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02Jul08

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A new article by Anita Elberse in the Harvard Business Review tackles the influential theory, advanced by Chris Anderson (the editor of Wired magazine), of the Long Tail. Said tail refers to the idea that these days, owing to the ease and cheapness of circulating obscure or niche-interest media (music and movies, primarily) on the Web, companies ought to rely less on a few big sellers to make their money. Consumers will be moved to purchase many products that mirror their tastes and interests rather than buy a few homogenized hits pushed by the big powerhouses.

Thus, the once-massive “market” is splintering into tiny shards, and if you, the producer of obscure music and movies, put out enough shards and if sufficient numbers of people are interested in those tiny shards, you can achieve significant profits — even if you never have a hit.

The Harvard Business Review, however, takes issue with Anderson, pointing out that in fact the so-called “blockbuster strategy” still holds. One terrifying statistic cited by Elberse notes that of the 3.9 million songs sold online in 2007 (most through Apple iTunes for 99 cents), 3.6 million of them were downloaded fewer than 100 times. A large number of these were purchased just once (presumably by either the artist or his mother).  The dominance of the blockbuster, she argues, is growing only stronger. 

I’m not going to go into too many details here (make sure to buy Anderson’s book — coming out soon in paperback — or visit his blog), but it would be interesting to apply these concepts specifically to the History-Bookwriting Field.

Publishers, who are very big on the blockbuster strategy as a rule, devote the vast majority of their marketing muscle and advertising dollars to a very small number of the tens, dozens, or scores of books they crank out each year. The others, mostly, sink without much trace. Now, some of the lucky few flop big-time while others more than earn out their large advances and publicity budgets. It’s very difficult to predict which books are going to hit and which miss. Indeed, sometimes a no-name, no-advance book unexpectedly takes off and turns into an immensely profitable phenomenon. This once happened to a book about some boy wizard who flies about on broomsticks, but I can’t remember his name. Beatrix Potter? Harry Lime? Something like that. 

Anyway, in the Harvard article, the author points out that “in 2006 just 20% of Grand Central’s [a publisher] titles accounted for roughly 80% of its sales and an even larger share of its profits.” The following year Grand Central published 61 hardcover titles, each of which turned in an average of just under $100,000 in profits. But two of those were “make” books (i.e., the titles pushed to the limits), one of which cost $7 million to market, produce, and acquire but achieved net sales of $12 million, making for a $5 million gross profit, or fifty times the average. 

Personally, I’d be very surprised to find any trade publisher, let alone an academic one, turning an average $100,000 profit on a history list, so I’m not sure this example truly applies to our particular field. Which begs the question, can historians make money from the Long Tail?

The answer is Yes, But Not Very Much, And With Conditions Attached. The Long Tail only comes in useful, as in profitable in terms of money, once you’ve already had a blockbuster, or at least seen relatively significant sales. At that point, the value of your back-properties jump as readers try to find anything else you’ve written. The key thing is to have those back-properties readily available, which is where the Web comes in. In the old days, a publisher would have to reprint, at no little expense, copies of your previous books and ship them to retailers. Nowadays, Amazon keeps large stocks of used and new copies of pretty much anything, so people can get a hold of whatever they want within a day or so. Your collected works no longer disappear forever, which is all to the good — though keep in mind that if readers are buying used books, you don’t see any royalties. Also, this scenario hinges on you having a backlist of previous books. The Web, nevertheless, offers other opportunities to hop aboard the Long Tail.

Most authors have at least several bits-and-pieces of articles scattered on their hard drives. Now, if you’re an A-Lister, you can eventually clean them up, collate them, add an introduction, and flog them off as “Collected Essays,” but for beginners and midlisters, these dessicated pieces remain skeletons that will never get fleshed out or finished.

Well, that used to be the case. It turns out you can resurrect the dead, for Amazon now runs a program called Shorts that allows historians to package their work and sell it. My contribution, so far, to Amazon Shorts was once a 5,000-word sample chapter for a proposed book on the fate of Benedict Arnold after he scarpered to the British side during the War of Independence. I never quite finished the chapter, and never followed up on the book, so Benedict_Arnold.doc lay forlorn for years in a folder buried deep in Alex/Documents/Book Ideas/War of Independence/Traitors/American/. 

About a year after Washington’s Spies came out I thought, hmm, well, maybe a few people would be interested in finding out about Benedict Arnold, so I rejigged the piece, added some new material, rewrote the beginning, and sent it off to the Shorts people. The only cost, to me, has been several hours of my time making sure the copy read OK. Remember, all the real work was done years before, so it’s long been discounted. Amazon hosts the article on its website and makes sure to link my books to it. The Short itself sells for 49 cents, of which I receive about 20 cents. It’s a pretty good deal, but let’s face it, I’m never going to get rich from it. 

On the other hand, if I had 250 of these Shorts up on Amazon, all of which were based on work I’d previously done and had abandoned, I think we’d be talking about a nice income stream here. Let’s say each Short was downloaded an average of five times a month (some, following the blockbuster strategy, would be much higher, some none at all), then that would net me $250. 

That’s better, as they say, than a kick in the head, but then again, how likely is it that I would have 250 potential Shorts lying around in the first place? I would have to start devoting days and weeks to writing new ones, which would suck up time from that spent writing actual books — which bring with them potentially significant advances. I think the problem with the Long Tail, therefore, is that in the history-writing field it’s difficult to make any kind of living from it unless you have either a gigantic built-in backlist or enjoy a blockbuster hit and readers download any and all Shorts you’ve written.

Should, then, historians stay away from the Long Tail and dismiss it as not being worth the candle? Yes, but only if you think of writing in terms of dollars (as most Long Tail analyses seem to do). Historians, however, often trade in a currency worth more than cash: reputation. A more business-y term would be “brand management.”

Much as one historian will regard another as “sound” and of good judgment if he’s read one particularly sensible scholarly article on JSTOR, readers tend to recognize beloved writers’ names and stay loyal to them — even if their new tome is on a subject initially not of much interest to them. Take David McCullough, one of the finest narrative historians around. Now, that guy knows how to write a book (as did Barbara Tuchman). Specialists may disagree with their approaches and conclusions — Tuchman’s Guns of August, let alone her history of the fourteenth century, A Distant Mirror, are way, way out of date — but McCullough could publish a volume consisting entirely of his macaroni pictures and stick figures and it would still go straight to Number One. With a bullet. So long as it had his name on it in BIG LETTERS. (I mean the book, not the bullet.) 

Historians can run a monetary loss on the Long Tail while reaping greater, intangible benefits by getting their names out in the wide world, creating interest in their work, and stimulating sales of their books by letting readers first sample their work in cheap, or even free, snippets. So, when you’re writing your book, always keep an eye open for material you can use for the Long Tail. 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com


Bit busy today with the whole blogroll thing.

Alex Seifert’s Wild-West oriented History Rhymes blog has an excellent series of postings on the “real” American cowboys. 

For ancient-and-medieval fans, have a look at The History Blog.

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com


The late Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer is in the news again, for June 25 was the anniversary of 1876’s Last Stand. We know what his soldiers were carrying (apart from a variety of pistols, .45-caliber, single-shot Springfield rifles), but what is less certain is the Indians’ armament.

At the time it was suspected that the Indians were all carrying modern repeater rifles (like Winchesters) and that Custer’s men had been simply overwhemed by firepower. They were hampered, too, by their allegedly inferior Springfields. Politically, this was potent stuff, and was certainly exploited by armsmakers (Winchester wanted an army contract to replace the Springfields with their own products), some annoyed officers (who accused Washington of appeasing Indian hostiles by giving them brand-new weaponry while their boys in blue made do with older rifles), and Democrats (keen to attack, in an election year, President Grant as a “Custer-killer” and peace-policy fanatic). 

Let’s first take the issue of the Springfields — a very fine firearm, let it be said. One of the deadliest charges against them was that during the furious fighting of the Last Stand, unburned gunpowder residue had badly fouled their breeches and that, consequently, empty casings had been jammed inside. The only way of extracting them was to insert a hunting knife and force them out. Indian prisoners testified that they had seen Custer’s doomed soldiers desperately trying to clear their Springfields, and military investigators recorded broken knife-blades scattered around the battlefield.

Not so, ordnance experts countered, blaming poor maintenance and dirty cartridges instead for the jamming. The gun itself, they stoutly declared, was not to blame. In truth, neither side was completely right. Later ballistic and archaeological research has found that five percent of Custer’s Springfields suffered from extraction failure. It was a high rate — more than double that recorded during the gun’s experimental trials (held under ideal conditions) — but faulty loading on the part of terrified, panicked soldiers doubtlessly contributed to the figure.

Moving on to the argument that the Indians outgunned Custer’s force, Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Charles Windolph of Captain Benteen’s Troop H remembered that at least half the enemy brought bows, arrows, and lances (as well as clubs, axes, and knives), and about a quarter used “odds and ends of old muzzle-loaders and single-shot rifles of various vintages.”  Thus, “not more than 25 or 30 per cent of the warriors carried modern repeating rifles.” 

Assuming 1,500 Indian warriors fought, then there were between 375 and 495 repeating rifles at the battle, the lower number being the most probable (according to statistical projections based on artifacts found at the battlefield). Whatever the exact number, Custer’s 220 men, armed with their single-shot Springfields, were outmatched by just the repeater-armed Indians, let alone those carrying old muskets and single-shots. But both these numbers are on an absolute basis; there were simply far more Indians present than soldiers, so they had more firearms.

I would love to know what the percentage of U.S. fatalities were for repeaters and muzzle-loaders/single-shots. Repeater ammunition at the time was pretty hard to get in any reasonable quantity, so it’s possible that those Indians carrying repeaters may only have had four or five cartridges whereas their comrades using powder and lead or standard .45s could have brought along hundreds. In that instance, repeaters would have been a hindrance rather than a help. 

The most striking aspect of Windolph’s recollection, nonetheless, is not how relatively few Indians carried repeaters, but how many were still using old technology (bows, clubs, etc.) in the modern era.

During the Fetterman Massacre in 1866, for instance, just under 80 soldiers were ambushed and annihilated by a force of between 1,500 and 2,000 Lakota Sioux, Northern Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne. 

The local commander, Colonel Carrington, summarized the grisly scene for his superiors in Washington: “Eyes torn out and laid on the rocks; noses cut off; ears cut off; chins hewn off; teeth chopped out; joints of fingers; brains taken out and placed on rocks with other members of the body; entrails taken out and exposed; hands cut off; feet cut off; arms taken out of sockets; private parts severed and indecently placed on the persons; eyes, ears, mouth, and arms penetrated with spearheads, sticks, and arrows; ribs slashed to separation with knives; skulls severed in every form, from chin to crown; muscles of calves, thighs, stomach, breast, back, arms, and cheek taken out.”

Terrible stuff, but note the focus in the colonel’s description on the damage wrought by spearheads, sticks, arrows, and knives. Skulls are severed, not exploded by metal projectiles; ribs are slashed, not broken by the force of a bullet’s impact; hands and feet are cut off, not holed by lead. Though some of the wealthier or more accomplished warriors were armed with both bladed and ballistic weapons, very few of the Indians at the Fetterman fight bore firearms and the vast majority of those who did carried ancient muzzleloaders. (A flintlock musket engraved, “London, 1777” was later found at the site.) The fort’s assistant surgeon, who examined the corpses, believed just six men had died exclusively of  bullet wounds.  

Both Fetterman and Custer were done in not by firepower or high-tech weaponry but by the enemy’s huge numbers. 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com


Another addition to the Blogroll of Fame, The Edge of the American West, a history-minded blog written by Eric Rauchway, Ari Kelman (who both “teach history at a fine public university at the western edge of the American West”), and Scott Eric Kaufman (“a doctoral candidate in English at a closely related fine public university in a similar location.) Interesting perspectives — and entertaining, too. 

Deploying my Holmesian (I refer to Mycroft, of course, not the greatly inferior Sherlock) detective skills to the utmost, I have discovered, using a newfangled electro-mechanical device called a Google, that Rauchway and Kelman are employed at University of California, Davis, and that Kaufman studies English and Comparative Literature at U.C. Irvine. 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com


Goodness, I just noticed that I was linked to from wigwags.wordpress.com. This is pretty exciting. She rather liked that post I put up about “How to Write a History Book, Part 1.” 

Guess I’ll have to get to work on Part 2. Expectations have now been raised . . . 


On May 11, 1861, some two months before the First Battle of Bull Run, Scientific American published a fascinating time-capsule of an article on “Rifles and Shooting.” At the time, target practice in the army had languished for decades, with a concordant diminution on the part of many troops to hit anything.

Before the mid-1850s, target practice often consisted of a soldier who had finished his watch firing a round at a crude bulls-eye painted on a guardhouse. (And even that was only because live weapons had to be deactivated after guard duty—by laboriously using a screw-like instrument to “pull” the ball out—so that soldiers saved time by pulling the trigger instead.) Wrote a private in the Second Dragoons, so few officers believed the men required any practice with their weapons that, in his five months of wearing “Uncle Sam’s livery,” he had been taken out for proper target shooting just twice.

So, not unusual was the experience of Captain George W. Wingate — after the war, a founder of the National Rifle Association (NRA) — who discovered that most of his New York company couldn’t hit a barrel lid at 100 yards. He was forced to use an imported British manual on riflemanship to teach his men the rudiments of shooting, which he thought might come in useful during a battle.

To help rectify the situation, Scientific American declared that “a soldier should . . . know what his rifle can do, and what he can do with it, at certain distances,” before proceeding to lay out some basic principles (e.g., what a bullet trajectory is) for its readers. The most striking aspect of the piece is its emphasis on long-range shooting: The magazine took it for granted that troops should be “capable of destroying the enemy” with their rifles at 1,200 yards — an incredible figure by any definition. It was for this reason, among others, that Scientific American dismissed breech-loaders in favor of the older muzzle-loaders. The former “are not so accurate as those which load at the muzzle.” 

Warfare, in short, was expected to be conducted at long range, whereas in fact the average distance (according to Paddy Griffiths) between Confederate and Unionist during Civil War firefights—including battles, skirmishes, and low-level actions—was a mere 127 yards.

The article is also remarkable for its foreshadowing of a controversy that would erupt some years after the War between what I call “progressives” and “diehards.” I don’t mean this in a political sense (militarily progressive officers were quite often red-blooded conservatives when it came to voting), but strictly in terms of what kind of rifle they wanted as a service weapon.

To cut a very long story short — the full version will be given in my book American Rifle (to be published this October) — progressives believed that war could be made cleaner and humanized thanks to good, lethal marksmanship on the part of soldiers, who would act on their own initiative more than hitherto had been the case. By targeting, say, a general from afar using an assortment of highly precise aiming mechanisms, a sharpshooter could bring a battle to an end using just a single shot, thereby saving untold lives. Given the Civil War’s vast numbers of dead and wounded, such a desire was surely an understandable one. Indeed, to the progressives, war should be transformed into a rational, modern, scientific, almost antiseptic endeavor. 

Alternatively, diehard officers dismissed such views as fantasy. War was hard, necessarily bloody, and often fought hand-to-hand — as it had been since the days of Achilles and his Myrmidons. “When at war, it was kill them all,” recalled George Whittaker of the 6th Cavalry. Killing was the natural order of things, and man was wolf to man. To those of that mind, progressive ideas were extremely dangerous and the mollycoddling (as they saw it) of the top-ranked shooters undermined discipline in the ranks. They felt sharpshooters were too individual to make good soldiers and that tighter unit cohesion was key to winning battles. 

The anonymous Scientific American writer was of the progressive tendency, judging by his emphasis on long-range shooting and the need for “a man with a clear eye, a steady hand, and a cool head” to do it. Such phrases were common among progressives: “In an Indian fight,” opined one after the war, “the best marksman is the strongest man. Victory is not for the man of muscle, but the result of the quick eye and cool nerve of the fine shot.” Progressives now called this form of prowess the “New Courage” to distinguish it from the inferior, dated martial virtues—men’s instinctive emotions, brute force, and valorous ferocity tightly harnessed by officers and unleashed at the enemy—revered by the diehards.

Basically, progressives wanted more single-shot, large-caliber rifles (like the Springfield) that would force soldiers to husband their rounds and make their shots count while diehards were more open to introducing newfangled, smaller-caliber repeaters (like the Winchester) into the service, the thinking being that close-range firepower was of more utility than accuracy. What bridged the gap, at least temporarily, was the advent of magazines holding five or six rounds that could be used either for a single shot or fired very rapidly. Oh, and smokeless powder, too, but I won’t go into that here. 

It’s interesting (at least to me) that you can see echoes of the progressive/diehard divide in the current debates over the place of technology in modern battle versus brute force. You can have as many “surgical-strike,” $150-million aircraft as you like, but without a lot of big guys armed with rifles (a form of weapon more than 500 years old) on the ground, it’s difficult to win wars against insurgents. Of course, against a conventional army, the first Gulf War was won by squadrons of high-tech aircraft, so this particular controversy isn’t likely to be going away anytime soon . . . 

You can download the PDF by clicking on the link: scientific-american-rifles-and-shooting-may-11-1861

Or you can visit Cornell University Library’s excellent Making of America project and have a browse yourself.

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com


If you’re interested in the espionage and intelligence wars of the American Revolution, then you might want to read my brand-new article examining the strange case of John Honeyman, who is alleged to have helped General George Washington inflict defeats on the British during the dismal winter of 1776-77. I cast doubt on the story, and investigate its origins. What I came up with might surprise you. 

I originally became interested in Honeyman after I was asked, at the end of almost talk I gave about the Culper Ring — Washington’s most successful network during the War of Independence — about what I thought of him. Not knowing anything about it, I tended to hedge a bit. During a quiet spell a few months ago, I reopened the “case” and sent the article off to Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s scholarly journal. 

It went online earlier today — what with the Hugh Trevor-Roper and the Don Higginbotham posts, it’s been a busy couple of hours — and you can download the PDF here. You can read the entire issue, if you should be so inclined, here

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com


It occurs to me that I should have been more specific in my previous post about the two books — so far — that have appeared since Lord Dacre’s death in 2003. Both of these had long “almost been finished,” but the former Regius Professor held off publishing them, possibly for fear of criticism. He never quite recovered from that Hitler Diaries debacle and he had many enemies at Peterhouse, Cambridge — which used to be known as “Hitlerhouse,” not only to remind Trevor-Roper of his humiliation at every opportunity but to reflect its dons’ robustly conservative views.)

The first of his posthumous works was Europe’s Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore De Mayerne (Yale University Press), which is by any definition a marvelous exposition, and the second, which appeared a month or so ago in Britain, is The Invention of Scotland: Myth and Tradition. Adam Sisman, who has been appointed Trevor-Roper’s biographer, reviews it here, the Tory journalist Simon Heffer discusses it here, while Ben Macintyre, author of several good popular histories (like this one and this one) is not quite as complimentary here

Personally, I think Trevor-Roper somewhat overstates the case about Scottish myths; much of this stuff has been around for years and some of it already appeared in his chapter on the creation of the kilt in the Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger-edited The Invention of Tradition. (Me, I’ve never quite understood whyor how Trevor-Roper hooked up with the likes of Hobsbawm . . . 

I hope this clears things up a bit. 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com


One of America’s foremost military historians, R. Don Higginbotham, died over the weekend, as reported by Ralph Luker at Cliopatria. I used, and heavily annotated, several of his books — including this one — when researching my own. I’ve taken the following from his bio at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website:

Professor Higginbotham’s research interests are primarily in American history to 1815, although his work on the American Revolution has led him to do several articles on the subject of comparative revolution — America and Mexico, America and Vietnam, and the American Revolution and the Confederate Revolution. In addition to several books on the American Revolution, he has edited the Papers of James Iredell, a North Carolina and Federalist leader. His most recent publications are “The Martial Spirit in the Antebellum South,” Journal of Southern History, 58 (1992), 1-26, “Formentors of Revolution: Massachusetts and South Carolina,” Journal of the Early Republic, 14 (1994), 1-33, and “The Federalized Militia Debate: A Neglected Aspect of Second Amendment Scholarship,” William and Mary Quarterly, 55 (1998), 39-58. He is currently working on a book on George Washington and his relationship to the American Revolution, an essentially non-military study. He examined his military relationship to the Revolution in George Washington and the American Military Tradition(1985). Higginbotham’s George Washington Reconsidered: Selected Essays appeared in 2001. Washington: Uniting a Nation (2002) is his most recent work.”

One can only hope that his newest Washington book, about “his relationship to the American Revolution,” will appear posthumously (rather like the two left behind by Hugh Trevor-Roper, the late Lord Dacre, both recently published to much acclaim.)

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com