NEW YORK – Publication has been halted on a disputed book about the history of guns in the United States.
Questions about Michael Bellesiles’ “Arming America” had already led Columbia University to rescind the prestigious Bancroft Prize for history.
When Columbia made the announcement last month, publisher Alfred A. Knopf said the book would remain in print. But Jane Garrett, Bellesiles’ editor, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the publisher would no longer sell it.
“We are in the process of ending our contractual arrangement with Michael for `Arming America,'” Garrett said. . . .
According to Garrett, the book has sold about 8,000 copies in hardcover and about 16,000 in paperback.
Bellesiles spent 10 years working on “Arming America,” published by Knopf in 2000. The book challenges the idea that the United States has always been a gun-oriented culture and that well-armed militias were essential to the Revolutionary War.
“Arming America” was praised in both The New York Times and The New York Review of Books and won the Bancroft Prize, presented to works of “exceptional merit and distinction in the fields of American history and biography.”
The Bancroft Prize has been revoked, of course. No word on what, if anything, the New York Times and the New York Review of Books plan to do.
Thanks to reader Adam Bonin for the headsup.
UPDATE: Brian Erst emails:
The thing that really stood out to me in your item about Knopf ending publication of “Arming America” were the total sales figures. I’m not sure what the normal market is for “serious” history books, but you’d think one that was as highly touted and controversial as this one would have sold more than 24,000 copies (8K in hardcover, 16K in paper). About the only (totally unfair)comparison I could quickly come up with was David McCullough’s popular history of John Adams, which sold 1.5 million hardcover copies in 2001 alone.
To me, this would indicate that except for the most die-hard gun buffs and history nuts, the vast majority of the people who have any opinion at all on this subject (including myself) are probably only familiar with the discussion surrounding the book, and not the book itself. I suppose this is true of many things, but it really struck me this time. Far more people have read James Lindgren’s Yale Law Journal article (100K+ just via links from your site) than have purchased the original book. Fascinating.
Actually, 24K in sales is pretty good for what’s called an “academic trade” book, where 15,000 copies is considered a strong seller. (People don’t realize how atypical those million-copy books are). Interesting point about the Lindgren piece, though. The count on that one (just checked for the first time in a while) stands at 119,593 — meaning that (given that it’s available elsewhere, too) something over five times as many people have read Lindgren as have bought Arming America.