Continuing on from Part 1 of my interview with The Camp Pope Bookshop's Clark Kenyon.
DW: You started out as a mail-order business (and of course still do mail out catalogs). Have your online operations largely overtaken the mail-order part of your business?
CK: Online sales represent the bulk of my business now. But the catalog still is important. Last year, after Catalog 41 came out, I got a tremendous spike in online sales. There had to be a connection. The problem with the paper catalog, aside from the cost of printing and mailing, is that it can’t be updated in real time like the online catalog can. But it gets people to look at the website, which can lead to sales.
DW: You’ve obviously been successful as a Civil War niche book publisher and seller. As you continue to concentrate almost exclusively on the T-M theater, what are you finding to be your biggest challenge in maintaining the viability of your business?
CK: Limited capital. I could publish more if I could finance it. But, as you say, it’s a niche. It’s a small area of a big war with a correspondingly small audience. So I’m not sure that would be a very sound investment. I’ve pondered the question for years of how to attract more people to the study of the Trans-Miss theater, and I have found that unless you had an ancestor who fought here or you yourself live here, you don’t really care. Interest in the Trans-Miss cannot be manufactured.
DW: I've read several news articles that mention used books as the fastest growing segment of the bookselling market. Do you have any desire to expand that part of your business?
CK: I just got out of the used book business (which is how I started) because it was so slow. I do maintain a catalog of what’s left of my used inventory on my website and on a couple of others. I hadn’t heard that used books were making a comeback. But maybe those articles refer to how the Internet has made it so easy to find a readable copy of a book. When I want to buy a book I don’t go the local bookstore (which is how it’s been done for centuries), I go to Amazon.com and get the cheapest used copy I can find. It’s simple economics. Unfortunately, it has run a lot of booksellers out of business; but that’s life. CPB can keep going because I’m small and the stuff I publish is available only from me (unless you can get it used). Gives me a little bit of a foothold.
DW: You mentioned the reasons behind the demise of The Trans-Miss. News as a declining subscription base and your need to devote your time to publishing projects. Based on your experience and with so much information available for free on the internet (and the common expectation that it be free), do you think a subscription-based newsletter of similar scope is even a viable possibility today?
CK: During the two years or so I was working on TMN I had no time for book publishing. I would have liked to do both, but one of them had to go. TMN was very difficult, not the least because I have no aptitude for journalism. It was more of a digest of stuff I had found published elsewhere. And it was expensive. Subscriptions barely paid for printing and mailing. It would make no sense today with the existence of websites, blogs, and message boards. You can do the work you do with so much greater efficiency and immediacy that I can’t see the point in a physical newsletter, unless it contains detailed instructions on how to do something that are difficult to follow in a browser window.
DW: What types of CW books do you treasure most from your own personal library at home?
CK: I wanted to collect all the books in the Iowa section of Dornbusch’s bibliography, and I almost had them all. But somewhere along the line I lost my desire to own rare books. I’m afraid I have sold them all. There’s a guy on the radio who says never fall in love with something that can’t love you back. It’s so true.
DW: Are there any Camp Pope projects in the pipeline (at least the ones you can speak of publicly) that you'd like to mention?
CK: Of course you know about my forthcoming book on the Battle of Athens, Missouri (August 5, 1861). I’m really excited about this because this is an original work of scholarship by author Jonathan Cooper-Wiele on a battle that has gotten very little attention. We’ll have some illustrations that have never appeared in print before, too.
Mike Banasik is working on a new book that is a compilation of postwar newspaper articles on the Trans-Miss from the Southern perspective. That will be a couple of years down the line. There’s been some talk of me reprinting his Embattled Arkansas, but no decision has been made.
I’m always eager to do contract work. In the past couple of years I’ve done two books for Kenneth Lyftogt, who is a teacher at the University of Northern Iowa, and these have been very successful. I get a lot of manuscripts pitched to me, but people usually want a traditional publishing relationship, where I get to pay for it. That’s pretty uncommon at CPB.
DW: I am certainly looking forward to the Athens study and want to extend my best wishes toward all your future efforts, Clark. And thanks again for your time.!
[Click here to read Part One of the Q&A with Clark Kenyon of Camp Pope Bookshop]