The Future of Civil War History: Ted Savas

Future-Header

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.

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32 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Ted Savas

  1. Charlie Downs says:

    All good points Ted. As my collection of now almost 400 Civil War books has grown, I have become more interested in primary literature such as regimental histories and post war publications. Unfortunately a lot of this literature is out of print and very expensive. I believe that there is definitely a niche market for someone like Savas Beatie to republish some of this literature. I do believe that mostly hard core students would be interested, but believe that there is a viable market out there for such works.
    Also I would love to see someone purchase the publishing rights to the Morningside catalog. It took me 4 years to find a reasonably priced set of the Bachelder Papers. Same with Ed Bearss’ 3 volume Vicksburg Campaign. It would be interesting to see how others feel about this aspect of publishing regarding out of print literature.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      I would love this, if priced reasonably. Doing research digitally is both the best of times & the worst of times. Especially if one has a memory that depends on images to find something the second time . . .

    • Thanks Charlie

      I have tried the course you suggested, without much luck. But your note prompts me to strike once more.

      Thanks for your support.

      –tps

  2. Meg Groeling says:

    I am so glad to see your “voice” here, Ted. The Internet has made such a difference in research, as has access to used books via amazon. That being said, my argument for buying a brand new book is this: “I saved so much buying old books that I can afford a new one on a regular basis!” Many of my newbies are Savas Beatie! Huzzah!

  3. Well said. Really enjoyed the article. I’m still a fan of the printed book (especially if the author can sign it!) But – like Meg pointed out – I’ll occasionally get an ebook if it’s a book I’m only going to read once or twice; it saves money and room on the bookshelves for the books I will need to study and reference.😉

  4. Charlie Diwns says:

    Some further thoughts. I wonder
    how many when reading a book see a primary reference and then do like I often do and search Amazon or eBay for the book? This would be a good marketing opportunity for the publisher if they also sold the primary reference. Also I love the way Savas Beatie has the footnotes at the bottom of the page as one can learn a lot by reading them. It is a pain to have to keep flipping to the end of the chapter or the back of the book.

    • Thanks for that, Charlie. That is why I went into this business. There were not enough original maps, the design inside many books was (and remains) awful, the jackets were poorly crafted, the notes (end or foot) were in the wrong place and/or they included few of the explanatory variety.

      I sat back one day and asked myself, “What sort of books do I love to read?” And then I did my best to produce them.

      –tps

  5. Dave Powell says:

    I am a consumer of books in all forms. I buy and read both digital and print books. Interestingly, my decision over _which_ form of a given book to buy comes down to whether or not it is in my core interest area. I continue to buy print copies of Civil War and other military history areas, but my fiction reading has largely shifted to digital.

    I won’t ever stop buying books, nor will I stop buying ebooks. I confess that sometimes, I buy both. I have picked up several “duplicates” just because Amazon ran a one-day sale, selling the ebook at $1.99. I’ve also bought ebooks that I later decided I need the hardcover for.

    I will be curious to see if there continues to be interest in reprints. Some books, I think, will sell – the above-mentioned Bachelder papers and the Vicksburg set by Bearss – but a lot of other great work can be found pretty cheaply online. I think a publisher could get into some dangerous ground there, trying to pick and choose which books will do well, and which will flop.

    Prior to writing, I used to be involved in the board wargame industry – another small, niche business where no single item was likely to sell more than 2,000 copies. (I think books still do better than that, on average, but not a whole lot better.) Publishing is about turning bad paper (games or books, sitting in a warehouse) into good paper (money, dosh, cash. You get the picture.) If you make too many wrong decisions, and too many of your games or books sit in warehouses, you end up with too much bad paper.

    Publishers are walking a tightrope. Sometimes the best book in the world just isn’t going to sell well, because of topic.

    But Gettysburg sells.:) So never fear, you fans of that unimportant engagement outside of the small, south-central Pennsylvania college town, there will always be new books for you – and me. I have an entire bookshelf of Gettysburg books myself.:)

    • Thanks DP

      Chickamauga sells pretty well, too. Your contribution to the literature has been incalculable. I hope you have taken some time to reflect upon that .

      • John Foskett says:

        Seconded. And Dave makes an excellent point about the analogous consim industry. A cynic might say that you could take two dried dog turds found in the Peach Orchard, slap front and back covers on them or stick them in a box, and need a second printing. By the way, Mr. Powell’s contributions on the board game side are equally important. I am not a “gamer” by any definition but I own several for my own instructive purposes. Dave’s designs and accompanying designer’s notes are worth the price alone. For example, I’ve always had an interest in the Peninsula Campaign but was unaware of the “slashing” until reading his notes.

  6. Paul Taylor says:

    “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.”

    Personally, I much prefer footnotes to endnotes due to the ease of reading (not having to flip back and forth). However, as an author, I have been told by previous publishers that typesetting footnotes is noticeably more expensive than endnotes, which is why we see more of the latter than the former. I would love to know Ted’s thoughts on that concern.

    • Hello Paul,

      Thanks for your interest and support.

      Yes, footnotes are more expensive because the page flow is harder to control. Sometimes you actually have to rewrite a paragraph to get it to flow properly (add a line, reduce a line,) We have on occasion produced books with end notes and one of our big Fall titles is set that way, but it is for other reasons.

      I am reading a title now to review for a magazine and it has end notes. I really despise them for deep scholarly works.

      Are they more expensive? Yes. I guess the question for the publisher is, do you think your readers deserve the courtesy? I think yes.

      Onward.

      –tps

  7. John Foskett says:

    Ted: Good thoughts. In addition to the extensive contribution you personally are making to this business (as well as denting my annual budget), I am impressed that you found an auto mechanic who subscribes to the Roths’ excellent magazine. Keep up the good work turning out actual books with maps and source notes, written by solid authors (well-known and newly-found). And if you can, find somebody who wants to publish a work on Yankee artillery in the western theater. 150 years and counting. 🙂

    • Hi John

      Many thanks. Sorry about the budget dent.🙂

      Yankee artillery in the Western Theater has never been done? Hmm. We need to fill that gap.

      • John Foskett says:

        Ted: There’s zero. Nada. Cipher. Not that the Yanks in the East (Naisawald 1960) and the ANV (Wise 1915) aren’t due for updates. (The AofT got Daniels in 1994 so they’re covered). But for some reason these guys have been ignored. Odd because the gunners played important roles at Shiloh, Perryville, Iuka, Corinth and Stones River; helped take Vicksburg; and showed up in the fighting in the Atlanta Campaign. Even if somebody wanted to focus just on the Army of the Ohio/the Cumberland/or the Tennessee, it’d be a landmark. FWIW John Hennessy alluded to possible interest in doing a modern study of the ANV’s artillery. I have lots of ideas, of course.

  8. Charlie Downs says:

    Ted can probably answer this best but perhaps for the odd-ball reprints printing on demand would be a viable answer. I’ve heard of this but don’t know how much more it costs nor do I know how the quality is. Like Dave said I’ve found a number on-line at a reasonable price but then are so rare that you can only find original copies. As an example I’ve been trying to find on Stuart’s 1862 ride around McClellan “Horses, hostages, and apple cider”. Only 1,000 printed and sold for $65 new. I’ve seen exactly one copy for $650. Nice book but not worth that price. I’ve also bought reprints of books in the public domain which are basically high quality photocopies from what I understand. In another note I have gotten to the point where I prefer hard copies over paperbacks. It would be interesting to see people’s views on this as well as Ted’s take on the subject as well as which sells best when both are available.

    • Charlie

      In most cases it is not worth the time needed to reproduce OOP titles because return on investment (ROI) is too low. If we spend X time on Y book, we generally know the return will be Z. We still need to pay printers, shipping, editors, staff, taxes, employees, taxes, storage, taxes, authors, and taxes. As much as I wish we could being titles back, and POD offers some intriguing possibilities, a book longer than 300 or so pages will be very high priced if POD.

  9. Pat Brennan says:

    Ted,

    A nice Greek woman told me Saturday that she had had her DNA tested. To her dismay, she discovered she was mostly Hungarian and Irish–Greek was only her 4th most present nationality. Although she was crestfallen, I wasn’t surprised at all. I’m convinced now that Greeks are simply Irish who like the sun.

    • Heh. I have a hand tendon issue know as Vikings’ disease. Had surgery and need it again, eventually. Doc says, “What are you Italian, Greek?” I told him the latter. “Well,” he replied, “Somewhere in your line a gal was raped or married or procreated with someone from the north, because this is an Irish, Norwegian, etc. hand genetic disorder.”

      I did the DNA test. 80% Greek, 15% Turkish Greek (Savas is Greek-Turkish and means War) and 5% unknown. My brother calls me the OGOVO-opolous (meaning, Olive Guy Of Viking Origins).

  10. Ron Vaughan says:

    Thanks Ted for the interesting insight into the publishing world. My wife likes Kindle books, but I do not. I want to turn pages, look forward or back, and underline important stuff for later review. One can not do that on a Ebook or Kindle! In fact I find it very tedious to scroll down to get to page 353, inorder to look up something noted in the Table of Contents! Thanks for all your work!

  11. Darryl Smith says:

    Fantastic read! Just throw in an Iron Maiden reference and you have it all covered! On a serious note, I enjoyed this greatly, and surmise that your points are spot on, based on my conversations with several of the dedicated to geekdom crowd…we love our books and the more specific a topic the better! I for one never do digital or pdf, so it is grand to hear that the print side is doing “well” or well enough to provide a meal and a house payment.

  12. Darn. How did I miss adding that Maiden reference? Epic failure.

    Savas Beatie only succeeds because people like you support our publishing program and independent Civil War history. We appreciate it more than you can know.

    Up the Irons!

    –tps

  13. josepharose says:

    I especially enjoyed the paragraph, “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. ,,,” But how would the Civil War community react to a biography of General CanDoNoRight? For my own sake, I certainly hope that “Readers want original, well-researched books in the area of their interest(s). They want them well-crafted and with lots of good maps.”

  14. David Connon says:

    Hi, Ted. Thanks for your well-written blog post. It confirms my belief in the enduring attraction of printed books. I do a great deal of Civil War research online, but my deepest thinking comes when I hold a book in my hand and write in the margins.

  15. John Foskett says:

    For those who are interested Ted addresses this topic (in addition to his undoubtedly derailed road to music stardom) in the current issue of Civil War Monitor. Well worth reading….

  16. Pingback: The Future of Civil War History: Ted Savas (P.S.) | Emerging Civil War

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