Thoughts on Writing

Posted by Bruce Canfield

Along with martial arms collecting, one of my favorite hobbies is writing. My 12th book has been published by Mowbray Publishing. In addition to writing books, I have been fortunate to have numerous articles (over 100) on martial arms collecting published in several national magazines, primarily American Rifleman, The Gun Report and Man at Arms as well as several foreign publications (Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Japan). I initially began my writing endeavors when an article of mine on U.S. WWI trench guns was published in Man at Arms magazine back in 1983. That eventually resulted in a great working relationship with Andy Mowbray, the founder of Man at Arms magazine and Mowbray Publishing. Andy regrettably passed away a few years ago and his son, Stuart, assumed control of the company and has done a great job. I can’t imagine an author having a better working relationship with a publisher than the one that Stuart and I enjoy. These endeavors also led to my association with American Rifleman magazine. When Mark Keefe took over the helm of the Rifleman several years ago, he improved the quality of the magazine tremendously and I am pleased to count him as a great friend.

I occasionally get inquires from individuals who would like to “get published” and ask for advice. Some are interested in having a book published and others are looking to get a magazine article in print. My first bit of advice is usually the hoary, but nevertheless true, cliché of “write what you know” coupled with the admonition that an author should have a demonstrable interest in whatever subject he decides to write about. In addition, the subject must be of sufficient interest to enough individuals to warrant publication. Publishers are businessmen. They will not invest time and capital in a project that they do not think will result in a reasonable return on their investment. For example, I’ve seen a number of manuscripts from individuals who simply write about their life experiences, often in the military. With due respect, the vast majority of such efforts are of interest only to the writer and, perhaps, his immediate family. Occasionally a writer will have sufficient talent to craft an interesting narrative of his experiences in the military that might appeal to a broad segment of potential readers but such efforts are very much in the minority.

Of course, the above applies only to non-fiction work as fiction is another matter and requires an entirely different skill-set (which I do not possess). The type of writing I typically engage in is not related to my personal experiences (which would be extremely boring to 99.9999% of potential readers) but, rather, to U.S. military weapons, their historical application, or both. Such writing requires adequate research and sufficient writing ability to make what might be a rather “dry” subject to some readers palatably interesting to the majority. Also, the subject must have broad enough appeal to make it a viable topic in the eyes of a publisher. For example, even though a number have been written, a book on the M1 rifle or M1 carbine would potentially appeal to an infinitely larger market than a book on chromed-plated French pocket revolvers made in the 1920s which would be of interest only to the two or three guys in the country who collect such guns.

If an individual is convinced that he has a viable topic, has done sufficient research and presented the material in an interesting and cogent manner, then his next task is to find someone to publish it. This is true for both magazine articles and books although, as might be expected, it is normally much easier to have an article published than a book because of the capital expenditure required for the latter as compared to the former. In the case of a book, there are only a handful of publishers who specialize in books on U.S. military weapons-related topics. A “generic” publishing house almost certainly would have little interest in such topics because, relatively speaking, it is a “fringe” market with limited appeal to the population as a whole. We collectors and gun enthusiasts are avid buyers of books on our pet weapons but the vast majority of individuals do not share our interests in such things. Some fledging authors may decide to self-publish their work or, perhaps, engage the services of a “vanity press” publisher who will produce and print books on a contract basis with the author paying for their services. Any method of publishing will have pros and cons.

If a book is published by an established publishing company, the author will have the luxury of professionals handling the layout, printing and marketing of his book with little effort (after submitting the manuscript) and no financial risk on his part. He will also, typically, receive a percentage of the sale proceeds as royalties. The primary “con” is that he will only receive this royalty percentage and the publisher will obtain the lion’s share of the revenue from the sale of the book. Of course, the publisher bears all the risk and much of the effort as well so it would seem to be a fair trade-off. Probably the biggest hurdle is finding a publisher who is willing to risk his time and capital on an unknown or untested author.

If someone chooses to self-publish, he will have to do the layout of the book himself (which is more involved than one might contemplate), pay for the printing (after finding a suitable printer which may not be as easy as it sounds) and associated costs out of his pocket and market the book (with the attendant expenses of advertising, shipping, etc.). The major “upside” is that he will receive all the revenue from sale of the book. Many times, however, an author unhappily discovers that the revenue is far less than the expenses and the book project is a money-losing proposition. Still, sometimes the pleasure of seeing one’s efforts in print is worth the financial burden involved.

Likewise, engaging the services of a “vanity” publisher is a mixed bag. The author will have a professional (hopefully) handling the layout, etc. of the book and not have to search for the services of a printing firm. Otherwise, that’s about it. The publisher’s fee will include the costs of putting together the book, having it printed and then adding a (usually) rather hefty profit. The publisher will normally ship the books to the author and, from that point on, it’s up to him to find buyers. Such arrangements very rarely result in anything remotely resembling a profit accruing to the author.

None of the above is intended to dissuade anyone from attempting to write a book as it can be a rewarding experience, albeit not always financially. Keeping with the subject of this website, if one does manage to have a book published on U.S. military weapons or a related topic, he will quickly find out that a thick skin is a necessity. Collectors and enthusiasts of the hobby are generally nice guys but some can become extremely critical of anyone’s efforts in publishing a book on their pet subject. Admittedly, some of the books that have been offered over the years are not very good and reasonable criticism is justified. However, there is not, and never will be, a perfect book on the genre as all contain errors and questionable information or statements. It’s a matter of degree. If there are errors on every other page, then the book is, at best, marginally useful. If there are only a handful of questionable or erroneous statements, that’s a pretty good effort. Regardless, some guys get pathological in the tone and tenor of their complaints. After doing this for over two decades, I can testify first-hand. Sometimes criticism is valid but other times it borders on the absurd. As one example of the latter, in one of my early books, the publisher had a typo regarding the length of the M1905 bayonet’s blade and stated it was 16’ long rather than 16” long. Of course, a writer will routinely get blamed for publisher typos, etc. but that comes with the territory. Anyway, one guy (who apparently was off his meds) wrote an extremely nasty letter to the publisher and to the NRA (since they were selling this book in their museum’s book store at the time) stating that someone who thought that a bayonet was 16 feet long was obviously too incompetent to write a book and that the book should be immediately withdrawn. I’m not making this up! My publisher and the guys at the NRA thought this was hysterically funny. Of course, this is an extreme example but you get the idea. Whenever a book is published, all the errors and shortcomings are “out there” in perpetuity as there is no way to fix problems after publication. With the possible exception of politics, book authors are among the most vociferously criticized individuals and should learn to have a thick skin and good sense of humor. One should learn from the valid criticisms and forget the others.

Writing magazine articles for national publications is, in some ways, similar to writing a book. However, writing a magazine article has its own inherent challenges. One of the most difficult things to do is to write a cogent and interesting article using a finite number of words. With a book, a few extra pages are not a big deal. Magazines, on the other hand, have a limited amount of space available for an article and anything longer will either not be printed or will be severely edited. Sometimes such edits can result in leaving out the “meat” of the article so it behooves a writer to limit his manuscript to the available space. The editor will let a potential author know beforehand how much space is available and in such cases the “word count” feature of most word processing software can be your friend. After writing scores of articles for the American Rifleman and other publications, I’ve honed the ability to write what I need to say within the space available. Sometimes, however, this also leads to complaints. For example, I recently wrote an article on the “other” trench gun of the First World War, the Remington Model 10. Sure enough, a week or so later I saw a complaint on an internet discussion forum that the article didn’t cover the Vietnam era trench guns! If the guy was interested in Vietnam trench guns, he either needs to look for an article on that subject (I’ve done several in the past) or a book on the subject (ditto). Likewise, some guys who are really into a collecting theme will complain if an article is too “superficial” and doesn’t contain any “new” or “useful “ information. What such guys seem to forget is that probably 90% of the readers of a magazine have, at best, only a passing interest in a particular topic (such as the M1 carbine or whatever). While much of the information presented in such articles may be "old hat" to the long-time collectors, it is often unknown to novices on the subject (who usually comprise the majority of readers). Interestingly, an editor of a magazine can sometimes receive two letters on a particular article on the same day, one complaining that the piece was too superficial and the other unhappy because it was too detailed! Again, a good sense of humor is an attribute that every writer should possess.

I didn’t initially intended for this posting to be so verbose but, as you might imagine, I find this to be an interesting topic. Of course, I’ll probably receive e-mails that it was too lengthy and e-mails that I should have gone into more detail. In such cases, the delete button can come in handy!

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