History but relevant

from Press News, posted 05/01/2013 - 15:15

As noted elsewhere, there is quite a difference in sales of a history book and of one focused on current affairs. The “up like a rocket, down like a stick” sales behaviour typical of many social science books compared with a more pedestrian sales pattern for many history books can be seen in the image below.

Arguably, however, in many ways this image is misleading. Just how is illustrated with examples from four NIAS Press books.

Coming out in the near future is a history of three political dissidents in pre-war Japan. On the face of it, this is a specialist work of interest to only a few scholars and one might expect sales to be modest. Think again, says the author, pointing out in an essay on Japanese politics at the crossroads that the country is in a similar situation to what it was in the late 1920s and 1930s; her book is highly relevant.

Japanese politics were also on the menu when I had lunch with Dominic Al-Badri last week. More specifically, with the new LDP government of Shinzo Abe beginning to make its mark, topicality and longevity/relevance were issues that I raised with Dominic with regard to the volume he co-edited on the aftermath of the 2011 triple disaster in Japan. The book was only released at the beginning of March but, I wondered, was it already out of date? Not at all, Dominic replied. The issues arising from the disaster still remain, so too most policy responses. About the only issue not covered in the book is that of constitutional reform, something of abiding interest to PM Abe but few other Japanese politicians. That said, while initial sales of the book have been strong, we can expect them to decline (perhaps quite rapidly) as time passes; memory of the disaster will lose its potency and new events will make the book’s analysis less relevant.

Certainly, the era of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand is long gone; he was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Sales were massive when we published the definitive assessment of Thaksin’s impact on Thai politics and society back in 2005 but the copies sold had fallen markedly by 2008 when the deposed prime minister sought political asylum in the United Kingdom. Even today, however, the book continues to sell – perhaps because Thaksin’s sister is now the country’s prime minister but more than likely also because of the scholarship (the book has been judged to be “essential reading for anyone interested in understanding ‘Thaksinization’ and what is clearly an extraordinary chapter in modern Thailand’s political history”).

Finally, there is the case of Trudy Jacobsen’s history of women and power in Cambodia. This had less dramatic initial sales than After the Earthquake and Thaksinization but it continues to sell, week after week, despite Cambodian history hardly being a mainstream subject. Why? Certainly the scholarship but also the relevance; this is, as one reviewer wrote, “an exceptional book of considerable merit that will be of interest to a wide range of academics working in history, anthropology, gender studies, politics, religion and Southeast Asian studies”. Not only do libraries and individuals buy the book but also it is still used in courses five years after publication.

In short, what is at work here is a combination of at least three factors: topicality, relevance and scholarship. History often deals with dead people but that doesn’t make it any less relevant.


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