25 April 2009

Comparative Value

Kevin Levin recently posted some comments about the very cheap price of Elizabeth Brown Pryor's, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. His post got me to thinking about the value of history related works, their "shelf-life", their audiences, popularity, and how all this is impacted by the perspective of the author/historian which, for the sake of this discussion, I group into "traditionalists" and "progressives."

You can now purchase Elizabeth Brown Pryor's much overrated book on Robert E. Lee: Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters,used for as little as 75 cents on Amazon. You can purchase a brand new copy for $2.00 dollars on Amazon. (As of today).

In comparison, you would pay $4.40 for a used copy of H.W. Crocker, III's Robert E. Lee on Leadership: Executive Lessons in Character, Courage, and Vision. A new copy will cost you $7.50.

Pryor's book was published in 2007, is 688 pages, and has received wide acclaim from academia. It currently ranks #17 on Amazon's list of books about General Lee. The following reviews are posted about Pryor's book on Lee:

“An unorthodox, critical, and engaging biography [that] impressively captures Lee’s character and personality.”
The Boston Globe

“Pryor moves onto important historical and interpretive terrain with a far more discerning and critical eye than most of her scholarly or popular predecessors.”
The New Republic (Notice the condescending tone of that review).

Crocker's book has been out since August of 2000 and, as this is being posted, ranks #2 on Amazon's list of books about General Lee.

Here are two samples of Amazon reviews on Crocker's book:

"Harry Crocker has provided a great service by reminding us through this moving and tightly written biography that winning isn't the only thing: faithfulness and honor live in our memories after the guns are silent."
—Marvin Olasky, author of the bestselling Renewing American Compassion and The American Leadership Tradition

"A masterpiece--the best work of its kind I have ever read. Crocker's Lee is a Lee for all leaders to study; and to work, quite deliberately, to emulate."
— Major General Josiah Bunting III, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute

Kevin, who I would certainly consider a "progressive" historian, calls Pryor's work "a fabulous biography." The marketplace would appear to be in disagreement. Please understand that I'm not necessarily suggesting that the facts presented here always determine the true value and quality of a work; much of that is governed by the individual taste of the reader and subjective preferences. I also realize this is by no means a conclusive, scientific comparison but, I do think it is, in some ways, indicative of longstanding trends in the public's appetite for historically based works. I also think all this raises some interesting questions.

I'd like to pose some of those questions for readers' consideration:
  1. What does this say about the two books, particularly in regards to Dana Shoaf's recent comments that, "The problem with academic historians is they are not reaching a wide popular audience"? Is that due to the fact academics tend to, in general, be more critical of America's heroic icons and try to "deconstruct" them based on 21st standards of morality and conduct?
  2. It is, in my mind, quite significant that the marketplace of Amazon's popular audience has deemed Pryor's work to be of such little value in such short time while Crocker's book, which has been out for almost 10 years, outbids the former by a substantial amount. What dynamics are involved?
  3. It is primarily academia and more "progressive" interests that have lauded Pryor's work while it is "traditionalists", for the most part, who have praised Crocker's work. What does this, coupled with Amazon's ratings and pricing, and Shoaf's comments tell us and reveal about the two books?
My own conclusion is that most Americans who are interested in works of history prefer a traditionalist approach to American history. What do you think?


18 comments:

Marc Ferguson said...

I suspect that most people prefer to have their preconceived beliefs validated. As for Pryor's very fine book, what are your complaints?

Marc

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Marc - please don't take this in a personal way, but your dismissiveness of "what most people prefer" is indicative of some of the attitude problem among academics.

Regarding Pryor's book, I've not read all of it. I've skimmed it, started it several times but, frankly, find it boring. I do hope to be able to finish it eventually, but would not offer my final opinion on in until then. While my initial reaction is that it's overrated, who knows, I may actually like it once I've read the whole book. I've been surprised before.

James F. Epperson said...

What was dismissive about what Marc said? I didn't see anything dismissive in it; he stated what is quite possibly a very real issue, that people like having their preconceived notions reinforced. A book which challenges popular preconceived notions might not be as "popular" as one that supports them.

Peter said...

Why should Crocker's book be considered history?

Peter

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Gentlemen:

In some of these comments, I believe we may be seeing exactly what Shoaf was referring to in his comments and where some of the disconnect lies.

Peter: Academics don't see this as history, and, from your perspective, it is not. I would agree with you that, in a technical definition, it is not. But it is history *related* and in the category of CW titles. You will find it on the same shelf at B&N as you do Pryor's book (except, according to KL, Pryor's book is no longer on the shelf, but on the "fire sale" table - which is back to the point of the post. Why?). Amazon also categorizes it along with Pryor's book. So, for the purpose of this post and the "general audience" category to which Shoaf refers it is viewed as such. Biography is certainly history.

James:

I do view it as dismissive, though perhaps not intentionally. (Let's not get personal, please. That is not my intent.) Could it not be argued that progressive views of historical interpretation have been so dominant in most universities for so long now that those who hold those views also like to "have their preconceived beliefs validated?" Or would any of you suggest that all historians are above that at all times?

Michael Lynch said...

I wouldn't say that Pryor's appeal is based in academia and "progressive interests." Reading the Man's publisher is Penguin, which is about as mainstream and commercial as you can get.

According to Amazon, people who order Reading the Man commonly buy some pretty mainstream, accessible stuff along with it--American Lion, Day of Battle, etc.

I'm not saying Pryor's book has been as successful as Crocker's; I have no idea how they stack up in total sales or audience. But it does seem that quite a few run-of-the-mill book buyers seem to have an interest in what Pryor has to say, and that her book has had some commercial appeal. If I were an author, I'd take a Penguin publishing contract and a dust jacket blurb from the Boston Globe any day of the week.

--ML

Peter said...

Mike,
I think this gets to the point of the post. What does "general audience" count as? I submit that perhaps the "general audience" does not browse on Amazon so much as search for titles they know they would like. The Amazon sales for Pryor fail to reflect in-store purchases, while for a book like Crocker, if say a class of 75 business students at Washington and Lee (hypothetically of course) have to buy it for class, the Amazon popularity will skyrocket. In other words, I still an skeptical that we can gauge the enthusiasm of the "general audience" for either of these books based on Amazon popularity. Judging by the "customers who bought" for Crocker, the majority of them seem to have purchased other books about leadership, rather than books about history.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Peter:

I bought the book more for the information and perspective on Lee than I did for the "leadership" slant. In my circle of friends and associates, I know many who did the same thing.

Lee Chapel sells the book as does Stratford Hall. I believe the MOC also carried it at one time. These are all specifically CW historical museums and shops.

I am very familiar with how Amazon sales rankings work and realize that a short-term bump in sales can temporarily distort rankings - which actually shows Crocker's book has "staying power." Its almost 10 years old and is holding even its used price relatively well while Pryor's book is in the tank.

I don't think you can dismiss Crocker's book to just a "leadership" special interest purchaser.

Leaving Crocker's book aside for a moment, why do you think there is such dismal rankings and values for Pryor's book?

Peter said...

Richard,
If you note, Pryor's book is listed twice at #18 (hardcover, which is what was on fire-sale at B&N) and then at #21 (paperback). I wonder what its ranking would be if those two entries were consolidated.

Furthermore, Penguin has a much wider distribution than Crocker's publisher; people may be forced to buy Crocker online (say, someone picked it up at the MoC, and recommended it to their friends back home, who failing to find it locally, ordered from Amazon).

And for the values, well, I think that is just because there are tons more of Pryor's book out there. I'd be convinced that Crocker was more popular if you could show that in absolute numbers Crocker has outsold Pryor. As it is, I can agree that apparently there are more copies of Pryor out there than people want to buy, thus driving prices down. That said I don't see how the comparison with the secondary prices for Crocker proves anything regarding market share or overall popularity of the book.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Peter:

Crocker's book is also available in both PB and HC.

Certainly you raise some valid questions. However . . .

"As it is, I can agree that apparently there are more copies of Pryor out there than people want to buy, thus driving prices down. That said I don't see how the comparison with the secondary prices for Crocker proves anything regarding market share or overall popularity of the book."

This would indicate the publisher overprinted anticipating better sales. So the comparison goes back to the original question.

It is sometimes difficult to get numbers on book sales. Granted, Crocker's book has had 10 years to rack up numbers while Pryor's book is still relatively new.

KL mentioned Pryor's book was on the "remainder" table. "Remaindered" most often means the publisher has decided to take the book out of print and dispose of those left at very low prices. Those not sold are destroyed. Does anyone know if that is in fact the case with Pryor's book? That typically means the book was a dismal failure as far as sales go.

Peter said...

Richard,
The issue is not that Crocker is in both harcover and softcover, but that the Amazon listing of the popularity for both means that we can't accurately assess the success of the title (what would the metric look like if hardcover and softcover sales were considered together?). Since you seem to know much about the Amazon rankings, how big are the gaps between the rankings? Could it be possible, for instance, for Pryor to spring to #1 if both statistics were factored together?

The case of the remainder is due to the fact that about a year ago, the softcover version of Pryor came out. Any remaining hardcovers were withdrawn from the shelves and put into the overstock/remainder distribution network, thus finding their way out now.

Peter said...

Richard,
I also forgot to add, based on what I've heard from people familiar with the big trade houses, there will always be an overstock of hardcovers. The print runs are so large, that the unit cost of printing thousands of copies beyond the estimate of what the book will actually sell is negligible. Printing excess copies, to a point, means that the publisher risks pennies against potential dollars of profit, should the book become more popular than expected. In essence, printing too many books doesn't really cost the publisher anything, whereas they can suffer if the book turns out to exceed expectations.

I'd also note that a paperback edition of Pryor would indicate that the publisher thought sales justified it, and thus was not a dismal failure. I am reasonably sure contracts stipulate the appearance of a paperback edition only if some profitability threshhold of the hardback has been surpassed.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Peter:

No need to get testy. I have read quite a bit about Amazon rankings, but all their methods for ranking are not public knowledge and, so I've been told, change from time to time. I simply meant that I understand snapshot rankings can be distorted by a sudden bump in sales. But Crocker's book consistently ranks high in the Lee category. So did Pryor's at one time.

Nonetheless, both the HC and PB editions of Pryor's book are steeply discounted.

Since I once published out of print titles, I understand the pricing model on print runs, but thanks for adding the additional comments.

For another comparison Robertson's biography of Jackson, which might be a better model for comparison, has maintained a high (almost $10) resale value in both editions. I've never seen it on a "remainder" table. Certainly the print run on that book would at least match Pryor's and the publisher has comparable distribution channels as well.

With all the comments taken together, could it be that the buying public has simply decided Pryor's book is not worth purchasing? And could it be for some of the reasons Shoaf stated? I have my opinion, but then again it could be as you stated; that the book has sold very well and the publisher went overboard and now the overstock is depressing the price.

Michael Lynch said...

Shoaf, I think, is correct that many academics have made themselves irrelevant to the reading public, but I don't think Pryor falls into that category. It seems to me that she's attempted to engage the public, and succeeded.

She's written an accessible book on a popular subject, and it's been put out by a mainstream publishing house. Major newspapers and magazines took notice of it, and reviewed it favorably. It sold well enough to quickly make its way into paperback. Nearly half of Amazon readers who've posted reviews have given it five stars, so it seems to have found its admirers among the general public.

Just because a book doesn't have the commercial staying power of Foote's trilogy or Robertson's life of Jackson doesn't mean it's a failure. You're setting the bar awfully high for successful books!

--ML

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"You're setting the bar awfully high for successful books!"

Perhaps I am and, as I said, I've not read all of Pryor's book. My initial impression could be proven wrong. I'll try to complete the book soon and post on it.

Thanks for commenting.

Brboyd said...

Mr. Williams. You do realize that by acknowledging Mr. Levins blog, you are helping to keep it alive?

I prefer to ignore it.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

BRboyd:

Yes, but its helpful to have his comments for contrast and comparison; at least sometimes. I do ignore his constant mocking and obsessing over Confederate/Southern Heritage issues. I think he's envious. ;o)

RGW

Brboyd said...

I try not to look at anyone who has the "Look at me!" syndrome, but I certainly understand getting a contrast. A DEEP DEEP contrast it is, but ok.