Archive for July, 2014


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.

Whether you are running a small garage press or self-publishing, if you are putting out an indie book one of the issues you must address is what the price point for your book(s) will be. The benchmark for legacy publishers is $9.99, while many indie e-books are sold at the rock bottom price of $2.99. If you are in indie publishing and have a worthwhile book, going either route is a major mistake.

Comparative Advantage
Comparative advantage is a basic concept in economics, referring to when one enterprise can deliver an as good or better service at less cost than its competitors. As an indie publisher, comparative advantage is the sole objective advantage you have, so make use of it to underbid the big book industry.

Legacy publishers are like big conventional armies relative to your light guerilla force. They have all the heavy advantages of big budgets, promotional connections and leverage, and distribution. Yet they also have the overhead that goes with having office space, 9 to 5 office employees, warehousing, and failed projects with big, expensive advances.

By contrast, as an indie publisher working out of your garage or off your kitchen table, you have low overhead and aren’t paying out five, six, or even seven figures in advances for books that don’t sell. You shouldn’t need to charge $9.99 per e-book to make a profit, and charging less for a professionally produced book that can compete in terms of standards with the legacy publishers attracts buyers.

Going Too Far
Unfortunately you can go too far in cutting costs. First, the law of diminishing returns dictates that cutting your price to attract buyers only yields benefits up to a certain point, and beyond that you are simply sacrificing revenue without attracting enough new buyers to compensate.

Another thing to realize is that the discriminating e-reader owner has become wary of books priced $2.99 or less, and for good reason. An uber-low price point screams “self-published trash,” simply because many such books are poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly produced. In other words, a lot of $2.99 books are crap, and the more demanding Kindle-owner knows it. If you are a serious indie publisher with a professional-quality book, you don’t want to get lumped into that category, not ever.

How To Price Your E-Book?
Only you can answer the question of what your e-book price point should be, because only you know what your expenses and goals are. However, I earnestly recommend not exceeding $7.99, the lowest price I see regularly from legacy publishers. And if you have written a good book produced to professional standards, have confidence in that and show it by with a price above $2.99.