30 April 2008 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 19 comments

Not Every Book Is Worthy of Publication. Writers write. That’s what we do. Some of us do it better than others. That’s not a criticism, it’s a statement of fact. I was blessed with some natural ability that has been honed from years of hard work. My writing has improved greatly from the early days simply because I’ve done so much of it. I still cringe when I read some of my early historical writings because they’re that bad.

On one hand, I’m very fortunate that I have never written anything that was intended for publication which was not accepted for publication. I know for a fact that there are very few people who can say that they’re batting 1.000 when it comes to having everything they’ve ever written published. Some of it is skill. Some of it is good luck in picking the right topic at the right time. Some of it is knowing the right people. I’ve never known the pain of a rejection letter for any of my work, but I know plenty of writers who claim it as a right of passage, sort of like fraternity hazing.

On the other hand, there are lots of people out there who think that they can write but have no business doing so. In my role as a publisher, I’ve had some God-awful manuscripts submitted to me. I can appreciate the effort and dedication that went into them, but it sometimes takes all of my willpower not to want to bash these people over the head and tell them the honest truth about just how terrible their work is. I remember one incident where a guy submitted an unsolicited manuscript of a Civil War novel that was, without doubt, the worst thing I have ever read. His main character was a Union soldier who somehow managed to fight in every single major battle of the war. That’s an interesting trick, swinging from theater to theater. Now, if that wasn’t bad enough, his best friend was a runaway slave who had enlisted in a regiment with the outbreak of the war in 1861. Never mind that blacks weren’t enlisted until the formation of the 54th Massachusetts in 1862. Mix in the fact that the writing was terrible, and you have a recipe for horridness that words almost cannot describe. I spent a week composing a rejection letter that was gentle but honest.

I am often asked to review things for people. Whenever my schedule permits, I try to accommodate those requests in an effort to return the many favors done for me over the years, although I often don’t get to things as quickly as they or I might like. Some of the things I read are quite good, and when that happens, I try to assist in placing it with a publisher. The best example of that I can think of was Russ Bonds’ very excellent Stealing the General. Within a few pages, I knew I was reading something special, and by the time I had finished it, I was determined to see it published. I’m the one who introduced Russ to Bruce Franklin, the publisher at Westholme Publishing, and Bruce saw the same merit in the book that I saw. Russ has hit the motherlode as a result: he’s sold a LOT of books, and he’s even optioned the movie rights. It doesn’t get much better than that. I’ve introduced a few others to Ted Savas in particular when I’ve thought there was merit in the work.

Some of the stuff I read is atrocious. Just a couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a chapter of a regimental history dealing with the 1864 Overland Campaign. It was so full of errors that I ended up largely rewriting it. But for what I did, the book would have been dead wrong, and would have been savaged by reviewers. That goes beyond what I’m normally willing to do, but I like the fellow who sent the chapter, and I wanted it to be correct, so I invested the better part of a day and a half into rewriting his chapter for him.

Here’s another story, and then I will come to my point. Several years ago, I was paid to ghostwrite a book for someone. Even after I did all I could for it short of doing additional research, which was not part of my contract, it’s still a bad book. The author self-published it because the original publisher elected to wash its hands of a bad book after I reported back on just how bad it was. The truth is that it was such a bad book that I didn’t want my name to appear on it, and I’m pleased to say that it doesn’t.

My point is that there are plenty of books in print that shouldn’t be. Self-publishing through venues like Xlibris, Lulu, or IUniverse makes it possible for things that never should/would have been published to find their way into print. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule; Fred Ray’s excellent Shock Troops of the Confederacy and Eric Jacobson’s For Cause & For Country come to mind immediately as self-published works that are quite good and worthwhile. Both had legitimate reasons for going the self-publication route, and I appreciate those reasons.

Don’t get me wrong: the self-publishing venue has some merits, such as providing a means for bringing out of print works back into print. However, it also lends a lot of credibility to works that don’t deserve that credibility. Some argue that self-publishing democratizes the practice, but it also means that a lot of trees get killed to publish awful books that never should have been published in the first place.

My point is that not everything that gets written deserves to be published. If a legitimate publisher tells you that, accept it and move on. Don’t subject the world to an atrocious book that adds nothing to the body of knowledge just to massage your ego.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Eric – Another great post, and I will write a little bit more here on one of the early points you made: “honing your natural ability.”

    I can’t stress this enough to aspiring authors and I’ve made the point in my periodic series on writing advice on my own blog. “Wannabe” book authors can do themselves a great favor by “paying their dues” in writing shorter pieces for magazines, journals, etc.

    This has several advantages:

    1) It build the writing credentials that publishers will demand

    2) It helps you develop and improve on your writing and research “craft”

    3) Writing for magazines almost always means short pieces (100-4000 words), and it helps you develop an essential discipline of choosing words carefully

    4) It allows you to develop new theories – and receive opinions on them…I know that both Gordon Rhea and Stephen Sears – two people I admire very much – have used N&S magazine (as an example) as a way to publish shorter pieces in advance of putting them in a book.

    I look forward to your additional posts on what you have learned.

    All My Best,

    Jim

  2. Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 3:31 pm

    I prefer to think of myself as a micropublisher rather than a self-publisher, since that still has implications of really bad books. I compare it to micro breweries — not too long ago only a few eccentrics made beer in their basements, and most of it was pretty bad. Now there are thousands of small breweries that make great beers.

    There’s really no reason why anyone can’t write a good book and sell it these says, now that the web has opened things up and broken the hold of big publishers and distributors. To find out more about this I highly recommend Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail.

    Yes, it’s a lot more work to DIY but you also make more money, which is nice. I’ve sold out 2/3 of my initial printing and am trying to decide whether to reprint or go for a second edition.

    The publishing world is changing right before our eyes, and if you’re a little guy, for the better. Let the market, not publishers, sort out what’s good and what isn’t.

  3. Valerie Protopapas
    Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 4:34 pm

    I remember reading an “alternate history” in which the author spoke of Confederate General PETER Longstreet. Apparently, Longstreet’s nickname “Old Pete” was taken at face value by the fellow. Now, as far as I know, anyone attempting to write about the War should at least have heard of General JAMES Longstreet! So obviously, the author in this case hadn’t heard all that much about the War! Well, at least he got both Presidents right.

  4. Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 10:46 pm

    Jim,

    I’d also add one more to your excellent list:

    Read, read, and read some more.

    My writing skills have been honed by my voracious reading. Of the over 3,000 books on the CW that I own, I can honestly say I’ve read 80% of them cover to cover. And I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of other books – fiction and non-fiction on all sorts of subjects. If you don’t read and read, you can’t learn to write. You will gain an appreciation for the telling of a story, the turning of a phrase, the proper structure of a sentence. (Which reminds me – thank God I paid attention back in school during sentence structure lessons in English class – it AMAZES me the percentage of adults today who couldn’t write a properly structured, complete sentence if someone showed them how. It simply just amazes me.)

    J.D.

  5. Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 10:53 pm

    Your novel writer was wrong in any case, but I just wanted to put in a plug for the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, whose organization, and whose baptism by fire, predated that of the 54th Massachusetts.

    David

  6. Wed 30th Apr 2008 at 11:28 pm

    Eric, thank you for the compliment. I agree, there are some books which today might be easily produced that should NEVER see the light of day. Someone I ran into last week thought mine was among them. A real J. B. Hood hater who is apparently infatuated with, among others, N. B. Forrest, J. E. Johnston, and, of course, Patrick Cleburne. He told me he was writing a screenplay so the truth will come out. I can’t wait.

  7. Art Bergeron
    Thu 01st May 2008 at 8:23 am

    Eric, there are so many examples of books published by authors that would never had seen print otherwise. One that sticks in my mind (and my craw?) has been reprinted a number of times. Unfortunately, this can be attributed to the fact that hundreds (thousands?) of readers simply did not recognize how terrible the book was. A review in “Civil War Times Illustrated” called it the second worst book the reviewer had ever read. I am sure that few of the people who bought the book ever read a review of it (and this was not the only negative one it received, just the harshest).
    Art

  8. Thu 01st May 2008 at 9:05 am

    There are some cars out there on the road that just flat never should have been built. (Seriously, the Jaguar is rolling proof that if engineers spend enough time and effort, after 20 or 30 tries, they can eventually get it right.) I too spend a great deal of time with the nose in a book. And I’m somewhat of a miser with my money. I hate to spend a dime more on a book than I feel the “knowledge” in the book is worth. So I sort of approach the book purchase with a mask of practicality. What is this book worth to me? Has this book been recommended? Does it cover a topic I would like to learn more about? Can I browse a few passages to determine the ‘readability?’

    Since my day job has me stuck reading technical stuff all day (with mandatory exceptions for your blog postings of course!), I really stress the last point. If I’ve got to slog through some one’s bad prose, often I’ll put the book back on the shelf. Several books I’ve relegated to “indexing for later reference” as the consumption is pure pain. The good ones, I find myself reading over and over, if for nothing else to recount in my mind how well a point, analogy, or illustration was done.

    All this long winded stuff said, I still think the bottom line regarding ‘self publishing’ is nobody says you have to buy it. So buyer be ware and let them print (or PDF)! Fortunately, though, the books do cost a bit less than the Jaguar.

  9. Thu 01st May 2008 at 9:37 am

    Art

    If memory serves, that would be a book about the war in the bayous.

    Still waiting to share a beer again, and that cigar.

    –tps

  10. Thu 01st May 2008 at 11:09 am

    Art,
    Unfortunately, I still see that book in bibliographies to this day!

    Drew

  11. Thu 01st May 2008 at 11:38 am

    Jim,

    Your point is well-taken, and is precisely what I did. I had six or seven articles published before I tried my hand at writing a book, and I still do article regularly. I did one for the next issue of the CWPT’s magazine, Hallowed Ground, just a couple of weeks ago.

    Eric

  12. Thu 01st May 2008 at 11:39 am

    J.D.,

    Another good point. Reading gives you lots of ideas to sample and also can help you identify what you do and don’t like in other people’s work.

    Eric

  13. Thu 01st May 2008 at 11:40 am

    David,

    Thank you for pointing out something I had not known previously.

    Eric

  14. Thu 01st May 2008 at 11:40 am

    Eric,

    You’re welcome.

    Eric

  15. Thu 01st May 2008 at 11:41 am

    Art,

    Would you care to share which book you’re referring to here? Drew figured it out, but I haven’t.

    Eric

  16. Thu 01st May 2008 at 11:42 am

    Craig,

    That’s probably a good thing, too. 🙂

    Your point is well-taken. I try to check out a book before I buy it, just for the reasons you’ve stated.

    Eric

  17. Thu 01st May 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Eric,
    “Battle in the Bayou Country” by Morris Raphael. The 1863 Teche Campaign needs a full treatment, and this one ain’t it.

    Drew

  18. Thu 01st May 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up, Drew. I will avoid it like the plague.

    Eric

  19. Art Bergeron
    Fri 02nd May 2008 at 9:24 am

    Eric, Drew is correct here, and Ted knows about it as well. I don’t suppose I’ll open myself up to any law suits (but if I do will you take my case?), but this was a book that got a bad review from me in the journal “Louisiana History.” The author knew the man who was then Secretary of State and head of the State Archives, where I was working. He complained about my review, and the SofS called me into his office to quiz (grill?) me about it. I brought with me to the meeting Dick Sommers’ review in “Civil War Times Illustrated” saying that it was the second worst CW book he had ever read. The SofS backed off but made the comment that he had feared he might suffer politically because of the review. He really did not care whether or not my review was accurate.
    Art

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