Publishing and Peer Review

It looks like historian and fellow blogger Eric Wittenberg is going to take on a major cavalry project related to the Gettysburg Campaign with J.D. Petruzzi.  One of his readers asked whether he might consider a popular publisher such as Simon and Schuster.  I wasn’t surprised by Eric’s answer and my guess is that it has some merit. 

As I continue to explore the world of Civil War publishing I’ve come to appreciate more and more the role of peer review in the overall publishing process.  I’ve experienced a fairly wide spectrum of oversight from popular magazines to a well-regarded academic journal to an edited collection in a university press.  As you might expect the academic journals and university presses include an anonymous peer-review element in the process of taking a manuscript through to publication.  As I stated in an earlier post, this is incredibly important to the overall quality of the manuscript and to the status of the publication.  Recent articles of mine that have appeared in both the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography and in an edited collection which is soon-to-be released by the University of Kentucky Press included extensive oversight.  Both publishers included a three-panel anonymous review board which critiqued my manuscript.  In both cases I received extensive comments that provided important critical comments to both the factual material and overall interpretation.  Both pieces ended up being revised and one was extensively revised.  In the case of the Univ. of Kentucky Press, the process started with a critique by the book’s editor, then the anonymous reviewers, and finally with the copy-editor.  At times it can be just a bit nerve-racking, but in the end both essays were better for it.

While I have a voracious appetite for Civil War history I tend to read university press books.  A big part of the reason for this is that I am confident that the peer-review process is taken seriously.  This doesn’t necessarily imply that the final product is flawless, but taken as a whole it raises the respectability level of the publisher and my confidence as a reader.  With that said it would be interesting to know what kind of peer review is included in some of the smaller or independent publishers that specialize in Civil War history.  I am thinking of Savas-Beatie, Ironclad Publishing, White Mane (I realize it’s probably the worst of them, but let’s wait until we know exactly where the differences lay.), and Butternut & Blue.  If there is a peer-review process, what does it look like?  How many and what kinds of reviewers are utilized?  What else is included to guarantee the quality of the finished product?  There are no doubt plenty of possibilities for web-publishing, but my concerns remain the same as in the case of traditional publishers.  I tend to stay away from most websites unless it’s been recommended by someone I respect or can be shown one way or another to be legitimate.  The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History’s page on recommended websites is a perfect example.  I am going to make it a point this year to spend much more time in class on helping students evaluate historical scholarship on the internet.

All things being equal the more publishers out there the better.  However, if I am going to spend my hard-earned money I expect a certain kind of product.  I want to know how the book moved from manuscript to completed publication.  Any serious history writer already knows to utilize the help of qualified friends and associates.  Whenever I finish a project I send it to friends who I know will take the time to tear it apart, point out the mistakes, and areas of weak analysis.  While researching the past can be incredibly lonely at times, the publication process should be structured in such a way that offers its readers a certain level of confidence in the final product.

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3 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jul 4, 2006 @ 13:32

    Hey Eric, — Thanks so much for such a prompt response. Your comments are very helpful and good luck on a project that will be welcomed by many.

  • Eric Wittenberg Jul 4, 2006 @ 13:21

    I forgot something…

    Our copy editor at Ironclad is an expert on the Civil War in his own right. He’s extremely knowledgeable, and he frequently catches things. Likewise, we use Lee Merideth to do our indexing, and Lee also catches things. Finally, I do the final read–mostly a proofread–before the work goes to the printer, and I occasionally find things even at that late stage in the process.

    Between the readers, the editor, the indexer, and finally me, the likelihood of something other than a small error getting by all of us are pretty small.


  • Eric Wittenberg Jul 4, 2006 @ 13:17


    I can answer your question with respect to Ironclad, as peer review is my responsibility within the company.

    I can tell you without any hesitation whatsoever that nothing we publish goes out without extensive peer review. With respect to Gettysburg stuff, I typically handle that myself, as I have 30+ years of study into the battle. If it’s something that I don’t feel comfortable with, I certainly know enough people to find someone. My East Cavalry Field manuscript was reviewed by Scott Hartwig.

    For things non-Gettysburg, I pay someone who is an expert to give me a detailed review, usually done anonymously. The Averasboro book was reviewed by Mark Bradley, who is THE authority on the Carolinas Campaign.

    We have one book in the production queue on cavalry operations in the Chickamauga Campaign. I have only a passing knowledge of this subject, so I paid an authority of the campaign to review and comment on the manuscript (I told this person I would not identify him, so I can’t name him here. Suffice it to say that he’s one of the top five or six experts on the battle).

    We pay a $100 honorarium for reviewing and commenting upon manuscripts.

    I can also tell you that Brassey’s, now known as Potomac Books, does the same thing. I’ve been paid by them to review three manuscripts over the years. Two were published. One was trashed on my recommendation.

    Having worked with Ted Savas on two different books, I can tell you that Ted does the same thing.


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