Digital Self-Publishing Saves a World War II Memoir

by James Scott Bell

Gather ’round, children, and let me tell you a story about self-publishing back in the olden days.

Now, I know you kids think it’s always been easy. You just hit “upload” and … Johnny, put down that iPad! I’m telling you about real self-publishing, back when a writer had to have guts and grit! The days when self-publishing meant you paid for an honest-to-goodness print run and … Yes, Jenny? … no, print run was not a 5k. It meant shelling out money for printed, bound books made with pages made of actual paper! And let me tell you, that was not cheap! And at the end of it all, you know what you’d get? A bunch of boxes of unsold books in your garage!

You see, there has always been self-publishing in America. Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman dabbled in it. Heck, Whitman may have been the first sock puppet, writing a glowing anonymous “review” of Leaves of Grass and buying space for it in a literary journal.

But it was in the 1970s and a man named Bill Henderson that modern self-publishing went wide. Henderson’s The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook started a small but growing movement of ex-hippies and frustrated wannabes designing and printing their own work. (This is not to be confused with “vanity publishing,” wherein a company took a whole lot of money from you to produce a print run of books that would, well, remain in boxes in your garage.)

In 1979 Dan Poynter published the first of several editions of his Self-Publishing Manual, bringing a much-needed business sense to the movement.

Which was around the time my dad, L.A. attorney Art Bell, decided to write a memoir of his service in World War II and publish it himself.

Raised in Hollywood, Dad was a star football and baseball player at Hollywood High School. He went on to play catcher for the UCLA baseball team, where his teammate was one Jackie Robinson.

Ensign Art Bell

In college he joined the Navy ROTC program and saw action throughout World War II. He was captain of three ships: the destroyers USS Dallas and USS Kinzer, and his first command and first love, the PC 477.

PCs were 173-foot, steel-hulled submarine fighters. Uncle Sam had thousands of seamen on hundreds of PCs convoying and patrolling in WWII. They were introduced in the desperate days of early 1942, when the waters off America’s Atlantic coast were a graveyard of torpedoed ships. They performed essential, hazardous, and sometimes spectacular missions, yet the PCs were scarcely known at all outside the service.

The Navy didn’t even dignify PCs with names. But the crew of the PC 477 did. They called her “Peter Charlie.”

Which became the title of Dad’s book. It was a true labor of love, and brought him back in contact with many of his shipmates. He collected letters and stories and photos, and organized a couple of reunions.

Dad was already self-publishing a digest on California search and seizure law, which had become the go-to resource in the state, so he had one of his graphics people do the layout of Peter Charlie, which he had typed himself on an IBM Selectric. He then paid a local printing outfit a princely sum for a beautiful hardback edition, with dust jacket and all. I can’t recall how many he had printed up. Maybe 2,000. He sold them himself out of his law office and it found popularity among many ex-Navy men all over the country.

Dad died in 1988 and I took over his practice. And I am proud to report that by 1999 or so, the entire print run had sold out. The book even returned a bit of a profit!

And that might have been the end of things were it not for the most recent iteration of the self-publishing movement: digital. I wanted Dad’s book to live on, and a few weeks ago I set out to make that happen.

First, I had to get the print text scanned. A writer friend recommended BlueLeaf Book Scanning. Per their instructions, I sent them one copy of the hardcover and chose their “destructive” option. That means they take the pages out of the binding for scanning, and you don’t get them back. The entire job cost $37.17. What I got were two Word docs (formatted and unformatted text), two PDFs (one large size, one small), and a JPEG of the dust jacket cover formatted for ebook use.

The scanning job was amazingly good. There was only one minor issue I found and took care of that with a quick find/replace.

Next, I opened up a Vellum project. Vellum is a Mac program for formatting ebooks (and, now, print as well). It is easy to use and creates gorgeous interiors. It will import a docx Word file and create most of the book that way. I went through the formatted Word doc and used cut-and-paste to put it into Vellum. Since there were a lot of block quotes and lists my dad used, this was the best way for me to check the transitions. Once again, Vellum makes the process easy.

I was also able to include photographs from the PDF scan. I copied the photos and saved them as JPEGs, then inserted them into the Vellum file.

Once that was all done, I generated the .mobi file and sent that to my own Kindle so I could go over it on the device and pick up any last formatting issues. I fixed those in Vellum and generated the final .mobi that I used for publication under my imprint, Compendium Press.

The entire project—from the time I shipped BlueLeaf the book to the official pub date—took six weeks.

And so Peter Charlie lives on. My hope is that those who had parents or grandparents who served in World War II and … yes, Billy? … Yes, we won … and anyone interested in a first-hand report of what life was like aboard a naval vessel at that time, will be both edified and educated by this account (I must add a slight language warning here, for the first captain of Peter Charlie was not averse to using God’s name to get the attention of his junior officers, Dad included). It is full of funny stories, historical data, some rare photos, and lots of interesting details.

It’s a Kindle Unlimited title, available here.

So … does anyone else remember the grand old days of self-publishing—before digital and print-on-demand? Anybody got a garage with boxes of unsolds?

32 thoughts on “Digital Self-Publishing Saves a World War II Memoir

  1. What a wonderful tribute to your father! Somehow, I’m sure he knows and is so proud of you. Emotion, the reason for writing. I’m sure this labor of love created many different ones for you. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving to you, all bloggers here at TKZ and your families. This is my favorite blog, I never miss a day! 🙂

    • Yes, and all good emotions, Rebecca. I remember him telling me some of these stories when I was a kid.

      And Happy Thanksgiving to you! Thanks for being part of our community!

  2. What a cool project! I just picked up my copy and look forward to reading it.

    And this is like the third time Vellum has come across my radar recently. I will have to look into that.

    Congrats on completion of this labor of love.

    • Vellum is just so easy to use, BK, and does a gorgeous job. I now first draft in Scrivener, edit in Word.docx, then deliver it right into Vellum, which separates all the chapters for you. The next version may even make coffee.

  3. My husband and I are WWII history buffs. This book sounds like a must for our library. Thanks to the efforts of your dad, you, and others, these men’s dedication, service, and bravery won’t be lost to the next generations.

    • Thanks for that, Cecilia. Indeed, they were the “greatest generation.” Amazing to think it was mostly 18-25 year-olds doing all this. Dad was 23 when he was assigned to Peter Charlie.

  4. Jim,

    Wonderful story about your dad. Thanks for keeping his legacy alive in the digital age. I’ll order his book today.

    A dear friend Fred Salter was an Army recon scout in Italy and North Africa. He crafted his WWII memoir from his letters that his mother had saved. Ever humble, he insisted he was “just writin’ stories for me kids.” But a bunch of us in the Authors of the Flathead nagged him into self-publishing it.

    Timing was great–it came out in the early 1990s, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of WWII. Recon Scout became a runaway hit at military reunions and found its way to the desk of a Random House editor who picked it up. It was released in hard cover and paperback, selected as a military book of the month, and became a text at the war college.

    Not bad for a guy who always said, “I ain’t no writer. I don’t know them fifty-cent words.”

    I just checked and was happy to find Recon Scout is still in print and now available on Kindle, ensuring his story lives on.

    People like your dad and Fred truly were the Greatest Generation.

  5. What a nice way to honor your father!!! I’ve heard such great things about Vellum. As of yet, I haven’t looked into it. Thanks for sharing the process. It’s just the push I needed.

  6. Your comment about garages full of books reminded me of Lascelles Abercrombie, whose opinions so incensed the volatile Ezra Pound that Pound challenged the critic to a duel. Well aware of Pound’s fencing skill, Abercrombie, as the challenged, claimed the right to choose the weapons. When he suggested they settle their dispute by throwing unsold copies of their books at each other, Pound sensibly withdrew the challenge.

  7. Jim,

    Such a wonderful way to honor your father, and keep his work available! I love that we have so many great tools at our disposal in this digital age of self-publishing. Vellum in particular is awesome. I also loved the scanning service you used—a great way to digitize books. The cost was very reasonable—no more than having FedEx Kinkos print one of my novel manuscripts for my wife to beta read.

    I’ll definitely pick up a copy of your father’s book. My Uncle Paul served in the Pacific as a signalman aboard an LST. I agree that the men and women who fought in World World II truly were our greatest generation. We owe them so much.

    • Thanks, Dale, and glad to hear about your positive experience with BlueLeaf and Vellum. It’s amazing to think back on all the limitations of self-publishing twenty and thirty years ago. Yet there was something exciting about it even then, esp. if you did your own layouts (as Dan Poynter coached). Now, we have these tools that make the writing and publishing so easy.

  8. Bro, What a wonderful gift. Dad and Mom are wonderful examples of the Greatest Generation and it’s it’s wonderful that you have followed in their writing and publishing tradition. It’s in your blood. Congrats on bringing “Peter Charlie” back to life. Love ya, Bob

    • Hello, brother Bob! Thanks for dropping by. We certainly were blessed, weren’t we? Dad was so literate … remember how we had to memorize poetry? And Mom was so creative and quite a writer herself. Not to mention our grandfathers!

      Much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving season. See you soon.

  9. Jim, congratulations on getting your father’s book back out there and making it available for everyone to read. I’m putting it on my Amazon list this morning. The legacy of the greatest generation deserves to be told. And, yes, we could learn so much from them.

    Thanks, too, for sharing your process of editing and formatting.

  10. Great story, Jim.

    I want to add a hearty “me, too” to your endorsement of GreenLeaf scanning. We used them for several of our out-of-print books when we got our rights back and self-pubbed them. They were quick, accurate, and really easy to work with. Even helped us over the phone when we ran into formatting problems. Sure beats trying to type in your book yourself and costs less than a pro typist. (We used one once, who was good, but Greenleaf was cheaper)

  11. You are a good son and a good source. Thanks for the information about Vellum. Yesterday I listened to my friend rail on about all the formatting challenges she had with her indie book. She said it took over 100 hours. Vellum sounds a lot easier.

  12. Hi Jim,

    This is a terrific post and interesting story about your Dad.

    My grandfather fought at Monti Cassino, one uncle was in the 116th CE attached to the 29th on D-Day, and my other uncle was in the US Army Air Corps stationed in southeast England.

    My childhood was filled with hearing the great stories and personal experiences of this generation that saved the world. Luckily these men came back to the States and led long happy lives. They never complained once about what they had gone through.

    I will definitely check out your Dad’s book.

    George Glennon

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