Saturday, April 29, 2017

"Theater of a Separate War" progress report

Normally, when the early stages of a book disappoint me as much as those of Thomas Cutrer's Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865, I simply cast the whole thing aside and move on to greener pastures. I have plenty of other reading options and a regular reviewing schedule to keep. On the other hand, since I've played up the anticipation level for this particular title several times on the site already, I feel rather obligated to comment on my unexpectedly negative experience.

First off, it is shocking that an academic press of UNC's sterling reputation would release a manuscript in the kind of dire state found here. Along with a host of other typos, proper names are misspelled everywhere in Theater of a Separate War. The editorial staff also failed to address rampant repetition. In two instances, there are even entire passages reproduced word for word (or close to it) while separated in the narrative by only a short space. This is a huge book with an immense cast of characters, many of whom most likely remain quite obscure to the more general interest Civil War reader, and it behooves the author of a survey history to take care while introducing (and reintroducing) individuals. Theater does not do a good job of this. For example, at one point the book offers a series of quotes from a Union soldier who is only identified by last name. Not recalling who this guy was, I learned from the index that he was introduced (and last mentioned) nearly a hundred pages earlier! Meanwhile, many other individuals have their identities established and reestablished in paragraphs located only a page (or less) apart.

In big-picture terms the narrative is fine, but attention to detail below that level is very spotty. Here are just a few examples from the Missouri-Kansas sector. The book erroneously claims that, after General Lyon's victory at Boonville, he transported his army all the way back to St. Louis before continuing his Missouri campaign in early July. Later on, in the context of the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Cutrer correctly notes how badly outnumbered Lyon's small, Springfield-based army was by the combined Confederate, Missouri, and Arkansas forces hovering nearby, but only two paragraphs later writes that Lyon's command was superior in numbers to the allied enemy armies. In reference to James H. Lane's nebulous Civil War military appointment, the author more than once muddies the waters by resurrecting Lane's Mexican War rank from Indiana and applying it to 1861. And on the subject of the Kansas "Red Legs," they certainly weren't called that because they wore scarlet pants. I know condensing vast amounts of material often results in oversimplification, but this is more than that.

The above objections and observations represent just a sampling from the first few chapters of a 450+ page narrative. Even after such a limited reading, the sheer number of problems add up to a level that seriously strains the study's overall credibility. I don't know if the book gets better as it progresses (you see that sometimes), but I may not still be with it to find out. Unfortunately, my hopes that this book might serve as the standard introduction to the Civil War west of the Mississippi—and perhaps even inspire a fresh crop of enthusiastic T-M students and readers along the way—appear to be dashed.


  1. Glad I passed on this one.

    Andy Papen

    1. Unfortunately, it's not getting better. Here's the latest howler: Talking about Little Crow during the Great Sioux Uprising ... (pg. 125) "On 18 August 1862--when, ironically, the First Minnesota Infantry, which had performed heroically at Gettysburg seven weeks earlier, was helping to subdue the bloody New York Draft Riot--his war party killed twenty whites and burned the Redwood Agency." It would be one thing if it was in the right context and the year mistake was just a simple typo, but this is much worse.

      I could say that a later edition might correct all this stuff, but it would be difficult to imagine a press investing in the necessary resources.

  2. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the update. I was eagerly awaiting your review as I try to to make a decision based on a single review on Amazon.

    I've contacted the UNC press marketing department expressing my concerns based on the amazon review, one map and no illustrations. They forwarded my email to the editor of this specific title. Based on their marketing of this series, they seemed rather proud of the series, and to see this kind of product, it seemed a little unusual for UNC press. I've purchased a number of UNC press titles since 1990 and don't remember another one with what sounds like so many issues.

    Like you I was hoping for much more from this title, perhaps it would be the go to title for a one volume history of this theater of the war. Although I do consider UNC Press to be one of the top CW publishers, I did tell the marketing employee that I would be much more likely to review titles prior to purchasing them going forward.

    I also spoke to Jane over at her blog "The Trans-Mississippian. I felt like this book would be something she was interested in.

    She mentioned that some university presses require the author to be responsible for the maps that go into their books. The authors are also responsible for gathering illustrations which can add costs to the author. They can also be responsible for supplying an index.

    This was all news to me. I would be curious to have Ted S. comment on this as he is a publisher.

    Thanks for the update.

    Don H.

    1. Hi Don,
      Like you, I've been a big fan of the Civil War America series over the years. I've never seen a UNCP title released in this state before.

      At first, for a book of this type, the single map and no illustrations didn't bother me too much, but then I thought about how challenged a novice to the theater would be. Even the two-page map only shows a tiny handful of locations and leaves out the Great Plains and Far West entirely.

    2. Drew: As a follow-up to Don's, I've communicated with a few authors who were required by their publishers to handle maps on their own "time and dime". In at least two instances I can recall these were reputable academic presses. An absurd practice in books about military events. This is an area in which Savas Beatie truly stands out as a publisher committed to the inclusion of essential maps.

    3. John,
      Yes, I've heard the same from a number of authors. "Absurd" is a an appropriate word for that situation.

  3. Hello Drew

    I thought that most university presses would have a peer review for their publications. At least I've seen that said before. I know a couple of the published authors in the CWRT I attend have mentioned that.

    So where is the fault here with the content and the mistakes? Is this the author's responsibility, the peer review or ultimately the editor?

    Would the editor be supplying more of a look at grammar or would it be content?

    I don't expect it, but I would like to hear back from the editor. My initial email to UNC Marketing was forwarded to him or her.

    About the series, I've purchased all of them. I found Hess's study on the Western Theater what I would have expected, a nice introduction to that portion of the war. The initial book in the series, Disunion - Varon was also an excellent overview by a very good writer.

    Don H.

    1. Don,
      Only someone involved could answer that. According to form, as part of the peer review process, prospective UP manuscripts are sent to expert readers [in the past, I've read that 3 was a common number], who write an anonymous written report/review for the publisher that's also typically shared with the author.

  4. Hi All

    I will post this in parts so it will all appear.

    I don't know where to begin, but let me start and maybe update if needed. I am addressing this from MY perspective (with a lot of detail because I am getting a lot of side emails, etc. about this book in particular, and these issues). I hope Drew will indulge me. My hope is that you all find it edifying. (Forgive mistakes here. I have a terrible laptop today that has a mind of its own.)

    PART I: UNC and this Title

    First, I don't know how UNC--a stellar press--handled this from origination to release, but it sounds like something went wrong somewhere.

    Let's all agree (and if you don't, then with all due respect you don't know what you are talking about), the genesis and development of a non-fiction sourced book is very complex. It requires many different people (most of whom no longer work next to one another, and often never meet--and yes, to some degree that DOES matter), juggling many different aspects of a manuscript. More on that below.

    Again, I don't know how UNC handled it, but it sounds like there may not have been an experienced "developmental" editor. In other words, it may have gone from Mr. Cuterer's pen to a straight copy editor. I think this is possible because the sort of problems being discussed sound like another set of experienced eyes did not critically review it, chapter by chapter, and work with the author questioning this, challenging that, correcting obvious factual mistakes, spot checking sources, etc. We sometimes do that as well. Under certain circumstances (the right author, right overseeing editor, etc.) it works just fine.

    But again, I don't know. Mistakes happen. I think it does NOT reflect badly overall on UNC press because their record is one of outstanding titles. We all know of some presses that produce mass schlock, book after book. Some are no longer with us; some are. UNC is not one of those, so this particular aberration in an otherwise superior program doesn't even make me raise my eyebrows. It. Happens. Period.

    Also, SB has to make a profit, or we close our doors. This is not the case with (most) Univ presses, and they fund things differently. That may have something to do with this. I don't know.

    Ted Savas
    Savas Beatie

  5. PART II: The Questions

    How does a book go from acceptance to publication and still have problems (and maybe no or too few maps, etc.?)

    At SB, generally speaking, the process goes like this (I am confident it is much different at every other press):


    Interest or Rejection (by me)

    Review (by me unless a topic is out of my comfort zone, when I send to an outside reviewer. This is rare). I do a lot of things I was told can't be done. But I don't need a committee to tell me which books to publish. (Do you know what a camel is? No? It's a prize-winning quarter-horse designed by a committee.)


    The Wait: A long pause awaiting scheduling, during which a lot happens we don't need to discuss.

    Scheduling (usually a year in advance of pub).

    Assignment of a developmental [my word] editor who knows the subject matter and using my guidance and our prior books, helps shape the manuscript directly with the author. This includes everything from cut this, add that, move this to a note, move this section to an appendix, questions on sources, missing sources--etc.

    Copy editor: Once editing is done it usually (not always) hits a copy editor for grammar, syntax, etc

    Production. We introduce the author to our production manager, who works with the author as he lays out the book (I design the general layout, and production applies it), Our authors get to see the design early, comment, and then review from the PDF galley. By including the author throughout, we avoid many problems.

    Indexer: We work with one indexer who is also another set of eyes. Invariably he comes back with a dozen or more errors everyone else missed.

    Macro review of entire Galley by yet another person. She looks at page flow, table of contents titles and pages, headers, etc. to make sure those sorts of things are good to go. So does the author.

    Off to printer, and your bookshelf.

    EVEN WITH ALL THAT...books can and do have mistakes. It is the nature of the beast.

    Many times it happens while OTHER mistakes are being corrected. Some of this could have occurred with the title under question. For example, Production might be fixing X on page 68, hit a random key and not even know it, and voila! Another mistake that was not there now appears on page 68. Or on a list of 100 things to correct, a few are inadvertently missed, or not saved properly and get through. Guess what? It happens. Unfortunately, you can't keep reviewing the reviewers and double checking endlessly. The process has to end.

    Some reviews chide, "the publisher should have used a editor." I remember a comment on one of our books and replied loud enough for the entire office to hear, "We did, she is a pro, she cost me $1,500 bucks, and I can't get my money back!"

    (This makes the apparently mandatory statement these days in every review "There are a few typos in the book," nonsense to me. It is a human endeavor and the publisher may have done everything right--and there are still problems. I can't read ANY book without finding syntax errors, typos, improper word breaks, etc. Knowing how the sausage is made, noting that an word was misspelled or some year was wrong is a waste of time.

    A dirty little secret few in ANY working area will admit: Many people--even pros--don't always do the job they promise or are paid to do. This is true from the author himself to editors, reviewers, "peer reviewers," book reviewers, copy editors, etc. They promise you X and get Y in return. UNC may have worked with someone who fell down on the job. It happens. But how do you proof the expert? You can't. At some point that has to stop.

    Look at advance dj blurbs. Do you think all of them have read the galley? I saw a recent book by a hack author packed with stellar award-winning authors urging you to buy it. None of them read it.

    How close do peer reviewers peer? Color me a skeptic. After 58 years I have dealt with a lot of BS. Do some read it carefully? Of course. Are there some who do not? Wanna bet?


    Mostly (not always, mostly) this is on the author. They can draft maps themselves (several of our authors over the years learned to do so). I learned it with Dave Woodbury back in the day (1990s) because we were tired of crap maps, and too damn few of them. We have an arrangement with some cartographers to give them business in exchange for exceptionally good maps and our authors use them. We have some stock maps we can use. It varies across the board, book by book.

    We contract this, and if an author comes back later and says "I only want one or two maps," and Ted thinks and concludes, "Hell no, this is an SB book and needs ten!" then we have a coming to Jesus talk.

    I will not put out a book that needs good maps and ask you to pay your good money for it, and include a recycled unreadable map from the OR Atlas, or a single original map as a frontis. Just won't.

    Photos these days are fairly easy to get free from the National Archives or LOC online. For the books that require a few from private collections, the authors arrange it. For most titles this is a non-issue.

    Indexes also on the author, but we have a guy they can use for about 50% of the going rate--AND he offers the equivalent of another set of eyes. Or the author can do it himself.

    So why is this? Margins in publishing are about as thin as my receding hair. If we paid for the maps, etc. then there would be nothing left for anything else. That is not an exaggeration. If I wanted to make money I would have remained in the practice of law.

    What do we do instead? We market. And then market some more. SB is a very small company (seven employees, with miscellaneous independent contractors). We have an employee media specialist (soon to be two) whose sole job is to book every author as busy and as long as they can stand it--radio, TV, book signings, etc. Our Marketing Director Sarah Keeney (with me since inception) oversees it all, including some of the scheduling and production so marketing can be ready. We produce wiki pages, press releases, individual book Advance Information Sheets, data feeds, catalogs through our distributor, a presence at Book Expo in NYC. We pitch the books clubs, open new accounts, service existing accounts, send out scores and sometimes hundreds--of reviews copies. On occasion we hire publicists for a particular title.

    Authors who work with us understand we take the difference and try to MAKE a difference. In return they get royalty checks over many years.

    I hope that helps understand the process. I was hoping for better with this title also, but it appears nothing more than a hiccup. I suspect UNC could fix these issues for a revised edition down the road.


    Theodore P. Savas
    Managing Director, Savas Beatie

    1. Ted: Thanks for this informative and insightful perspective. As a reviewer I think that the "editing" issue must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, any publication which exceeds a small number of pages is likely to feature the occasional typo or grammatical error. Nothing/nobody is perfect. When, however, mistakes which could have been avoided by even a rudimentary review/vetting become a distraction, they need to be mentioned. If, for example, a publisher decodes to charge the buyer $35-$40 for a 225-page soft bound book, that level of errors starts to look like "mailing it in". By whom much is demanded, much should be expected.

    2. John, I concur completely.

      You note the high price for a paperback book. That puts it to the author, many of whom rarely see a royalty check and so purchase books at 50% to sell on the circuit, so to speak. But $40 paperbacks that should be $18.95 can't readily be sold, so often in this case authors end up with enough profit for a dozen donuts and a cup of coffee. And, more often than not, a mostly unedited book on top of it.

      Ted S

  7. Hi Ted & Drew

    Thanks for the information.

    Don H.

  8. Ted-

    Thank you for taking the time to peel back the curtain and explain the book process - very interesting. As you rightly point out, you can never eliminate the human error factor. Let's just hope this book is an aberration. My very first hardback Civil War book purchase was from UNC (Alice Turlock's bio on Chamberlain)and they have produced some high quality material over the years.

    John Sinclair

  9. I had been considering this book for a little while, until I discovered this post and ensuing thread.
    The Far Western Theater is a definite gap in my knowledge of Civil War military history, (outside of Hess and Shea's 'Pea Ridge', and 'Fields of Blood', I have nothing on the Theater book wise), and I had hoped this title would fill that a bit.
    Guess I will keep looking.


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