a big asset in TV. Anyone reading Battle Cry when it first appeared had enough memory of popular Civil Warreading to experience a pandering effect, that warm sense of genius that comes from knowing everything the author intends to say to you before he says it.

Those watching the Burns ACW documentary likewise would be struck by their own immense knowledgeability, since everything presented was (to paraphrase John Y. Simon) the same bedtime story they had been reading for decades... a bedtime story that permeated nonfiction culture through the tremendous Centennial-era success of writers who came together in the pages of American Heritage.

The triumph of Burns' Civil War television series propelled the sales of Battle Cry - they were both complementary artifacts of the Nevins/Catton/Williams belief system - and they freshened the fading editorial lines that had held sway since about 1959.

From a position of publishing success, McPherson was able to review new thinking in Civil War history from the pages of the very best journals and newspapers; he could recommend like-minded reviewers to the lesser organs. He could recommend editors in scholarly publishing houses; he could blurb books meeting his approval; he could help projects with agreeable views; and as he came to head the AHA, he could name and influence prize committees. He had influence; he used it; and he was not open to revision of the work of 1960-1965.

Watching Battle Cry sales, then, tells us how much mileage is left in the idea tank of the Centennialmobile. Now that McPherson has given up Princeton University and a position of even greater influence - the AHA presidency - his ideas must move on their own merits, not through politics and influence. What that means for us is that when his book sales fall to a level that are no longer interesting to publishers, the magic fades and we are (at long last) on to the next thing.

I needn't tell you how eager I am for the next thing.

I go into this background at length because younger readers of this blog are like fish in the water - they lack a sense of the water itself and its peculiar qualities. In fact we have all been submerged in the "natural" sea of Centennial doctrine for so long it is difficult for the casual reader to distinguish between Civil War history and American Heritage editorial policy. This is the key historiographic problem addressed by this blog.

On to the numbers.

In 2003, The paper version of Battle Cry sold 548 copies through Ingram. Using the industry's rule of sixes, that translates into something like 3,300 copies through all channels (except libraries). At the end of that year, the odd project of an Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom was released with the full fanfare of a new book - reviews, tours, ads, etc. The effect was odd. The old paperback version picked up sales (1813 books through Ingram in 2004; 1,777 last year) while the public showed little interest in the new picture book (77 copies through Ingram in 2003, 361 in 2004, 117 last year).

Illustrated Battle Cry was a commercial failure that did not make it to softcover (not as of this writing). It involved the safe exploitation of a name brand author and did poorly.

The same effect is found in new writing like the Gettysburg guide Hallowed Ground. We see a hardback but no softcover edition. Issued in May of '03, it sold 856 copies via Ingram that year and by last year Ingram sales declined to 348. These are healthy figures for university presses but seriously substandard for commercial imprints.

It is now unlikely James McPherson can get a publishing contract from a trade house - with the possible exception of his autobiography. (Witness his shaking down Gary Gallagher for a job with University of North Carolina Press.)

An additional difficulty for McPherson has involved the appearance of new media - suddenly book buyers could "talk back" to the professor and some of that talkback took the form of cruel mockery about McPherson's Gettysburg mistakes. (An author once confided in me about how down his publishers were on him because of the reviews left on the book's Amazon site. Are authors of McP's stature immune from that?)

At currentl levels, the Battle Cry is hard to figure. It was intented to be a textbook and is currently assigned reading across the land: can that account for much of the current 5,000 copy sales level? The performance of this author's ancillary output tells us yes.

The dam is breaking.

(Next: Stephen Sears in 2005. Backgound and industry info here.)