With Sin in the Second City, Karen Abbott carved herself a niche as the “sizzle historian,” spinning entertaining non-fiction tales of the seedier side of America’s past. She ably continues mining this rich vein of material for her third book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, which tells four concurrent stories of women engaged in espionage on both sides of the Civil War.

Abbott delivers a piping hot helping of material, and most Civil War buffs should find at least some of it new. Take Belle Boyd, one of the four. Most Civil War fans know her name, a fact that must give Boyd’s ghost a great deal of satisfaction, yet usually references to her focus on whether she actually did anything useful as a spy. Her character as a saucy firebrand and all-around bad girl who swigged whiskey with the best of them often goes unremarked, and the extent of her hijinks certainly came as news to me.

The thing I found most interesting in Abbott’s book was how the choice of the four women, two Confederate and two Union, illustrated the stereotype personalities of the two regions. Boyd and Rose Greenhow were both arrogant, vain women whose character flaws severely compromised their espionage careers. Both were caught, both courted notoriety, and the only reason either escaped the noose was that women generally weren’t hung for treason in the early 1860s (just a couple years later, however, they were: witness Mary Surratt). By and large, Boyd’s and Greenhow’s style of conceit died out after the Victorian era, but Abbott ably translates it into the modern era.

Against this we have the example of Elizabeth Van Lew, and with her story the book truly shines. Van Lew operated as an effective spy master for the Union in Richmond, the capital of her enemies, for the duration of the war. Abbott’s portrayal of Van Lew’s poise and caution stands in vivid contrast to Boyd and Greenhow, and her story provides the book’s continuing tension. She was never caught, although she came close to it on many occasions. It is in Elizabeth Van Lew that the narrative moves from action, farce and sex romp and into the territory of the hard-bitten espionage yarn promised by the John Le Carre-inspired title.

The history of the Civil War gives short space to women. When they do appear, it is as the wife of some important man, in connection with the U.S. Sanitary Commission or as a nameless member of an angry mob in the Southern bread riots. With the addition of Emma Edmonds, who played a double game by posing as a man, enlisting in the U.S. Army, and then serving as a scout and spy, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy delivers an entertaining spread of stories about women who did their wartime service on their own terms. The book is ideal summer vacation reading, and it’s not too late to pick it up and take it on a September getaway.

Whether they work with a legacy publisher or go indie, new authors usually find themselves tasked with the heavy lifting of promoting their own books. Or they do if they are not already a celebrity of some kind. Now that I’m into my second novel and working on my third, I thought I would blog a little on my experiences with getting reviews out of book bloggers and other internet-only reviewers as part of a larger promotional campaign.

As part of promoting Stonewall Goes West, I contacted seven book bloggers and two websites with book review sections, focusing on those with Civil War or military historical content to mirror what I was doing. I am not including authors’ blogs in this blog, but instead dwelling on those who consider themselves book reviewers first and foremost insofar as their website identity goes, although said reviewers may have also written a book.

The short version of this blog is that I didn’t bother trying this route again when the second novel of the series came out, nor will I ever try it again. Here is why:

Failure To Complete
Of the nine different entities who agreed to review my first novel, a year and a half later only one has completed the task. That is an incomplete rate of almost 90%, which would automatically make this promotional effort a failure. In an accounting sense it was also a failure, since I am 99.997% certain I lost money in terms of book sales vs. postal costs.

Beware Of The Blogger
My first point leads straight to this one: just because a guy blogs regularly and seems like a semi-pro doesn’t mean he has a professional attitude. Just for starters, these guys can and will take your book and never speak to you again. In another example, the single review I received for my efforts was done by a blogger who couldn’t be bothered to produce an accurate plot synopsis of my book.

Let me make this point clear: my problem is not that Mr. Redd didn’t like my book and panned it. If you can’t tolerate people not liking your work, you shouldn’t publish, period. My problem is that he misrepresented my book by making gross factual errors in summarizing it. About half of what he says about the plot of Stonewall Goes West is objectively false!

Now perhaps Redd isn’t that bright or perhaps he was actively malicious, but the bottom line here is that if he were writing for a newspaper, magazine or journal, his sloppy factual errors would be grounds for my demanding a correction and/or retraction, and I would get it too! Professionals and professional organizations blanche at such things. Yet because Redd is just a blogger, and responsible only to himself, there is no recourse.

The lesson here is a book blogger can be capricious, stupid, lazy, and/or dishonest, just like the people who write your most infuriating reader reviews. Indeed, sometimes those people will be literally one in the same. You are powerless against either nuisance, so why help them by supplying them with a copy of your book for free?

Most Book Bloggers Have No Audience
Here is an interesting nugget: because of The Whiskey Reveiwer, I have some tools for checking how much traffic competing websites get. Within the first three months of publishing Stonewall Goes West, this blog (the one you are reading right now) was attracting more traffic than any two of my book bloggers put together. Right now it draws in more readers every month than any six of them combined.

The two websites with book review sections I mentioned are a different story, but I’ve obviously got a dramatically bigger following than any of the bloggers, and I built it up very rapidly and without their help. So I can conclude that even if all seven of them had reviewed the book in a timely fashion and showered me with praise, it’s hard to see what I would have gotten out of it except editorial review quotes, because their followings are so miniscule.

As a side note, this point also goes back to the lack of common sense I mentioned before. Three of the reviewers concerned have books of their own out (Redd is one of this trio), and given that they could go to my Facebook group and see that as a measurement of my following, you would think it would be obvious that they should cultivate me. Clearly I can do more for them than they can for me. Yet they either aren’t smart enough or aren’t ambitious enough to see it.

The lesson here is that if you are considering sending your book to a book blogger for review, always check what his following is first. Even if you don’t want to purchase the tools I have for my other projects, you can use Twitter and Facebook followings and Alexa.com as a rough guide.

Proceed With Extreme Care
High risk and low reward doesn’t make sense, and that is unknowingly exactly what I went out and did with my book blogger promotional project. The result was a huge waste of effort and a minor waste of money, both of which would have been better used in other promotional efforts.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. View every book blogger as a potential troll, and check each and every single one you are considering working with to see if they have a following that justifies that risk. Some of them are OK, but you cannot assume that, and even the good ones might not be of any help to you in promoting your book. If you don’t have the time to do your due diligence, don’t bother going this route.

When Captain John Winslow took USS Kearsarge to patrol the mouth of Cherbourg harbor and force CSS Alabama into battle, he did so having armored his ship by wrapping heavy iron chains around his midships. After his defeat, the celebrated Confederate raider Raphael Semmes claimed the improvised armor was ungentlemanly, and that he never would have ventured out to fight Kearsarge if he had known about the chains.

As Semmes is a romantic and popular figure, then and now and especially in Southern circles, his claim has been taken at face value by many. To me, it has always been fishy.

I’m a fan of Age of Sail fiction, such as the Master and Commander and Hornblower novels, and consequently I have studied quite a bit of the history of the period. As in so many things, the Civil War was a transition period in naval affairs. At age 56, Semmes was as much a product of the Age of Sail as Winslow was, so holding him up to those standards is very fair, and by those standards his claims are pure sour grapes!

Anglo-American Seamanship
First is Semmes’ claim that he knew nothing about the chains. Although there is no proof disproving his claim, placed into context it is highly dubious. Kearsarge blockaded Cherbourg for five days, and much of the time the vessel was within sight of land. The idea that an officer as savvy as Semmes would not take his telescope out and look over his enemy with all that time on his hands is ridiculous, so either Semmes knew about the chains or he was negligent.

Semmes’ assertion that there was something ungentlemanly about Winslow armoring his warship is also dubious. Winslow’s actions were in keeping with the Anglo-American naval tradition. I could easily see every fighting sea dog from John Paul Jones to Edward Pellew nodding in approval.

It’s The Gunnery
Finally, it seems that while Winslow’s extra armor helped him, it did not help him enough to change the course of the battle, and to that I point to the style and effect of the gunnery on the two warships. Alabama is known to have fired over 370 shots at Kearsarge, and scored several hits. Only two of these hits were known to have struck the chains, smashing the links where they hit, but not penetrating into the hull. Without the chains those shots would have done some damage and produced casualties, but neither would have crippled or sunk the Kearsarge.

By contrast, Kearsarge fired much more slowly and deliberately, scoring several highly accurate hits below Alabama’s waterline. It was there hits that sank the Confederate warship were scored, an important point when one realizes Kearsarge suffering no damage whatsoever below the waterline. If the Alabama had scored the same kind of hits as Kearsarge, the chains wouldn’t have mattered.

I’ve read a little about the career of CSS Alabama, and think both the record and the Alabama’s performance suggest that the gun crews were trained “dumb show” style. Alabama did not have access to ample resources for restocking its ammunition, which would have limited the crew’s ability to conduct live fire drills. In the Royal Navy, when a captain wished to train the crews without using up gunpowder and roundshot, he had them go through the motions of loading and firing without ammunition, the “dumb show.” The result improved a crew’s handling time, but did nothing to improve their accuracy.

By contrast, Kearsarge‘s gun crews were fully trained, and her armament very well handled. Winslow’s tactics also reflected the transition being made at the time from having lots of cannon to fewer, much heavier cannon. Both ships were sloops of war, which only 20 years before would have been armed with approximately 20 six-pounder cannon, yet in 1864 were armed with seven or eight cannon as heavy or heavier than the battleship guns of HMS Victory. Semmes’ tactics were those of the bygone era, where the fast, volume shooting mattered quite a bit because each hit mattered less.

Ultimately, Semmes lost because of the way he fought, and not because Kearsarge was wearing chains into the fight.