Have you ever written a book review?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Did Professor Carole Emberton Read the Book She Just Reviewed?

Some book reviews are positive, some are mixed, and some are negative. This is true for nearly all books, and that's the nature
of the beast and goes along with the territory.

All any publisher and author ask is that a reviewer actually read the book before reviewing it, and then assess it honestly for what it is, and what it is not.

John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General, by Stephen Hood, raises the hackles a lot of people because it calls out many academicians and general students of the war by name and produces one example after another of sloppy scholarship, reliance on secondary sources that are themselves incorrect in matters of fact, mistakes, misrepresentations--and in some cases, even worse.

Readers will decide whether the author makes his case or not. It is interesting to note that of the 60 or so reviews floating around thus far, not a single one alleges or points out that the author was wrong in how he cited a historian, or that a footnote (of which there are about 1,000) was wrong, or that a quote was wrong, etc. Not a single one.

Carole Emberton, an associate professor of history at the University of Buffalo (SUNY), recently reviewed John Bell Hood for The Civil War Monitor (an outstanding publication, by the way). Read her review here. It is a strange review brought to my attention by many readers. It made me wonder, "Did this reviewer even bother to read the book--or even the dust jacker?--before going out of her way to slam it?"

Is that a fair question? Here are two very troubling indicator:

1) She thinks it is a biography (all of you who have read this know it is clearly not a biography in any sense of the word), and she thinks the author is a biographer (ditto). 

2) More telling, however, is this little revealing gem:

"In his effort to resuscitate General Hood's reputation as a competent if not talented commander who did his best in impossible situations, the author spends far more time and energy skewering those historians than he does giving the reader a new or at least more nuanced interpretation of General Hood."

Why yes, Dr. Emberton, he does "spend far more time and energy" (note the italics above) on what others have written about Hood. As my teenage son might say, professor . . . DUH! In fact, that is the purpose of the entire book. and the book has absolutely NOTHING to do with the part that is in bold-italics above. Nothing. At. All. If she had read the Introduction, the author explains all this there in deep detail, and he mentions it again and again throughout the book.

She even criticizes the way the book is organized, when it fact, it is organized by topic to present how others have covered the topic in question. Again, discussed throughout.

Even the dust jacket explains it.

Now, I don't really give a damn if someone slams one of our books, so long as they have read it, and have legitimate complaints. Cites are wrong? Major collections not included? Too many typos and other mistakes? Incorrect maps? That is fair, and that is how it should be.

But I question whether this professor read this book, because she went out of her way to produce a hatchet job on a book that does not exist. Did she read it? I don't know with certainty either way. Why did she she write what she did (and I urge you to read the entire review) if she read the book. This book is replete with explanations addressing these very things--on the jacket, on the publisher's website, in the Introduction, and scattered throughout.

The author wrote his own rebuttal, which you can find in the same location below her "review." You will have to be the judge whether or not she read the book and whether or not this is fair review.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

If You Like Independent Military History Publishing, You Can Keep Your Independent Military History Publishing. Period. Well . . .

A love-hate relationship.
In that, I know I am not alone.

Unfortunately, many publishers large and small who were in business a decade ago are no longer in business. The reasons for their demise are legion. Some were poorly run. Others produced a sub par product. Some merged with other companies. For many others (most?), the economics of the marketplace, driven by rapid changes in technology, made it impossible for them to compete.

Most small publishers simply do not have a parachute when their plane takes flak and begins to lose altitude.

"Dude--I didn't see that digital tidal wave coming. Did you?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. I did."
If at all possible, I try to purchase my books directly from publishers (especially smaller ones) because as a publisher I understand what that means: a larger proportion of every dollar goes directly to the publisher and the author. The margins in publishing are RAZOR thin, and it takes an outstanding product, coupled with vigorous marketing, to pay the bills and keep the lights on. And capable employees. And great authors. And the careful and judicious choosing of manuscripts. And good book design. And . . . luck. (Yeah, it's not easy.)

Amazon has made this much more difficult for many people. And I understand why: Raw economics. Do I save a few bucks, or support Small Company X.

The scenario that keeps me up at night every once in a while is what the Civil War book-reading world will look like if and when the quality small publishers are driven out of the marketplace. So many good smaller military houses are simply . . . no longer. (The two that always jump into my mind that I enjoyed the most are Morningside and Sarpedon. There are dozens more.)

Relying on Simon and Schuster for our quality Civil War books doesn't sit well with me. I like my maps plentiful and my footnotes down at foot level. University presses turn out great books, but fewer U presses focus on quality military studies, and then only a handful each season. One or two other publishers I am aware of publish just about anything they can get their hands on (many are Savas Beatie rejects), format the (largely) unedited text, slap on a generic cover, attach a steep price, and push it out there.

I am sure some of you think, "Well, self-publishing is the wave of the future and so there will always be lots of books to choose from." Perhaps. But just because you can turn on a stove top and sprinkle herbs and spices on a steak doesn't make you Ruth's Chris. I regularly get self-published books in the mail. Few, sadly, pass muster. Invariably, after flipping through and looking at the design, leading, type-face, paper, binding, etc. I am disappointed. There is no substitute for knowing what you are doing from the bottom up in ANY business.

My friend John Fox, who runs Angle Valley Press, just wrote an interesting blog post on all this. I encourage you to read it. His books are among the best, too.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Little Personal History, A LOT of Fun.

David (left), and your truly (right)
My old friend, former publishing partner, and fellow Civil War enthusiast David Woodbury wrote a piece recently about, well, about a lot of things past and present. It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip down memory lane, and I thought some of you might enjoy it. 
So I stole it from his blog. :) And by the way, his blog Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles is outstanding and one you should bookmark and visit often. 
Thanks DW.
Strolling Down Memory Lane: The South Bay Civil War Round Table
Way back in 1988, my wife and I flew from San Francisco to San Diego where I was excited to attend the Annual West Coast Civil War Conference, then organized by Jerry Russell of Civil War Round Table Associates. I had just finished reading McPherson’s, Battle Cry of Freedom, and relished the prospects of listening to some authors hold forth on a variety of subjects. The featured historian was William C. “Jack” Davis, a tremendously knowledgeable and entertaining speaker. He told a story that had the audience laughing so hard, I remember it to this day (maybe some of you have heard it at other events – it involved him traipsing around his house with a Civil War saber, looking for a possible intruder). Bob Younger of Morningside Books was also there, and so I dropped a lot of cash on new reading material.

That conference was also where I met Ted Savas, who was then living in San Jose. He and his wife Carol, and Anne and I, gravitated together -- some of the only people in attendance who were still in their 20’s -- and the only four who had come down from Northern California (or so it seems to me now). We soon learned we had other things in common, such as Ted and I both hailing from Iowa (my mother grew up in his home town, and my father grew up nearby).

Not long after returning to the Bay Area, we got together at the Winchester Brewpub – just down the street from the legendary Winchester Mystery House – and started planning the creation of the South Bay Civil War Roundtable (at that time, there were roundtables in San Francisco, and on the Peninsula, one in the East Bay, but nothing in the area of San Jose, the most populous city in the area).

Our first meeting was held at Ted’s house with about 14 people in attendance. Ted became the first president, and I took up duties as the newsletter editor (and eventually became the 2nd president). At the first meeting, Zoyd Luce spoke on Benjamin “The Beast” Butler. Ted spoke the following month on Longstreet’s Suffolk Campaign, and I spoke at the third meeting on John Hunt Morgan’s Indiana/Ohio Raid. And just like that, we were off to the races, eventually finding a regular meeting place and steadily increasing the membership.

Within the next couple years, our group hosted the West Coast Conference after it had devolved into a moribund affair, and Jerry Russell was imploring the round tables themselves to take turns organizing it. The year after San Diego it was held in a dingy motel in Burbank, with very low attendance. It was in its death throes, and Russell was ready to give up. The following year we hosted the event near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, got the word out far and wide, and saw a great crowd turn out to hear a roster of speakers topped by Robert K. Krick, whose compensation included two tickets to the next 49ers game. That San Francisco conference was also where Ted and I debuted volume 1, number 1 of Civil War Regiments journal, which, along with a number of stand-alone campaign studies, would consume so much of our lives for years to come. After San Francisco, the Long Beach CWRT held a large, well-attended conference with James McPherson, and the meeting has been a rollicking success ever since.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the South Bay CWRT revived and re-energized the West Coast Conference, which today routinely sees 100+ in attendance, in nice venues, and with top-flight historians and authors (Richard Hatcher and Craig Symonds will be on hand next month).

At some point, I don’t remember when exactly, I stopped attending meetings of the South Bay CWRT in favor of the CompuServe forum I have administered for nearly 20 years, effectively an online CWRT whose members discuss the Civil War era all year long, and meet in person every spring to tour a battlefield. I eventually moved on to work at Stanford University Press, and Savas Woodbury Publishers became Savas Publishing, then Savas Beatie, and anyone who loves books on the Civil War knows what a strong presence Savas has been in that arena all these years later.

I’m pleased to say the South Bay CWRT is still going strong as well, compiling over the years a long record of generous donations to Civil War preservation organizations. When I saw that they were celebrating their 25th anniversary (which I calculate to be March of 2014), and that Ted was the guest speaker at the annual summer picnic, I decided to surprise him. We had not seen each other in over 10 years. I wish I could describe the look on his face when he glanced my way for the first time after arriving.

It was a lot of fun, and many memories were refreshed. Ted gave a masterful, no-notes talk on “The Battle of Payne’s Farm, November 27, 1863: Command & Competency During the Mine Run Campaign.” That, in itself, caused many more memories to surface, as I was with Ted at Payne’s Farm when he first began researching that fight, and when, using metal detectors, he established an artillery position by finding canister balls in the woods right where he surmised they would be found. He found the remnants of canister. My metal detector was so poor it literally could not detect a quarter sitting on the surface. I know because I tried.