Tortoise and hare

While this may be blindingly obvious, there is quite a difference in sales of a typical history book (slow but steady) and of one focused on current affairs (“up like a rocket, down like a stick”). If you are writing such books, to avoid disappointment, you need to take this difference in sales behaviour in mind – and work to avoid this pattern.

For instance, sales of a recent NIAS Press book on the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster in Japan – and timed to appear on the second anniversary of the disaster – have shot off like a hare. In contrast, a history of women and power in Cambodia had less dramatic initial sales when published five years ago but it continues to sell, week after week. (I hardly need say that the study is not a tortoise – far from it; this is a bravura work – but the image is suggestive of the sales figures.)

hare-and-tortoise

Why should this be?

In part it is an issue of relevance and topicality. As we said in my youth, today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. Even two years after the triple disaster and with a change in government, the consequent issues facing Japan still remain as do most policy responses. However, in five years time, the disaster won’t be topical anymore (the horror will have lost its potency) and new events will make the book’s analysis less relevant. As such, sales will decline, maybe quite steeply.

In contrast, the issue of women and power in Cambodian history is not exactly a great talking point in the world’s cafes and bars today (except perhaps in Phnom Penh). Why then does the book continue to sell, even to be adopted for various undergraduate courses? Here, relevance and scholarship are at play. As one reviewer said about Lost Goddesses, “this is an exceptional book of considerable merit that will be of interest to a wide range of academics working in history, anthropology, gender studies, politics, religion and Southeast Asian studies”.

In a similar vein, every now and then a copy is sold of a history of economic decision-making in Vietnam, published by us in 1998. Aimed at Vietnam specialists, it never sold many copies but still it plods along. On the other hand, back in about 2001 there was a rash of books published in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis but nowadays I doubt that anyone is buying (or even consulting) these – unless, that is, readers are looking for parallels to today’s global economic woes.

This does not mean that you are condemned by your subject to play the role of the long-lived tortoise or ephemeral hare. Right now you can be sure that many authors are working to complete bright, new studies of the First World War, aimed for release on the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. Their publishers will be planning on massive sales that hopefully continue at a lower but profitable level in the years thereafter (unlikely unless the authors have indeed something new to say).

Likewise, in The Making of the President, political journalist Theodore White told the story of the 1960 US presidential campaign and election of John F. Kennedy. This national bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winning account revolutionized the way US presidential campaigns are reported and remains to this day (claims Amazon) the most influential publication about the election of John F. Kennedy.

Here, we have it, three factors are at work: topicality, relevance and scholarship/quality. Just remember that no subject is condemned to focus on a sub-set of these three contributors to writing success (history can be topical and current affairs relevant long after the use-by date). Remember, too, that topicality, relevance and scholarship are not the only winning factors – readability and (self-) promotion are equally important.

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