02 January 2008

A Voyage into Amazonia

During the autumn, the Christmas present season, I started to keep an eye on the best-sellers in military history on various Amazon sites - the American, British, French and Canadian ones. It proved an interesting exercise, if only because it highlighted how different the markets are.

The British list offered the greatest insight, if only because it captured what might be called the fundamental problem, from a publishing point of view, of the British book buying public.The top titles were dominated by what one might call "franchise authors". These are people whose names are very well known already - Max Hastings, Antony Beevor, Max Arthur - and who can be easily marketed. (Broadcast media producers are more likely to be interested in a Falklands journalist and former Evening Standard editor than some retired fellow making a second career to supplement a pension by hacking away at illustrated book publishing.) British history book buyers resemble the mass-market fiction purchaser, always after this year's book by a favored author. They have some justification for this. Hastings and Beevor are compelling storytellers. But authors and publishers would perhaps wish they were a little more adventurous.

The French list need not detain us long, because there isn't actually much about war on it. At least, not in the sense of histories of battles and campaigns. The French list focuses on theory (Sun-Tzu appears twice), rather than practice. Books with American themes (eg, the Pentagon on climate change) prop up the lower reaches of the top 25.

The American list was dominated for a long time by Marcus Luttrell's account of an Afghan battle. It was eventually supplanted by the book of the film (or was it the other way round?) on Charlie Wilson's war. The key thing to my mind, though, was how the list featured contemporary conflicts rather than historical ones. I expected to see more Civil War books pushing aside a title such as Rajiv Chandrasekaran's. I also expected to see more of a "franchise author" effect. In fact, it was almost absent. American readers are a little more adventurous (or fickle, to an author), it seems. They aren't greatly interested in anything that doesn't involve Americans, though.

Finally, a survey of the Canadian list left me with the impression that Canadians are the most militaristic of the four Amazon countries. The list is almost entirely concerned with fighting wars, whether at the sharp end or supplying the men at the front. Canadian readers are as intensely nationalistic as the Americans, but more historically minded. Theory is of least interest, without a single theoretical title. (Even the Americans were buying Sun-Tzu.)

I see lessons here for anyone trying to organize a publishing programme. Most importantly, one needs a broad range of titles each season to capture the interest of different sectors of the military history reading public, as well as to maximize one's international prospects. But, sadly for me, the general rule of thumb is to avoid real history - unless your name is Max Beevor.

No comments: