Digital Self-Publishing Saves a World War II Memoir

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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?

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Honor Thy Fiction


On December 20, 1943, a 22-year-old bomber pilot named Charlie Brown was in trouble over Germany. He and his newly formed unit were returning from their first mission, a successful one that took out a munitions factory in the heart of enemy territory. But before they got away, German planes strafed Brown’s B-17, tearing it up and wounding several of the crew.
Brown himself was knocked out and recovered only at the last moment to prevent a fatal nose dive.
Now desperate to get his limping plane back to England, Brown looked to his right and, to his horror, saw a German Messerschmitt tracking right with him.
What Brown didn’t know at the time was that the German pilot was Franz Stigler, an ace, who was one kill short of number 23. That would have garnered him the Knight’s Cross, the highest honor for a German soldier in World War II.
Here’s something else Brown did not know. Stigler had been schooled in the old warrior code that you fight with honor. He was told by his commanding officer never to shoot at an enemy in distress, like a flyer going down with a parachute. The reason? “You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy. You fight by the rules to keep your humanity.” (This was not Nazi doctrine, of course. But there were many soldiers who fought for the “Fatherland” more than for Hitler, and who had religious roots. Stigler himself was a Catholic).
Stigler had seen that the B-17 had no tail guns blinking, no stabilizer, and a blown away tail-gun compartment. He also saw a terrified tail gunner behind guns streaked with icicles of blood.
Charlie Brown thought the German would open fire, but instead saw the pilot vigorously pointing to the ground. Brown took that a signal to land in Germany. Brown shook his head. He and his crew all wanted to try for England.
Stigler yelled out “Sweden!” to Brown, but Brown didn’t understand. Now he was sure the German would open fire. So he ordered his gunner to take aim. When Stigler saw what was about to happen, he saluted Brown and said, “Good luck. You’re in God’s hands now.”
The stunned American pilot saw no more of the Messerschmitt. He and his crew barely made it back to England, but make it they did, with their incredible story. Only it was a story the American brass kept under wraps. They did not want to humanize the Germans!
Stigler kept quiet about it, too, because what he had done would have been considered an act of treason for the Nazis. He knew that if he’d been seen escorting the wounded Americans, and his plane number identified, he could have been executed.
After the war, Stigler emigrated to Vancouver. Brown continued his Air Force career for another twenty years.
In 1990, Brown decided to try and find out who that German pilot was. It was a long shot, of course. They were almost half a century removed from the events. But Brown gambled with an ad in a newsletter for veteran fighter pilots, stating that he was looking for the one who “saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.” He held back a key piece of information to test whoever answered the ad.
Stigler saw the ad in Vancouver. He yelled to his wife. “This is him!” He wrote a letter to Brown. Brown called Stigler on the phone and without even being asked, Stigler gave Brown the secret information.
The two men, both in tears, arranged to meet. They became “special brothers” for the rest of their lives and died six months apart in 2008. Stigler was 92, Brown was 87.
Their story is told in a new book, A Higher Call. You can read more about the men here.
Honor is a thread that runs deep through the human spirit. It is what has built civilizations. It is what prevents us from being a mere sub-section of the animal kingdom. And it takes a special kind of cynicism or pathology to snuff that out.
In my view, it is the storytellers who have the power to keep honor and nobility and sacrifice (and thus civilization itself) alive. It has always been so, from the ancient myths to Greek drama to the morality plays to world literature. I often deliver a keynote address to conferences called “Storytellers Save the World,” because in this sense, they do.
Think of the honor shown by characters as diverse as Atticus Finch and Harry Potter. It is a character of surpassing honor that keeps the Hunger Games trilogy from finishing up in a nihilistic, dystopian darkness.
Honor is the missing ingredient in much current, and ultimately forgettable, fiction. As the noted novelist and writing teacher, John Gardner, once put it, “The good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life . . . that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss.”
Honor may be the very lifeline that keeps us from falling into that dark abyss. We are a people in need of honor, for our collective soul. And if we don’t keep that we won’t just be reading about dystopian worlds. We’ll be living in one. 
Honor thy fiction. Champion the sentiments that hold us together. This is especially important now, two days removed from the awful events in Newtown, Connecticut. Like so many of you, I spent much of the day Friday in tears. I would hear more reports, think of the children, and weep again.
My wife told me about one little boy. He was with about fourteen other classmates and a teacher, holed up in a bathroom. He said he knew karate. “It’s OK,” he told the teacher. “I’ll lead the way out.”
That’s honor and self-sacrifice in seedling form. That is the hope for our future.
A future we can also affect with the stories we choose to tell. 
Choose well. 

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