When people ask me which of my books is my favorite, I try to tell them it’s like picking a favorite child. “I don’t like to play favorites,” I say. “Each one has things that make them my favorite.” That’s certainly true of my three kids—who are each my favorite—and it’s true of my books.
Still, I’m often inclined to point people toward Strike Them a Blow because there are things about it I really love—but there are also things about it that break my heart.
This was a book I never thought would happen in the first place, so in that regard, it’s a little like a miracle baby. The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor all have National Park Service sits that sell books related to those battles; North Anna does not. It doesn’t have a state park or a friends group or any associated site or group that might sell a book on the battle. For that reason alone, I didn’t think a book on North Anna would be commercially viable.
A few things unfolded all around the same time that changed the calculus.
First, we had enough sales on enough books by this point that we had some data to parse. We discovered that about twenty percent of our book sales on any given title came from the book store at the park most closely associated with that book: for instance, about 20% of our sales on That Furious Struggle: Chancellorsville and the High Tide of the Confederacy came from the bookstore at Chancellorsville. That’s not an inconsequential percentage, but it does suggest that a lot more sales came from non-visitor center bookstores than we originally assumed—an important point for a potential book about a battle that had no battlefield.
Second, sales on our Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor books were strong enough that we thought we could use them as hammock poles to bolster sales for a North Anna book. We could also make the argument to bookstores that sold those two books that a North Anna book was either the next step or the previous step (respectively) in the campaign, so there’d by a logical tie-in.
Finally, the American Battlefield Trust acquired the 665-acre Jericho Mills battlefield at North Anna. Suddenly, the nation’s top preservation group was calling a lot of attention to that phase of the Overland Campaign, and Richmond National Battlefield agreed to take the land in when all was said and done. The new spotlight created new opportunity.
When I pitched the idea to Ted for an ECW book on North Anna, we were able to make a data-based decision because of these factors, which outweighed the conventional wisdom that we might not have sale opportunities. I was thrilled when Ted said yes.
North Anna had long been my personal “pet” battlefield, for two reasons. First, it’s overshadowed by other phases of the Overland Campaign, so its underdog status attracted me. Fascinated to learn more, I turned to Gordon Rhea’s To the North Anna River—a book I fell in love with. It remains, to this day, my favorite microtactical study. (I’d be fortunate later to have Gordon agree to write the foreword of my own North Anna book for me.)
To write the book, I tapped into the creative nonfiction writer in me. This let me adopt a somewhat looser voice to the writing. I could wonder aloud about things. I paid more attention to the art of the writing rather than just letting the writing convey information. I employed some of the techniques of fiction writing, concentrating on scene work, characterization, description, and even some dialogue.
I enjoy every book I write, but this one was truly a joy for me to work on. I loved it—every single minute of it. I was sad when I finished the book.
For that reason, I often like to point people to the book because I’m still in love with it. But I usually don’t, because I’m a bit embarrassed by it, too.
You see, among my talents as a writer and editor, copyediting is not among them. I’m a horrible copyeditor and proofreader. Most readers don’t realize that copyediting and proofreading are their own skills, quite different from writing and revising. It requires an eye for letter-level detail that I just don’t have.
Strike Them a Blow is riddled with typos. Riddled. It has so many proofing errors that the book embarrasses me (a fact I’ve never admitted to anyone except Ted and Sarah Keeney until now). I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t do a better job of telling a story that deserved better from me.
Most of it’s dumb stuff, too. In one caption, for instance, referred to Alfred Waud as “Waugh” because I had, literally that week, been corresponding with Joan Waugh about something and so had “Waugh” on the brain. Elsewhere, my chronic inability to spell John C. Breckinridge’s last name correctly resulted in inconsistencies throughout the text. I’m getting an upset stomach just thinking about it all, even now.
At the time we published Strike Them a Blow, we did not have a committed proofreader for the series. Up to this point, there was some proof-as-proofers can copyediting, but far and away, the most common complaints we heard about the series all related to the proofreading. We’d get comments like, “Fantastic book. Great history. Great writing. But the book really needed a proofreader.” (You can still see comments like that on old reviews on Amazon if you really want to.)
One unhappy customer even went as far to say, “I found it somewhat irritating that Chris is a journalism professor, yet there are more than a few errors in grammar or dates incorrect that an editor should have corrected.” Ouch. Yes, proofreading is its own thing, and some people have or don’t have an eye for it, and there are entire classes taught on copyediting—and I’m not a copyeditor not have ever professed to be one—but comments like that sting. (For more on that, check out this 2018 post.)
As a consequence of Strike Them a Blow’s plethora of proofing gaffes, we instituted new copyediting protocols for our books. Aside from the developmental editing the books get, they go to a copyeditor while in manuscript form and then, once they’re laid out, they go to a proofreader in PDF form. (You can read more about our proofing protocols in this 2016 piece by Amelia Kibbe.) Typos still inevitably creep in, but at least we’re making a concerted, systematic effort to attack them now.
Nonetheless, I’ve had the poorly proofed first edition of Strike Them a Blow hanging over my head for years. Ironically, in order to get to a second edition—which will let me fix those typos—I have to sell through the first, but I’ve been hesitant to point people to it because the book represents my most slip-shod work, even though, on the whole, it’s the manuscript I most enjoyed writing and it’s the one I like the most.
I’m pleased to announce, however, that Strike Them a Blow is, indeed, finally going into a new edition, which will be available this spring. Even now, with corrections on the horizon, hitting the “reset” button isn’t quite so simple, though: paper shortages resulting from supply chain problems mean that the one-month turnaround typical for ECWS books have stretched out to three. My updates won’t see the light of day quite yet.
When they do, you can bet that I’ll be pointing everyone I can to Strike Them a Blow. It’s an overlooked story that deserves more attention, and it’s a manuscript I really love.
Strike Them a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna River, May 21-25, 1864
by Chris Mackowski
Savas Beatie, 2015
Click here to read more about the book, including a book description, reviews, and author bios.
Click here for the audiobook, read by Chris Mackowski.