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 Posted: Tue Aug 28th, 2007 07:57 pm
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PvtClewell
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Booklover raised an interesting question about big-name back-cover book endorsements on a different post about the book 'Manhunt,' so I thought I'd create a thread here to explore what book endorsements really mean and if we should actually believe those endorsements.

I haven't read 'Manhunt,' but noticed that it had endorsements from Doris Kearns Goodwin, James McPherson, John Hope Franklin and Jay Winik. Booklover got me curious when he wrote "...do you honestly think each of the authors read the book?"

Well, yeah, I do. Call me naive.

I have no clue how book endorsements come about. Are they voluntarily submitted by those making the endorsements; are endorsements from other big-name scholars and authors prompted by the book's publishers or by the book's author to enhance sales? I don't know.

I would have to guess that those endorsing books have actually read them. Goodwin and McPherson are Pulitzer Prize winners, and Franklin is a professor emeritus of history from Duke University. I can't imagine them lending their names and reputations to something they haven't read. Wouldn't that ultimately affect their own credibility? Are they paid for these endorsements? Can this possibly be a cheesy side of book publishing we're not allowed to see? Book-ola?

During the Civil War Institute this summer, our field trip was to Fredericksburg and Frank O'Reilly, author of 'The Fredericksburg Campaign,' was our tour guide. During casual conversation it came out that Meade was one of his favorite generals and someone asked him if he was going to write a biography of Meade. O'Reilly said that he wasn't, but someone else is currently in the process, although he hadn't seen the manuscript yet. That caught my attention. Apparently, some historians share their galley proofs and manuscripts for other historians to read prior to publication. This sounds like a good idea to me, keeps everybody honest and correct, kind of like golfers keeping each other's scores. Throw in proofreaders and editors and a book gets a lot of eyeballs before it hits the streets.

(O'Reilly and George Rable, who wrote 'Fredericksburg! Ferdericksburg!,' actually shared the stage at the CWI this summer. I thought there might be professional jealousy or aloofness between them, since their books were published rather close together, but they were very complimentary of each other and seemed to get along well.)

I ask these questions because sometimes when I buy a book, I read the endorsements on the back to see who's pushing the book. The bigger the name, the more reliable the endorsement, I figure. Then I might read a couple of graphs in the book to see if the author's style captures my interest. Maybe I'll read the book flaps. But if I can't believe the book endorsements from respected scholars, what can I believe in?

What do y'all think, or better, what do y'all know about this?



 Posted: Tue Aug 28th, 2007 11:15 pm
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Kentucky_Orphan
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I'm not sure about how all mainstream novels operate on these "endorsements", but I'm pretty sure high tier authors  get paid to review  books,  I know Steven King gets paid to read them and review them.

As for books on history, I can't imagine a historian close to the caliber of McPherson lieing about having read a book. Can you imagine Shelby Foote (before he passed, of course) giving praise to a book he never read (ok, bad example... I can barely imagine him giving praise to anything even if he had read it). I'm with you PVT, I can't imagine any of these men risking their reputation for anything.

Except maybe John Franklin...Duke University you say? Yep, he's a liar, and not to be trusted....

 



 Posted: Tue Aug 28th, 2007 11:42 pm
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CleburneFan
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When I buy a history book, I always read the author's preface. Some are pretty boring, just a long listing of names the author is thanking. But writers such as Eric Wittenberg and Dan Petruzzi (co-authors of "Plenty of BLame to Go Around") have more informative comments. They both mention those to whom they have given their manuscript for review, correction, perspective, insight, and suggestions. They both mention how their work was improved by having shared the manuscript ahead of publication.

Other authors do that also. I can't single out names because I share in common with Susan Sweet stacks of books...the ones I've read and don't know where to store and the ones I plan to read and the ones I plan to read again having read other books that changed my thinking about a campaign, battle or general.

Historians who do share manuscripts must be doing so out of academic rigor with the objective of having their books be as close to accurate as a history can be.

I dug out "Manhunt" from my stacks and read Swanson's "Acknowledgments" and his "Bibliography." He acknowledges people with whom he met who helped him with ideas and he mentions sharing his manuscript with Andrea E. Mays, Edward Steers Jr., Lisa Bertagnoli, and James Nash and others all of whom made corrections and additions.  

Swanson's bibliography and notes at forty one pages long are considerably shorter than the same in many of my Civil War history books. Sometimes the bibliography in these books can run to as much as a third of the pages in the book.

Actually the endorsements on history books seem more credible to me than, say, movie endorsements by movie critics especially a couple of TV movie critics I do not hold in high esteem. (I do love Ebert, but even we don't always agree.) 

Pvt Clewell, I think one way to judge the endorsements on a history book cover is to look at the publisher. If the book is published by a company known for the excellence of its previous publications, if that publisher's books have stood up well to the comments of experts on the subject, and if the publisher has attracted a stable of writers known for their own rigorous and exhaustive research and the integrity of their work, then I think you can rely on the endrosements on the cover.



 Posted: Wed Aug 29th, 2007 01:10 am
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booklover
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I once heard a story about John Y. Simon, who is the editor of the Ulysses S. Grant papers and one of the most respected Civil War historians around. Professor Simon said that in some cases he would give a book that he didn't like a good endorsement just to keep a friend. To me that speaks volumes about the process.

I can't sit here and prove to you that the five people on the back of Swanson's book didn't read it. I would lay money, however, that most of them either read an abridged version or a few chapters.

To answer one other question. Yes, historians and other writers do send chapters or even whole manuscripts to someone who has either the same interests or has written extensively in the field. One of the reasons they do so is because the other historian has spent several hours, days or weeks in the archives looking at the primary material needed to tell the story. He or she can be a good judge as to what's accurate and what might need some revision. For example, I've sent an article I wrote about Everton Conger to Ed, Mike and Ed Longacre for their opinions. All three gave me good advice on how to make the article better and trim much of the fat which weighed it down. So far, it hasn't found a home, but I'm still working on it. When I get my biography of Conger written, I will send it to different people based on their expertise in hopes that their help will make the liklihood that it gets published much higher. But I would hope (and I would expect) that all would be honest with me. I wouldn't expect Ed Steers or Mike Kauffman to write an endorsement if they didn't think the book merited it.

There is a marked difference between a review and an endorsement. Just about every Civil War book out there seeks something from James McPherson, for a good reason, of course. If a book has the "McPherson brand" on it, regardless of its quality, that will be enough to help it sell. It might seem that it would put McPherson's reputation on the line, but I think you are missing a very important point. Who will question a man's opinion? An endorsement is nothing more than a marketing gimmick which broadcasts one or more opinions. I can say "Busch beer gives you a rollicking good time and makes you more attractive to the women" but I have nothing to base that on. There are no standards for such an assumption. As I said on the other thread, Ed Steers may very well think that Swanson's book is good. While it might make me question Ed's judgment on that point, it doesn't change my mind about the work that Ed has produced himself. Neither does McPherson's (or Franklin's or Winik's or Goodwin's) opinion mean that I respect their work any less.

Now, if James McPherson wrote a review of the book for a scholarly journal and didn't point out the lack of proper and abundant notations or he gave Swanson a pass for the points I mentioned in the review I wrote, then I would question not only his honesty but his academic ability. That also begs a point I made in the other thread. James McPherson is an expert on the generalized topic of the Civil War. His early work focused on the abolitionist movement. He is not an expert on Lincoln's assassination. John Hope Franklin is not either. Jay Winik wrote a book that included Lincoln's assassination, but he has never written (to my knowledge) a book that dealt with it on a singular basis. Doris Kearns Goodwin holds no special insights in this matter. Patricia Cornwell is neither a historian nor someone whose writing I would respect in this context. Their opinions on the back of that book were solicited by the publisher, who did so for just one reason...to get the best quotes which will help move the product.

The reputation a historian wants to protect isn't on the back of a book. It's in the books, the journals and the magazines they write themselves. If they flout the rules of scholarship as Swanson has, and no one calls them on it, neither they nor the reviewer are worth a tinker's damn.

Best
Rob



 Posted: Wed Aug 29th, 2007 01:23 am
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Basecat
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Will just add this to the conversation.  I recently read a book that came out 15 years ago, and one of the endorsements was from a well known and highly regarded CW historian.  I read what he had to say, and it struck me as that sounded like a comment the same individual made on a more recent CW book.  Sure enough, I wandered through the library here and found the more recent book, and the endorsement was the same...word for word.

Guess the point I am making is ignore the endorsements and just read the book and come to your own conclusions.  BTW, I'll never be asked to endorse a book, as the most I would probably say is "Well, it didn't suck!"  :)

Hope all are well.

Regards from the Garden State,

Steve Basic



 Posted: Thu Aug 30th, 2007 12:47 am
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PvtClewell
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Rob,

Thanks for your insight. I honestly had no concept about the book endorsement process.

Here's where I beg to differ — there's something cynical and doesn't sit quite right with me about endorsing a book to keep a friend or to be used as a sales gimmick. If it's truly a gimmick, then it cheapens everything. At least it does for me.

I suppose it's because an author or scholar has already developed a proven reputation is why he might be asked to provide an endorsement in the first place. Clearly, reputations aren't built on endorsements, but when your name appears on something in the public domain, your name is certainly open to scrutiny, even if it's in the form of an endorsement blurb. I suspect these folks think hard about lending their name before endorsing a book. I hope so.

Who questions a man's opinion? Well, it's a primary reason why I read the endorsements in the first place. It's therefore a reason why I might or might not buy the book. If the endorsement is to promote a friend or to be used cynically as a sales gimmick, then shame on them for thinking so low of me as a potential reader, and shame on me for falling for that trick.
I was in journalism for 30 years, had my byline on thousands of stories and columns over the years before I retired, and value the worth of the reputation I developed in this community over the years. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't jeopardize that reputation, even now, for something I didn't believe in or agree with.

By the way, I thought your review of 'Manhunt' was well conceived, well written and well executed. I probably won't buy the book. Steers is good enough for me.



 Posted: Thu Aug 30th, 2007 05:11 am
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booklover
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Pvt. Clewell,

First, thank you for the kind words on my review.

I only put in 15 years in the newspaper trade before I decided deadlines sucked, so I hung up my pen. I wholeheartedly agree with you that much of the endorsement process seems cynical when its done for the wrong reason. However, I can't remember a book that I've bought where the endorsement made a difference in my purchasing it.

Best
Rob



 Posted: Thu Aug 30th, 2007 07:15 am
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PvtClewell:

(Heck! I can't remember if you're Rabbit this week, or General!)

The dust jacket blurbs are POP advertising. (That's point-of-purchase--just to pre-answer the questions.) When a headline screams, FREE, there's this little switch in your brain that lights up. Free is good! And then your thinking side takes over (or ought to take over). Every now and then a marketer comes up with a really good nangle. It's a blurb.

ole



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