Friday, September 26, 2008

Finding a Niche: Too Much Lincoln?

Suppose an entrepreneur tried to fund a business plan to develop and sell a new operating system for computers.  The pitch: Better than Windows or Linux.

Chances are pretty good that he or she would be chased out of more than a handful of venture firms.

It’s not that the idea is necessarily so bad; maybe the world really does need a new operating system. The challenge, of course, is in the competition.

 In one corner is a formidable technology company with a near-monopoly share. In the other is a worldwide collaborative of geniuses who are giving away product for free.

As competition goes, there's not much a niche to fill.

And yet, when an author walks into a publisher and says, “Are you interested in my brilliant new book about Abraham Lincoln,” shouldn’t the same thing happen? Not only is Lincoln arguably the most written-about American in history, but some of the most capable historians in the land have done the writing.  These include Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Herbert Donald, James M. McPherson, Stephen B. Oates, James G. Randall, John Hay & John George Nicolay, Isaac N. Arnold, and William H. Herndon. There are some Pulitzer Prize winners in there, as well as a friend of Lincoln and his law partner in Springfield. That is daunting competition.

Wikipedia's Historical rankings of United States Presidents shows where Lincoln stands against his peers. The wiki article tabulates twelve polls taken of historians, political scientists and other notables, from Arthur Schlesinger’s work in 1948 to a study done by the Wall Street Journal in 2005. With a few exceptions, these polls were each conducted with different participants and slightly different questions, and none purport to be statistically accurate of anything, except qualitative consensus.

Here's my summary:
The graph above show all of the presidents who have scored in the top 5. Lincoln, Washington and FDR are always one, two or three. And Lincoln spends more time at one or two than either of the others. All of which reinforces the point: Historians love the guy. Historians write about the guy. Who in his right mind, then, would write about Lincoln and expect a positive commercial outcome?

Apparently, lots of people. As the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth approaches on February 12, 2009, at least fifty new titles about the president are due out between now and early 2010. This includes three complete biographies; books of essays and photos; books about Lincoln as a military leader, inventor, youth and writer; books about Lincoln’s family and books his connections to folks like Charles Darwin, Robert Burns, Frederick Douglas.

If you felt absolutely compelled to write about a president, wouldn’t you want to pick one with a mixed record--at least one who wasn’t rated in the top three by historians for fifty years?

With that in mind, I graphed a few of the more historically controversial of our presidents, looking for a contrarian opportunity to dazzle the publishing world.

Check out Rutherford B. Hayes? Ever see a book about Hayes? Exactly. Here was a guy brought in to clean up the scandals of Ulysses Grant’s administration and, in one term, managed to pull Federal troops out of the South, shaped-up a very corrupt civil service, took courageous steps to settle the railroad strike of 1877, and stood firm in enforcing a sound money policy.

Do I see you dozing? OK, maybe not the subject we’re looking for.

But Grover Cleveland slipped from 8 to 20 over the last 50 years, right? There must be a story there.

Are you sleeping?

OK, maybe I get it. Maybe it really is all about Lincoln.

As a matter of fact, I have just been informed that Abraham Lincoln was the tallest president in history.

My book on this exciting new Lincoln development will be out next February.

Just about the time I’m ready to release my brilliant new operating system.