MU Reads guest lecturer discussed self-publishing, writing historical books


Marshall University Library’s book club, MU Reads, presented an afternoon of learning about self-publishing books with guest lecturer and author Jack Dickinson.

Dickinson, curator of Marshall’s Rosanna Blake library, discussed his journey of self-publishing with printer companies versus relying on publishers. He also talked about what led him to begin writing historical books.

“How did I get started in this rocky road, let’s put it that way; like most people, when my wife and I worked on our genealogies of our families, we found all kinds of very interesting things, and I found I had several Civil War ancestors,” Dickinson said. “I started researching their units, more about the Civil War and that kind of thing.”

In 1984, at 40 years old, Dickinson self-published his first book with the help of a small printer. He had 30 copies made, mostly for friends and family, but ten other copies sold. Since then, he has co-written books with his wife, and the pair self-published seven of them. Most of Dickinson’s books are nonfictional accounts of the Civil War, while some are soldiers’ annotated diaries and others are pictorial histories. Dickinson has also authored books on the history of logging and railroads in southern West Virginia. His next project is finishing a Civil War novel.

“Those of you that are aspiring and are writing novels, which obviously I’ve never done yet, I’m involved in now,” Dickinson said. “I am one year into the ‘Great Civil War Saga: A Novel.’ It’s been a learning experience. Writing some of this [nonfiction] is easy compared to writing a novel because you’re trying to write dialogue that makes sense, and it’s the make sense part that’s difficult. I can visualize some of these scenes in my mind, but when you try to write that down and get the exchange of words, gunfire and this kind of thing, so that it comes out right and makes sense, I think it’s hard. It’s taken me a year, but I can see the end in sight. I’ve done 18 chapters. Fortunately, I have a captive editor, my grandson.”

Dickinson graduated from Marshall in 1966, and he said he has relied on the Drinko Academy and Marshall Library Associates to assist in publishing a few of his books, one of which, “If I Should Fall In Battle,” is an annotated diary of a Confederate soldier. His diary was found and sent back to his family in Alabama. Dickinson said Marshall libraries funded a trip for him to visit the soldier’s hometown and family to further his research for the book.

Dickinson also taught those in attendance about the pros and cons of self-publishing and utilizing publishers. With self-publishing, Dickinson said, someone can own the copyright to the book they author and can choose to reprint whenever they choose, instead of depending on large publishing companies. However, Dickinson said much more time and work is spent on the distribution, editing and layout of self-publishing a book. Dickinson offered advice to the audience including setting reasonable goals for a book’s audience and amount of copies, understanding the difference between what publishers do versus printers.

Dickinson said his favorite book he has written is “Lumberman, Log Rafts, and Sawmills,” about the early logging industry in West Virginia, but he and his wife enjoyed their co-written railroad books, too.

“It’s a very personal thing, it’s just my wife and I really enjoyed doing the research on that together,” Dickinson said. “It represents that kind of thing to us. The railroad books were unique in a way that what we did is we went out and hunted for people, and we found so many that were anxious to talk to us that either their family had worked on the railroad or they had a relative that had some connection with the railroad.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of his career is the opportunity to learn history by talking to others Dickinson said.

“Meeting people like that and talking to them and letting them talk about it is just fantastic,” Dickinson said. “You have to understand that a lot of what they’re telling you, if you don’t put it down, it is going to be lost because there is nobody else left after that guy dies. We enjoy doing things like that, and it made us feel good when we could do it.”

Amanda Larch can be contacted at [email protected]