Blogs > Cliopatria > Who Reads History Books?

Jul 10, 2009 2:57 am

Who Reads History Books?

I want to know who reads the monographs we produce in our profession. A recent book claims that the average academic monograph in the humanities sells about 200 copies. My own recent analysis of library purchasing trends since 1945 demonstrated an unmistakable decline in the acquisition of history books since the mid-1960s. There is some debate on whether this decline has happened because so many fewer college students major in history these days. Others have laid the blame on academic historians who don't try hard enough to write books that are interesting to the public. Whatever the cause may be for the shrinking sales of history books, I have a proposal for the profession on how we just might be able to measure our relevancy.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, a team of social network analysts had an interesting idea for measuring political polarization. With data provided by, they created a map of who was purchasing the most popular political books. They discovered that as the election approached the number of books purchased by both liberals and conservatives slowly shrank until these two groups were reading virtually in nothing in common during the last month before the election. This kind of analysis was possible because of the"Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" feature provided by the Amazon web site.

I want to see the same thing done for history books. It think it would answer a lot of questions. Are the readers and writers of history books basically the same people? Or are there some history books that show up in the"also bought" lists for best-selling novels? How many of you believe a social network analysis of history books would provide valuable information? Or have academic historians essentially given up on the goal of writing for the public?

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Ralph E. Luker - 7/15/2009

"It was only from around the 1970s that the annales school began to be taken more seriously by historians in Britain, and that more of their works began to appear in English translations (e.g. Braudel's Mediterranean first came out in English translation only in 1972), Le Roy Ladurie's Montalliou became a best seller on the back of its 'sensational' revelations about sexuality in a medieval French village, and was the subject of television documentaries." -- David Moon, "Fernand Braudel and the Annales School."

Jeremy Young - 7/15/2009

The fact that such books sell and sell well isn't the point. They are few and far between. If you think you can write a wildly-popular scholarly book on non-U.S. history, by all means go ahead. The problem is that most historians don't intend to write such books and don't care when nobody reads their work. This is what has to stop.

Actually, the Annales school is an excellent example of what I'm talking about. If those folks could make dry data-mining research into best sellers, than modern cultural historians with far more interesting subjects have no excuses.

Haydon Leslie Cherry - 7/13/2009

I am not sure that this is wholly true. There is no need to wrap books in triumphalist ribbons. And is a mistake to think that "history" is "American history." Jonathan Spence's best selling book is about a Chinese woman strangled to death in an obscure village in the seventeenth century. It has never been out of print. Look at books like "The Cheese and the Worms" or "The Return of Martin Guerre" or "Montaillou." None of these are about any kind of triumphalism or even about American history. And they have also never been continuously available.

Jeremy Young - 7/11/2009

I think it's a bit more than this. Improving writing is certainly a worthwhile goal. But part of the problem is the subject matter we professional historians write about. Laypeople love triumphalist history, sure, but they also love triumphalist subjects. People love to read about great men and women and wars and politics and sex, and some people also love to read really good "milieu" history. But there really are problems trying to market books on stereotypical social and cultural history subjects.

Of course, good social and cultural history can be written about anything. You can write a cultural history of Sally Hemings. But if you are going to write a book about the history of the plow, you are never ever going to sell many copies of it, no matter how engagingly it's written. (And yes, Foucault is merely the exception that proves the rule. My advice to my fellow historians: if you think you are the next Foucault, go ahead. Otherwise, write a book people actually want to read.)

We need to keep in mind that the problem we're facing isn't that people don't finish books they start, it's that they don't buy them at all. A horribly-written book about Abraham Lincoln is still going to be a blockbuster because people will buy it without doing more than looking at its cover. The problem is that people go out to buy a book about Lincoln, and all we have to offer is the history of the plow -- so they buy from the pop historians instead.

If we want to recapture the popular history market, we need as a profession to tailor our cutting-edge research so that it fits in triumphalist boxes. It's as simple as that. We can and should be cramming good social and cultural history into as many places as possible -- but the cover still has to have Lincoln or the Founding Fathers on it, or laypeople will not ever buy it.

Mark Adam Dragoni - 7/10/2009

Many historians claim that the new histories are no longer valuable to anyone but the academics who write them. It would be interesting to find out if this is true. Does the average reader care about gender history? Actual factual data (other than just class enrollment) would be invaluable to these arguments. I think the last election showed the popularity of some history books. 'Team of Rivals' has become almost cliche. Everyone claims to have read the book it became so popular. Maybe new data could help explain it's popularity over other histories?
Of course we have to keep in mind that the average reader is not the average American. Steve Jobs when asked about the Kindle wasn't necessarily wrong when he said that Americans don't read. Maybe Americans don't read specifically history because of the books being produced.

Chris Bray - 7/10/2009

Triumphalist history flies off the shelves, as do historical narratives that place Americans at the center of the known universe. WWII? Yeah, that was totally ours -- we kicked ass on the Nazis. That's a problem that can't be fixed.

But the other problem is the way academic historians write. It has to be possible to open a chapter with something other than, "In this chapter, I will argue that..."

There has to be a challenging cultural history that doesn't have the effect of Percoset on general readers because the sentences read like they were ripped out of the phone book.

Jeremy Young - 7/10/2009

Let's do this.

Andrea Lynn Odiorne - 7/10/2009

The "Customers Who Also Bought This Item" has nothing on the Fox News/CNN split that promotes popular books on politics and history.

The Cultural/Structuralist turn in history, over twenty years old at this point, has placed academic history in a place that challenges the presumptions of the many segments of the public in a way that may threaten them. This is a very good thing and should be the goal of original scholarship.

Will commercial outlets support these endeavors? Probably not.

Academic history should, in my opinion, not be bound by the constraints of book sales, but judged by the relevancy and content of their work, as determined by their peers. Not a very radical or new stance, I know, but still valid.

Simon Schama, has his place in popular and academic history. I predict many will follow him. The next Arthur Schlesinger Jr.? Maybe not. Is this really a bad thing?

How much did Schlesinger rely on the major news outlets, which were aimed at the "general" public. A public that may not longer exist, and has given way to more specialized news outlets in both broadcast and on the web, that promote books and everything else, to a target audience that appeals to their advertisers. I say leave the stats to them.

Let historians do what they do best, shatter the comforting narrative, revise, reveal, challenge, innovate, theorize, etc. If they would like to reach more readers, and many people would be interested if they new how awesome history really is, they don't have to defend their relevancy based on book sales. They can, and are, doing their own style of community outreach and collaboration outside of the commercial system.

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