Tag Archives: Books

How a pair of Topekans became Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2

Despite spending the better part of the past decade with my ear to the ground, listening for stories about Kansas’ most interesting crimes and criminals,  Ben and Stella Dickson–two bank robbers who would eventually make the FBI’s Public Enemies list–never blipped on my radar.

At least, not until this year, when I spotted Matthew Cecil’s The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae: Great Plains Outlaws Who Became FBI Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2 listed among the University Press of Kansas’ new releases.

Author Matthew Cecil’s fascination with the Dicksons stems from his childhood in Brookings, South Dakota, the location of one of Ben and Stella’s bank robberies. Cecil spends years tracing the Dicksons’ movements, from the bad luck and bad decisions that set them on their destructive path to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive need to take them down by any (legal or not so legal) means.

Benjamin Johnson Dickson was born in Topeka in 1911. His father taught chemistry at Topeka High School, and his household was, by all accounts, a warm and happy place where reading and education were highly valued. Ben was a Boy Scout who was commended for saving a woman from drowning in a local pond. He was both studious and a good athlete, and he became known for his skills as a featherweight boxer.

In 1926, when Ben was 15, he and some friends were arrested for joyriding in a neighbor’s car without permission, and Ben was sentenced to serve time in the Kansas Industrial Reformatory. This–and his skills as a boxer–put him on the radar of the Topeka police, and he became one of their favorite suspects for every crime. After a cab driver accused Ben of knocking him unconscious and stealing money and the cab (a crime he likely didn’t do), Ben’s life became a series of thefts, aliases, and stints in prison, including time in “The Walls,” the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Eleven years his junior, Stella Mae Irvin also hailed from Topeka. She was a typical teen until she was 15 years old, when she accepted a ride from a stranger and was violently raped and infected with gonorrhea. Treatment at that time was brutal and dehumanizing, and when Stella refused continuing treatment, she was referred to the Shawnee County Juvenile Court system.

By 1938, neither Ben nor Stella was in a good place. They met in Topeka (Stella was introduced to Ben as Johnny O’Malley), and eventually Stella would run away from home, meeting up with Ben in California. Ben and Stella married. In a matter of months, they would rob two banks (patiently waiting for the time-lock safes to open while determining whether customers inside could afford to give up a little cash), kidnap people (who were later compensated financially for their troubles), and steal (and wreck) several vehicles along the way. By April 1939, Ben was dead and Stella was left to answer for their crimes.

Cecil also documents the consequences of overzealous law enforcement. The descriptions of the Topeka Police’s gun “battle” with Ben at a motor camp–a gun battle that involved shooting in only one direction–are chilling, especially when, at that time, the Topeka police only wanted Ben for punching a guy in the face and stealing a car. Worse, though, is the FBI and Hoover’s almost desperate need to keep the bureau relevant in the public eye–even if it meant greatly exaggerating the threat the Dicksons posed to the public and inventing their own gun “battle” with Ben, which resulted in the bank robber being shot in the back, no weapon drawn, in St. Louis.

It’s hard to know what would have happened to Ben and Stella Dickson had Ben not been gunned down in front of a hamburger stand on April 6, 1939. Maybe they would have gone the way of Bonnie and Clyde and taken a violent turn. Or maybe, as the books and college pamphlets in their abandoned cars would suggest, they would have reinvented themselves and faded into obscurity. The question The Ballad of Ben and Stella Mae really asks, though, is who Ben Dickson and Stella Irvin might have become had fate dealt them a better hand early on.

Go read this book now: Home, Home Plate on the Range by Tony Hall

Home, Home Plate on the Range: Historical Guide of Major League Players from Kansas and Baseball in the Sunflower State by Tony HallDespite not being a die-hard baseball fan, I am completely in love with what has to be the ultimate historical encyclopedia of baseball in Kansas: Home, Home Plate on the Range: Historical Guide of Major League Players from Kansas and Baseball in the Sunflower State by Tony Hall. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book deserves to be on the shelves of every Kansas library and in the home of every Kansas baseball fan.

Like many kids, Tony Hall collected baseball cards as a child. But it wasn’t until he was an adult that Hall–a writer with a passion for sports–and his son took to collecting cards at yard sales, rummage sales, and estate sales. Their interests began to focus on players who were born in Kansas or played in Kansas.

That’s when Hall’s passion for Kansas baseball history took off. Decades later, it turned into an amazing 600-page book that traces baseball to its origins in Kansas, follows it to the tiny towns with their own home teams, and on to the players who would play in the majors.

Remember the first time you opened a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records, and how you found your self just flipping through it, fascinated and amazed by the information you never knew you wanted to know? That’s what Home, Home Plate on the Range is like.

This carefully organized book is easy to read cover to cover, but it’s also fun to just open up for the sake of discovering some amazing little factoid. For example:

In 1925, the all-black Wichita Monrovians team played the all-white Ku Klux Klan club. To discourage favoritism, the game was officiated by two white Catholics.

Topekan Gil Carter hit was might be the longest home run in history. The ball sailed over a 60-foot light poll at the 330-foot mark and kept going. It was found the next day under a peach tree two blocks away. Some estimates suggest it was a 733-foot hit.

Four Kansas women played on the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was featured in the movie A League of Their Own.

There are chapters on Kansans who played in the Negro League, lists of the long-forgotten minor leagues that used to exist in Kansas, biographies of Major League baseball players born in Kansas, and information on umpires, sports journalists, and MLB administrators from the Sunflower State.

Because this book often examines the biographies of players and the times during which they played, it’s a unique historical perspective of the state of Kansas. And that’s why it is perfect for the sports fan and the history buff. If you’re from Kansas, chances are good you’ll find your town–no matter how small–somewhere in the pages of this book.

So if you’re feeling a little sad that the baseball season has drawn to a close, pick up a copy of Home, Home Plate on the Range. The book itself and the field trips recommended in Chapter 17 should tide you over until spring training.

This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and can be ordered through your favorite independent book store.

Disclaimer: I first saw this book in manuscript form several years ago and fell in love with it. I was overjoyed to receive a copy of the finished book from the author a couple of weeks ago.

Go read this book now: Waiting on the Sky by Cheryl Unruh

Waiting on the Sky: More Flyover People EssaysI try, really try, to articulate the soulful bond I feel with the Kansas earth and Kansas sky, but I doubt I will ever do it as skillfully as author Cheryl Unruh, a native Kansan whose second book, Waiting on the Sky: More Flyover People Essays, just hit the Kansas bookstore shelves earlier this month.

Unruh wrote a column for the Emporia Gazette for more than a decade, and I rarely missed it. Even though her book is a compilation of those columns, she’s edited and arranged them in a way that makes them fresh and meaningful and provides a window into her own heart as well as the heart of every Kansan who knows what it means to pull over on a country road and look west because a sunset is too beautiful to ignore.

Waiting on the Sky is a biography, and Unruh guides us through her life and her relationship to the world around through carefully selected essays on community, death, childhood, and the act of being. Her pieces on lost family members, especially her father, are reverent, and I was particularly moved by her descriptions of the everyday moments with her father–maintaining the local cemetery, working in his woodworking shop.

Waiting on the Sky is also the story of the bond between Kansans and the earth and the sky, and why, once we have that connection, we’re loathe to want to live anywhere else because Kansas is part of who we are. Or, as Unruh writes, “The skies over Kansas have absorbed our stories, our conversations…Our existence here has been noted. This geography holds our biography.”

If you’ve ever felt a little weepy at the magnificence of the Kansas prairie, if you’ve ever felt your worries blow away while watching the the wind push the clouds across the sky, if you’ve ever found your inner peace driving down a gravel road without another soul passing you by–you’ll find your kindred spirit in Cheryl Unruh and Waiting on the Sky.

Diana the Author will be at some awesome author events this summer

Last summer was a whirlwind of events that introduced Kansans to the story of the 1925 murder of Florence Knoblock. )I was gone so many weekends that I broke down and hired someone to mow my lawn, something I’ve never done before.) This year, I’m mowing my own lawn and spending much of this summer researching the new book (provided there is enough there for an entire book). Sneak preview:

Spending a rainy afternoon on the front porch reading newspaper clippings from more than 100 years ago.

Spending a rainy afternoon on the front porch reading newspaper clippings from more than 100 years ago.

However, I’m making time for some wonderful local author events this summer, the kind that would be fun to go to even if I’m teleported by space aliens and can’t make it.

June 7, 2014, 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. – Author Extravaganza, Town Crier Bookstore, Emporia, Kansas

Fifty local authors in one place! Meet new writers, pick up your own copy of Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder and stop by to chat about the historic local murders that interest you! This is one of my favorite author events as a reader as well as a writer.

July 17, 2014, 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – Local Author Night, Ottawa Library, Ottawa, Kansas

Meet your favorite local authors and take home a pile of library books. What can be better than that?

August 21, 2014, 7:00 p.m. – Linwood Community Library, Linwood, Kansas

Okay, this one would be lacking if the aliens really did kidnap me, being that I’m the featured speaker. I’ll be presenting Rediscovering and Retelling the Story of the 1925 Murder of Florence Knoblock and How It Changed an Entire Community. See you there!

My Favorite Books About the Weather

Right at this very moment, it’s pretty darned cold here in Kansas, and the temperatures are just beginning to drop. We have about 3 inches of snow on the ground in Ottawa (though the drifting makes it hard to guess just how much we really got last night) and I was shoveling snow in a -10 degree wind, giving up when the fog on my fogged-up glasses froze. I love my old 1901 house, but I’m really thankful for the double-pane glass replacement windows right now. They’re not as pretty as the original double-hung wood-frame windows probably were, but I suspect even the original owners of our home would prefer the replacement windows to a cold and drafty house.

Cold weather makes me want to curl up on the couch and read, and right now, I’m binging on books about weather. Some of them are about Kansas weather, some of them are about weather on the plains, some of them are about weather on the coasts. All of them are about what happens when humans don’t understand that the earth’s weather patterns are so much bigger than we are and try to defy it. And thanks to the miracle of eReaders, online shopping, and online library services, I don’t even have to go out into the weather to read about it.

Here are some of my favorite weather books. I’d love to hear your recommendations, too!


The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

The Children's Blizzard by David LaskinIn 1888, a powerful cold front blew across the Dakota-Nebraska Prairie, turning a comfortable winter day into a raging blizzard as children began their walks home from their rural one-room school houses. By the next morning, more than 100 children were found dead on the prairie. Laskin does an incredible job of weaving together the stories of nature, the fledgling U.S. weather service, and the lives of immigrants who didn’t understand their the weather patterns of their chosen homeland. You’ll become very attached to these children as he tells their story, and you won’t know who survived and who didn’t until the end of the book.

Blizzard! The Storm That Changed America by Jim Murphy

Blizzard! by Jim MurphyA few months after the Children’s Blizzard, a catastrophic blizzard hit New York. What makes this book fascinating is that it’s an account not only of the devastating storm, but also the resulting overhaul in municipal policy, such as the development of city-wide snow removal and the burying of power lines. This book was written for a YA audience, but it is a great read for adults, too.


The Great Hurricane: 1938 by Cherie Burns

Great Hurricane: 1938Burns gives an hour-by-hour account of a powerful hurricane that took New England completely by surprise. She also paints a picture of the people on the coast that day–the wealthy in their mansions and the poor who worked in and alongside the ocean. It’s an interesting account of a bygone era as well as a cautionary tale of how vulnerable any of us–regardless of wealth or power–are when it comes to the weather.

Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

Johnstown Flood by David McCulloughWe’ve all heard about the 1889 flood that wiped out Johnstown, Pennsylvania. What most of us don’t realize is how a handful of industrialists–Andrew Carnegie, Henry Flick, and Andrew Mellon–were part of the reason why it was so devastating. More than 2,000 lives were lost when heavy rains caused the dam at their improperly maintained private lake to burst, sending a wall of water into Johnstown. This book is also an account of the newly formed American Red Cross, which was called into action to help the survivors.


And Hell Followed With It: Life and Death in a Kansas Tornado by Bonar Menninger

And Hell Followed With It by Bonar MenningerI’ve recommended this one before, and I’ll recommend it again. This is an well-written account of the 1966 tornado that destroyed much of Topeka, Kansas, as well as the efforts of various citizens who worked to keep the public informed of its path. It’s chilling to think about how many lives would have been lost had the radio and weather people not worked on a homegrown warning system.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy EganMuch like Laskin’s Children’s Blizzard, Egan’s book really demonstrates the peril of not understanding your environment. The Worst Hard Time is a powerful account of the people who moved to areas like Western Kansas, Eastern Colorado, and Western Oklahoma, and how their farming and ranching practices, combined with natural weather patterns, created the Dust Bowl. It’s an important read for anyone who wants to understand just how quickly we can alter the landscape. Also, I found my lungs seizing up just reading about all of that dust in the air.


Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather by Mike Smith

Warnings by Mike SmithAnd here’s the book I’m reading now: a history of storm prediction and the development of a storm warning system, as told by meteorologist Mike Smith, who himself witnessed the Ruskin Heights Tornado. This book does not make me feel fond of the earlier leadership at the National Weather Service, who actively discouraged tornado research and the issuing of tornado warnings, but it does make me want to cheer for the meteorologists who pursued it both for science and the common good. Also, I never realized how scary flying in a plane would have been before meteorologists discovered downdrafts. Eeek.

Happy reading!

My Experiences in Self-Publishing, Part 4: Format and Production (Choices, Choices, Choices!)

Readers are looking for awesome books, regardless of whether they’re printed by one of the Big Traditional Presses or if they’ve been uploaded by the author. A great book is a great book. Our job is to offer our readers the greatest book we possibly can.

The best (and sometimes scariest!) part about self-publishing today is that us writers have all kinds of options. In fact, even with a pretty solid vision of what I wanted my book to be, I was a little intimidated by the number of choices to consider.

To bring your book to life, you’ll need to make choices in three areas:

Format: The format is the final product your readers see. The most common types of format include physical books (hardbacks, trade paperbacks, mass market paperbacks, large print books), eBooks, and audiobooks (mp3 downloads or compact discs).

Production: The production of your book is the process of making your book.  This will include editing, cover design, file preparation, layout, galley proofs, etc. It will include choosing paper and cover stock for physical books and a performer/narrator for an audiobook. You’ll also need to decide if you want to set up your own imprint/press. No matter what formats you choose, you’ll need to edit your text and design a cover.

Distribution: Once you have your book, you need a way to get it to your readers. You’ll need to decide if you want to sell the books yourself, through online retailers, or independent bookstores. You’ll need to decide if you’re willing to do consignment sales. Because Distribution is such a big topic, we’ll talk about it in a separate post.

Let’s take a look at the different types of formats and some of the basic elements of production. (We’ll talk about expenses later.)

I also recommend that if you’re hiring a company to print or upload your book, shell out some cash to buy some examples of their work. You’re far better off losing $30  to discover that the publisher can’t deliver a quality product than $300 or even $3000 on your own book.

Physical Books

Physical books come in many shapes and sizes, including but not limited to hardback, library bound, trade paperback, mass market paperback, pocket, large print (hardback or paperback).  The most common size for a self-published book is some version of the pocket or trade paperback. It has the substance of a hardback book but is a more cost-conscious. It is my experience that most readers who want a physical book are willing to pay between $10 and $20 for it, but they get a little squeamish at the idea of pay more than $8 for a mass market paperback (when mass market books typically cost between $4 and $8 for traditionally published books), and they tend to shy away from paying $25 to $40 for a hardback book for an unknown author. Self-published pocket and trade paperback books tend to end up with price tags commensurate to those of traditionally published books of similar size and shape.


No matter what type of physical book you choose to offer, you’ll need to edit your text and come up with an awesome cover. I repeat:  EDIT YOUR TEXT AND GET A GREAT COVER. For most readers, a lackluster cover and bad editing, along with poor font choices, are the trifecta that announce the book is a bad self-published work, regardless how brilliant your story might be. Don’t let that happen to you! 

Printing Options

You’ll need to decide if you want to print your books up front or print them as you need them.

Traditional Press: A traditional press will print a larger quantity of your books all at once. In order to get a reasonable per-book price, chances are good that you’ll need to print in quantities of 500 to 1,000 or more. This is a good option if know you’re going to sell a lot of books or if you’re creating a book for a special occasion (like a church history book to celebrate a centennial).

This is not a good option if you don’t think you can sell 1,000 or more books, or if you don’t have a place to store them. (To give you an idea of how much space books can take up, my books come 24 to a box, and each box is 8 inches x 8 inches x 12 inches. A thousand books would fill 42 boxes and take up about 19 cubic feet of real estate.) Another challenge is that they’re harder to sell through the big online retailers.

Print on Demand: I’m a big advocate of print on demand, especially as POD has become sophisticated enough that POD books are almost indistinguishable from traditional press books. I also approve of only printing a book when it’s actually wanted and needed. If you’ve ever walked into a big-box bookstore and seen table after table of heavily marked-down books, you’ve seen the waste that comes with overprinting.

Most POD books are distributed through online retailers. The downside: not all independent bookstores will work with POD books because, depending on your distribution, they have to buy them at full cost, leaving no room for profit. (More on that later.) Some POD companies will give you, the author, a price break for bulk orders.

There are also POD-like companies that are print-on-demand to you, but do not upload to online retailers. This could be a great option if, say, you just needed 100 copies of a commemorative book you wanted to give to people attending a 50th high school reunion.

Production Choices

Beyond editing and cover design, you’ll need to choose who will do the layout and printing. You’ll need to set prices and acquire ISBN numbers if the press doesn’t do it for you. (More on that later.) You’ll also need to make choices about the physical product itself, like the kind of paper you’ll use and how much artwork you’ll include.

Establishing Your Own Press

Establishing your own press does not mean setting up a printing press in your basement. It means creating your own imprint. If you look at any book, it will have some sort of brand or imprint…traditional imprints include Random House and Penguin and LoveSwept. If you want to create a press called Cartwheeling Buffalo Press, you can! Your books will still need to be printed either by a traditional press or a POD. It will just have your awesome logo of a cartwheeling buffalo on the back cover. If you want to distribute directly to Lightning Source (instead of through another press) you’ll need to create your own press.


Someone–possibly even you–will have to take that document you have stored in Microsoft Word or WriteWayPro or Google Docs and massage it into a format appropriate for a book. Depending on who you choose for a printer, it could be you, it could be a professional designer you hire to prepare the book to upload to a press, or it could be a layout person who works for the press. Basically, this person’s job is to turn your manuscript into something “print ready” so that it will flow correctly on the page. Many of the POD online sites have tools that let you do this yourself.

Part of layout also includes the design of the headers (does every page have the title and your name at the top?), the location and style of the page number, and the way the first page of each chapter appears. Here’s an example of a guide that shows several some of the kinds of layout choices you might make.

Finally, you get to make font choices for both the interior text and the elements like chapter headings and headers and footers. These choices can be inspired by your book–for example, the chapter titles in a nice, Art Deco font would be awesome for a novel set in the 1920s–but stick to the basics when it comes to the actual text. There is a reason why a font like Times New Roman remains a classic choice. It’s easily readable, and the little ticks that make up the serif font gently connect words together to make your eye connect letters into words. You may be tempted to use Comic Sans for your funny romance or Chiller for your haunted house book. DON’T DO IT.


This is a good time to look at your own bookshelves and really examine the paper your books are printed on. What do you like? What makes you cringe? You’ll need to make choices regarding the paper inside your book as well as the cover.

Paper Color: Many companies will let you choose the color of your paper, usually white or cream. Many will argue that cream paper tends to look more professional, and I agree with this. (Go open up some of your hardback and trade paperback books and you’ll see very few of them are bright white.)

Paper Weight: If you have the option to choose weight, ask for samples. Weight refers to how thick the paper is. If you think about standard photocopy paper versus the paper greeting cards are printed on, you’re thinking about the weight. If it’s too thin (like phone book paper!) it will tear easily and the print on one side will permeate the other. If it’s took thick, it’s going to be heavy and expensive. Slightly heavier weights are appropriate if you’re printing a book heavy on artsy photographs (think: coffee table book). Most novels don’t need an especially heavy paper. You WANT your cover to be a heavy weight or it will curl with humidity and be damaged more easily.

Paper Finish: Matte finish (not shiny) or glossy (shiny) are the two main choices. When it comes to covers, you’ll also have the choice of coated matte. The finish will affect the way any artwork looks. Uncoated matte paper tends to absorb inks more and can make the images look duller. Most artsy books use glossy or coated matte paper because the images pop out better.

Pros and Cons of Physical Books

Physical books are still the superior choice for libraries, collectors, and hand-selling at events. However, they cost more to produce, it’s harder to gauge how many you’ll need, and they can create storage and shipping issues.


In many ways, eBooks are far simpler (and the decisions are far less permanent) to produce than physical books.

Just like with physical books, you’ll need to edit your text and come up with an awesome cover. I repeat:  EDIT YOUR TEXT AND GET A GREAT COVER. (I really can’t mention this often enough.) Bad editing and a yucky cover are two of the three parts of the trifecta of a crappy eBook, the third being glitchy formatting that makes the book not flow correctly.

Even though there are a boatload of ways to read eBooks, they eBook files themselves come in three formats:

PDF: The old standard for documents downloaded from the web, very commonly used for forms and instruction manuals and usually read on a computer.

MOBI: The proprietary format for the Amazon Kindle.

EPUB: The most common eReader format. If you’re downloading to a Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble Nook, iPad, Android phone, or pretty much anything else, you’re probably downloading an EPUB.

The lovely thing about eBooks is that you don’t have to worry about most of the production issues that come with a physical book. You don’t have to stress about paper choices because there is no paper. You don’t have to worry about physical storage space because there is nothing to store  beyond the electronic files. You don’t really even have to worry about font styles (except for PDF format) because eReader users can pick the font style and size that they find easiest on the eyes through their reading device.


Once you have your text edited and a snazzy cover for your book, your main concerns include where you’re going to sell your book (which we’ll talk more about in the post on distribution) and to make sure the book functions correctly from a technical standpoint. Anyone with an eReader has seen how books can hiccup, how some characters can be replaced by gobbledygook, and how images and line breaks can end up in weird places when people adjust the font size and layout on their eReaders.  If you’re book is straight text, you’ll have an easier time than if your book is full of illustrations.

Still, someone has to prep your manuscript and convert it into an eBook. You have choices:

You can upload your own eBooks. Many of the major distributors of eBooks have tutorials for how to upload your eBook, and you don’t have to be a programming genius to do it. Some writing programs, like WriteWayPro, have built in conversation tools, as well. You have complete control over the product and can take it down on a whim if you choose to.

You can pay a flat fee to have the eBook uploaded by a pro. There are many affordable professionals who will, for a flat fee, take your manuscript, prep it to make it eBook friendly, and upload it for you. Note: They are only being paid to handle the technical aspects of creating the eBook and generally won’t look at or fix typos, misspelled words, or the fact that your main character’s hair inexplicably changed color in chapter six. They focus on making the book work correctly. Once the book is up and running, you and your pro part ways.

You can pay a distribution service. There are many distribution services that will prepare and upload your eBook to far more markets than you can likely reach yourself. They can also handle making repairs to the book if you catch something and will often handle the accounting.

Ta-da! We’ve just had an entire conversation about eBook production.

Pros and Cons about eBooks

EBooks are far superior when it comes to impulse buying. There’s something magnificent about being able to open my Nook, say to myself, “I want that book!” and in a couple of finger taps, a book is downloading to my Nook and my credit card is charged. INSTANT GRATIFICATION.  One of my friends (who has pushed my book with a zeal that would put a drug dealer to shame–I call her my book pimp) told me when she was talking about my book with some friends, they whipped out their phones and eReaders and downloaded it on the spot. No time to forget the title, no chance to think about it…they just bought the book. On the downside, it’s harder to have a book-signing, and libraries are not really equipped yet to take on your eBook because most libraries offer eBooks through major distribution services like OneClickDigital and OverDrive.


Not everyone has time to actually sit down with a book and read, but many of those busy people listen to a good story while they’re in the middle of a 30-mile commute or folding laundry. Audiobooks used to be very cumbersome to produce and store when they were still on record albums (remember those little children’s books with the 45 rpm tucked into the back flap?) or cassette tapes (not ideal for leaving in the car in the hot summer sun). Fortunately, I’ve never seen one on an 8-track.

Most audiobooks today are either on CD or mp3. CDs are easier to put on library shelves, but there is more cost to producing them: the CDs and the packaging. They are, however, friendlier for car stereos (especially for anyone driving a car more than three years old). The other option is a downloadable mp3. The biggest distributor of downloadable audiobooks to a mainstream audience (as opposed to libraries)–and the friendliest toward self-published authors–is Audible.com.


Once you’ve edited your text and created an awesome cover, your biggest challenges and expenses include choosing someone to read the audiobook and uploading it to a distributor. The hallmark of a badly self-published audiobook are a bad cover, bad editing (which you can hear if not see), and a bad narrator. Don’t let this happen to your book!

Picking a Narrator

Audiobook narrators are a special group of people. They have the ability to create voice inflections that make the listener feel like they’re following an entire cast of characters–male and female–even though you might have only one or two readers.

You might be tempted to read your audiobook yourself. “I can read,” you say to yourself. THINK VERY CAREFULLY ABOUT THIS. Are you actually an actor? Can you keep track of the different voices you use for each of your characters? Would a listener from the UK buy your London accent? Read a few chapters into a recorder and listen to it and honestly ask yourself: “Would I pay $20 to listen to me talk for seven hours?” I frequently sound like an asthmatic eight-year-old. I love my readers WAY TOO MUCH to do that to them.

Hiring a narrator can get expensive. Most charge by the “finished hour,” meaning if the final audiobook is seven hours long, you’re paying for seven hours of their services. Narrators can charge anywhere from $25 an hour to $2500 an hour. Some can be hired by the project or for a percentage of the sales.  A typical 300-page novel translates into an audiobook that runs about six to nine hours, depending on your text and the speech patterns of the narrator.

One company that specializes in the creation and distribution of audiobooks by authors self-published and otherwise is ACX (which distributes to Audible and iTunes). You can entertain yourself for hours listening to the audition clips of various narrators.

Recording an Audiobook Yourself

So you sound like Morgan Freeman and you’ve decided to record the audiobook yourself. You’re going to need some decent recording equipment and, most important, a soundproof place to record it. This is probably not going to be in your house. Think about it…what may seem like quiet to you really isn’t that quiet when a listener is trying to listen to your book. Our homes are infiltrated by the sounds of birds chirping, cicadas buzzing, ambulances roaring, and neighbors slamming car doors. You don’t want that in the background. Even a recording in your basement will register water running through the pipes and the furnace firing up. You need a sound-proof room. Many communities have someone who runs a recording studio for local bands and will charge a by-the-hour rate for using their professional equipment facilities.

Pros and Cons about Audiobooks

Audiobooks can reach a completely different audience. There are a lot of people out there who claim they “don’t like to read” or “don’t have time to read,” but they’ll happily listen to an audiobook while doing other things. MP3 formats mean that they can be affordable for the consumer to download instantly to an mP3 player or iPod. The downside is that they can get expensive to produce if you have a particularly long book and most libraries won’t be able to distribute an mP3 (though some will buy a CD). Also, they’re generally not a good option if your book depends on illustrations to tell the story.

My Choices

As mentioned back in the post about your book’s vision, my vision was to have books in libraries, books I could sell at events, and eBooks.  I’ll talk about my choices for distribution in a later post, but I chose to work with a POD book press that helps self-publishers distribute their books through the major channels so that it could easily be ordered through bookstores as well as online. The physical book is printed on cream-colored paper and the cover has a wonderful coated matte finish that is almost velvety to the touch, a lovely thing for tactile people. I chose to work with an eBook distributor who has made my book available all over the world.

My one regret? Not having given more thought to creating an audiobook. At the time I was planning my book’s release, I didn’t appreciate that an audiobook version was an accessible option.

My Experiences in Self-Publishing, Part 3: Editing and Cover Design

Before I get into formats, general production, and distribution issues, I want to talk about editing and cover design. No matter what book formats you choose, you need a good cover design and your text needs to be immaculate.



As you’re planning your budget and looking for ways to save money, do not scratch out the line item for an editor. Bad copyediting (or copy editing, depending on which dictionary your frequent) is part of the trifecta that can flag your book as an amateur self-pub (the other two being bad cover design and poor font selection). Good editing ensures that the reader is really reading what you thought you wrote, and it makes you look like you know what you’re doing.

Do NOT entrust your editing to your mother or your retired high school English teacher unless either is currently editing professionally. Professional copy editors are trained to comb through your text for wayward commas and dangling modifiers. They also keep up with changes in the English language.

Having trained as a copy editor, I can tell you…when you’re a writer, copy editing is hard. Us writers are naturally inclined to want to rewrite sentences instead of focusing on making them grammatically correct. A good copy editor will see things you’re blind to after too many rereads, and he or she will do so in a speedy manner.

“But I’m only releasing my book in audiobook format,” you might be thinking. “Who cares about the copyediting?” Well, your performer might. If the words are spelled wrong and the punctuation is wrong, the person reading your book will likely mispronounce words and put the inflections in the wrong places. It could get pretty ugly.

Copy editors might charge by the page, by the hour, or by the project. Be prepared: a good copy editor might have a waiting list of clients.

Cover Design

Raise your right hand and repeat after me: I SOLEMNLY SWEAR TO HAVE MY COVER PROFESSIONALLY DESIGNED.

Years of weeding library collections has taught me this: if you ever want to lower the check-out rate on a book to roughly zero times per year, dump the dust jacket or obscure the cover so that a reader browsing the shelves can’t figure out what the book is about.

Here it is: we all judge books by their covers. A good cover should give us a feel for the book. Most readers can look at a series of covers and immediately identify the ones that are romances, urban fantasies, mysteries, literary fiction, etc. Really good covers also set the tone for the book. Remember, readers have easy access to millions of books. If a reader looks at your book and can’t figure out if it might be something he or she wants to read, they’ll move on to another book.

At my most recent library position, I worked the reference desk, which was right next to the new books area. Without fail, books with awesome covers always checked out right away. Books without awesome covers–especially if those books were by unknown authors–sat and sat and sat. It didn’t matter if the cover hid the most brilliant prose ever. Bad covers repel potential readers. Indie Author News recently posted an article called Bad Cover = Bad Sales that really drives home the point.

Cover designers can charge by the project or by the hour. Some cover designers work with stock images (less expensive), and other designers do a lot of illustration (more expensive). It is helpful to work with a graphic designer with experience in book covers, but either way, you’ll need to know the specs required by the publishers of your paperback, eBook, or audiobook for your designer to produce a final product. Be prepared: a good cover designer might have a waiting list of clients.

Once you’ve picked a cover designer, try not to drive the designer crazy. India Drummond wrote a great post at the Writer’s Guide to E-Publishing blog called How to Make a Cover Designer Cry. The examples of designer-writer interactions gone wrong are funny until you realize they actually happened.

My Book

Luckily for me, I happen to know a great copy editor. Despite my own training as an editor, she humbled me with all of the errors she found in a manuscript that had been through six drafts. Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Murder was a challenge to edit because there were so many people and places involved in the recounting of the Knoblock murder investigation and subsequent trials. I knew I had found the right editor when she made comments like, “You call him Johnnie Knoblock here, and John Knoblock elsewhere. Are these referring to the same person? Do we need to change one or the other?” She made it a much tighter, cleaner manuscript for readers to read.

I looked at several prospective cover designers, but fortunately for me, my cousin is a professional graphic designer and offered to do the cover. Honestly, I had a serious case of butterflies when I agreed to work with her on the project because, well, WHAT IF I HATED THE COVER? What if she didn’t *get* what I was hoping my cover would say? It could have been a disaster.

To give her a sense of how I wanted the cover to feel, I sent her several other covers that I absolutely loved because they captured the rural isolation I was going for: Nancy Pickard’s Scent of Rain and Lightning, Laura Griffin’s Thread of Fear, and Linda Castillo’s Pray for Silence. I also sent her Stephan Anderson-Story‘s photos of the abandoned house where the murder took place.

Fortunately for me, my cousin and I were totally in tune with each other, and she created my awesome cover.

Shadow on the Hill book cover

Shadow on the Hill book cover

Next Decisions: Formats, Production, and Distribution

Now your text is in the hands of your copy editor and you’re in line for a great cover designer. In the next few posts we’ll go over the decisions you’ll need to make in order to turn your manuscript into a book and get it into the hands of the public.