The cover of Stokes McMillan's self-published book, One Night of Madness, represents a familial connection and a link to excellence bridging two generations. It includes both a photo taken by his father that won the 1950 National Press Photographers Association prize, and a gold sticker signifying that the book received a 2010 Independent Publishers Book Award. For a man who never aspired to self-publishing—let alone writing—the cover invokes a certain irony.
About 10 years ago, a massive scrapbook documenting a crime story from his father's journalistic past grabbed McMillan's attention: in a small Mississippi town in 1950, two white men raided a black family's home and killed their three children. "In those days, white-on-black crimes didn't even get prosecuted," McMillan explains. "But that crime was so horrific that [local white residents] formed a posse and searched for the killers for three days."
His father's scrapbook became the basis for McMillan's book, a reconstruction of the horrific crime, manhunt, and national media–saturated trial that followed. His parents were journalists; his grandparents owned of the Kosciusko Star-Herald, a newspaper his great-grandfather founded in his hometown of Kosciusko, Miss. "I'm from a family of journalists," McMillan says, "but I'm the only one who didn't go that way. I always wanted to be a rocket scientist." For 32 years, McMillan has been living his dream of being a NASA aerospace engineer and working on the space shuttle.
McMillan's reporter/photographer father documented the manhunt and capture, traveling with that posse of local Kosciusko residents, for his family newspaper. His photo of the killers' capture won that year's NPPA's prize, and the picture, along with 49 others and related articles, were proudly gathered by McMillan's mother into a scrapbook. "But this was no ordinary scrapbook," McMillan notes. "She was the daughter of a newspaperman, so she had access to those huge, 30 in.×30 in. scrapbooks."
When his son asked for a copy of the award-winning photo to hang on his dorm room wall, McMillan re-read the scrapbook: "It was such a fantastic story, so much more than a murder story." The trial featured a progressive judge, a speedy conviction by an all-white all-male jury, and a "literary letter to the editor" to another local newspaper from novelist William Faulkner calling for the killers to get the death penalty.
Fascinated by the vivid record of the event, McMillan found an agent and began writing his book. But it took him seven years to complete, resulting in an amicable split with his agent. When some of the participants started dying, McMillan realized "even if I did get a traditional publisher, it would be a year or two before the book hit the streets."
That's when he decided to self-publish. Using Amazon's CreateSpace, One Night of Madness was published in paperback in November 2009. He's sold about 3,000 copies out of an initial printing of 3,500."It's not a photo book; it's definitely a narrative, but I'm very pleased with the quality of the images," McMillan says. "So far, I've experienced zero problems with printing and shipment. And I don't have to deal with that returns business."
McMillan is quick to note that self-publishing does have drawbacks. He's not eligible for major awards (although his book did receive the 2010 IPPY award for Best Regional (South) Non-Fiction book) or for membership in certain writing organizations, such as the Authors Guild. And he does not have the same access to distributors and bookstore chains.
He also admits that marketing a self-published book can be a problem when you've still got a day job. The book sold very well in Mississippi, he says. "It sells in local, independent bookstores, Lemuria Books in Jackson, Square Books in Oxford, and TurnRow Books in Greenwood. In smaller towns that don't have bookstores, I chose to sell the books through the local pharmacy, because that's where people go."
The book's unusual story—local white citizens in the pre–civil rights South banding together to hunt down racist white murderers—paints a different picture of the South in that period. McMillan says the book "is really popular with African-Americans." The book has been optioned by a film producer; it's got its own Facebook page and is also available through McMillan's Web site, Stokesmcmillan.com.
Since he's self-published One Night of Madness, McMillan has found a new agent who plans to shop the book to traditional publishing houses. And having come to terms with his journalistic genes, McMillan is planning to write another book—a novel. "This time, I want to do it on my subject—which is space."