04 April 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 12 comments

Dimitri Rotov had a very interesting post/rant on his blog today. He mentioned that I, along with several others, have been encouraging him to write a book about McClellan for some time now. I really think that Dimitri is the logical choice to write the definitive study of Mac’s life, and I can only reiterate the hope that he will do so.

Dimitri wrote:

I may write a book. I’m thinking about it. But I don’t feel obliged to do so.

Can this blog be a book substitute? I think it can. It requires a leap of faith, perhaps, over the bound book culture. It requires a dispensation: “He’s not being lazy or unfocused.”

Can pathbreaking research be published on the web? I think it must be. The least we can have from copyrighted work is summary and conclusions.

Given the painful transition out of print technology, the decline in the Civil War publishing model, and the accessibility of web publishing to everyman, it seems to me we can all fail better, much better, on the Internet.

Can that be my credo?

I thought I would kick in my two cents’ worth on this interesting issue. Let me begin by stating that I have a very real and very powerful bias/preference for real, honest-to-goodness books. I like the feel, sight, and smell of a book. I love the look of a full bookcase, brimming with volumes. Having said that, I am also a bit of a techno-nerd, and am married to a propeller head. So, I get the idea of making information generally available on the Internet.

Here’s my problem with Dimitri’s concept. I am, and remain, very concerned with protecting the integrity of copyright. The Internet makes it ridiculously easy to steal copyrighted material (it is, of course simple enough to xerox or scan a book, but you can’t copy/paste a book). My thoughts on this topic have been explored in depth on this blog with respect to Google’s massive copyright infringement scheme, and I won’t beat that poor dead horse here again. Having said that, the concern is legitimate and valid. How would you at least make an effort to protect the integrity of your intellectual property, Dimitri?

The other issue that I wanted to address is the question of how does one make any money from something that is entirely published on a blog? Let’s be clear about this: I am a realist. I don’t expect to get rich writing books on the Civil War. It’s not going to happen, and I understand that. At the same time, I spend a lot of money doing the research for my books, between buying books, paying researchers, traveling to battlefields, and paying cartographers. While I don’t expect to get rich, I would at least like to break even on these projects. Getting paid at least provides the basic funding for the next book project, so that I’m not having to dig deeply out of pocket each time that I commence another project (and I usually have several different research projects going on at any given time, all in different stages of the process). In other words, the royalties for the prior books provide the funding for future books. It is, frankly, about the only way that I can justify the expenditures to Susan. If she had her way, we’d be making John Grisham money from my writing, unrealistic as that might be. Heck, I’d settle for David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin money.

From my perspective, the only way that I could get behind the idea of “publishing” a book on a blog would be if there was some way to guarantee a flow of revenue coming from it. Writing a couple of hundred years ago, Dr. Ben Johnson wrote, and quite correctly: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money.” I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Johnson’s observation, and I may be a lof of things, but I am not a blockhead, if this is the operative definition of blockhead.

Perhaps the ITunes model of paying for individual songs before downloading them might be a solution to this problem, but it would require some fairly sophisticated e-commerce capability on the web site. I won’t speak for Dimitri, but I can unquestionably say that I don’t have the technical skills to do so, meaning that Susan would have to do it. There’s also the question of how you would price the downloads, etc. I’m really not sure how Dimitri intends to address this issue, if at all, but for me, this one would be a real deal-breaker.

So, the upshot of it is that while I think that Dimitri’s got an extremely interesting idea here, I think that it requires some serious thought and serious planning in order for it to work. I wish him well with it, and I will be watching carefully to see how he tackles these issues.

And to reiterate what I’ve said before: write the damned book, Dimitri. Mac deserves as much.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Paul Taylor
    Tue 04th Apr 2006 at 9:52 pm

    Eric,

    Reading this rant gave me an icy, “twilight zone” moment, a strong sense of deja vu, especially the bit about spousal justification. ;-) In spite of my best efforts, the outgo for this hobby always seems to beat the inflow. Speaking of John Grisham, my wife occasionally pipes up about trying my hand at fiction, especially when she reads about the big bucks being raked in by Civil War titles such as “Cold Mountain” or “Widow of the South.” I tell her ‘tis a wise man who knows his limitations. Then there’s a colleague at work who tells he me he read somewhere that non-fiction writers are all just frustrated novelists. Hmmm… What say you? Have you ever gotten the bug to write a novel?

    As far as publishing an actual book or on the net, well, for me it’s a slam-dunk in favor of books. The internet is just too ethereal. My fear is that a server crash or a good hacking of your site, and years of work could be gone in a flash. Not too mention the never ending costs of maintaining the site. I knew a guy in Virginia whose life’s work was his website devoted to a small Virginia battle. He has been forced to all but shut down due to repeated attacks from God knows who or where.

    A book on the other hand is the tangible result of one’s efforts. If well-made, it will still be here when we have all turned to dust. A reminder to some future reader that we were here and left something behind. If an author is fortunate and blessed enough to have multiple publications, they may form a sort of legacy. I admire folks who are tech savvy and always cutting-edge, but I’ll stick with cloth and paper.

    Paul

  2. Tue 04th Apr 2006 at 10:22 pm

    Paul,

    I have tried my hand at writing fiction, but I’m really bad at it. I find writing dialogue exceedingly difficult, and all too often, my dialogue comes out sounding like a legal brief. I wish I was better at it. It would be nice to make some REAL money for a change. :-)

    Your points about the ethereal nature of the Internet are well-taken, and I agree.

    Eric

  3. Dave Kelly
    Wed 05th Apr 2006 at 9:23 am

    As a Joint planner I got well acquainted with Defense IS and data management. Integrated monolithic systems are great for putting real time, common shared knowledge at the hands of all folks. But data input is a constant problem. Somebody has to feed the machine. And to intelligently feed the machine mid grade officers were glued to screens drelbing for the system.

    The system takes on a life of its own. The system geeks make the money and the inputers are supposed to bust their buns feeding the beast. It’s an aspect of the compensation issue, along with just how much time and energy you divert into shoveling electrons instead of doing what you profess.

    Computers were supposed to get us to all go paperless and have done the opposite; creating a greater appetite for expression. Computers were supposed to make us more efficient in the workplace; but they’ve created a glut of interfaces that are counterproductive to individual performance as you weed your way through 20 messages for every one you actually want and need.

    Lots of unresolved issues in the new age ;).

  4. Sam Elliott
    Wed 05th Apr 2006 at 1:20 pm

    Although I understand the quality of printed books is uneven, in my opinion one of the things that will be lost in web publishing is the critical reading a manuscript gets before it is published in most main-line presses. I barely have the time to read the good stuff, much less waste my time on unvetted material.

  5. Rob Wick
    Wed 05th Apr 2006 at 6:06 pm

    Working as I do in the book selling trade, I don’t think printed books will ever be replaced, simply because there are too many people like Eric (and myself and just about everyone I work with) in the country. E-books, or books that are available on the web, may come along as an interesting sideline, but printed matter will not go away. Also, just a note to Sam Elliott–it isn’t just web publishing were critical reading seems lost. Books that are published by whatever vanity presses are called nowdays are hardly ever edited (an added expense) and it shows in the quality. Personally, if a person can’t have his work edited, I would question the validity of said work.

  6. Sam Elliott
    Wed 05th Apr 2006 at 8:57 pm

    Rob, I understand that to be the case, and I agree with your viewpoint of editing. Unfortunately, a number of the smaller and/or vanity presses scrimp on that aspect, if they attend to it at all.

  7. Thu 06th Apr 2006 at 11:01 am

    Hi guys,

    In terms of peer review or editing, proofing. We can think larger here. Web publishing isn’t limited to do-it-yourself. Picture online publishers following the same conventions as print. Brings to mind some revenue possibilities, too.

    As a side note, don’t be too smug about quality in print. Even the major houses produce fairly crappy work. Spelling and factual errors, bloated writing, poor structure, grammar, and flow, weak scholarship suggested by feeble footnoting (or the lack). You know what I mean. How many times do you shake your head while reading, asking “who proofed this”?

    I too love paper books. Had to build an addition to hold the overflow.

  8. Thu 06th Apr 2006 at 4:03 pm

    Hi Eric (and Dimitri – as I think he’ll end up reading this too). I have experienced this VERY SAME dilemma/situation in regards to a recent project of my own. Although the “Civil War-side” of my career has taken precedent, I am still (and will always be) a baseball-writer. That is my “bread and butter” so-to-speak and helps pay the bills. One of my latest offerings is entitled “Luckiest Fans On The Face Of This Earth.” Originally this WAS to be a traditional, 300+ page BOOK consisting of a compilation of my related Yankees Fall Classic materials, but my (Christian) Civil War books appear to be the ONLY ones any publishers want. As my newspaper duties and up-and-coming projects have dominated my time, this multi-year effort , is now “officially” D-E-A-D in the print world. So, in an effort not to waste good editing, I have created a mini-website for it within my main page. I am becoming less patient in my old age and gave up after only 6 rejections (all lovely, but consistently saying it’s not “robust” enough in today’s market). I had high hopes for this one (as my rep w/ Baseball-Almanac is more strong in that genre), but I was wrong and lost my focus for being a historian in the first place. Now I will make ZERO dollars on this – but in retrospect, I am more excited about the opportunity to share the study than I am about getting a few royalties. In other words – I love books too – and I have been very lucky to have a couple published, but I also love sharing my passion for our National Pastime. So if this is “failing”, I’m happy to get an “F”. Thanks to both of you for giving some of us other “budding” authors (who were wandering around with “stars” in our eyes… well, “pinstripes” in my case) some perspective.

  9. Thu 06th Apr 2006 at 5:19 pm

    Michael,

    Thanks for the input–I appreciate it.

    As for your illness–oops, obsession–with the New York Yankees, I promise not to hold such a heinous disease against you. :-)

    Eric

  10. Thu 06th Apr 2006 at 5:29 pm

    Eric, Thanks.

    As for YOUR illness–oops, obsession–with the “real” Yankees.

    I promise not to hold such a heinous disease against you either. :)

  11. Nic
    Sun 09th Apr 2006 at 11:37 am

    i think you mean Samuel Johnson

  12. Sun 09th Apr 2006 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks for correcting me, Nic.

    Eric

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