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Turning to Classics for InspirationAccording to Bowker’s Books In Print database, there are 362,499 books classified as “History” in print. That’s about 10% of all books still in print in the U.S. Bowker’s preliminary figure for new History books published in 2006 is 8,488. Annual output of new History books has been declining since the peak year of 2003, when 10,824 new titles and editions were published. Between 1995 and 2005 the number of new History books increased by over 43%.

 

History books accounted for just 2.71% of all new titles and editions published by the largest trade houses in 2005 (the last year that Bowker published separate output statistics for the trade). The average suggested retail price in 2005 for History books published as hardcovers by the big trade houses was $27.77. This was 75 cents less than the average SRP for all adult nonfiction hardcovers published by the trade in 2005. For History books published as adult nonfiction trade paperbacks, the average SRP in was $15.97, 29 cents less than the average for all adult nonfiction trade paperbacks.

Simba Information does not estimate the size of the market for History books in its annual report Business of Consumer Book Publishing. There is no explanation for this omission, but it is probably due to the difficulty involved in isolating a category like History that could describe works in virtually any subject. Even using a restricted definition of History, it is hard to see how one could easily distinguish History from biography, political science, and current affairs. If Bowker subject classification is accurate, and there are 8,000-10,000 new History books published each year on top of the 362,000 History books still in print, I would guess that the size of the market must be among the largest. If you consider that university presses publish twice as many History books as the largest trade houses and carry an average suggested retail price that is almost twice as high and rarely discounted, then you know we must be talking about significant revenues for the History category.

One of the more commercially viable niches in history publishing is presidential history. Four of the top ten, and eight of the top twenty-five, History bestsellers on Amazon.com are presidential histories. Will we lap up just any presidential history or do we have our favorites? Is the sudden surge in Nixon books coincidental or have publishers made a calculated decision to dredge up that other president so many loved to hate? Looking at the number of books published about presidents over the last five years in Books In Print, Nixon doesn’t even make the top ten. But then neither do John Adams, Grant, Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, Carter, and Ford. The list that follows below is in descending order by number of new titles and editions published about presidents from 2002-2006:

PresidentNew Titles & Editions

Abraham Lincoln 556
George W. Bush 393
George Washington 330
Thomas Jefferson 256
John Kennedy 243
Theodore Roosevelt 170
Woodrow Wilson 152
Franklin D. Roosevelt 141
Ronald Reagan 126
Bill Clinton 122

How well does this jive with what people might want to read? If an interactive digital “voting booth” at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia is any indication, pretty well. Visitors (including many children on class trips) get a chance to vote for their favorites from a slate of presidents receiving the most “votes” to date. The top three in order were Lincoln, Washington, and Kennedy. Jefferson, FDR, and Woodrow Wilson were on the list. George W. Bush was not, even though he is among the ten most written about presidents.

Many presidential and other biographies have also been categorized as History by the major retailers (I can see including biographies in the History category, but this week both Amazon and Barnes & Noble made some questionable categorization choices: Amazon’s bestselling “History” title is Christopher Hitchens’ anti-religious polemic God Is Not Great, while Al Gore’s The Assault On Reason is number one on Barnes & Noble’s History list). Not counting the books we looked at in our analysis of Biography/Autobiography, the hot titles in the History category are: Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America’s Founding Fathers, by Michael Barone; The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, by Juliet Nicolson; The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, by William Langewiesche; FDR, by Jean Edward Smith; Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Eisenberg; and, in paperback, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick. The book to watch in this category is the reissue of the 2001 paperback edition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, by Dee Brown. Originally published in 1970, this classic has been given new life by the recent debut of the HBO film based on Brown’s book.

 

Looking at Michael Cader’s deals database for new History titles is as tricky as navigating the bestseller lists because History is bundled together with politics and current affairs. Those that are recognizable as History cover familiar ground like WWII, Civil War, Founding Fathers, presidential Histories, and the Cold War. Some of the more interesting deals made in past years include the following:

White Cargo: The Forgotten History Of Britain’s White Slaves

Born In Debt: America’s First National Debt And Its Lessons For Today

Churchill, Hitler And ‘The Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost An Empire And The West Lost The World

Hudson’s Fatal Journey: Mutiny On Board The Voyage Of Discovery

Rocketman: The Triumph And Tragedy Of The First Americans On The Moon

Alchemy Of The Mind: How The Arabs Invented The West

The Fall Of The House Of Dixie: The Confederacy’s Defeat And Slavery’s Destruction

Wrestling History: The Bill Clinton Tapes

A Universal History Of The Destruction Of Books

John Quincy Adams, Ex-President: The Remarkable Congressional Career Of The Sixth Chief Executive

Live Fast, Die Young: The True Story Of Bonnie And Clyde

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

Dark Horse: How Abraham Lincoln Beat The Odds To Win The Republican Nomination

Over Here!: New York City In World War II

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