'Hummel’s Cross': German War Thriller, American Dream, and the Democratization of Book Publishing

My new novel, “Hummel’s Cross,” is the story of a German fighter pilot who risks everything to help a family of Jews escape the Nazis during the height of the air war over Europe. It just went up for sale on Amazon, in hardcopy and Kindle (electronic) formats, and is already selling nicely. As riveting as the book is, another interesting tale is the manner in which “Hummel’s Cross” was published.

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Democracy comes to publishing

Amazon recently announced that for every 100 hardcopy books they sell, they now sell 180 via download for their Kindle reader. This is a telling example of how yet another traditional media industry, in this case print publishing, is being turned on its head by the democratization of information that technology and the Internet have unleashed.

Catalyzed by the Kindle, the old model of getting a book published – an author submitting it to literary and publishing houses, and then collecting rejection letters – is becoming obsolete. Any author with a story worth telling can publish their work on Amazon electronically, practically for free, and let the marketplace decide.

More power to the people

This direct, “from the people, to the people,” model circumvents traditional publishing – just like MP3 players and iTunes have democratized the music recording industry, and blogs have decimated the power of the mainstream media. Although book sales were down 1.8% to $23.9 billion last year, e-book sales tripled to $313 million [WSJ]. By 2012 some publishing analysts foresee e-books accounting for as much as 20-25% of all book sales (up from 5-10% now). To make matters more challenging, Amazon’s $9.99 price point for books in the Kindle format is not helping traditional houses maintain their profit margins.

What we are seeing across the spectrum of media is a de-centralization and shifting of power away from the oligopolists in publishing, print journalism and network news, to smaller, more entrepreneurial players. My publishing company, OCM Publishing, produces e-books and paperbacks and is one of those new players; for a small investment OCM has been able to edit, publish and generate revenues in a business arena that was simply closed less than a decade ago. “Hummel's Cross” may or may not have made it to print before. But thanks to Kindle, it definitely has now.

Is this a great country or what?

Why I wrote “Hummel’s Cross”

I have a feeling that the Kindle is going to spark a renaissance in publishing, because it gives would-be authors a direct path from inspiration to satisfaction. My inspiration to write "Hummel’s Cross" came a few years ago, whenI was helping an 87-year-old World War II veteran of the USAAF 8th Air Force with his memoirs. He was a navigator in a B-17 whose plane was shot down on a raid over Bremen. When telling me stories of his missions, he often commented on the skill and daring of the Luftwaffe fighters that would swoop down on them.

His stories got me thinking. No one can dispute the bravery of our boys climbing into those bombers. But what about those guys in the cockpits of the enemy fighter planes? What was their ordeal? As the war progressed, and the Allied airpower became overwhelming, some of these pilots faced clouds of over a thousand bombers, escorted by hundreds of powerful, fast fighters. Soon they became the hunted rather than the hunters. Death was always near. As one ace wrote in his diary: “Every time I climb into the cockpit and close the canopy over my head, I feel like I am shutting the lid to my coffin.” I recognized that here was a dramatic story.

So I began doing some research and learned that the German pilots of World War II (the veterans at least) were a colorful and elite breed. And their scores in air combat dwarfed their Allied counterparts’. For example, America’s top ace, Richard Bong, shot down 40 enemy planes. Great Britain’s Johnny Johnson: 34. The most famous off all aces, the dreaded “Red Baron” Von Richtoven from World War I, died with his score at 80. Yet, the top scoring ace of all time by far, the German Erich Hartmann, shot down an incredible 352!

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Imagining the untold story

I also noticed that no movie or work of fiction had been made or written with one of these men as the central figure. I wanted to tell it. But how?

My inspiration came from watching “The Blue Max” and then “Schindler’s List," of all things. I wanted to tell the story of some of the greatest warriors ever known, while always reminding the reader that it was for a terrible cause that they flew. Thus was born the character of Captain Erich Hummel. Although completely apolitical, he is a child of the Depression. He is unconcerned with the Nazis’ rise, and even noted the (seeming) positive effects that Hitler had on his once-humiliated country’s economy and sense of self.

Erich is a musician in his pre-war life, is his own man, and so, unlike many in his country, allows himself to develop a strong bond with his piano teacher who is Jewish. And as the war goes on and Erich’s eyes start to open – on many subjects, from the futility of the killing, to the mania that is the Nazi cause, and the danger they pose to his friends and family – he has a catharsis. With the encouragement of his conscientious fiancée, Marina (a strong female character) Erich morphs first from a war hero into a skeptic, then crusader, and eventually savior on behalf of those he can help escape the death camps.

If you are looking for a good story that is far more than just another World War II thriller, one that portrays the war from a new and powerful perspective, then I think “Hummel’s Cross” will be a good read for you. As pilot Gunther Rall (275 victories) said, “You flew until you got zee Iron Cross or zee ‘vooden cross!’” That kind of tense drama is hard to make up.

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