04 July 2006 by Published in: General News 6 comments

Kevin Levin has an interesting post on his blog today expressing his preference for university press books since they utilize an anonymous peer review process. He asked what some of the smaller independents such as Ironclad Publishing, Savas-Beatie, and White Mane do in the way of peer review.

Let me begin by saying that White Mane does none. As it is not much more than a subsidy press, they will publish anything that comes in the door, usually without even copy editing the books. That’s why White Mane has such an atrocious reputation. I might add that the company’s atrocious reputation is richly deserved.

I also want to address the question of university press peer review. I’ve had four books published by university presses, so I have some experience with the process. For the most part, that was a good experience. Most of the feedback that I got was useful, corrected factual errors, and generally made the books better. However, some of it was completely useless to me. The stuff that I’ve had published by university presses has been editing someone else’s words, and my object has always been to remain as faithful as possible to those words. Suggestions like adding discussion about impact on civilians, slaves, etc., are totally useless to me for a variety of reasons.

First, and foremost, the so-called “new military history” holds little interest for me. As a general statement, I couldn’t care less about the impact on civilians, slaves, etc., unless that impact affected the outcome of the battle. Not being an academic historian, I don’t have to bow at the feet of that particular golden calf, and I decline to do so. As a general statement, social history holds very, very little interest for me, so I choose not to deal with it unless it really is important to what I’m doing. To some extent, I have to deal with some of this in my Dahlgren bio, so to the extent that it’s necessary to tell the story, I am doing so. But, that’s the exception and not the rule.

Second, the other issue with academic peer review is that it perpetuates a tendency toward continuing to churn out books that are of little interest to anyone other than those with a heavy academic bent. It’s groupthink. If the manuscript doesn’t fit the template for the “new military history” (whatever that is), then it will be rejected. Thus, the tendency in the university presses is to perpetuate the unhappy tendency to downplay military history in favor of social history.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Frank O’Reilly’s wonderful campaign study of the Fredericksburg Campaign, published by LSU, comes to mind. It’s a very traditional campaign study that is almost purely military history, and I loved it. The same holds true for all four of Gordon Rhea’s terrific books on the Overland Campaign, all also published by LSU, and all of which are very traditional military history studies. Likewise, Ken Noe’s excellent book on the Battle of Perryville, published by the University of Kentucky Press, also comes to mind. It’s also a much more traditional military history. My work is heavy on tactics and extremely light on social history. That means that, by definition, it’s not well suited to a university press. Our cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign study will only include as much social history as is absolutely necessary to address the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, but that will be the extent of the social history. The rest will be pure, traditional military history.

Having said all of that, I will now share my answers to Kevin’s questions.

With Ironclad, peer review of manuscripts is one of my primary responsibilities within the company.

I can tell you without any hesitation whatsoever that nothing we publish goes out without extensive peer review. With respect to Gettysburg stuff, I typically handle that myself, as I have 35+ years of study into the battle. I’ve literally read hundreds of books on the subject, and I’ve spent countless days walking the field. I think I can safely say that I know as much about Gettysburg as anyone out there claiming to be an expert. If it’s something that I don’t feel comfortable with, I certainly know enough people to find someone. My East Cavalry Field manuscript was reviewed by Scott Hartwig.

For things non-Gettysburg, we pay someone who is an expert to give me a detailed review, usually done anonymously. The Averasboro book was reviewed by Mark Bradley, who is THE authority on the Carolinas Campaign.

We have one book in the production queue on cavalry operations in the Chickamauga Campaign. I have only a passing knowledge of this subject, so we paid an authority on the campaign to review and comment on the manuscript (I told this person I would not identify him, so I can’t name him here. Suffice it to say that he’s one of the top five or six experts on the battle).

Our copy editor at Ironclad is an expert on the Civil War in his own right. He’s extremely knowledgeable, and he frequently catches things. Likewise, we use Lee Merideth to do our indexing, and Lee also catches things. Finally, I do the final read–mostly a proofread–before the work goes to the printer, and I occasionally find things even at that late stage in the process.

Between the readers, the editor, the indexer, and finally me, the likelihood of something other than a small error getting by all of us are pretty small.

I can also tell you that Brassey’s, now known as Potomac Books, does the same thing. I’ve been paid by them to review three manuscripts over the years. Two were published. One was trashed on my recommendation. Having worked with Ted Savas on two different books, I can tell you that Ted does the same thing.

We all have the same objective: publishing the best possible book with the fewest errors, and our process is designed to try to make sure that that’s precisely what happens.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Randy Sauls
    Wed 05th Jul 2006 at 10:40 am

    Eric:

    An observation and a question:

    With what seems to be a large body of social history on the shelves of most bookstores I visit, I don’t understand the point to a university press trying to have a military history author fill a battle or campaign study with social history. It’s not as if that stuff isn’t being covered adequately already. Go figure.
    As for your own experience with non-university press peer review, is the reviewer interested primarily in the factual intergrity of the manuscript, for instance checking dates, quotes, sources etc.? Are they also looking to readabilty and such, or are those matters reviewed by in-house editors?

    Randy

  2. Wed 05th Jul 2006 at 11:00 am

    Eric and Kevin:

    I confess that I’ve found this discussion thoroughly enjoyable, especially when it’s been “all about me” (to quote a favorite country song). Certainly it’s earned me “props” with the wife!

    Kevin’s right to point out that while I’m not a trained military historian, I attempted to bring elements of the “new military history” into a traditional narrative that would appeal to academics and non-academics. I’ve been praised and criticized both for not doing more of that. Frankly, I found the traditional framework darned seductive. But overall, both your comments, as well as those of other reviewers, suggest to me that maybe what we really need at this juncture is a common definition of “new military history.” I don’t think we’ll be all that far apart if we can just get on the same page.

    On a wider note, I just continue to be fascinated in general, in a post-modernist sense, by how readers’ perceptions of books so often are different than what was intended by the author. At various places on the net I find that I’m a traditionalist, a trend setter, the author of the definitive Perryville book, not the author of the definitive Perryville book, a member of the anti-Thomas clique, and really not so hard on Pap after all. Now if someone can tell me if I’m a Centennialist or not…. ;-)

    Thanks to you both for the very kind words and your work in general.

    Ken

    (Cross-posted on Kevin’s site)

  3. Wed 05th Jul 2006 at 1:04 pm

    Randy,

    The answer is both. My experience is that the anonymous readers are to evaluate the entire work, for factual accuracy as well as for readability, and their reports often point out areas that require correction/improvement.

    Eric

  4. Wed 05th Jul 2006 at 1:10 pm

    Ken,

    You are, of course, very welcome. I wouldn’t have said it if I hadn’t meant it.

    And no, I doubt that even Dimitri would call you a centennialist. :-)

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that a paradigm would be welcome. For now, the definition seems to follow along with how Justice Potter Stewart of the U. S. Supreme Court once defined obscenity: I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it. Perhaps the key is to come up with an operational definition that’s agreed upon by at least a majority, and then see how things fit in it.

    Here’s an example. We at Ironclad recently published a military study of the Battle of Averasboro. There’s plenty of civilian stuff–especially about hospitals and the like–in the appendices of the book, but the main body is purely a military analysis. Considering that the authors of the book are an active duty Special Forces lieutenant colonel and a just retired major who spent his career in Army aviation, it makes sense that the main body of the book is purely military history. Yet, when he reviewed it in Civil War News, John Marszalek blasted it–quite unfairly, I think–for not being sufficiently “new military history”.

    As the publisher, I’m probably going to respond to it on the grounds that such is neither the purpose of the book nor the series that it was part of, and that, given that, it’s an unfair criticism.

    Eric

  5. Thu 06th Jul 2006 at 3:55 pm

    Eric, I posted this on Kevin’s site – and now that I am reading the entire discussions (BOTH here and there) – I may be off the mark in regards to this EXACT debate here. However, I do feel the need to comment on the growing-practice of making demands post-press and “writers vs. peers vs. the material” – so here is a revised version for what its worth. Thanks.

    Gentlemen. I have enjoyed browsing this discussion… I find it bothersome that some people feel the need to put their own requirements on what a writer (any writer) should and shouldn’t write, what topics they should and shouldn’t focus on, and what interests they should or shouldn’t pursue. I am NOT in any way suggesting that the readers (and/or) peers of historians and authors opinions do not matter – BUT with the exception of your publisher, editor, agent, and mom – their personal demands are somewhat unmerited when selecting material (IMO).

    There are more than enough quality writers, historians and bloggers out there – to more than compensate for one another’s so called “shortcomings” (topic-wise). I believe that a writer’s style, and passion for the subject SHOULD be a component of their work. Academic historians (of which I do not fit) have placed so much emphasis on the writing of “unbiased” and “politically-correct” material that the whole genre is in serious risk of becoming “watered down.” And HOW many books can you possibly have on the same subjects over-and-over. What is left to write?

    I understand the need for educational and reference materials (I’ve written hundreds of them for Baseball-Almanac), BUT there should also be a bigger market for more “personal histories” that share the writers own admiration or dislike of historical subjects and individuals. I don’t want Shelby Foote to teach me about the battle of Gettysburg – I want to know what HIS interpretation of the engagement was. I am nowhere near the “level of notoriety” that Eric Wittenberg is, but I can comment on my own intentions as a budding-author. My books (sorry for the shameless plug) are clearly written w/ a Christian/Southern bias as my goal was sharing the stories of Jackson and Stuart as Christian soldiers. Of course I had to research and “fit in” the usual stuff (quotes, letters, service highlights), but it was merely in support of their story OFF the battlefield. If you wanted to learn the “academic side” of Stonewall or the Southern Knight, you would go to an academic source like a Robertson bio. The things that did not necessarily interest me (or were overdone in the past) may have been touched-on but I didn’t “force it” in there to fulfill some checklist of topics.

    My point is (and I may be off the mark here) that good writing (historical non-fiction) is rooted in fact, but revealed as an extension of that author’s own desired interpretation. I wouldn’t want to read a dry presentation on anything – and if I do change my mind – I’ll refer to a textbook.

    Eric’s work is exactly what it is… ERIC’s – and it is HIS passion and dedication to the subject – and his own obsessions with it – that makes his stuff worth reading. He did say that he wrote for entertainment and as a result (of his preferences) – it ends up being tremendously ENTERTAINING for the rest of us.

    Strictly my own “uneducated” opinion here – too many “academic” publishing houses print nothing more than reference material for other writers – who take that information and breathe life into it. I’d like to see a hybrid of both and for more variety and passion and less tactical manifestos and analytical dribble. I’m not supporting the practice of publishing “revisionist” or this modern “new” history – but more of what makes a book worth writing in the first place… In my own experience (in the baseball genre) it is the legends and folklore of “Did Babe Ruth Call His Shot” – And not the box score and stats from the game that’s worth reading.

  6. Thu 06th Jul 2006 at 8:13 pm

    Michael,

    Excellent points, and I thank you for making them. I guess the point is that that’s why there are different flavors of ice cream, so everyone can get what they want.

    Eric

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