Guven Witteveen Shows How Kindle Publishing Can Open Doors to the Past

Francis William Redfern (1842-1936)

Anthropologist Guven Witteveen last week opened my eyes to how much Kindle-accessible history is coming our way through volunteer projects like one he undertook for his local historical society.

I met with Witteveen for the Kindle Chronicles interview on October 17th at Schuler Books, a sprawling indie bookstore in Lansing, Michigan. We sat in plush chairs by a fireplace, and Witteveen told me about how he used Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to create an eBook from the handwritten memoir of Francis W. Redfern, a Civil War veteran from nearby St. Johns.

“There is an infinite number of projects that could be made,” he told me. “It doesn’t matter if they’re not economical, because there is no paper and ink involved, as much as if you want to put time into it and do the work and use a craftsman’s kind of ethic and do a good job of it.”

Witteveen got the idea to create his first eBook in the summer of 2011, after he had read a weekly serial publication of Redfern’s memoir in The St. Johns Independent online.

He suggested to the Clinton County Historical Society that the material, composed a year before the 1936 death of Redfern, would make an excellent eBook.

“That is a great idea,” he was told. “Why don’t you do it?”

Witteveen consulted several guides, including Kate Harper’s How to Publish and Sell Your Article on Kindle and Stephanie Zia’s How to Publish an EBook on a Budget, as well as Mark Corker’s Smashwords Style Guide, and Amazon’s own KDP guidelines.

The existing online version of Redfern’s memoir had been tidied up a bit, but Witteveen decided that the eBook should return to what had been written in the original handwritten manuscript, including misspellings and informal usage.

The result is a raw and grippingly personal view of American history in the years 1862 to 1866. It includes Redfern’s euphoria at the end of the Civil War, followed by entirely new adventures when, as part of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, he was sent to defend wagon trains in what would become Colorado and Wyoming.

Redfern at one point relates the grim tale of an over-eager man traveling with his wife, mother-in-law, and two children. The man was so impatient to press ahead on his journey that he snuck his family away from the protection of the Cavalry at night.

Two miles outside Fort Halleck, which was located 45 miles east of present-day Rawlins, Wyoming, the family “was surrounded by indians,” Redfern wrote. The story continues as follows:

“There was a renegade white man with them & the man pleaded with Him to let them go. The renegade told him the indians would not allow it but to take his wife & the two children & ‘streak’ for the fort. He must leave the old lady & his outfit to the indians.”

During their flight to the fort, they came under attack, and one of the boys was struck in the back with an arrow. He apparently survived, but when a Cavalry detachment was sent to the site of the attack, they found the mother-in-law dead, the horses crippled, and “the outfit a smoking ruin.”

Witteveen put a lot of work into preparing Redfern’s 9,500-word memoir for publication at the Kindle Store, where you can purchase it for $2.99. Proceeds benefit the historical society’s Paine-Gillam-Scott Museum in St. Johns.

In addition to preparing the manuscript itself, he added an extensive selection of photos and graphics from public-domain sources, as well as a “Further Reading” section.

As it happens, I recently heard from another Kindle Chronicles podcast listener about a similar KDP project with historical content.

Eddie Mikel published The History of Lawrence County and Jefferson Davis County Mississippi at the Kindle Store on April 19, 2011. It is based on 10 years of his work transcribing material from the federal Works Progress Administration and The Lawrence County Press. It runs to an incredible 784 pages and is available for $2.99.

Eddie in an e-mail to me wrote, “I will not get rich from doing this, but I am rewarded with a lot of e-mail about how people have found ancestors and information about their day-to-day life in the book.  That is reward enough for me.”

How much similar material is out there, ready for Kindle? I find this to be a wonderful prospect.

Guven Witteveen found the KDP process to be easier than he thought it would be, but he cautioned that there are plenty of details to master along the way. I will add that the more these details–such as formatting text, proofreading, and presentation of graphics–are done right, the greater the impact of the eBook will be.

Nonetheless, Witteveen is bullish on the potential.

“I would encourage more people to seriously consider taking archives or family histories or materials from their local area museums, whatever it is that they think would have a wider audience that would benefit from digitizing and distributing and go ahead and do it, make an eBook out of it,” he said.

“Many Americans have the idea that the past is a foreign country—it is long ago; it does not connect to us here today,” he continued. “But by looking up the grave of this man, Francis Redfern—I found his headstone on the Internet, actually—there are local connections to all these events. It’s not somebody else you’re talking about; it’s people all around you.”

Amazon KDP executives have told me that they intend to keep making the self-publishing process easier and easier, so that it requires no formatting or computer skills beyond what you need to write and print a simple word-processing document.

This excites me, because it’s clear that as digital self-publishing gets easier, we are going to have access to a nearly infinite supply of vivid, personal accounts of history that just might just help us to navigate the future.

NOTE: I wrote this column on time, but in the midst of Darlene’s and my drive from Boston to Cambridge last week, I forgot to hit “send” on it in time for inclusion in the Kindle Nation Daily Weekender. (Click here to receive the Weekender and my weekly Contributing Editor column, as well as other content in the free Kindle Nation Daily Digest newsletter.) You can hear my interview with Guven Witteveen at 20:19 of TKC 221, last week’s episode of The Kindle Chronicles podcast.

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