An Interview with Author John Paul Godges, Part 2 | The Armchair Genealogist
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An Interview with Author John Paul Godges, Part 2

We continue our conversation with John Paul Godges, author of Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century. In Part 1, John discussed the process of writing a family narrative. In today's post, John talks about his journey through self-publishing. 

          Lynn: Why did you decide to self-publish? Did you try to sell your story to a traditional publishing house first?

John: I decided to self-publish when my dad was about to enter a nursing home and I knew there was no time to waste.  I wanted him to be able to hold the book, with the picture of him on the cover, in his hands.  I actually made a promise to him as he lay in his bed at the VA hospital that I would self-publish the book sooner rather than any other way later.  At the hospital, I also asked for his permission to use his picture from the Civilian Conservation Corps on the cover.  “Yes!” his baby-blue eyes brightened at the prospect!  I knew there was no going back on that promise.

I also knew that traditional publishers exert great influence over cover designs and often change the titles of books for marketing purposes, which is fine.  But I became personally committed to the cover image of Oh, Beautiful, and I’m rather fond of the title and subtitle, too.  I doubt that a traditional publisher would have let me have my way.  So self-publishing meant I didn’t have to fight those battles.

Previously, I had a literary agent who did try to sell the book to a publishing house.  There were some close calls, but no cigars.  I remember a handwritten note from one editor saying, “I really wish my house could publish this.”

       Lynn: You used Createspace by Amazon to publish your book, why did you decide on this particular vehicle for self-publishing.  Did you use any other avenues for publishing your book? How did you find the process?

John: When I attended a Writer’s Digest conference on self-publishing, the most valuable session was led by a woman named April L. Hamilton, who wrote The Indie Author Guide . Her presentation was thorough, thoughtful, and clear, and I found her book to be an immensely helpful step-by-step guide to self-publishing, which I knew nothing about.  She recommended publishing through CreateSpace in print and through both the Kindle platform and Smashwords on line.  I followed her recommendations.

The process can be overwhelming if only because there are so many options depending on what you might want to accomplish, but April Hamilton sent me down a safe path for my purposes.

        Lynn:   Did you employ a team, to help you edit and design and format the book or was this a one-man show? Did you use a critique group or beta reviewers? Did you already have these connections due to your journalism background?  What would you recommend to others?

John: In addition to the two editors discussed above, about 20 people outside the family critiqued early drafts.  These people were agents, journalists and writers I had known as colleagues, and friends.  Contrary to the common notion that friends are not good reviewers, I found, at least in the case of a family memoir that delves into deeply personal affairs, that perceptive friends can sometimes be the most insightful people to challenge you on what’s being left unsaid or unexplored.  I would recommend a mixture of professional and personal reviewers who are committed to bringing out the best in you and your family.

I hired a designer because of the book’s photographs, which required a high-end software program.  But the benefits extended well beyond the photos.  I had known the designer through my professional work.  Nearly all the people who helped were people I had previously known or who had been referred to me by friends or colleagues.

 Lynn: What sort of timeframe did it take to complete this book, from conception thru to writing and finally publishing?

John: Ten years of nights, weekends, and vacations.

      Lynn:   As a self-publisher, you have to market your own book, what tools or avenues are you using to promote Oh, Beautiful?

John: Everything conceivable:  book events, book clubs, book reviews, book awards, book fairs, radio interviews, podcasts, social media, and online interviews like this one.  And news about all of these goes up on my website at

         Lynn: How did you decide on the title and cover art, which I might say are very impressive?

John: Why, thank you!  I settled on the title of Oh, Beautiful because it’s so musical and so American.  Music is central to the story.  Throughout the book, lyrics express pivotal moods and moments in the family and national histories.  Thematically, music serves both as a reverberation of individual souls and as an instrument of collective will.  The title also echoes the way my Italian immigrant grandfather used to extol America as a “BYOO-ti-ful” country.  Like the chapter titles, the book title reflects the personal and national stories simultaneously.  So the title of Oh, Beautiful works on many levels.

The cover art is a 1941 photograph that I discovered while interviewing my father.  We were sifting through his old World War II footlocker, looking at some of his most cherished yet hidden possessions.  These are items that had been locked in that footlocker for more than 50 years.  One of the items was this photo of him prior to joining the Marines.  The photo had been protected in its own envelope.  When I slipped the photo from its envelope, it took my breath away.  I had never seen it before, but there was my dad:  a 17-year-old poor immigrant kid in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps at work in the Hiawatha National Forest.  It was just a casual photo, but the composition was stunning.  The expression on my father’s face was captivating.  The image symbolized so much about the American experience.  I also loved the way that the license plate represented no single state but the entire U.S.C.C.C.  I knew that photo had to be the cover.  It’s just classic Americana.

       Lynn:  Many family historians turn strictly to print publishing because they often want to include documents or photos and thereby excluding ebooks as an option, however you chose to do both. Your Kindle edition does not have family pictures, other than the front cover, what was your reasoning for this approach?

John: The Kindle technology, at least at the time, did not readily accommodate graphics beyond the cover image.  Other e-book options did, however, and so the photos at the beginning of each chapter do appear, even in brilliant color, on devices such as the iPad, iPhone, and iTouch.

I wanted to reserve something special for the people who pay the extra cost for the paperback version.  That’s why only the paperback version includes the supplemental photo album of 17 historical images at the back of the book.

In general, I went ahead with a set of options that I felt were fair and technologically feasible and that could make the story accessible to the greatest number of people by giving them all the choices I could.

         Lynn:  Which book is selling the best, the print copy or digital copy?

John:  They’ve been running neck-and-neck for months, but the Kindle version is pulling away at the moment.

          Lynn:  Having gone through the self-publishing process for the first time, what do you think you did right, what would you do differently?

John: Hiring two editors and a designer are the biggest things I did right.  All three people helped me in ways I couldn’t have foreseen.  It was especially helpful for me to find editors who had good references as creative writing instructors at the college or university level, because I really needed a crash course.  I needed people who could teach me how to do the editing of narrative nonfiction myself.

The dumbest thing I did was to try to design the book in a word processing program.  Royal waste of time.  Before I hired a designer, I tried to do it on my own, completely unaware that I was doomed to failure because the word processing program, unbeknownst to me, was automatically converting the high-res photos into low-res ones, because it couldn’t handle high-res ones.  I initially laid out the entire book without realizing the futility of it all.  Oh, well.  Live and learn.  Maybe someone else can benefit from my foolishness.

      Lynn:   Oh, Beautiful is your first book, are you writing anything currently that we can look forward to in the future, family history again? or a different genre? Will you self-publish again?

John: I’d love to write another book, probably narrative nonfiction once again.  But as you can tell from this interview, it takes me a good long time to settle on a theme and structure that work for me.  The investment of time, heart, and soul required in writing a good book is so great, and yet life is so short.  It’s important to spend what little time we have focusing on what really matters.  It doesn’t have to be all heavy and somber; humor and joy matter a lot, too.  I just want my work to be meaningful as well as amusing.  I’ve begun to play with a few ideas involving different kinds of love.  Some of these ideas have begun to ferment.  I’m hoping that one of them will improve with age.

I want to thank John, for taking the time for this interview, you can read Part 1 of our Interview or my book review of Oh, Beautiful.If your looking for more, you can purchase John's book, Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century or visit his website  for more details on the author and his book.