How To Publish Family Histories

            I have to admit, lately I have been seriously worried I have nothing left to teach you all, my dear followers. When one of you DMs me with a question, I more often than not can point you to a blog post! Which is great! But seriously, DM me more questions. I’m running out of them. As you know, I started writing for Goshen County Library (AKA “James Bond’s Library”) in 2017– maybe 2018, and started doing it here in 2020. I’ve covered a lot! But now I work in History Land rather than Library Land. Working in a museum, I pick up the phone to different, but similar questions. So let’s start there! In the next couple-a months, I’ll be answering questions, I commonly get from all ya’ll historians!

            Let’s dive right in. I’m assuming you’re here because you put in the work, did a bunch of genealogical research, and now you’re sitting on top of a bundle of information you’re not sure how to share with people who would be interested. Mainly the rest of your family! And once you get into it, you realize your family is much bigger than you anticipated. Take me for example. We had no idea my great great grandfather Heinrich had a brother named Ferdinand. Heinrich left Germany for America, and Ferdinand left Germany and went to Australia. I have cousins on the other side of the world, who still live in a Germanic neighborhood, and they speak German and English! I am jealous! They’re the ones who did the work and eventually called my grandparents. I can tell you from experience, everyone wants this information but it’s going to kill your little home office printer. It’s time to make your family history a book.

            I am once again going to hurt your feelings, but I need to be honest with you: There are few people who are interested in your family history, outside of your family. I mean, there’s people like me who will read next to any non-fiction book because they need something to think about, aside from the decline of America. Elsewise, I could definitely see someone on the curatorial staff skimming it because they’re looking for one human in a group picture of 30 people. What I’m getting at is that you do not need the broad distribution services you would need if you were, say, publishing a young adult fantasy novel. That is not a bad thing! Don’t spend your money on advertising, spend it on making a quality book! And don’t spend your time pitching your specialized history to a history press, spend your time making a quality book! Those places are looking for pieces about people like Butch Cassidy, not Grandpa Heinrich.

            Don’t be disheartened. Family history is local history. It’s cool to get with your community and compare notes. My neighbor, whose ranch is right next to my family’s homestead read his great grandmother’s diaries on Tik Tok for the duration of the apocalypse, and got such a big following I made a friend on the internet, and she asked me if I had heard of the  “Homesteader’s Diary” series on Tik Tok. (Here is a news article in case you’re uncomfortable opening Tik Tok.) When I told her, “Oh, das my boi, Taylor.” she acted like I was a minor celebrity! People my age are super interested in genealogy, and family stories. It is kind of part of searching for an identity. This work is still important, but don’t think you’ll get rich and famous from it.

            “So Helen, quit yacking and tell me how to get started!” Alrighty! The first step is, and will always be, creating a quality manuscript. This means killing your home office printer with 260 page electric bugaloo, and then taking the red pen of judgment to it. Or printing off a bunch of cute little tree graphics, and then numbering them page by page, and spreading it across your kitchen table to show to your family. You need to decide what you want this book to look like. Is it going to be a ton of lists, with a few profiles? Is it going to be a recipe book with stories? You need to decide what you want. And if you need someone to actually write the book for you, look into hiring a ghost writer.

            Honey, I’m going to square with you. I’ve not needed one, and I haven’t met many. There’s job boards online, and companies that specialize in choosing ghost writers for family histories. I haven’t used them, but I’ve seen them. The only one I know of off the top of my head is my friend’s cousin Mark R Morris Jr. I don’t know his specialty and I don’t know if he’d be in to genealogy. Happy Googling, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

            So the next step. You’re now holding a solid manuscript. Now wha– Edit it. Yeah, make sure all your dates are right, all your names are spelled the same way twice, you have a basic understanding of grammar (unlike me), things are in chronological order, yadda, yadda. Once you go through it yourself, you need to turn it over to someone else. Preferably someone who understands English better than you (again, it ain’t me. I ain’t no fortunate son). This would be a good time to spend that advertising budget I mentioned you don’t need. Keep in mind, professional editing costs about as much as new tires, so really think hard about how you’re going to distribute this book. Are we buying a crate of books and bringing them to Christmas? Or are we leaving it up on the internet for any ol’ bum to find? How embarrassed will you be when Math Friend walks up and tells you that you have twelve type-os in your book? You can do this fast and free, but it’s going to look like you did it fast and free. If you’re just doing this for the family you see on Christmas, then don’t worry about it. Ask the raccoon in the dumpster to go over it once for you. No big deal. If you have any inclination to attempt to hand it off to a broader audience, ask a friend to look it over for you. Preferably in exchange for pizza. If your granddaddy was Butch Cassidy and you’re going to pitch it to a small history press, hire someone. Someone like Jenna.

            Okay, so now you’re actually holding a polished manuscript! Now we gotta think of formatting and cover art. Do you have the patience to figure out how to format a manuscript to make whatever online service you’re using happy? It was absolutely 110% my least favorite part of creating The Tooth Fairy. You can also hire someone to do this for you. Someone is also Jenna. I wanted to see if I had the self control not to punch a hole in the wall, so I just did it myself. *Eye twitch*

            Mmkay, cover art. What are you using? What do you envision when you picture this book in your hands? You can use Canva, you can use the cover builder on the self-publishing site of your choice (I don’t recommend this. All the books from that one place end up looking the same, and I can tell who went where for publication at a glance, at this point.), you can use some third party service I don’t know about but I’m sure Aaron would, you can use a photo grandma’s painting and then overlay some text on it, you can use a family photo from 1812,  a creative commons photo, you can use a picture of your big toe! Whatever you want, babs. This is another great place to spend that marketing budget I still don’t think you need. Jenna did The Tooth Fairy for me with a photo of my family’s 100+ year old ranch. That’s right! Jenna does that too! If you’re not good at being artsy, I definitely recommend investing in a cover artist. That “don’t judge a book by its cover” is helpful everywhere but Book World. You want cousin Gary proud to show his special lady friend the cool bound book with his pedigree! Some of us like to make sure we’re not blood related before we engage in that sweet, sweet, premarital hand holding. If you have graphic design skills, freaking go for it. Just build it. If you’re proud of it, use it. I like to just write the book, then make someone else make it look nice. Clear as mud, right?

            Alright, now you’ve got this polished manuscript, edited, formatted, and you’ve got cover art. What we gun’ do wit dat? Dat’s right! We gun’ publish! Finally! I was told Modern Printing here in Laramie does brokerage, and will help you find a printer, if that’s the route you’re wanting to take. Last I’ve heard, anyway. You know I be supportin’ local business.

            I’ve had friends use Lulu dot com for history books. It’s the preferred website of our museum’s official historian! I definitely haven’t tried it, because I definitely didn’t get hungry enough to publish under a pen name, for some freaking grocery money back in the bad old days, *WINK*, but if I had I’d say it feels an awful lot like they make the process frustrating on purpose so you’ll employ their services. And if I went that route, I wouldn’t’ve used their publishing services because I was doing it for the cheeseburger fund, but it’s me we’re talking about, so if I started it, you’d best believe I finished it! And if I had done it, I would’ve gone back at the end of it and said “Wow, that was a whole lot of trouble for not much pay off.” and said “Wow. Publishing The Tooth Fairy via Amazon KDP was much easier than Lulu.” But I’m freaking Helen M. Pugsley. What would I need a pen name for? I definitely didn’t write trash for money. Ew. Lulu’s distribution isn’t as great as it could be. I believe you have to pay an upfront fee to have it distributed to places like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Otherwise, the only place to buy books is on the site, from the author, or the museum gift shop. Which, the distribution won’t be a bad thing if you want to just buy a crate of them, pass them out to your family, then make it disappear from the internet.

            Seriously, I know none of us like Amazon, but there is a reason they’re creeping up on The Big Three for the top book publisher title. They’re absolute conquerors, and KDP makes publishing as easy as it can possibly be. I published The Tooth Fairy under the name Helen M. Pugsley. They offer publishing assistance, but don’t shove it in your face at every turn. I believe author copies are a little more expensive with them. Think $5 a pop. Amazon KDP has made money by making publishing easy and accessible. The idea is to publish as much content, as quickly as possible. Everyone gets a voice, everyone gets published, everyone makes money, particularly Amazon. It’s a double-edged sword, but the distribution is better on Amazon. I mean, it’s on Amazon. Where did you go the last time you wanted to buy a book? Exactly. So anyone can look up your book and read your story about how Uncle Bill killed a man in Sweden, and then dragged his brother, your great grandpa to America in 1872. Think real hard, if that’s something you want the entire world to have access to. It is also harder to bury things once you use Amazon KDP to build them. I haven’t figure out how to delete a failed project off of my author dashboard yet. You can always be a jerk-face and jack the price of the ebook and print book up to $100. It will deter most folks, but not stop a clever one. Anyway, it will be easier to make the book, but this will be harder for you if you want to control who gets access to this information. If you don’t care, and you want your Australian cousins to get hold of it, without paying the $50 in shipping fees it takes to get something over the border, then Amazon it is! You wanna throw open the crate on Christmas/Easter/Plumber’s Day and when you run out of copies you run out, choose somewhere else.

            Friends, sometimes with things like this it’s best to use a vanity publisher. You give them a book, they charge you a fee, they make your book and hand you about 200 copies. No distribution, no fooling with being an author, no publicity. Just 200 copies of one book sitting in your basement. I don’t have a recommendation, you’ll have to Google, and very carefully research, and read lots of reviews. I believe this is the route my great grandmother took. She had six children, who had two kids each-ish, who had two kids each-ish, who had two kids each-ish (here’s where I come in), and so she wrote her life story, had it spiral bound, then handed it out to each part of her family. I enjoyed reading it. It was nice to feel like she was around and lucid again, just for a little while. I’m currently hugging myself, and getting all misty eyed. There is no shame in taking this route! Your story means the world to someone. Depending on what you’re making, this could be the best route! Do you want Gladys, your bingo nemesis, to read about how you left Germany at thirteen, with your mother and brother, then joined your father in New York? Do you want her to know how controversial it was that your father was a preacher who gave half of his sermon in English and half in German when he came to Wyoming? (Freaking legendary!) Do you want her to know you met your husband at a dance, and joined the family to become the second generation of ranchers in the Moore Springs/Jay Em community? Think carefully. Knowledge is power, and information is wealth. Once you put it out there it will be very hard to control who gets their hands on it. If you want it limited, limit the number of copies in circulation.

            Please remember, that parts of all of human history get dark. You will run across ancestors that repulse you if you go back far enough. I definitely wasn’t manic one night, but while I was doing perfectly normal research at 1am, I found out that one of my grandfathers might’ve tried one of my coworker’s grandmothers as a witch, in Massachusetts. We high fived over it when we saw each other in the morning. Did he? I don’t know. We need to double check, but same timeline, same part of the world. Oopsie daisy.

            Bro, the world needs your story. Your family wants your story! It’s a lot of work, I’m not going to lie. But it could be your grandbaby sitting at a computer getting all weird and emotional thinking about you, in 30 years. These family histories are necessary and important. I commend you for wanting to share them! It is a lot of work, but it’s worth it. And I sincerely hope I was some help.