Publication of aviation books has been something of a “cottage industry” almost from the beginning of manned flight.
No less a figure than Benjamin Franklin self-published one of the first accounts of manned balloon flights, which he witnessed from the streets of Philadelphia. While not exactly a book – pamphlet might come closer – it is an example of how long reader curiosity about flight has been satisfied by writers willing to put their money where their quill pens, typewriters and word-processors are.
If anything, the trend is growing stronger as computers and online publishing do away with some of book publishing’s more daunting expenses, such as type-setting. Some authors get around hiring a printer by producing copies on demand, from their computers. Others do away with paper and ink altogether, going directly to Internet publishing.
As one who reviews books for General Aviation News, I’ve seen many examples of self-published aviation books.
Ben Cole is a good example. A pilot and aviation enthusiast, Cole was told by an employee about the 1953 crash of four Georgia Air National Guard F-84D jets. It happened about a mile from where Cole lived near Suwanee, but he had never heard about it from anyone else. Intrigued, he decided to learn more. Combing through newspapers and Air Force records, he became obsessed. He interviewed witnesses, studied the squadron’s history, the history of the F-84, the backgrounds of all the people involved, and he doggedly dug out a wealth of detailed facts which, to his way of thinking, needed to be recounted.
The official findings, he learned, were pretty cut-and-dried. The background, on the other hand, turned out to be a fascinating story lost to history. He started writing, and ended up with a gripping tale of four outstanding young pilots and how they died.
But then he couldn’t find a publisher, although he tried hard, had several interested for a while, but ultimately met with disappointment. Thus, Crosswind Publications, Ltd., of Suwanee, Georgia, came into being and the book now is in national distribution.
Mike Arman, of Ormond Beach, Florida, is a fan of Cessna 150s and 152s. A lot of people are, in fact, but those very practical trainers and just-plain-flying craft don’t get a lot of ramp respect, sell relatively cheaply, and don’t represent much of a market – at least, not to a major publisher. Nevertheless, there is a market, and Arman put together an unusually practical handbook called, simply, “Owning, Buying or Flying the Cessna 150/152.” Nobody thought the 96-page book was worth publishing, so Arman became – what else? – M. Arman Publishing.
The book has sold “in the thousands,” Arman said recently, so he decided that another worthwhile subject would be “Mastering the E-6B Flight Computer” – and, sure enough, it took off, selling 450 copies in its first two months.
“Self-publishing can be financially rewarding,” Arman commented, but advised that “you must not finance it by taking out a loan requiring monthly payments.” The cash flow simply isn’t that predictable, he warned.
Arman pointed out that there are many steps for self-publishers to take between writing and taking in money, but the biggest and hardest of those steps is “writing a big check to the printer.” It’s a big check because printing fewer than 2,000 copies is not cost-effective and the cost per copy goes down with higher-volume orders.
Margaret D. Mitchell was an airline flight attendant for 16 years, during which she encountered a very large number of people from many different places and backgrounds, and with a wide diversity of spiritual beliefs. Her book, “100 Passengers,” is part memoir, part spiritual guide, based on “lessons learned from passengers and crewmembers.” In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she believes it is “a timely one,” which she ended up publishing herself because she believed in it so strongly.
Also in the memoir vein, but on a more worldly footing, is Kenneth W. Ford’s “In Love with Flying.” Ford’s other books are about quantum physics but, now a retired physicist, he has turned to his half-century of flying a wide variety of powered aircraft and sailplanes for this quite personal and personable tale.
Among the most interesting chapters are Ford’s profiles of various aviators who have impressed him, including Robert N. Buck. Bob Buck, who died earlier this year at the fine age of 93, wrote some excellent aviation books himself, based on a long and interesting airline career. Ford dedicated his book to Buck but profiled nine other really interesting characters, as well. Nevertheless, the book was published by H Bar Press of Philadelphia — not exactly a household name — and was a family project.
Not all self-published aviation books are about history or other factual matters. There is a decent market for well-written fiction, and more than one writer has pursued that course.
A.F. Ebbers was a newspaper reporter, freelance journalist and corporate pilot before becoming a novelist with publication of “Dangerous Past,” about an airline pilot and former Vietnam military pilot who is being stalked by unknown assailants. Ebbers has written a tightly focused tale of intrigue that would make a good movie, but no major publisher bought it, so SilverHawk Books of Manchaca, Texas, was formed. He spoke about the book at Sun ‘n Fun in April and will do so again at Oshkosh, later this month, which tells us that self-publishing also involves self-promotion and self-marketing.
“John, the Airport Kid” is a charming and somewhat autobiographical “magical adventure” told by John Jopling, who was an airport kid himself. While a fantasy of sorts, in which airplanes talk in the hangar at night, it also contains some valuable life lessons and would make good reading for any young teenager. It tells of a boy who is forced by circumstance to take responsibility for himself, and who, through his love of aviation, finds a home, a job, friends and a family, learning a lot about love and caring along the way. Delightfully illustrated by Hazel Jopling and Ken Baldwin, it falls into a category of children’s book often produced by major publishers, but the Joplings ended up as Silver Bear Graphics of Westminster, Maryland, taking orders at air shows and fly-ins, doing it the hard way, and apparently loving what they do, if our discussion at this year’s AOPA Fly-In is anything to go by.
Thus we see that self-publishing most often comes about because an author believes in his or her work, thinks other people will want to read it or benefit from it, or maybe, like Ben Cole, becomes obsessed by a subject. Any way you look at it, it’s a growing and rewarding — if often frustrating — pursuit.