Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

So you want to publish a genealogy book?

If you have ever considered publishing a book about an ancestor or other book related to family history, then you may have become aware of the many options for publishing. The book publishing industry has undergone some of the same fundamental changes as the rest of the world in response to the impact of the digital world. There are probably hundreds of large and small business in the United States that specialize in publishing books about genealogy. Most of these businesses advertise that they will publish your personal family history. So what are the current options for publication and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

All books start with an idea. The traditional (pre-computer) world of publishing was highly structured and controlled. Publishing a book commercially involved finding someone who would accept the job of producing the book, publishing the book and then distributing the book for sale. Self-publishing a book was difficult and very time consuming. For genealogy books, finding a commercial publisher who was willing to "publish" a limited print run was next to impossible. There were a number of printers who were willing to print a short-run, individually published book, but the cost of each book was usually substantial. There was a small, cottage industry in the genealogical community of people who "specialized" in short-run genealogy books. 

Many genealogists envisioned printing a beautiful, hard-bound book that would become a family keepsake. The reality was that the cost of publishing under 100 books at a time was usually so high, that the books would have a substantial book production cost. In addition, the genealogist turned publisher, would soon find out that his or her relatives were not so anxious to purchase the book and many genealogists ended up with cases of unsold books. I happen to have a number of boxes of unsold family history books in my own basement, so I am well acquainted with the process. 

For almost thirty years, I helped run Tanner Digital Graphics, a family design and printing business. We published a number of hard-bound books and thousands of other printed items, so I am well acquainted with the business. 

Today, there are several options for publishing a book. To understand the process and the advantages and disadvantages of each, it is important to be aware of the steps in the process. Even though the technology has changed, the steps that you have to go through in order to publish book remained pretty constant. Here's a brief outline:
  • Conceptualization
  • Writing
  • Editing
  • Formatting and layout
  • Final editing
  • Publication
  • Promotion and distribution
 Traditionally, the process from editing through distribution's was handled by the publisher. For commercial books, the process also involved illustrations and jacket and cover design. With the advent of computers, the process became less centralized but really no easier. It became possible for an individual to perform all of the steps to produce a final book. However, to obtain a quality, hard-bound final copy, it was still necessary to employ a printer and a bookbinder. As an observation, some of the books and other documents produced by individuals were high quality, but the vast majority were just awful. With the continued development of the Internet, electronic versions of books became popular, commonly called e-books.

With the introduction of e-books, self publication became a reality. The process of producing an e-book is much simplified. The cost of producing a genealogy book for a very limited audience is now entirely possible. Of course, the traditional ideal of a hardbound book disappears but the alternative is that more of the family can both afford the copies and distribution is simplified.

The major difficulty, even with the advent of e-books, for any commercial enterprise is to promote the book in a way that it actually sells. Only so many copies are going to be purchased by your friends and relatives and at some point you will need to find a way to publicize the book to a greater audience. Some writers use blogs, Facebook and other social media to promote their books. Other authors go to the expense of renting space at a major conference. There is no real way to avoid all of the steps in the publication process, the only real question is how many of those steps are you willing to do yourself?

Traditional publishers still exist and there may be booksellers who are willing to "carry" your book in their catalog but these alternatives are not available to a self published surname book, that is, a book that is about a specific family. Just because you are knowledgeable about your topic and extremely enthusiastic does not mean a book on the subject will sell.

Recognizing that genealogists, for the most part, are older and more conservative than the general population, some authors have elected to publish both a print and an e-book version. Obviously, these writers and self publishers charge more for the printed version of the book that they do for the e-book version.

Bear in mind, that there are companies who specialize in not only producing a published version of your book but will assist you and actually writing the book. The trade-off is between doing the work yourself and hiring someone to do the work for you. Since the process is fairly complicated, despite the changes in technology, we were able to keep our own graphic design and publishing business going for over 30 years. The reason was simple, what we did was complicated and in many cases highly technical. The fact that computers allow you to become involved in the process personally does not mean that you either have the time or the talent or the initiative to do the work yourself.

One last point, if you do decide to publish a book using the traditional paper, hardbound book format, take the time to get subscriptions for the book before you buy a pile of printed copies.

1 comment:

  1. I self published a family history book and found a print shop near a university that produced bound dissertations at a reasonable cost. I had 75 books printed, all of which were purchased by pre-orders plus a handful of copies for me to donate to libraries. The cost (about 10 years ago) was $67 per hard covered book. I don't know how much the prices have changed in the meantime, but for those interested in small runs, a shop near a university might be budget-friendly.