Archive | December 2012

More Thoughts on EMEMH Publishing

Yet more on the state of writing, publishing and buying EMEMH books in the age of Print Publishing Collapse.

Wayne Lee recently expressed his disgust at book prices in response to a recent bibliographic notice. And while his (price) point about the expense of Brill books in particular is taken – I’ve flown off the handle myself once or twice, as you can see from the Publishing tag – more and more I’m wondering about the options, and how I should respond as an author and consumer.

We can start with Danley and Speelman’s Seven Years’ War collection published by Brill. As most of us know, Brill’s specialty is ultra-detailed, lengthy studies with a big price tag – my own Vauban under Siege was published with them in 2007 and now runs $180. So let’s put these figures in context. Generally, specialization comes with a higher price tag, because there isn’t as broad a market for such detailed studies – just look at journal subscription prices. If the entire market of EMEMH publishing consisted of such tomes, that would be bad. But is the existence of such an expensive work inherently a bad thing? While my eyes did pop at the $252 list price, after a moment’s reflection I wonder how outraged I really should be. My thinking is as follows:

1) Perhaps Brill actually does provide a service, with a correspondingly high cost. Which other publishers would publish a 20-chapter (18 different authors), 530-page behemoth like that in this day and age? Very few. Instead, publishers insist that a) the book be much shorter, 200-25o pages of text, and b) that the book cover a broader time frame (and possibly a wider geographical scope as well), so as to interest a broader market. Compare the traditional academic monograph with the Palgrave catalog if you haven’t noticed this trend. Simultaneous condensing-and-stretching may be a smart publishing strategy, but I doubt whether that’s necessarily good for the discipline as whole, especially if it replaces what would have been more detailed studies. I know authors who have been forced to stretch their books’ borders far beyond their expertise in order to bring in a larger market, and they aren’t happy with the tacked-on chapters. Ultimately, such market pressures put the marketability of the book ahead of disciplinary knowledge; and in an age of historical specialization, we need details. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I have Palgrave’s Beyond Calvin (192 pages @ $41) for my Reformation course next semester, but I want far more for my own specialty of EMEMH. I don’t want every book to be a 100-year survey of a topic, or an overview of a multi-national war where the author clearly focuses on one or two sides – we need monographs too. Bringing it back to Danley & Speelman, we’ve already had several new surveys of the 7YW published recently (Showalter, Szabo, Baugh), so I’d argue it’s good that we get some new detailed studies, especially if it gets us away from the obsession with Frederick the Great. Journals publishing EMEMH articles could serve the same function, but there are few such specialist journals in existence, and they will easily get lost compared to a collected volume of chapters dedicated to the war.

As series editor at NYU Press, Wayne has indeed put his money where his mouth is, editing several works on early modern military history (around ten chapters and 250 pages) that have been released in paperback at quite reasonable prices ($25 or so). So I guess the question is whether NYU Press would be willing to double the size of an edited collection while shrinking the temporal/geographical scope to, say, a specific war? Or even publish an entire collection on a less popular European war, or a less well-known aspect of a well-known war? Could such a work be published in paperback, i.e. cheaply? If not, which chapters would be condensed and which cut completely, who makes that decision, and what criteria would be used? From the academic consumer’s perspective, would this be NYU Press robbing the field of more detailed studies that might have been published (more expensively) with Brill? Is expanding the reading market to non-specialists (i.e. outside of the EMEMH subfield) worth that sacrifice? Wayne? Maybe we should get Rick Schneid (series editor at Brill) in here for equal time? With Brill, the author really does seem to control the end result, for good or ill. Probably because they don’t need to worry as much about expanding their market beyond libraries and specialized academics.

2) If somebody other than Brill would publish a work just like Mark’s and Pat’s, what would they charge for it? Price is spiraling out of control everywhere – I recall as an undergrad in the early 90s being shocked that a book on Russian military history cost $80! Ahhh youth. These days, your average single-author monograph on early modern European topics at Cambridge, Oxford, etc. costs $100 or more. In fact, I just received a $125 single-author monograph for Christmas on the financial aspects of a single early modern war (240 pages of text). Ashgate and Pickering & Chatto come to mind as alternatives to Brill, although they too charge well north of $100 for their monographs and edited collections. So maybe Brill’s $100-$150 premium to retain the detail and authorial control is worth the price premium if you are really interested in the subject? If I have to pay $125 for a single-author monograph that totals 225 pages, paying twice that amount for twice the page volume and 18 times the authorial and content variety might not be outrageous. And if there aren’t that many new works published on a specific war/topic every year, perhaps that’s an acceptable price to pay? (Now I know what psychologists mean when they talk about the anchoring effect.) Maybe we’ll see more presses selling individual chapters from within edited collections – in which case they become de facto journals I guess.

Perhaps we need to look at the ecology of EMEMH publishing. There needs to be room for blogs, email listservs, journal articles, book chapters, and monographs; illustrated coffee table books, monographic case studies, period-level surveys, and mass market surveys. Prices will vary widely according to medium and genre, and there will undoubtedly be outliers among individual presses. Yet, truth be told, I am constantly amazed at the detailed EMEMH books offered by Brill, unparalleled in number, depth and variety – maybe that’s the price of progress in our subfield? As with any healthy ecosystem, I hope that the balance between the various species doesn’t get out of whack.

What say you?

Trenchard in the Trenches

[Cross-posted from SMHBLOG, but with a few images since I’ve seemingly lost the ability to add them to SMHBLOG.]

An earlier post at the SMHBLOG on Trenchardism naturally prompts this early modernist to muse on the early modern art of bombing civilians. Consider it a late Christmas present.

Like many aspects of warfare, the early modern art of bombardment was quite similar to the theory and practice of its modern counterpart, only on a smaller scale. The practice of launching nasty objects over tall walls is as old as catapults, and it has always been easier to hit the broadside of a town than precisely strike a specific point on a wall. Almost as soon as gunpowder weapons made their appearance in 14th century Europe, warmakers envisioned their use against towns.

As powder and projectiles increased in performance and availability, gunners targeted the inhabitants of fortified places as well as the walls they sheltered behind. Solid shot could pulverize stone walls, while iron cannonballs heated glowing red over an iron grate (“red-hot shot”) threatened to set buildings ablaze inside the town. In the 16th century, the parabolic trajectory of bombs fired from mortars made bombardment more efficient, particularly after bombardiers (eventually) figured out how to light the bomb fuse from the ignition of the main powder charge in the tube. Ever-growing arsenals, supplemented by yet more technological advances, significantly expanded the use of bombs throughout the 17th century: the French development of the bomb ketch under Louis XIV made coastal bombardments a more practical matter; howitzers’ arcing trajectories could also target the interior of a town; while the development of the man-portable Coehoorn mortar allowed thousands of double-grenades to rain down on a besieged garrison, and any unfortunate inhabitants as well.

Bombardment of Gelder, 1703

The Art of Bombardment, Gelder 1703

A few other “inventions” were even more fanciful. As one 1688 periodical reflected on the state of the early modern military art:
But this Age affords more refined Wits, and better fitted for Malice. They have invented Bombs, Balls and Carcasses, full of all nocent [harmful] things, Nails, Knives, Sharp-pointed Contrivances, Grapples, Pistols firing, and several other Diabolical Inventions; which shot up into the Air from the Mouths of the Brass Mortar-pieces, upon their falling burst with such a Violence, as immediately occasions a Total Ruine among the Besieged, and to their Houses; and when the Cities, are of a small Extent, their Havock and Destruction presently forces them to lay down their Arms, and no longer to resist their fury.
But of all Inventions of this Nature, that seems most marvellous of certain Mortar-pieces, which by the force of people and Instruments fill’d with Wind, throw certain great Bombs made of six round and Convex Iron Plates, wherein are contain’d twenty five persons well provided with Arms. These Bombs may be shot into the Enemies Fortresses four times in an hour, and by this means fill them so invisibly with such a vast number of Soldiers, (since twelve Mortar-pieces of the same Bulck will be discharg’d each time) that the Place will be presently taken; for their Sergeants can in an Instant draw them up in good order, and make them seize on the Sentinels and Guards, and by this means obtain a more certain Victory, then ever did the Romans by their Bucklers, or Clypeus Contextus, since they can enter the Towns without any resistance.” Early modern air cavalry, Trojan Horse style.

Mortar firing, c. 1672

Mortar firing, c. 1672

Bombardment technology developed slowly, but the justifications for the semi-indiscriminate attack on civilian population centers remained constant, and are familiar to us today. Most garrisons were quartered among urban civilian populations, and while mortar fire might have been relatively accurate, the ability to distinguish military from non-military targets within a town was limited. Nor was such discernment a priority, since early moderns believed that the bombardment of towns could achieve positive tactical objectives. First, indiscriminate bombardment was used as a threat – declare your neutrality, deliver up the demanded ransom, and nobody needs to get hurt. If compliance was too long in coming, or perhaps if a message needed to be sent, bombardment might serve as a punishment, witness Louis XIV’s 1684 bombardment of Genoa, an Italian port-state that had dared to assist France’s Spanish enemy. On a narrower tactical level, as our quote above suggests, targeted bombardment of a garrison’s barracks and posts might sap the defenders’ morale. But more widespread destruction could also cause the enemy harm – whether the intent was to burn the fodder magazines and mills within the town, or to create a more general conflagration that damaged the enemy’s ability to continue the war through lower tax revenues and destroyed infrastructure. In wars of attrition, such destruction could be its own objective. But, fortunately for contemporaries, this was not the age of the chevauchée: bombardment was rarely used with wild abandon, likely due only in part to the arguments of the cooler heads, who noted that destroying too many towns made little sense if the attacker intended to occupy them and extract their resources.

Even though early moderns refrained from spreading fire and death across the enemy’s lands as a matter of course (at least after the Thirty Years War), the tactical application of bombardment was standard practice. The need for speed encouraged most besiegers to accelerate their attacks by lobbing exploding carcasses in among the townspeople. Besieged burghers, after all, were just as ‘guilty’ for allowing garrison troops to continue their defense, even if they didn’t actively support the garrison. The suffering of innocents appears to have been a non-issue for most military practitioners well into the 18th century, and for many civilian observers as well. Neither Louis nor his Secretary of War Louvois apparently gave much thought to the civilian casualties caused by the bombardment of Luxembourg, nor did the English overly concern themselves about the citizens of Saint-Malo, Dieppe or Dunkirk – the inhabitants of these ‘pirate nests’ facilitated the war effort, and they further benefited economically from the prizes captured by French privateers.

Coehoorn-type mortar (note the handles)

Coehoorn-type mortar (note the handles)

Not even the Christmas season overrode such military expediency. Towards the end of December 1708 the Duke of Marlborough received a civilian deputation from the besieged town of Ghent (population 51,000) begging him to save their homes from destruction. Grinch that he was, the Duke informed them that “since they had brought this misfortune upon themselves by their own folly or negligence [Ghent had had a small British garrison in its castle that was surprised earlier in the year], they must either assist us against the garrison or expect we should use all manner of extremity to reduce them to their duty.” Red-hot shot pelted the town for several hours until the French garrison beat the chamade and negotiated their surrender. Civilian suffering wasn’t always the primary objective of early modern bombardment, but it often was a supplemental tactic. Humanitarianism rarely provided a check on such methods.

Same as it ever was, just on a smaller scale. Like modern airpower theorists, early moderns sometimes hoped that a massive bombardment of the enemy capital would quickly force them to their knees, and on rare occasions it might actually work (as with Genoa in 1684 and Algiers the same year). More often, however, early modern bombardment was intended to terrorize the civilian population on a city-by-city basis, usually coupled with an attempt to capture the town. As so often happens, military capability slides inevitably into military use, with theoretical limitations on war preempted by immediate military expediency. Whether a Coehoorn mortar, a B-29 or a Predator drone, it’s usually easiest to shoot first, and chalk up ‘collateral damage’ to the vagaries of war.

Bomb exploding in town

Bomb exploding in town

Performances of Peace, Utrecht 2013

The program for the “Performances of Peace” conference in Utrecht next April is finally available. My paper on “Debating Marlborough’s Place among the Great Captains” will be in the Poetry of War panel – why not. I’ll be one of the few ‘traditional’ military historians presenting, but that fact didn’t stop the “Louis XIV Outside In” conference I presented at this past May from being really interesting. Looks like some interesting papers here as well; lots on diplomatic and political cultural topics.

This will also be the first conference I’ve attended where musical intermezzi are scheduled, which fits the Utrecht City Hall venue. For their part, the French commissioned original music and theatrical performances in honor of the tercentenary of Vauban’s death a few years back, so I guess it’s a European thing. Personally, I’m hoping there’ll be a Gangnam-style tribute to the Peace of Utrecht somewhere in there.

"Hey, sexy lady..."

“Hey, sexy lady…”

Books vs. websites

The holidays are almost over, and I have two research projects to try to finish up before classes start in a few weeks, plus service obligations to attend to. But by way of diversion, I give you more meta-talk on note-taking and digital resources.

Since I always try to teach my students the variety of ways we collect, store, search and use historical information, a recent post on the Humanist listserv provides an interesting contrast between how works in print (i.e. books and journal articles) are indexed and cataloged, vs. the simplistic way in which we have to search for information on websites. On its own terms, Google’s search engine is impressive, but we all know how much effort it takes to winnow through all the chaff (or signal-to-noise, for a more modern metaphor).

Humanist post at:

But techno-optimism runs rampant, particularly among the ‘digital natives’ – just look at all the web sources our students cite in the first drafts of their research papers. I recall way back in the late 1990s having to inform a library student worker (as I sat at the microfilm machine scrolling through some 18C newspapers) that, contrary to his belief, most information was not in fact online. With 2013 now dawning, much of history is still offline, and much of the good stuff that is “online” is in fact hidden behind paywalls or is otherwise proprietary. Just as importantly, the information in print is much better organized and more findable than most of what we have on all but the most popular websites – for someone used to Library of Congress subject headings and multiple defined-vocabulary keywords (like my Notes database), the brute force Google uses in its searches is a giant step backwards, although it does have the advantage of being automated. A ‘keyword’ search is a dumb search, as I like to say.

As the Humanist post above points out, the print world is much more searchable because its content has already been aggregated into human terms, concepts by which we meta-organize information. The full-text of print works may not always be available online (although some are in Google Books and you can always scan your own), but their catalog records certainly are, along with subject heading info. Look at all the useful ways my Vauban book has been cataloged:

Siege warfare — Europe — History — 18th century
Offensive (Military science) — Europe — History — 18th century
Manpower — Europe — History — 18th century
Spanish Succession, War of, 1701-1714
Vauban, Sébastien Le Prestre de, 1633-1707

Or, in my own system:

Vauban under Siege record

Vauban under Siege record

We can even find an increasing number of Table of Contents and book Indices, for example, on Amazon. In short, full-text search of digital sources is great for finding proper nouns, but keywords and subject headings are even more useful for finding meaningful chunks of information, particularly when most websites don’t include much searchable metadata. I’m reminded of this fundamental digital limitation every time I have to search through my hundreds of scanned PDFs (OCRed) of secondary sources and thousands of un-OCRed primary-sources PDFs. You’ll see the same thing when you search Google Books – limited semantic search capabilities means lots of false hits to wade through (not to mention OCR issues). As a result, I’ve recently realized that I really should be scanning in the Indices of the books I scan, as well as the text itself. Previously I had rather stupidly assumed that I didn’t need the Index, because I already had the full text. Oops.

Now if only we could hire a thousand librarians to provide paragraph-level keywording and subject headings for all EMEMH books, articles, and archival documents! Maybe next Christmas.

Interesting meta-library stats

Dan Cohen has a real interesting post on some data crunching from the HathiTrust project. It includes a number of graphs by John Wilkins that illustrate the ‘uniqueness’ of various research libraries’ holdings. Cool stuff, although some caveats are to be found in the comments (aren’t they always?).

Dan also mentions LibraryThing, a site where you can enter in your own libraries and share/compare with others. The site is mostly used for modern book aficionados, but it does include a LegacyLibraries section, where people have entered in historical figures’ libraries. Here’s an example of James Boswell. Might be something to play around with at some point. We could really use one dedicated to the early modern period, building off of Ira Gruber’s recent Books and the British Army in the Age of the American Revolution, preferably with all of Lynn’s Guide titles already entered in (or easily importable). Group libraries in Zotero might be another option. Zotero has a few plugins that allow some library visualizations: a timeline feature, as well as a plugin called Paper Machines (which I’ve never been able to get to work properly FWIW). So much to do, so little time…

For Everything There is a Season

But this blog isn’t just about shameless self-promotion. For those uninitiated in the conventions of historical conferencing, I offer a peek behind the curtain. Most noteworthy is just how slowly historical research works – much like blog posting, especially when you have end-of-term grading and a cold. This is particularly true for those of us who aren’t at Research I institutions, those of us who teach 3-4 courses every semester and have various service obligations. The trek from initial research to public unveiling (usually via conference papers) to final publication offers an instructive example of this process.

To provide a graphic example of how long and tortuous this process can be, I present you with my own academic biography, in handy visual form (that’s my shtick after all). I haven’t been a particularly prolific scholar, nor have I been on the fast track, but the following illustrates how little dribs and drabs trickle out over time, much never seeing the light of publication, and how work gets recycled, repurposed, grafted onto, and generally shaped into different forms. (I think I’ve thoroughly confused my metaphor by this point – is research a theater production, a fluid, an aluminum can, a tree, a piece of clay, or what exactly? Maybe all of the above.)


The above graphic is a bit silly, and I didn’t spend the time to figure out a good vertical axis scheme. But I tried to portray a chronological narrative of the various research jaunts, major presentations and publications that I’ve completed over the years. From this you can see how long it takes for the average (?) historian to get their ideas out there: my 2000 journal article on Ramillies (yellow project) itself took four years from the initial draft (which required revision and resubmission) to its acceptance at the end of 1998 to its actual publication in 2000. The initial draft in turn was based off some of the research done for my master’s thesis, over the course of 1992-1995, supplemented by research carried out in the archives in 1997-1998. My book (Vauban under Siege – the pink project) was similarly the product of a decade of research, and can be traced back to an initial chance encounter with Christopher Duffy’s The Fortress in the Age of Vauban and Frederick the Great in 1991. The book’s findings have been further perpetuated by a few other book chapters and presentations based off of its results. Much of the rest of my archival research from 1997-98 has yet to see print. And, as anyone who’s participated in a collection volume can attest, the three year gap between the 2009 completion of my “Marlborough and Siege Warfare” chapter – itself based on a paper presented in 2004 – and the edited volume’s publication this past month (brownish gold project) is hardly extraordinary. Like herding cats, as they say.

Just as noteworthy are the multiple conference papers that were their own mini-projects: five conference papers that might be considered one-offs, though perhaps something to return to in the future. (The 2000 WSFH paper discussed my database, a discussion which I later put up on my website.) For the efficient scholar every conference paper is a rough draft of a journal article. But in addition to being busy with teaching, my perfectionism often gets in the way of me completing such projects, while my wandering eye sends me off into all sorts of side alleys. A life littered with half-completed projects – how Lord Acton-esque.

I assume I’m not that unusual?

History predates the Digital Age? Perish the Thought

Summary of an AHA survey of ‘senior’ History faculty in the U.S (full details at the AHA website).

The shocking results? Historians aren’t sold on digital work – or, like racism, they aren’t personally opposed to digital research, but they’re sure other people are. Scattered reports further indicate that History professors also apparently complain about their students’ academic skills, and – this just in – teaching schools require not only lots of teaching, but research as well.

Same as it ever was...

Same as it ever was…

How come nobody told me about any of this? Oh well, I suppose it’s good to see that history is finally catching up with the social sciences in its ability to present the obvious as newsworthy.