We’re sitting a mere few steps from the Unconventional Warfare Reference Library, and the office itself is where many of the gun books live. The shelves are an expanding display of tomes in all stages of use: regular references, to be read next, to be read some day, being read now, being reread.
There are new books coming out from time to time, often labors of love by well-informed, detail-obsessed authors. These books don’t get into mainstream bookstores; by getting interested in the design or history of firearms, friends, we all have joined a minority group.
You might think the authors are richly remunerated for their efforts. You would probably be mistaken. The key fact is bolded in the email excerpt below, as reported in the Huffington Post:
Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast. Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to BookScan — which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com) — only 263 million books were sold in 2011 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 2, 2012). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime. And very few titles are big sellers. Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).
via BJ Gallagher: The Ten Awful Truths — and the Ten Wonderful Truths — About Book Publishing.
That’s the average; meaning, quite a few of them are below that. Most likely, a very few titles sell a very many books and a larger number sell almost no books, leaving the median probably somewhere in the 200-500 book region.
If you look at a non-fiction bestseller list, you may despair. Fad diets seem to be the big thing (but for every bestselling diet book there are probably 2,000 going right to remainders). You could always sell a book by writing bullshit about conspiracy theories, or yetis, or space aliens. (Unless you call it fiction, in which case it’s arguably science fiction, and given your hopes of sales success, you’re probably someone whose retirement plan involves a great deal of confidence in Powerball).
And non-fiction is far outsold by fiction. Analysis of data shows that Amazon, the largest bookseller, sells about 180,000 non-fiction books a day, and fiction accounts for over 600,000.
Another excerpt from that list of Awful Truths at HuffPo resonates deeply here (although we’re actually concatenating two list items here).
Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic. It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. Each book is competing with more than ten million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. …Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read.
We definitely buy books on recommendations from “the community” (one uniformly good source of book tips is ForgottenWeapons.com). And we have been remiss in reviewing more of the many books we buy and read here.
We also personify the problem mentioned in the second excerpt above, in that we don’t always read the books we buy right away. Reading time has to compete with writing time, range time, actual operations consulting and training time, PT time (which has suffered in the last three months, to the point where a WeaponsMan begins to resemble a cannon ball — not good), family time, and, and, and…. As the King of Siam might say, “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
Someone else can’t read for you, and can’t write for you. Conversely, one almost has a duty to write. If you die without organizing and writing down your knowledge for transmission, it dies with you, irretrievable in the slowing chemistry of dying neural networks.
We suspect that the reason we are blessed with so many books about the field of firearms, and such good books these days, is that the writers are compelled to write. Driven to write. They feel that call of, “duty, heavier than a mountain,” as the Japanese sages put it. And we all benefit.
The next time you sit down with a book on some gun, or company, or designer, whether to learn from the words, enjoy the pictures, or just answer a question, think a moment about the author. It is very unlikely the book made him rich. For all the money it put in his pocket, his hours might have been spent more productively welcoming you to Wal-Mart. But he has a form of immortality; his ideas, perhaps stilled in real life along with his voice and his heartbeat, reach out and now live in your neurons and synapses.
This week, three old books came in. They are old enough that the authors, in the main, are not with us (one was an effort by a large group, and recent enough that some of the writers may yet be enjoying the lawn from the blade rather than root view). We know little enough of the authors, and with their works long predating the Event Horizon of the Internet of circa 1992, have found little about them online.
One of the books is Small Arms in Profile, Volume 1 (1973), which is a collection of single-gun histories once published as small booklets; each is 20 pages long, and some contain color plates. As you might expect, they are primarily about well-known guns, and they vary widely in their depth and scope. Can you tell the story of the Luger, of Winchester, or of FN Browning pistols? You can, but it must be a constrained version of the story. Narrower-scope stories are somewhat better served. Just-the-facts are delivered in clipped Sandhurst accents by editor AJR “Sandy” Cormack, John Weeks, FWA Hobart, and Gordon Conway, all respected British small arms experts. A second volume was planned, but apparently never published. Quite a few individual profiles beyond the dozen in Volume I were printed, but they were never collected into bound volumes. It’s a pity, as the print quality of our US edition hardback (Doubleday) is far superior to the ephemeral paper profiles.
Charles E. Balleisen was an ordnance officer and wrote a significant textbook on firearms design and substantiation, Principles of Firearms, which was published by John Wiley in 1945. There appears to have been but one edition in one printing, a rather drab War Production Board affair with paper that has not held up well to the years. The book is clear, concise, and aimed at the professional engineer who is not new to statics and mechanics but is entirely a novice to firearms. We won’t fully review these books in this article, of course, but we consider Principles a very useful book despite its age.
From what information we’ve been able to find, Mr Balleisen was probably born in 1912 in Philadelphia, and lived there and on Army bases, although he did not appear at all in the 1950 or 1960 Census records. Was he transferred overseas? Or did he die young?
We did find an interesting letter (most of letter last page), correcting an academic paper on an orrery (a machine that emulates the movement of the solar system’s celestial bodies) from September, 1938, by a Charles E. Balleisen. Same guy? Well, his address was “Aberdeen, Maryland.” Make of that what you will.
The last was FWA Hobart’s Pictorial History of the Sub-Machine Gun, the hyphen giving this away as a British production. Hobart (the initials stood for Frank William Archer) was a heavyweight of firearms expertise, in his day; he was a retired Major of the British Army and the editor of Jane’s Infantry Weapons for the now-venerable yearbook’s first two editions. But as he lived and died before the event horizon of the internet, he leaves even fewer traces online than Balleisen. He doesn’t even have an Amazon author page, despite his prolific output in the 1970s, almost all of which would be edifying to any regular reader of this blog.
Part of that output was a series of Pictorial Histories, of which we’re familiar with the Machine Gun book and this Sub-Machine Gun one. They’re rather more in-depth than the typical entry in Jane’s, and less so than in Small Arms Profiles (for which Hobart was a contributor) and much less so than Small Arms of the World (Hobart appears to have contributed by correspondence). The particular strength of Pictorial History of the Sub-Machine Gun is that it covers many unusual, prototypical, and one-off guns. While the Machine Gun book suffers by its obsolescence, the SMG book is much less so, because developments in the field since Hobart committed the work to the printers in 1978 have been so sparse. He covers the MP5, he covers the Ingram, and those were the last SMGs really widely distributed until some Russian developments in the 1990s and the new SIG. He does miss out on some special-purpose guns and interesting prototypes, but by and large the whole history of submachine guns can be told between 1918 and 1978 without too many omissions. Within 10 years the principal remaining employers of the SMG would be on track to replace them with short rifle-caliber carbines.
Hobart’s writing is always clear and concise. Sometimes he suffers from the uniquely British problem of being an expert on guns in a country that does not let anyone fire the things, but his errors are few and relatively inconsequential, especially compared to the value of information in his books that is now, otherwise, lost.
Returning, for conclusion’s sake, to the market for books in general, we’re rather encouraged by some statistics put forward at a new website called Author Earnings. While the authors represented here are genre fiction writers, they’ve made a very interesting discovery, whilst massaging some data pulled from Amazon bestseller lists: more and more books being sold are e-books. This is bad news for authors signed to traditional publishers, because the publisher takes a bigger cut and the author a smaller for an e-book; but it’s good news for the small-press or independent author: he or she gets a larger share of a growing market, and e-books have a long tail. Balleisen and Hobart are out of print, but, as the benefits of internet disintermediation extend to gun writers, the opportunity to be paid for one’s writing is actually increasing. And the long tail of a book on, say, the H&R T48 version of the FAL (to name one book that does not now exist) means that an author may make only $25 a month, but he may be making that $25 still thirty years from now.