13 June 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 8 comments

Last week, Dimitri Rotov posted about his recent visit to a Barnes & Noble store. He wrote:

Shortly before my recent vacation, I stopped by the Barnes & Noble in Reston to see what was doing in the ACW section. Among regional bookstores, their Civil War section is the smallest for some reason.

I usually make a note of what the buyers have stocked up on. Most times, the quantities are not significantly different from title to title. On this day, I did a doubletake to see they had stacked face out at least half a dozen of Eric Wittenberg’s new Savas Beatie book, The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads. A very handsome edition it is too, with lots of maps and illustrations.

Nothing got anything like the shelf space of this new title, with the exception of something by one of McPherson’s students, Tom Carhart. Yes, indeed Lost Triumph also totaled a good half-dozen pieces stacked cover outwards.

There’s the market for you – uncertain. Sweet and sour news for Eric…

Thanks to Dimitri for noticing, and thanks also for the kind words about the book, which is, indeed, a handsome volume.

Then, Mike Koepke picked up the cudgel. Mike wrote:

I would say that I have noticed the same thing. Over the past year, Barnes & Noble has made a conscience decision to reduce the number of Civill War titles on its shelves. Of the 2 stores in my area I have visited, I would say the shelf space devoted to Civil War has dwindled by 50%-60% over the past year. Unless you’re looking for the top sellers or Barnes & Noble books reprints, they are not the place to go if you want to just browse for other off-topic books. Borders has consistantly devoted a much larger section in History to Civil War titles. I would say Borders now has at least 10-15 times more selection.

A number of folks commented that they had seen the same thing, including me. In fact, there are two different Barnes & Noble stores near my house. One is about four miles away, and the other about eight. The closer one is a small store in a neighborhood strip shopping center. The last time that I was in that store, they had about fifteen Civil War books on their shelves. Period. The other store is a superstore–it has two stories, is quite large, and has about three times the inventory of the smaller one. The last time that I was in there, they had about the same number of Civil War books. Our two local Borders stores, on the other hand, continue to maintain a large selection of Civil War books, including multiple copies of many titles. It’s really kind of a shocking comparison.

Given my druthers, I absolutely and categorically refuse to enter either of those Barnes & Noble stores any more. I’m a local author, and they won’t carry my books. I’ve tried to arrange signings at the larger store, and can’t even get the courtesy of a “go pound sand” from them. I used to spend a lot of money in those stores, but I will no longer go in there, and I will no longer buy anything in either one.

Today, Kevin Levin, who has some first-hand, personal knowledge of these things, weighed in. Kevin, who used to work at a Borders store, wrote:

A few of my fellow Civil War bloggers have commented on the poor offerings of Civil War titles at their local stores. Most of us browse either our local Barnes and Noble or Borders and have noticed a difference in the quality of the overall selection. Since I worked for Borders from 1994 to 1998 I can comment on the difference. I worked at the Borders in Rockville, Maryland, which as many of you who live in that area know is one of the larger stores in the chain. I was in charge of the magazine section, but given my growing interest in the Civil War at the time was also responsible for the Civil War section. Those of you who have commented on the selection between these two competitors have rightfully pointed out that Borders seems to offer more. At least when I worked for the company I had the option of ordering any title that I thought would enrich the section. I took full advantage of this opportunity.

As I worked at the Rockville store before the company went “corporate” the place had a sincere intellectual feel about it. I worked with some very thoughtful people who were passionate about reading and engaging customers. I organized my own Civil War reading group and we welcomed a number of local Civil War historians to join us to discuss their own recently released books. In 1997 I organized a day long event which included historians such as William Matter, James Kegel, Ed Fischel, and Craig Symonds. Brian Pohanka dropped by at the end of the day in full uniform to wrap up the event. He was a pleasure to meet. Participants presented formal presentations about their books and stayed to talk to customers and sign books. Needless to say it was a great day.

There is no doubt that the selection of Civil War titles has diminished in the major chain stores. There is no conspiracy however; it is a simple question of how best to utilize limited space. If you want large selections of books than I suggest you find religion or engage in a little self-reflection to uncover your short-comings and any other psychological malfunction that could be helped by browsing the Self-Help section. I suspect that many people are buying on-line where there are some excellent discounts available. I’ve recently moved in this direction, but I still enjoy browsing a well-stocked store. Amazon typically offers up to a 36% discount on newly-released titles. Small press titles are probably suffering more than those published by the university presses, and the reason is that the latter will be bought by both colleges and university libraries. Perhaps that is why they can get away with charging higher prices as they don’t need to print as many. As I’ve said before, most Civil War enthusiasts don’t read books. And most of the people who attend Civil War Roundtable meetings are senior citizens which suggests that unless new blood is discovered the Civil War section will be even more difficult to find in your local store.

Thanks, Kevin. This is useful insight, and I really appreciate it. It also makes a degree of sense, and goes a long way toward explaining some of the seeming lack of interest.

At the same time, my beef with the local Barnes & Noble stores remains intact and unchanged. That they ignore a local author bothers me to no end. I take it personally, even though the logical side of my brain knows it’s not personal. As I said, I will not go in any of the local B&N stores willingly, and I refuse to spend a dime there when I do go in. On those occasions when I feel compelled to visit one of the large chain bookstores, I will choose Borders almost every time, because our local stores always have at least one of my titles in stock. And when we travel, and I have the option, I really like the Books-a-Million stores. Unfortunately BAM does not have a store anywhere near Columbus, so it’s not very often that I get to shop there, typically only when we’re in North Carolina vacationing.

As I said last night, I much prefer to patronize independent book sellers. For one thing, they appreciate the business more than do the megachains. For another, they have a lot more latitude in what they carry, and finally, they are the bread and butter for small, niche publishers such as Ironclad. Thus, whenever I can, I will patronize one of them before the big guys, and if I have to buy from a big mega-bookseller, I prefer Amazon. They discount, and the book gets delivered to me. I can shop from the convenience of my couch. And they ALWAYS have my books in stock….

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Comments

  1. Paul Taylor
    Tue 13th Jun 2006 at 10:50 pm

    Eric,

    I’ve had more than one bookseller, large and small, tell me that they believe the resurgence in interest in the Civil War generated about 15 years ago by the Burns series has played itself out, and is now on the decline. Used and OP dealers say essentially the same thing, plus, the collectable market is even worse — veteran collectors are disposing of their collections and eventually passing away with no new collectors to take their place.

    Fewer books sold will mean fewer books published. I think Dimitri Rotov addressed this recently.

    Maybe us hardcores will end up writing just for each other?

    Paul

  2. Randy Sauls
    Wed 14th Jun 2006 at 11:44 am

    Eric:

    I second your Books-a-Million comments. Our local Books-a-Million store (Goldsboro, NC) carries a large CW selection. They stock books from large and medium publishers, and a few from publishers that I have quite frankly never heard of. Granted, an unduly large amount (in my opinion) of shelf space is devoted to Shelby Foote, but at least they make lesser known authors and titles available as well. On the negative side they haven’t shown much interest in a book signing for a regional author that I know. Her book is a short mystery set in, of all places, my house (a historic c.1883 Victorian). Despite the local connection Books-a-Million, just like your Barnes & Noble, showed no interest. I suspect a CW book would fare better, but you never know how the coporate culture will treat these things. Chain stores, even franchises, seem to like the cookie cutter- follow the home office directive-appoach to things.

    Randy

  3. Wed 14th Jun 2006 at 7:57 pm

    From the time I was 11 until about 25 I read absolutely nothing but Civil War. This was before the days of big box bookstores (BBB’s) so one had to go to a “local” or independent store to find titles. What I recall most was a very thick catalog of titles I used to get just on the Civil War books, called Morningside Books. Are they still around? I used to love getting the catalog, circling everything in it I wanted, and handing it to my mother about a month before my birthday or Christmas and telling her “look at this, and this only!!” Anyway, it has been so long since I have been in to CW that perhaps Morningside has gone belly up. It was fun to get their boxes though…..

  4. Paul Taylor
    Wed 14th Jun 2006 at 8:09 pm

    John,

    Morningside is still around though the owner and founder recently passed away. Check ’em out at http://www.morningsidebooks.com.

    Paul

  5. Wed 14th Jun 2006 at 8:30 pm

    Paul,

    Now that’s a scary thought…… 🙁

    Eric

  6. Wed 14th Jun 2006 at 8:31 pm

    Randy,

    Sad, but true.

    It’s very ufnortunate, but it is true.

    Eric

  7. Wed 14th Jun 2006 at 9:17 pm

    Good to know they are still around. And that they have reprinted Pullen’s THE TWENTIETH MAINE, which I got as a gift as a teenager and loved.

  8. John
    Thu 15th Jun 2006 at 12:21 pm

    I agree that Barnes and Noble is not the best place to find CW books, have yet to find one with a decent selection. Borders does seem to carry a good selection and for the most part, more helpful and friendly staff. I have tried a couple of Half-Price Bookstores and I am impressed by their selections, all at discounted prices. I need to hit Books-a-Million and give them a try. Jeez, just what I need, more books.

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