August, 2007

6 Aug 2007, by

More on CWTI

Earlier today, I posted the following on the forum boards at Armchair General:

I have heard the bad news about Chris Lewis leaving. Having worked with Chris on my lead article this past winter, I know that he is a capable, talented professional who cares a great deal about the magazine and about maintaining its quality and integrity. Hence, while I was disappointed to hear of his leaving, I know it’s in keeping with his character. I respect a man who’s willing to go to bat for his principles.

Eric Weider, I hope you’re reading this. There are lessons to be learned from this situation. That someone the caliber of Chris would leave your company due to disagreements with the unfortunate direction your staff wants to take cries out for a response. You’ve heard the same complaints here about Military History, and you’ve asked for patience. I have heard little since then to suggest that the readers are happy with the “new direction” of Military History, and I can tell you without hesitation, both as reader and as contributing author, that if the same “new direction” continues to be taken with CWTI and America’s Civil War, I’m done reading them, and I suspect most of your readers will be, too.

This situation is akin to the “new Coke” fiasco of the mid-1980’s. Coca Cola was losing market share to Pepsi, and decided to take Pepsi on in its own arena. Instead of attacking Pepsi, Coke introduced a new formulation that tasted just like Pepsi, and Pepsi–for good reason–made hay with the situation, arguing that its product was so good that Coke had copied it. Within a matter of a couple of months, Coca Cola had beaten a hasty retreat and had brought back the original formula as “Classic Coke.”

It’s time for you to abandon “New Coke” and go back to “Classic Coke”, or else I really fear that there will be no magazines at all left for you to sell.

The ball’s in your court.

And good luck to you, Chris Lewis. Wherever you end up, I wish you well, and I respect your integrity.


To his credit, Eric Weider responded to me. Here’s his response:

Eric I appreciate your feedback.

Regarding Military History we had some normal bumps early on. But for the record our August issue was one of the best selling issues of this magazine in a long time. And personally I think the Sept issue is better still. If you have read the recent Sept issue I would welcome your specific constructive feedback.

Regarding Civil War Times I won’t comment publicaly on Chris’ resignation because it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to do that. But you can assume that as is usually the case there is more than one side to the story.

Regarding America’s Civil War I am surprised that you are critical of the direction of this magazine. Dana Shoaf and his team have been doing superb work on it and it is reflected in the sales which are up 20% in the last year. We are getting an abundance of positive feedback. Have you seen the latest issue?

In any event…I always welcome feedback. It is sincerely appreciated.

I have nothing further to say about this, other than to say that I hope that Eric is right. And in any event, I wish Chris Lewis nothing but the best.

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I’ve had some opportunities to interact with Chris Lewis during his tenure as the editor of Civil War Times Illustrated. Chris published JD’s and my article on the charges at Fairfax Court Huse and Westminster in this year’s first issue, and we enjoyed working with him on the project. We were very pleased with the way that the article came out, and with the fact that it was chosen as the cover story for that issue.

Last week, Dimitri Rotov posted that Chris has resigned as editor. Chris circulated an e-mail announcing his resignation that included the following passage:

Naturally this is not an easy decision for me to make. As many of you know, I am a lifelong reader and care a great deal about this publication—which is why I cannot be a part of the “new direction” that the magazines in thisgroup are either already going in, or will be going in soon. There is no respect here anymore for history, historians or the core audience. I want to thank all of you for your support ofthe magazine over the last couple years.

I will miss Chris, as I think he’s done a fine job.

CWTI and America’s Civil War are part of the Weider History Group. Previously, these magazines were owned and operated by Cowles, but they were all sold to a company owned and operated by Eric Weider. Eric’s family has long been in the physical fitness business, and they made a fortune in that industry. They decide to foray into the realm of history because Eric also publishes Armchair General magazine, which is oriented toward military gamers. There are forum boards on the Armchair General site, and I post there occasionally. Consequently, I’ve been closely following the threads discussing the changes to Military History magazine, most of which have been extremely negative.

Tonight, Dimitri has added an open letter to Eric Weider on his blog. Dimitri raises some interesting points, and I agree with most of them. However, I definitely disagree with him on one of his major suggestions. He wrote, “Relying on freelancers for articles has long put your magazines at a quality disadvantage; it is better to hire a small but reliable staff who can produce to a standard you set and deliver that consistently. Booking articles from name authors to supplement freelance work is also very dangerous, for unless those authors are closely supervised, they will hand you their bottom drawer leftovers (see especially Geoff Norman’s piece on ‘surrender monkeys’ in the current Military History and William Marvel’s article on ‘McClellan apologists’ in the current America’s Civil War).”

I think that this is a bad idea for a variety of reasons. First, and foremost, people have areas of expertise, and hiring a staff of generalists will mean that experts will no longer participate. Second, if the same writers do every article for every issue, the writing will become stale and will be too standardized. It is, of course, an old cliche that variety is the spice of life. However, I really believe that maintaining variety in the types of articles and the authors who write them is critical to the future of the publication. While I understand Dimitri’s point, I think it’s a bad idea.

In any event, I do hope that Eric Weider takes the criticisms of his readers and the radical step of resigning by Chris Lewis (who was there less than a year, if I recall correctly) to heart. I certainly hope that these publications can be turned around and restored to their prior level of quality, or else they will wither and die. I would hate to see that happen.

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I’ve made my opposition to Google’s plan to scan materials that are still covered by copyright and make them available on the Internet well known. I’ve ranted about it extensively here at length and won’t beat that poor dead horse any more.

At the same time, each time I’ve addressed this question, I’ve said that I think that the scanning of public domain works is not only appropriate but an admirable and worthy project that I wholeheartedly support, largely because nobody’s copyright rights are being trampled. After the past couple of weeks, I feel even more strongly about the subject.

When we decided to beef up our study of the retreat from Gettysburg to make it a more scholarly work than its original incarnation was, I spent a lot of time on the on-line book archive sites, searching for Union and Confederate regimental histories and published memoirs and the like. I own copies of virtually every published cavalry regimental history, but only a handful of infantry regimentals. Consequently, I hit the on-line archive sites hard.

I ended up downloading nearly 40 full books in the public domain in PDF form, burning them to a CD-ROM, and then bringing them into the office so I could print out the pertinent portions of them for use in the book. Wow….talk about some finds. Some of the material that I got that way is really remarkable stuff, in very rare regimental histories. I’m nearly done plugging this material into the manuscript, and let me tell you, it’s made a huge difference in the overall tactical detail and overall quality of the book. When it comes to the public domain materials, I am a true believer.

There are three different sites where one can find a lot of this good material in PDF form. First, of course, is the Google book search site. Enter your search command, and when the results come up, be sure to click on “full view”, which will provide access to the complete text of these public domain works.

I also made very extensive use of the Internet Archive site, which is really a portal that collects these scanned materials and provides access to them. The selection of available public domain materials on this site is much more extensive than Google’s. Unfortunately, I didn’t know about it until I was well into the process. I ended up using the Internet Archive more than any other resource.

The third major resource is the one I used the least. It’s in part because, as a Mac user, I have a pathological hatred of all things Microsoft, which I view as the Evil Empire. Given a choice between using a Microsoft product and ANYTHING else, I will almost always use the alternative (I use Eudora for e-mail at work because I hate Outlook, and I’m a long-time Firefox user, as just two examples). It’s also because the site is buggy and doesn’t always work smoothly, and it won’t work at all on a Mac. However, the Microsoft live book search site is a useful tool (if you can get it to work), as it provides a portal to pretty much all of the digitized material available in various repositories around the Internet. It was my last resort, used to make certain I hadn’t missed anything on the other sites.

There are some other sites with much smaller databases, but you can pretty much access them by using these three sites. Having access to all of those public domain regimental histories and memoirs in one place that was relatively easy to use made the task of accumulating and incorporating this material into the manuscript quickly and painlessly possible. Thus, while I remain intransigent in my opposition to Google’s attacks on my copyright rights, I remain a true believer in the value of making public domain materials readily available for use by the consuming public that might not otherwise have access to those materials.

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