29 April 2008 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 14 comments

June will mark the tenth anniversary of the publication of my first book, Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions. Over the course of those ten years, I’ve published a total of 13 books, and the 14th is due out at the end of May. Consequently, I’ve learned a few things over the course of that decade. Many of them are things that I wish that I knew ten years ago, but didn’t. In the hope that some of you might be able to benefit from my mistakes, or my learning curve, I’ve decided to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions by sharing some of those hard lessons in a series of posts that will follow. Each post will deal with a different lesson.

I know that there are a number of my readers who are published authors, including some who have been published more than once. I would like to invite you to pitch in, including guest posts, if any of you would like to volunteer to write a guest post for inclusion in the series.

So, with no further ado, here’s the first entry in the list, which will be presented in no particular order…..

Don’t Give Up Your Day Job. Like it or not, I’m a lawyer first and a historian second. There’s a reason for that. Unless you’re a college professor, the likelihood of your making much money as a consequence of your studies of the Civil War is quite small. Further, the odds of making much money from publishing a Civil War book are even smaller. Only a tiny handful of Civil War books ever hit it big, and unless your name is Doris Kearns Goodwin or James McPherson, you probably should not expect to make much money. Further, only a handful of Civil War publishers pay advances, and most don’t. Academic presses definitely don’t. The largest advance I’ve ever been paid was $4,000 for Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Generalship of Philip H. Sheridan, paid in two installments. One of those installments went to purchase a new laptop computer that I wrote a couple of books on.

Ted Savas recently had a post on his blog that indicated that a new imprint being launched by HarperCollins will not pay any advances at all to authors, so it doesn’t sound like advances will be much of an option at all moving forward. Your only means of making money will be from sales of your book, either royalties or copies that you sell yourself.

In order to illustrate my point, the most copies of any one of my titles I have ever sold is about 4500. Ted Savas told me last week that the average Civil War book sells about 1500 copies. Nobody ever got rich on selling 1500 copies of a book. The most money I have ever made in a single year on my historical work has been approximately $10,000. That includes an advance on a book, profits from my own book sales, royalties, and payment for leading tours. Clearly, nobody’s living large on that kind of money.

I got my royalty statement from the LSU Press a couple of weeks ago. LSU published my With Sheridan in the Last Campaign Against Lee in 2002. In 2007, they sold 4 copies of the book. My royalty check was for $5.15. Woo hoo!

It’s worth noting that I spend a lot of money each year on researching these books. I use the services of a professional researcher, and I buy a lot of books. I also firmly believe in seeing and learning the terrain, which also costs money. So, the net is much less.

Unless you manage to pen one of those very rare Civil War books that breaks through and reaches the New York Times bestseller list, don’t give up your day job, because you’re going to need it. That is, you’re going to need it if you’re one of those people who enjoys living indoors and eating.

UPDATE, MAY 1, 2008:

I got my royalty statement from Potomac Books today. Not surprisingly, there was no check in there. And it would take a CPA to figure out their accounting. I’m no CPA, and I don’t believe their numbers as far as I can throw the Washington Monument. However, it’s not worth the expenditure to pay for an audit of their books.

Potomac has published four of my books. Two of them have been fully remaindered and are out of print. In another one, they remaindered the hardcover out, although the softcover remains in print. The fourth has an edition still in print.

In employing the same sort of fuzzy math that Congress seems to use, the numbers of the deficits of what needs to be sold in order for me to make up the remaining balances of the advances and actually receive royalty payments are actually INCREASING, not getting smaller, even with the books that are out of print. It is now painfully clear that the advances that I was paid are all that I will ever be paid by this publisher.

Their marketing has always been abysmal–I have complained about it numerous times–and I haven’t agreed with their business decisions about remaindering my work, particularly with Glory Enough for All: Sheridan’s Second Raid and the Battle of Trevilian Station. I cannot imagine ever doing business with them again.

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Comments

  1. Tue 29th Apr 2008 at 8:48 pm

    Eric – Thanks so much for this post and i look forward to future ones…I am sure it will be great advice to all your readers.

    Having just finished publishing my first book (with your support the whole way – thanks!), I think I might be able to offer some advice from that perspective as well…I can contact you off-line with an offer for some “guest posts”…in any event, I continue to learn from you, admire your work, and wish you every success!

    Jim Schmidt

  2. dan
    Tue 29th Apr 2008 at 9:43 pm

    Eric,

    As a newbie with a long history of research and writing behind me and a possible new future involving maybe some readers (heheh), your post is very important and, while not totally “refreshing” is welcome nonetheless.

    Having eschewed the Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joseph Ellis schools of plagiahistoriography (I just made that word up) I continue to trod the steps of Barbara Tuchman and Bruce Catton and other such greats. Your work is solid, superbly written and a valuable addition to Civil War studies.

    I suppose this is all something of a labor of love for you and for the rest of us, but some recompense and more is certainly welcome. I fully understand your frustrations and appreciate your honesty in posting such a discussion. I’m sure I will be one of many to thank you, and comment on it.

    Most troubling of all perhaps is the small sales of most CW books. I never knew this and it’s shocking and disturbing to learn. I always knew that most people didn’t have much time nor interest in history, in fact it always was taught to me in school that Americans are a forward looking bunch and take little time to appreciate and learn from the past. But it never gave me much comfort to think such things so I tried to pretend it wasn’t so.

    Arriving here in Nashville some years ago from Boston I was stunned to learn that people I worked with directly on the first Confederate line of the Battle of Nashville were entirely unaware that men had shed their blood in combat under their very feet.

    In a conversation recently with a Russian emigre who has been in the United States for some 14 years, he mentioned that he missed the stability of the Soviet Union, and he appreciated Stalin because if stalin had said, for example, that a dam would be built in two years time everybody knew that it would indeed be built in two years- regardless of the cost in treasure and lost lives. My friend understood that he had lived in a kind of myth, but he missed it anyway commenting on how difficult life in the US is compared to how life in the USSR had been. He mentioned that he didn’t think the US had a real culture outside of a community of economic interests. Perhaps a general lack of appreciation in our history is one of the reasons why this is so, if he is right. Our history binds us together, helps us to understand our national character and the ideas and beliefs that unite us all as Americans.

    I’ve always considered my Civil War studies something of a duty in addition to the hours and days of pleasure it has afforded me. Reading about and writing about the War was always my way of honoring those amazing folks in blue and gray who fought that horrible war.

    It’s important for you to know, Eric, and I will say it here that despite the lack of financial reward up to this point and the struggles that you’ve gone through, your efforts have not gone without notice. You’ve a large base of admirers and fans who deeply appreciate the work that you do. I know it’s not much and won’t put food on the table but I do thank you most kindly for your honesty and very important contributions to understanding this most important event in our national history.

    Daniel

  3. Tue 29th Apr 2008 at 9:48 pm

    Jim,

    You’re welcome, and I hope you will do so.

    Eric

  4. Tue 29th Apr 2008 at 9:52 pm

    Daniel,

    You’ve raised some valid and significant points, and I thank you for doing so. I likewise thank you for your kind words. The truth is that while it would be nice to make some real money on one of these projects, I would by lying if I said that finances are the only thing that drives me to write.

    I’m a frustrated teacher, and I scratch my teaching itch this way. I likewise am compelled to write. So, there is more of a reward than just dollars and cents, or else I wouldn’t do this at all.

    I certainly agree with you with the alarming lack of consciousness of history. There are some people writing terrific history out there. As just one example, I’m in the midst of reading Ferling’s terrific book on the Revolutionary War, Almost a Miracle. He will probably sell a few thousand copies. But yet some publisher is willing to pay Miley Cyrus a $15 million advance for her memoir. She’s 15 years old, for God’s sake. How much of a life has she had to write about that would give any insight?????

    Eric

  5. Tue 29th Apr 2008 at 11:40 pm

    Hello,

    I would STRONGLY suggest going, if possible, the route of self-publishing. If you get the right company to print your books (it took me a couple of whacks and two small initial printings) you can enjoy all sorts of great benefits. I own the copyright and distribution rights to both of my books and will for any I release in the future (number three is coming out this year). My publishing company foots the full printing costs, I pay them a per book fee for each sold, and then I keep the rest. So far I have sold over 5,000 copies of my first book in 24 months and nearly 1,000 of my second in 12 months. Honestly, I anticipate hitting 10,000 sold on the first book by the end of 2009.

    If you find the right company, you can make terrific money and have total creative freedom. You may never have your book at Barnes & Noble, but honestly, who cares. Few people in Oregon or New Mexico are going to buy my books about Civil War history in Tennessee. But they can buy it on Amazon, God bless them. Target your market, get the right publisher/printer, and enjoy life. A university press would have to beg me to publish my book(s) and I’d still say no. 🙂

    I’ll add one last thing. When I see some of the garbage that major university presses print today, and what they decline or pass on, it motivates me all the more to do it my own way. I will never forget when the University of Tennessee Press told me they would not even look at my first manuscript because it would conflict with James Lee McDonough’s books. They wouldn’t even look at it!!!! Read it and say you don’t like it fine, but don’t even review it???

    Eric A. Jacobson

  6. Art Bergeron
    Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 8:15 am

    Eric,
    To reinforce your point about royalties, I have around a dozen books to my credit now, and they money I have gotten from various publishers has come no where close to reimbursing my expenses while doing research and writing. It truly has to be a labor of love.

    Oh, and another person who has done well financially is Bud Robertson. His Jackson book has been reissued numerous time.

  7. Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 9:07 am

    Great post Eric. I don’t have a lot of time today to add what I’d like to (as I have that stupid day job too), but I will say this… Marketing-Marketing-Marketing! Being a successful author (on whatever level that you feel is successful) means promoting your work as much as possible. Fortunately, we live in the “Information Age” where this is easier than ever. We have so many tools for communicating our message: Internet, radio, speaking engagements, direct mailers, media kits, websites, blogs, tours etc. Simply stated: Write it. Publish it. And then start talking about it. Being a paid author is probably 40% writing and 60% advertising.

  8. Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 9:43 am

    Eric,

    I appreciate your point, and I intend to address some of those issues in another post. When I do so, I would appreciate it if you would chime in again.

    Eric

  9. Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 9:44 am

    Michael,

    Much space and many words will be devoted to the issue of marketing. Let’s revisit this once I write that post.

    Eric

  10. Ken Noe
    Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 9:45 am

    Eric:

    I worked with John Ferling at West Georgia for ten years and we remain great friends. He is a consummate historian, a nice guy, and it’s always good to see him win some deserved praise. Thanks for mentioning him. I also think his John Adams biography is the best one on the market, but it never stood a chance against the trade book/HBO marketing machine that soon swamped it.

    As for the larger topic, Perryville sold a little better than the average, but I still have my day job 🙂

    Ken

  11. Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Eric

    Good post and great responses. Note that the average Savas Beatie book sells a lot more than 1,500 copies, mainly because we target widely OUTSIDE normal distribution channels.

    I am writing about these and other issues now on my blog. Stay tuned and check in.

    –tps

  12. Mon 12th May 2008 at 1:01 am

    I will have to agree with Mr. Jacobson here. Self-publishing your books gives you the freedom and flexibility to do what you want with your own book. If your works cover lesser known events or are small books (as mine are), you will most likely make more money and have greater distribution capabilities because you are marketing yourself. Although I am still in college, I’ve been able to sell 4,000 of my books on my own in less than three years. All of this has been completed at my home computer. Email museums and stores to see if they are interested in your books and ALWAYS have some copies with you. A large portion of my sales have been a sites I stop at on vacations. Also never be afraid to sign up for a booth at local festivals and so forth to sell your books at. Happy writing.

  13. G. E. Colpitts
    Tue 05th Aug 2008 at 6:52 pm

    Mr. Wittenberg,
    Thank you , thank you, thank you for your work as a Civil-War- historian-with-a-day-job. I was at Chancellorsville this summer and spoke with the staff there about my Great-Great-Grandfather, Lt. Col. Duncan McVicar (6th New York Cavalry). They recommended your excellent book, The Union Cavalry Comes of Age, which has provided me with a great deal more information about his last hours than I have seen anywhere else, as well as an excellent bibliography I can pursue on my own. I do not make any claims to being anything but an amateur historian myself, but I would like to talk with you (via e-mail) if you have time about some of the information in the book as I have a few questions I think you may be able to answer and a small amount of additional (primary source) information you may never have seen.

    I know you are busy, so please take your time.

    G.E. Colpitts

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