Today, ECW is pleased to welcome Theodore P. Savas, managing director and majority partner of Savas Beatie, LLC. Aside from being the largest independent publisher of Civil War titles, Savas Beatie is also the home of the Emerging Civil War Series.
An interesting thing happened the other day as I was having my oil changed at the local shop. I was reading Blue and Gray Magazine (Cedar Mountain issue) in the waiting room. A fellow noticed and told me he was a big fan of that era. Our chat revealed his interests (he was a CPA, grew up in Kentucky, has several hundred history books, including about 50 Civil War titles, has been to Gettysburg). Naturally my line of work crept into the conversation.
I knew where this was going because I hear it all the time: “Is the book industry a dying business? Digital has taken over everything, right? Do people still buy history books?” No, No, and Yes.
Let’s unpack all this, starting with the underlying business.
Publishing is a fascinating field, but you will never hear an 8-year-old tell his dad, “I want to be a publisher!” I liken the profession to being infected with a virus. Once you have it, there is no cure. But you would not take the medicine even if it existed. You eat it, sleep it, live it, and love it. But you still have to pay the mortgage and eat. (Those of you who have seen my picture know I eat pretty well, so we are doing something right out here on the Left Coast, as Bob Krick continually reminds me.)
Advances in technology have turned the publishing world upside down during the past fifteen years. Everything—from how books are edited, designed, researched, written, and printed—has dramatically changed. So have the marketing, the ability to use independent contractors around the world (our chief cover designer lives in London, production is in Las Vegas, and editors are around the country), selling techniques, buying options, and delivery. And of course, we are in the digital/Internet age, which means how we read what is written has changed.
Our choices in entertainment are essentially endless, so all of that competes with the written word. As a result, I believe it is harder to sell “vanilla” into a large market than it is to peddle “Caramel Coffee Swirl” into a smaller, more contained arena. (Think of the former as throwaway fiction and the latter as the Civil War titles.) A book you will buy, read, and toss or hand to your neighbor without caring if you get it back, is not what you typically do with that new Gettysburg battle study or biography of General CanDoNoWrong.
Let’s say you are a bit short this month. Would you rather skip one meal out in a restaurant, or give up your monthly book purchase? You know the answer. The former is over and done in an hour (and if you wolfed down Chinese, you are hungry an hour after that). The latter, however, costs about the same but will give you days or weeks of reading pleasure and then nicely decorate your den or library. A book is a piece of furniture, too. It will also remain available for that inevitable “crack and read” session over and over and over. There is no expiration date. (That is true with some MSG-laden Asian food, too, but you get the point.)
I have been hearing of the demise of printed book for many years. I didn’t believe it then, and I know with certainty it is not true today. Thankfully, we placed our surfboards down at the right time and place (about eight years ago) and have been riding the digital wave because not to have done so would have been business suicide. And yet many publishing houses did not (and many of those are no longer with us).
Those of us stricken with that other incurable virus gaudium scientiam (“The Joy of Knowledge”) are still reading despite all the distractions in our lives.
So Kindle and iPad books have not devoured print? Can I answer that with a short “sentence” that would have horrified my 8th grade English teacher? Not. Even. Close.
Digital sales, which more than doubled every year for several years, have been flat for the last year or so, and are down from where they were a year ago. Oddly enough, however, despite significant digital sales, our print book sales have increased. Publishers (at least those who know how to collect and interpret data, and then use it effectively) have figured out that digital does not have to cannibalize print, and smart marketing can, in fact, have the reverse effect. In many instances we sell more print. (Digital spreads word of mouth, and believe it or not, many people buy both versions of some books.)
Is the market awash in Civil War books? Yes. We often hear something like, “There are so many books I can’t keep up with it!” Is this true? I would argue the entire premise is flawed and mocks your intelligence. The vast majority of individual titles sell barely a few hundred copies nationwide. (This is not true with Savas Beatie books, ever.) Why do they not sell very well? There are many reasons, and they merge into my next point which can be boiled down to this: because readers self-select. And we love doing it. Would you rather have a choice between 10 new books (like the old days) coming out during X period, or 100 new books like we have today? Choice is power, and we love it.
How do you self-select? For starters, how many out of that 100 do you really want to read? Now, how many are you willing to spend your hard-earned money on? That whittles it down quite a bit, doesn’t it? Readers keep up just fine with the deluge because most of the books are not on their “must-read” radars and they get shrugged aside.
Everyone has different interests. If you like reading about the Army of Northern Virginia, you don’t want to read most Union books, and certainly none on the Western or Trans-Mississippi theaters. If you are a fan of the West or the Union, the reverse is true. Maybe your thing is the navy. Or the cavalry. Or big-picture strategy and tactics. Or Confederate regimentals. Or . . .
Consider also there are some authors you will not read (even if their books are free), and there are some publishers you don’t trust and whose books you will not purchase. Many books are self-published. Those are always hit-and-miss in terms of quality, and many readers pass on the opportunity. (I am not arguing that is a good idea; I simply suggesting it is true.) Other readers will not buy books that have no maps, or books that got bad reviews, or books without a bibliography or notes or index. I can see many of you nodding in agreement. We have choices. We like all our choices. And we are adult enough to effectively self-select.
We are a PICKY bunch, with good reason. We are so very fortunate to be living in the Golden Era of Publishing. One can never have too many choices.
So is there a trend in what Civil Warriors are reading? Yes. That, too is clear, and it has never stopped. Readers want original, well-researched books in the area of their interest(s). They want them well-crafted and with lots of good maps. Our research is not certain on this point, but it appears that a majority of serious readers are more likely to buy a book with footnotes than with end notes.
When it comes to THE dominating interest that spikes all trends, it is battle studies in general and (here comes the shocker) Gettysburg in particular. Nothing else comes remotely close. The interest in that subject never wanes.
So now let me ask you? Is the book industry a dying business? Has digital has taken over everything? Do people still buy history books?”
Test next Tuesday. Open book.