Reflections on the Making and Marketing of Churchill and Sea Power

I. The academic publishing ghetto

Naval Mutinies Czech edition

Churchill and Sea Power is a very different sort of publishing experience for me. I always thought my first two books had some commercial potential, but looking back I can see that they were destined to be typical ‘academic’ publications. They looked and felt like ‘real’ books -- which was very gratifying, to be sure -- but they were never going to reach a large audience. Both volumes had a small print run, were sold at prices ranging from ‘high’ to ‘absurdly high’, and were marketed (I use the term loosely) to libraries and a handful of specialist academics. The publishers’ strategy was high margins, low sales. And I can't fault them for that. Many quality manuscripts would never make it into print if this business model didn’t exist. In fact, it’s a pretty good arrangement for all concerned: the publishers make a modest profit, and academics are able to produce worthwhile books that have little or no commercial appeal. When I signed the contract for my first book, I didn’t care how many copies it would sell. I never expected to make any money off it – and I was certainly never going to recover the cost of my PhD! My goal at the time was to find employment in a very tough academic job market. And for that, a book could make a big difference. So I was just grateful to be getting published at all.

And I have to admit, my first book, The Royal Navy, Seapower and Strategy between the Wars, was pretty specialised. It read much like what it was -- a revised PhD dissertation. I would like to think that it was more readable and accessible than most revised dissertations, but there’s no denying that it required some familiarity with the subject to follow the book’s main arguments. Fortunately, the book fulfilled its intended function. In 2001, gainfully employed at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, I embarked on a new book project with one of my colleagues, Bruce Elleman. The result was Naval Mutinies of the Twentieth Century. We thought the subject matter would appeal to a wide audience, and even though it was unmistakably a scholarly book, we took care to make it accessible to the non-academic reader as well. Unfortunately, the publisher we went with was not inclined to look beyond the usual academic market. In hindsight, we should have taken some more time and shopped around a bit longer. But now that I had a job, the goal was to keep it – and there was a lot to be said for going with a press we knew could get the book out quickly. Besides, it was a perfectly respectable publisher, and the book would appear in a well-regarded naval history series.

When the hardcover edition of Naval Mutinies of the Twentieth Century was published in July 2003, it was priced at around $55, which didn’t strike me as outrageous. And we knew there was a paperback edition coming, which would help the book find a wider readership. Unfortunately, our publisher changed hands around the time the book came out, and the new regime was even more firmly wedded to the “high margins” business model than the old one. Within a few months, the price of the book more than tripled. The hardcover now retails for $198 on the publisher’s website. This was an unwelcome surprise. Seriously, who, other than a library, is going to buy one at that price? Even with my discount, I can’t afford a copy! Quite a few libraries will probably have to pass on it as well. The paperback is currently sitting at $53.95, which is slightly more reasonable, but still not likely to attract much notice from the book-buying public.

Curiously, Naval Mutinies of the Twentieth Century was translated into Czech a few years ago, in a hardcover edition that sold for about $20. I discovered this purely by accident one day while surfing the web. Our publisher never informed Bruce and me that they had sold the translation rights. And after consulting the fine print in our contract, I discovered that we were not entitled to any royalties on this new edition. I contacted the Prague-based publisher of the new edition, and they very kindly sent me a copy of the Czech edition. They evidently saw the potential for reaching a wide readership. And since the book seems to be out of print now, I assume their faith was not entirely misplaced. Oddly enough, the book has probably sold more copies in the Czech Republic than the English-language edition has sold in the rest of the world!

II: Finding a publisher

When I started work on Churchill and Sea Power in 1999, my PhD fresh in hand, I assumed that it would also be an academic book for the academic market. And I was okay with that. This was a project that was close to my heart, and my goal was to ensure that it was ‘done right’. I intended to unearth every relevant document in the archives and produce a massive, exhaustive, and definitive book. This would be a tome of epic proportions – hundreds of detailed pages, intelligible to only the most specialised of academic historians! But over the years I began to rethink this approach. I have to admit that I was frustrated at times that my earlier books seemed to be languishing in complete obscurity. They were reviewed in the usual scholarly journals, but clearly only a handful of specialists were ever going to read them. Even more frustrating, I occasionally ran across scholarly books and articles that, in my opinion, should have referenced my books but did not. Specialists, in other words, were not necessarily reading the book either.

It gradually began to occur to me that I could write the book I wanted and still make it accessible to a wide audience. Academic books didn’t have to be for specialists only – and there was nothing wrong with wanting people to read what I had spent so many years working on. The book was clearly never going to be a best-seller, but that wasn’t the point - I just thought it would be nice to see a copy of one of my books sitting on the shelf of my local bookstore one day. Or anyone’s local bookstore. If the book turned out to be a commercial flop, then so be it – as long as it had a fighting chance to find an audience.

The idea that this book might have genuine commercial appeal was planted by another of my former colleagues at the Naval War College. When I told him what I was working on – or, more accurately, when he heard “Churchill” - he urged me to find an agent. This had never occurred to me. I had always dealt with editors directly, which is the norm with scholarly publishing. But an agent would undoubtedly open a whole new set of doors. A few years later, now ensconced at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and with two thirds of a completed manuscript under my belt, the same colleague told me that he had recently used an agent to get a nice deal for his latest book. There didn't seem to be anything to lose, so I figured I’d give it a shot. He put me in touch with his contact in New York, who immediately agreed to take me on. Over the next couple weeks I wrote up a prospectus, polished up a couple of chapters that I thought were ready to publish, and sent the whole package to my new agent.

I was immediately impressed by his range of contacts. He knew (and was evidently chummy with) senior editors at all the top New York-based publishing houses, and had no trouble getting them to look over my proposal. I began to speculate (very quietly, to myself) as to what sort of massive advance a publisher like Random House or Doubleday might offer. And then the responses began to trickle in. Most said flattering things about the proposal and the scholarship behind it, but the general consensus was that the book sounded “too academic”. And, in hindsight, I realise that the prospectus I had written was still geared towards academics. Old habits die hard. I was used to explaining why scholars and specialists would find my work original and important, but I hadn’t really tried to make the case that it would also be a good book that people might enjoy. A dozen or so rejections later, my agent dumped me! And rightly so – I have no complaints. He suggested that I should try an academic publisher, for which his services would not be necessary. We parted ways amicably, and the door was still open if my next project had a wider appeal.

In some ways getting dumped was a relief. There was no more pressure to produce a blockbuster bestseller. I was back in my comfort zone – and there was no shame, I reminded myself, in writing an unapologetically academic book. I tinkered a bit with the old prospectus, but decided not to revamp it radically. I still wanted to convey that this was a book that, despite its many scholarly virtues, could also appeal to members of the general book-buying public.

It seemed to make sense, given the nature of the topic, to peddle the book in the UK. Within a few months, I’d made it through the standard academic review process with two interested publishers. One of them – a prestigious university press – promptly put an offer on the table. And even though they were clearly thinking in terms of a standard academic book, they were at least talking about eventually doing a paperback edition. That was good enough for me. After all the rejection from the big boys in New York, I was ready to jump at the offer. In fact, I considered myself pretty fortunate. In my line of work, it never hurts to publish with a good university press. But then I got an offer from the other publisher, an equally prestigious university press. They also talked about doing a paperback edition, but as more details began to come in, it gradually dawned on me that they were thinking of something quite different from their competitor -- a book, with photographs (!), priced in the $35-range for the hardcover edition. At that price, I thought, their margins would presumably be fairly narrow. And I quickly worked out that narrow margins must mean they expected high sales! If they believed the book could be sold to more than just university libraries and academics, I was not going to argue with them. Publishing with Oxford University Press was the easiest decision I ever made.

III. Production

Churchill on HMS Prince of Wales 1941

The only down side to this deal was that I felt an obligation to repay the publisher’s faith in me by producing a manuscript that was both academically rigorous and reasonably entertaining. I had no concerns about the first requirement, but as I worked over the next year and a half to finish up the manuscript, I became more self-conscious than ever about my writing. For the previous twenty-plus years, my main goal as a writer had been clarity and precision. In the classroom, I tried to make my lectures as colourful as possible, but on paper I maintained a very formal demeanor. The target reader I consciously or unconsciously geared all my writing towards satisfying was my PhD supervisor. Even a decade after collecting my degree, it took a real effort to break out of that habit – and to this day I can’t bring myself to write anything I know will make my former supervisor cringe. But as I finished up Churchill and Sea Power, I found myself thinking more and more often about how the chapter I was working on at the time would read to the history buff who might pick up a copy of the book purely out of interest in naval history or Winston Churchill. I certainly never expected the book to read like a new Harry Potter novel, but at the very least I wanted to make sure the casual reader could make sense of the arguments, learn a few things, and hopefully find the process entertaining and rewarding. Nothing that would help me accomplish those goals would make the book any less valuable to academics and specialists.

The production of a “trade” book was not much different than the production of an academic book. And I was lucky that Oxford University Press was able to straddle both publishing worlds, so that nothing had to be sacrificed. Even better, they were committed to the very highest standards in everything we did. The only really new dimension to the production experience stemmed from the decision to include photographs. I was not a complete stranger to the process. We had incorporated images into Naval Mutinies of the Twentieth Century, but the publisher had given us no photo budget for that book. They made it clear that reproduction fees for any images we used would have to be borne by the editors themselves. So we relied on our contributors to supply public-domain images we could use for free. And looking back, I think the results were pretty impressive. But I was excited to see what I could do now that I had a budget to work with.

I spent several weeks dipping into online photo archives to find the very best images. And there were plenty to choose from: pictures of Churchill with famous admirals, inspecting ships’ companies, on the deck of warships large and small, and many more. I made up my top twenty wish list, along with a small batch of alternatives that I thought the editors might prefer. A few weeks after sending the package off, I got a breakdown of the publishing fees. My wish list would cost almost three times what the publisher was willing to cover. I could either pay the difference myself – around £1400 out of my own pocket – or find cheaper pictures. So I started the process over again, and really began to scour the archives. I accepted that a few of my top choices were simply too expensive to use, and resigned myself to going without them. But I now knew which commercial archives were the least expensive, and tried to make more use of their collections. In many cases, I found that the rights to a particular image were being offered by two or three different commercial suppliers. This allowed me to shop around for the best deal, although I have a feeling that none of them actually owned the copyright to the image. But they had high quality copies suitable for publication and I didn’t – so if I wanted to use them, we would have to pay them to provide a copy.

I also widened my net, looking for museum and government collections that might have some obscure gems – and be less profit-motivated. This worked out very nicely. Most government archives do not charge any fees to reproduce their images, and this helped bring the cost down considerably. Some other nice images turned up in museum collections for only a nominal cost. One archivist even offered a picture from his personal collection. One of the biggest frustrations, however, was the cost of using images from the Imperial War Museum, which has a truly phenomenal collection. My original wish list had included around six of their photographs, but the licensing fees had recently been revised to the point where they were over twice the price from many commercial photo agencies. I was prepared to go without any, but ultimately was able to convince the museum to reconsider its new rates. I still couldn’t afford all the ones I wanted, but I was able to get a few of my favourites.

The final selection of images is, I think, definitely superior to the first batch I submitted. The extra effort allowed me to turn up some fantastic pictures and illustrations I had missed the first time around. And I was able to come in very close to the publisher’s budget. The hardest thing, in the end, was narrowing it down to just twenty. There were some great photos, illustrations, and cartoons that had to be left out. Having put so much time and effort into locating them, it seems a shame to waste them. I’ve been toying with the idea of putting together one day a lavishly-illustrated coffee-table style book called Winston Churchill and the Royal Navy: An Illustrated History, or something along those lines. Interested publishers might want to contact me now – before I get myself an agent again and my demands go up!

IV. Publication

Churchill and Sea Power on display

I got my first advance copy of Churchill and Sea Power in mid-September 2012, and ten more arrived a few weeks later. The book was officially published in the UK at the end of October, and scheduled for release in North America at the beginning of December. To my surprise, one of my students came to class (appropriately enough, a seminar I run on Winston Churchill) with a copy in mid-November. Apparently the book had been released a few weeks before the official publication date, and he had found two copies in a Chapters outlet in New Brunswick. He hit a few keys on his laptop while we were talking and told me that one of the Chapters in Halifax was showing two copies in stock. How sad is it that I took a detour on my drive home that night just so I could see them sitting there on the shelf? Probably not as sad as the fact that if I owned a cell phone, I would have taken a photo! This may have been my third book, but it was only then, as I looked at it sitting on the shelf of a regular bookstore, that I felt like I was a “real” writer.

A few weeks later I travelled to the UK for research. I went straight from the airport to the archives, but en route to my first stop, the Bodleian library in Oxford, I took a short detour into a Waterstones to see if my book was on the shelves. And it was. There was also a copy in the Blackwell’s bookstore across the street. And, to my delight, I found that Foyle’s, on Charing Cross Rd in London, had three copies on hand. Friends in the UK began to mention spotting copies in their local bookstores as well, and it gradually dawned on me that the book was getting much more exposure than I had ever expected.

At the end of my research trip, a friend emailed to say that he had seen copies of my book on a display table in the Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus. If I had known this while I was in London, I might have made a detour to check them out. Luckily, he has a cell phone, and very thoughtfully sent me a photo!

V. Promotion

One of the first differences I noticed with this new book was the promotion. My previous publishers had done what they typically do with academic books – otherwise known as ‘the bare minimum’. They listed them in their catalogues, on their websites, and sent out review copies to maybe 25 or 30 academic journals. And that was it. But with Churchill and Sea Power, I had many friendly emails from the promotion and marketing people in both the UK and the USA to discuss ideas for promoting the book. Among other things, they sent out advance readers copies (a sort of stripped-down, no frills paperbound copy of the book) to generate interest before the book was even available for sale.

Typically, it is about a year after publication before reviews begin to appear in academic journals. And it is not unusual for reviews to trickle out two or even three years after publication. So it was a treat to see reviews of Churchill and Sea Power before the book was on the shelves. The first one I encountered was an unattributed piece in a publication called Publishers Weekly. I suppose it’s a sign of my inexperience with the publishing world that I had never heard of this periodical before. I’ve since been told that a positive review there carries a lot of weight, and I can now see why. This short review is cited almost everywhere – both as a review and, in some cases, as a description of the book’s contents. Many thanks to the anonymous reviewer for judging the book to be an “illuminating study”!

As a lifelong bibliophile and book collector, I couldn’t resist asking the publisher if they could send me one of the advance readers copies, which they very kindly did.

Early reviews popped up in a variety of interesting places for the first few months. Sometimes I would have advance warning. The publisher told me, for example, to expect a review in the British magazine Standpoint. Again, this was not a publication I was familiar with. The issue was due at the end of a research trip to the UK, and I searched for a hard copy in the shops at Heathrow airport before I flew home, but nobody had one yet. Fortunately, the full review was posted online. I was surprised to see that the author was Conrad Black, who described the book as “authoritative and rigorous, … a good read for naval history buffs.” My thanks to The Rt. Hon. The Lord Black of Crossharbour. (

There have also been some unexpected opportunities to promote the book in person. The marketing people in New York asked if I’d be willing to give a talk on my book on 31 January at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington D.C. Naturally, I said yes. It was a great chance to get some feedback, sign a few copies, and do some sight-seeing. Thanks in part to advertising by the Churchill Centre, the event was well attended and I got to meet a nice mixture of naval buffs and local Churchillians. Lee Pollock, the executive director of the Churchill Centre, was also there. Afterwards, Lee and I had a fascinating trip to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis with Admiral Mike Franken, the first captain of the USS Winston S. Churchill back when the ship was launched in 2001.

I popped into a Barnes & Noble a few blocks from the White House the next day before heading to the airport and found three copies of my book sitting on a trolley waiting to be shelved. Sadly, the novelty of seeing my book on the shelves had still not worn off! I offered to sign them, and the manager mentioned that the book had sold quite well over the holidays, so these were obviously not (as I initially thought) the first copies to pass through their hands.

My next promotional talk was here in Halifax, at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which very kindly hosted a “book launch” for me on 7 February. I was quite pleased a few days before when the Halifax Chronicle-Herald ran a very nice review: The write-up in the local paper probably helped generate interest, and attendance at the book launch was quite good.

VI. Reviews

Book reviews are pretty much always a disappointment. No matter how positive the reviewer is, it’s hard not to wish they had lavished even more praise on the book than they did. And even when a review is very positive, the pleasure in reading it can still be diminished when the author doesn’t seem to appreciate what the book is actually about. It’s surprising how often that happens, even in academic journals. Still, a positive-but-misinformed review is generally preferable, in my opinion, to a bad review of any kind! It’s been extremely gratifying to see that the response to Churchill and Sea Power has been very positive.

Reviews come in all shapes and sizes these days, especially when the publisher, as in this case, is generous in distributing review copies. The earliest reviews to appear were on the LibraryThing website (, something I was not previously familiar with. Evidently, the publisher had supplied around 50 advance review copies to the administrators, who arranged to distribute them to their members on a first-come-first-served basis. The goal, as I understand it, was to generate advance interest in the book. From my perspective, the reviews, posted online, were a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, there doesn’t seem to have been any screening process involved, so many of the people who reviewed the book had little background knowledge of the subject, and in some cases no real interest in it – and their reviews were generally brief and uninformative. On the other hand, there were quite a few thoughtful and perceptive reviews that ended up there. In any event, it was nice to see so much early feedback on the book.

The next wave of reviews were on and similar sites. These were also a bit of a mixed bag, but in this case the writers had purchased their copies, and this seems to have weeded out people who were not genuinely interested in the subject matter. Criticisms tended to fall into two categories. The first was that I had been too easy on Churchill. The second was that I hadn’t devoted enough (or any) attention to a particular subject that the reviewer had been especially interested in. In my own defence, I can only point to the fact that I had limited space to work with, and not every subject could be examined in detail. This is especially true of naval operations, which simply could not be examined at length in a book focused on grand strategy. Still, the feedback was quite favorable overall. And some of the reviews were clearly written by people who were very well informed on the subject matter. I’m currently sitting at 4.6/5 stars on and 4.1/5 on, which seems pretty respectable to me.

Finally, after a few more months had elapsed, reviews began to appear in scholarly journals. This was more familiar territory. In most cases, the reviewers were scholars whose work (and often personalities) I knew – consequently, there were very few surprises. I could generally predict the tone of the review once I saw who was writing it. There were a few people I always knew would dislike the book, and they did not disappoint! But they were very much in the minority. The nicest surprises were the glowing reviews from high-profile scholars in the field who had no reasons to do me any special favours. And there have been a surprising number of these, beginning with a nice blurb for the cover of the book from Professor Eric Grove. This was all the more gratifying because Professor Grove is not an admirer of Winston Churchill. This was followed by, among others, a very perceptive review by Oxford Professor Nicholas Rodger in the Journal of Military History (probably the leading journal in my field), a short write-up by Andrew Lambert for BBC History Magazine, and a detailed review essay by Matthew Seligmann that focussed in considerable detail on the first chapter of the book.

Besides naval historians, the book was also reviewed favorably by some leading military historians – including Raymond Callahan in the American Historical Review and Geoff Wawro – and by several Churchill scholars, including Christopher Sterling in Finest Hour (the journal of the Churchill Centre) and Richard Toye, author of three Churchill-themed books over the last decade or so.

A selection of excerpts from these and other reviews can be found, of course, elsewhere on the website: New reviews continue to trickle in, including, most recently, one (in Swedish) in Forum navale and another (in French) online here:

Looking back, what gratifies me the most about them is that nearly everyone agrees that I produced what I set out to: a persuasive and balanced appraisal of Churchill’s strengths and weaknesses as one of the most important custodians of Britain’s sea power in the twentieth century. Because the book necessarily dealt at length with controversial episodes where Churchill has been subjected to particularly harsh criticism, I did give more space to defending Churchill than to criticising him, but that is largely the result of there being so many exaggerated or inaccurate criticisms that had to be dealt with. My goal was not to absolve Churchill of blame for everything. The book is critical where it seemed is warranted, particularly in the sections dealing with the Battle of the Atlantic, where I felt that Churchill had been let off too easily by most writers. But the main objective was not so much to attribute blame as to be sure that we understood his contributions to what was invariably a complex decision-making process. I thought this was captured nicely by Professor Rodger in his review, where he writes: “This is a powerful and original case for the defence, based on extracting Churchill from the myth-history and putting him back into a realistic account of his times.”

VII. Moving On

Churchill and Sea Power has provided me with one other new experience of the publishing world: being remaindered!

I think that most publishers of low-print run academic books are willing to let their remaining stock sit in their warehouses for a long time after sales have slowed to virtually nothing. Trade publishers take a different view. Once sales substantially taper off, the remaining stock is frequently sold off at bargain prices to retailers, a process known as “remaindering”. This seems to occur most often to the hardcover edition of a book after the cheaper paperback edition is available.

I knew this could happen eventually to Churchill and Sea Power , although I was still mentally unprepared last week when I saw a pile of hardcover copies priced at a mere $10 on the bargain shelves of my local Chapters bookstore. The paperback copy is still in print, of course, and should remain so for some time to come, I hope. And, after a bit of googling, I think the book has only been remaindered so far in Canada, although I might be mistaken about this. But, whatever the case, there is no doubt that, two and a half years after publication, my book is no longer shiny and new. Two reviews appeared just last week, but there probably won’t be many more now. The publishing world is moving on, and it’s time for me to do the same.

I’m not done with Churchill, though. The last two years have been spent tying up many of the loose ends from Churchill and Sea Power . Space constraints prevented me from covering the pre-1914 period as thoroughly as I would have liked, and much of the research I couldn’t squeeze in has been used as the basis for several academic articles. The first of these, which began its life as a conference paper on “Churchill and Dominion Navies”, was recently published as ‘Sentiment vs Strategy: British Naval Policy, Imperial Defence, and the Development of Dominion Navies, 1911-1914’ in the International History Review (April 2015). I have another piece coming up soon in the Journal of Strategic Studies, entitled ‘The Myth of a Naval Revolution by Proxy: Lord Fisher’s Influence on Churchill’s Naval Policy, 1911-14. In addition, there are two articles in the journal War in History that examine other aspects of British naval policy under Churchill, particularly the controversial question of whether Britain was on the verge of a Fisher-inspired “naval revolution” in July 1914 (Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t!). Copies of the latter are available at

One of the other subjects I wanted to continue exploring after finishing up the text for Churchill and Sea Power was the failure of the Allies to provide Very Long Range (VLR) aircraft to cover the mid-Atlantic “air gap” before May 1943. It was clear from the research I conducted for the book that Churchill wasn’t really to blame for this problem, but I hadn’t been able to say with any certainty who was responsible. In fact, all that I was really certain about was that none of the explanations I had seen was entirely convincing. So I headed back into the archives to find the “smoking gun”. I was sure there must be a memorandum or minute somewhere in the Admiralty or Air Ministry records in which somebody in authority made a deliberate decision not to acquire VLR aircraft knowing full well that this would mean prolonging the Battle of the Atlantic. As it turns out, the answer proved to be much more complicated than I’d expected. But I am confident that I’ve finally pieced together what went wrong. To my great delight, the article in which I outline my findings was awarded the 2014 Sir Julian Corbett Prize in Modern Naval History by the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. It will be published in the July 2015 issue of the Journal of Military History.

The other loose end I felt compelled to tie up was a rather more substantial one: Churchill’s role in the controversial Dardanelles campaign of 1915. This had been one of the most difficult parts of the book to write, and I could not cover it in nearly as much detail as I would have liked. I was able to provide a basic overview from the perspective of Churchill’s development as a strategist, but that was about it. I thought about writing up an article or two, but when my publisher urged me to submit a proposal for a new book, it occurred to me that it would take a full book really to get to grips with this subject. So this is the idea I pitched to them, just a few months after Churchill and Sea Power had been published.

My editors and the referees they assembled to review the proposal agreed that this was a worthwhile project. My next book is tentatively titled Churchill and the Dardanelles: A Study in Myth, Memory and Reputation . My goal here is to look at Churchill and the Dardanelles through a number of different lenses – strategic, naval, political and cultural. In part, the book will provide a myth-busting look at the high-level decision-making process before and during the naval campaign, but I also plan to continue the story past 1915 by looking at how the Dardanelles affected the development and evolution of the ‘Churchill Legend’ over the course of the century that followed.