How my sister became a published author

I received a compelling new book last week -- witty, insightful, easy to read and thoroughly satisfying.

It also has pictures of my family.

That's because it was written by my sister, Kathy Smith Gemberling, about growing up in the Midwest. So I might be a little biased.

Titled "Grandma Was a Little Girl," Kathy wrote the book for her granddaughters Ali and Madison "and others to come ...." It contains short anecdotes, written in a simple style so they can be read to children, of the days before running water, electricity and television.

Here's a sample, called "The Safety Pin":

I was in my parents' bedroom by myself, exploring. I found a safety pin lying on the dresser. I put it in my mouth and swallowed it. I don't know why. I just did it. Then I thought maybe I had done something bad, so I told my mother. She was very upset. She said to my dad, "What shall we do?" They talked about it for awhile. Then my mother said, "Was it open or closed?" I said, "closed." They said, "Oh, then you'll be alright." And I was.

The book is only 95 pages, so it can be read in less than an hour. You can look at the pictures of our parents and our grandmother and some of our cousins.

Whether anybody else will be much interested in it, Kathy doesn't care. She'll sell some to her friends and relatives, and to other people who grew up around Atlanta, Ill. I think she might sell more, because the book has a tone of common-sense wisdom about it.

But for Kathy, it was never about selling books. It was about writing one and getting it published. And that's what I want to tell you about, because you can do it too.

These kinds of books are usually known as "vanity press," because they are self-published. The expression comes from the idea the author is vain enough to believe other people will want to read his stuff, even though no legitimate publisher is willing to print it.

In the old days, vanity-press publishing was expensive. A printer wouldn't touch the book unless several hundred copies were paid for in advance. It just wasn't worth setting the type, creating the galleys and firing up the press, otherwise. So you could get your book published, but it might cost $5,000 up front.

Once you had your 800 copies, there wasn't much choice but to give them away. The hometown bookstores might put a few on the shelves as a favor, but there was little chance for people across the country to get their hands on your book. So a lot of copies spent time gathering mold in the garage.

Enter the age of computers and the Internet.

Kathy got her book published for about $259. As far as I know, right now there are only six copies in existence.

But anybody can order it through Barnes & Noble, or any bookstore in the country. You order it, pay the $9.95 and your book is printed. It took four days to get mine after I ordered it online from

My wife, Jenny, and I helped Kathy publish the book through a Web site called

Kathy isn't particularly computer literate, and she doesn't see well, but she had been typing up her memories for years. Jenny took Kathy's pages and retyped them into the computer.

Then we went to and followed the instructions. It cost $159 for the basic book, plus another $100 because Kathy wanted to include photographs. We charged it to a credit card. The company e-mailed a template back to us, and we copied and pasted Kathy's manuscript into the template.

Then we scanned the photographs electronically and placed them where we wanted them in the template. I proofread the whole thing, then e-mailed it back to iUniverse. We also wrote the blurb that goes on the back jacket, the "About the author" page and assorted descriptions that would accompany the book when it became available for sale.

The company created a cover for the book, using a black-and-white photo supplied by Kathy, and then e-mailed back a proof of the entire book. We had two weeks to make corrections (and if we had to make more than 50, iUniverse would charge us extra).

A couple of weeks later, the first copy landed on my sister's doorstep in Illinois. It's in trade paperback format (a little bigger than a regular paperback), with a slick cover. It looks professionally done. Because it was published by a legitimate company, it has an ISBN number that means any bookstore in America can look it up and order it.

Whether there is any demand for it, well, that's up to Kathy. She will have to do the marketing herself, although iUniverse offers some advice. (I know she'll be hitting the summer festivals in Central Illinois, and she'll send out a few copies to newspapers.) She gets a 20 percent royalty on any books purchased, and a 20 percent discount on copies she buys.

The whole process was relatively simple -- although I have a couple of cautions if you are thinking of trying it yourself. Obviously, you need to have some general familiarity with desktop publishing. If you use Microsoft Word, you'll probably be fine. And if you want to include photos, you'll have to be able to scan them electronically.

Even though I deal with publishing every day, and I have all the resources of a daily newspaper at my disposal (like high-speed Internet access, sophisticated software such as Adobe Photoshop, and plenty of expert advice), there were some frustrating points along the way.

Nevertheless, compared to what it used to take to publish a book, this was a snap.

To tell you the truth, the frustrations Jenny and I had over the few weeks it took us to get the book together disappeared the moment we heard the pride in Kathy's voice when she actually had a copy in her hand. For a moment there, I think Grandma once again was a little girl.

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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