Sunday, April 12, 2009

Publisher Q & A: David E. Roth of "Blue & Gray Magazine"

As most of you already know, David E. Roth is the co-founder and publisher of Blue & Gray Magazine. The next issue marks a pair of milestones -- the 150th issue along with the 25th year of operation. Dave has kindly agreed to join me for a Publisher Q&A.

DW: What inspired you and your wife Robin to start your own Civil War magazine? Was B&G your first venture into publishing?

DER: When my parents took me to Gettysburg in the 1960s, I couldn’t wait to go home. All I wanted to see was Abner Doubleday’s statue, because I was (and still am) a big baseball fan. So I can not claim to have had an early interest in the Civil War. I am a “born-again” fan of the war, and as you know, converts are usually the most ardent and active, once they’ve seen the light. My interest came on strong in the 70s after I had graduated from college--with an accounting degree, not a history degree.

The idea for Blue & Gray came about in late 1982. I had just turned 30, and my wife Robin and I were both Civil War buffs. At the time there was only one Civil War magazine, and frankly, as battlefield trampers, we didn’t think it was filling a need, at least not for our interest in touring Civil War sites. We thought we had found a niche. If our idea failed, we were young enough to recover. The rest is history.

At the time we started Blue & Gray in the family room of our home--our first and only venture into publishing--I was controller of a large construction and real estate development company in Columbus, Ohio. I’ll bet you find that incongruous, considering how real estate development is always perceived as the enemy of historical preservation. Actually, the experience made me better able to understand both sides of the preservation story: it’s almost impossible to save everything, so pick your battles wisely; and the worst way to begin a preservation battle is to name-call the developer and create the image of him in the local and Civil War press as a devil incarnate. Compromise is generally the key to any successful preservation effort, so positive lines of communication should be established early. Battlefield preservation was an important issue for Robin and me from the start.

DW: B&G has always been a family run publication. With the magazine going on 25 years of continuous operation, the arrangement has worked well for you. How do you feel this situation has contributed to the business success of your magazine?

DER: Being a family run operation has its benefits. You can’t make hired help work as hard as family members with a common interest will work. Most people don’t realize that there are only two of us who work here full-time. Our son Jason took over for his mom when Robin passed away in 1998. One of our daughters still helps out part-time, but she also has a full-time career of her own. My other daughter married a soldier and moved to Fort Bliss, Texas. Her name remains in the magazine as an honorary gesture since she was stuffing envelopes and doing filing long before it would have been legal to hire her.

Publishing in the old days was very different than it is today, thanks to computers. No more paste-up boards, late-night runs to the typographer, and expensive color separations. We’re a lean, mean, fighting machine when it comes to what we do. Very little overhead here; the government could never produce this magazine. Having a business background has also been a tremendous advantage: better to get into Civil War history by way of a business background, than attempt to get into business by way of a history background. There’s simply too many pitfalls for running a business these days.

The main ingredient for success: find what you love to do--what you have a real passion for--and it won’t seem like a job, even when you’re working harder and putting in longer hours than you ever would working for someone else. I should add that I’m a CPA. Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have the same passion for auditing, taxes and running numbers on development projects, as I did for the Civil War and military history, and that passion has only grown over the years. Now the only taxes I do are my own. I have no hesitation at all in saying that Robin and I made the right decision 25 years ago. It was meant to be.

DW: I was a pre-teen when you started B&G — so I can’t quite say I’ve been with you from the beginning (although I have gathered many back issues over the years) — but I think it is accurate to say the magazine format has been transformed over the years. The General’s Tour has always been around and secondary features have come and gone, but I think the most significant format change is the one from a more traditional multi-article format to a single, lengthy feature article. Personally, I believe it was a positive move that contributed to the uniqueness of your publication, allowing for a main article much more detailed and expansive than that found elsewhere within the medium else along with a bigger and better tour guide. What was your own thinking behind the move, and was it a controversial issue among the staff?

DER: The General’s Tour was intended to be the magazine’s unique feature from the very beginning, but at first we thought there should be a variety of other columns: reenacting, wargaming, collectibles, common soldier, off the beaten path sites, even an occasional fiction and poetry section. My editor’s letter in the issue at the printer as I write addresses the evolution of the magazine, since that issue not only completes our 25th year in business, but concurrently marks our 150th issue published. While we still have an occasional back roads, collectibles, and common soldier column, they are considered fillers around the main theme. When we started the magazine, industry insiders cautioned us against becoming too “theme oriented,” as it was said to be the kiss of death in publishing. We pretty much ignored them--maybe from our own ignorance about publishing, or perhaps because of the sheer exhilaration we felt at the time--and allowed the feature to grow, and everything else was built around the main theme. A few years ago we even eliminated our news column, called Camp Talk, to allow more room for the feature presentation. Now, with the internet, anyone can find brief write-ups on people, places and events by googling. I think our concept has now come into its own.

DW: B&G is remarkable for its constant improvement over its lifespan in all areas of content and presentation. It’s perhaps even more impressive that you were able to keep the subscription rate the same for such an extended period (although it has increased recently, I swear it remained at $19.95/yr for 20+ years!) without excessive ad clutter. Through all the economic fluctuations and peaks and valleys in Civil War interest level over the past quarter century, how were you able to pull this off?

DER: This goes to the lean, mean, fighting machine mentioned above. Our price increases over the years have been the result of postal increases first, and ink and paper prices second. We’ve also created a product that has more copyright value than the typical magazine. Not many others have a demand for reprints of sold-out issues. Also, because we’re theme oriented, the market for back issues is very good. While unsold copies on the newsstands get destroyed by distributors, and there’s nothing we can do about it, here at the office we never have to throw an issue away. Some issues have been reprinted in magazine format, others in book format. Something that many magazine publishers do when they begin to have some success is expand into other magazines. Rather than do that, we made a sideways move, stuck with the subject we know most about, and got into Civil War book publishing.

DW: B&G does a very good job of drawing its features from all three major theaters. Approximately, how many feature article submissions do you get in a year, and what is your selection process?

DER: We hardly ever select an unsolicited manuscript for a General’s Tour feature. We ask someone to do a feature who is the historian at a battlefield park; or has written (or is writing) a book, and is acknowledged as an authority on the subject; or, a historian who has been referred to us by someone we know well and respect their opinion. Having the best people write for us translates into having to make the fewest corrections.

DW: Given that the research and writing ability of prospective authors varies greatly, the annotated feature article presentation has been pretty consistent (in recent years, even more so). How much editorial involvement goes into the writing of each feature article? Are they typically reviewed by expert readers?

DER: We don’t use outside readers. The only outside editorial person is Rick Sauers, my book review editor. I work with the authors, generally meet with them at the featured battlefield or historic site (there are always exceptions), and when it comes to the text, it’s just the two of us. There’s usually a few disagreements about wording or style, and sometimes interpretations of events, but they get worked out amicably, most of the time. Again, it’s all about having the best people write for us.

DW: I am a great fan of your cartography, the quantity and depth of detail of which is unequalled by any of the other magazines. Captions note that you base them upon materials gathered by the feature article author. Could you outline for us the process you go through in creating your maps?

DER: The authors know best what happened, so I let them show me what they want displayed on the maps. In some cases, they supply copies of old maps, such as those in the Official Records Atlas or from a regimental history, or a past history of the battle. These often cause problems, because they were drawn from memory long after the battle, or are out of scale despite being done by professionals, or at least recognized authorities of the period; a Jed Hotchkiss map I once started to use as a base had a landmark off by a full mile. The best thing an author can supply are mark-ups of the action on a base map.

The first thing that has to be done is nail down the base map. I use GPS and satellite photos/maps to position landmarks that existed at the time of the battle, then let the author’s narrative flow around those fixed points. I call this “mapping the text.” How many times have you read an article, then looked at the accompanying map, and it’s as if you’re looking at two completely different battles? It’s important to me, and it seems perfectly logical, that the narrative should match the map, which sometimes does not happen when articles are illustrated with maps from other sources. I believe this is also true of photographs, and it’s why I personally do all the layouts: don’t put a picture of a guy on Pg. 10 just because it looks nice there, if he’s not mentioned until Pg. 20. This is where too many cooks can spoil the broth. In the case of Blue & Gray, the text editor, photo editor, cartographer, and layout guy are the same person. It guarantees continuity.

DW: B&G is a bi-monthly publication. Can you give us a bit of an inside view of how you spend your time as editor/publisher in preparing each issue for publication? I understand that you personally photograph and “walk the ground” with each feature article author.

DER: Even before our first issue came out, I received a letter from someone in the Civil War community, who shall remain nameless, but that person said that I would be so busy with the business of publishing that I would need a professional editor to handle the manuscripts, visit the battlefields for the tours we were planning to do, take photographs, and write the tour guides. A resume was attached to the letter. I thought, wait a minute, this person wants my job.

Yes, I am the luckiest Civil War enthusiast on the planet, because I get to walk the battlefields with the person recognized as the authority on that field. That said, the person who shows me around is not necessarily the feature article author. For example, when we decided to do a series on Chickamauga, I contacted Jim Ogden, historian at the battlefield park. As is my custom, I asked Jim if he wanted to write it. He was emphatic that there was only one person who should write about the Chickamauga campaign and battle: William Glenn Robertson. So, Dr. Robertson did the writing, while Jim Ogden was my tour guide. The two had worked together so long that the flow of putting the issues together was nearly seamless. I recall that the only thing they disagreed on was the precise location of Stevens’ Gap. Since Ogden controlled the turf, and Robertson the text, we went with Ogden’s choice of location in the driving tour.

There is a book that could be written about incidents over the last 25 years of touring battlefields, from a dead body in the woods at Lincoln’s boyhood home in Indiana, to the bear encountered in West Virginia while looking for Corrick’s Ford, and perhaps the most fascinating site I ever visited, the place where the 4th Texas Mounted Volunteers’ wagon train was blown up in the New Mexico desert, and because of the ecology of the area, it appeared as if the incident had happened only a short time before we arrived.

DW: You’ve been experimenting with offering select back issues on CD-ROM. Have you been pleased with the response? Also, do you believe offering back issues as digital downloads viewable on a computer or hand held electronic devices like the Sony Reader or Amazon’s Kindle device to be a viable business option for magazine publishers?

DER: The CD-ROM has not gone over all that well. I don’t think the downloads to a digital reader would be a good option for us, or for the reader. From what I know of the Kindle, it would be very difficult to display full-page maps at a readable size. We haven’t explored it that much, so maybe I should not comment.

DW: Do you have any new plans for the magazine that you’re able to talk about?

DER: No new plans. Just keep doing the same thing that has brought us through the last 25 years. I have been truly blessed to be able to publish Blue & Gray and look forward to many more years of serving “those who still hear the guns.” I want to thank everyone in the Civil War community who has made it possible. Someone said to me recently that they feared we would soon run out of battlefields to feature. Not true. There are plenty we have not done yet, and there are others that we did long ago that could use updating, like the two recent issues on Fredericksburg written by Frank O’Reilly. Thanks, Drew, for allowing me this opportunity to respond to you and your internet Civil Warriors.

DW: Thanks to you for your time, Dave.

For anyone wondering what the 150th (Volume XXV Issue #6) issue will be, it's Battle of Richmond, KY: Union Disaster in the Bluegrass State with B. Kevin Bennett.


  1. Thanks Drew for the great interview with Mr. Roth. I have always enjoyed Blue & Gray magazine and have many back issues including some wonderful ones on Western campaigns like Perryville and Franklin from 1984.

    One part of a sentence caught my attention, "from a dead body in the woods at Lincoln’s boyhood home in Indiana". Do you happen to know the full story behind that one? Kind of macabre but I have never heard of that before.

    Thanks again for the excellent interview,

  2. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for writing. No, I didn't follow up on the dead body thing. I have heard of 'bad results' happening to people coming up to them and yelling "Civil War Times Illustrated rules!".

  3. That's Funny!
    Thanks again,

  4. Drew,

    That was very interesting -- made me want to re-up my subscription, which lapsed years ago.

    I was especially interested to note that the "most fascinating" site he ever visited was in New Mexico. I wouldn't have predicted that. I do remember the striking photos of that discarded debris in some B&G issue way back when.


  5. Dave,
    Same here. I need to dig up my New Mexico Campaign issue. That would have been amazing to see. I bet it's all erased now.


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