Self publishing requires a lot more decisions for authors than traditional publishing ever did. The first question is whether the book is intended for a commercial audience or a private publication for family and friends. The answer to this question can affect every aspect of the production of the book including editing, design, printing and distribution. Here are some questions to consider in deciding which type of self publishing is right for you and your book.
Faced with the need to close and renovate the west wing of the American History Museum, interim director Marc Pachter had a problem: what would happen to all the beloved and famous objects housed there, like Kermit the Frog, or Archie Bunker’s chair? The museum staff solved the problem by selecting just over a hundred objects for display in a new exhibit titled American Stories. These objects were chosen to symbolically represent the larger American story. “We wanted to create an exhibit that would give people an introductory experience to American history,” explains curator Bonnie Campbell-Lilienfeld. “…this was supposed to set a context for the rest of the museum.” Memoir writers and family can learn a valuable lesson from the way the Smithsonian dealt with its problem.
People often think of an interview as a Q & A between the interviewer and her subject. That might be the case if you are doing a radio interview or a piece for a celebrity magazine. But to do a successful oral history interview you need to think about the process in a quite different way. The goal of your oral history is not generally an attempt to add to your store of facts, but a quest for colorful and detailed stories to enhance understanding of the facts you already know.
Is publication by a university press a realistic goal for a family historian? It could be if the author understands that university presses are commercial publishers who operate under many of the same market imperatives as any other commercial press. University presses generally publish three categories of books:
Getting your book printed may seem like a long way off. But if you plan ahead now, as you’re working on your book, you can save time and expense when it comes time to design and print your book. Here are steps you can take to stay organized as you plan, write, and complete your manuscript.
Houston, we don’t have any problem at all. We’re here for the Family History Expo this weekend. Family History Expos are always great events with lots of enthusiastic people looking to improve their skills at researching their family histories. They will attend wonderful classes on how to find the facts about their ancestors: how to explore the vital records to find the details of births, deaths, marriages, children, military service, homes owned, etc. No doubt many of them will be filled with enthusiasm and excitement triggered by release of the 1940 Census which is sweeping the genealogy community. A lot of those at the Expo will come to us to talk about creating a family history book. Our role is different from the folks who have been talking about how to be a better researcher. We suggest that people step back from the mass of facts they’ve collected to look for the people behind those facts. What’s their story, both as individuals and as a family extending over multiple generations.
As a self-publishing author, you choose your book's design. What makes a truly great book cover, one that will captivate readers? Over the next few weeks we will take occasional looks at books we feel offer good examples of creative and artistic answers to this question. Here’s the first.
“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens--second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter,” said Reynolds Price, novelist, poet and professor at Duke University. Not necessarily, asserts Tim Parks, a novelist, essayist, translator, and an Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan writing in a New York Review of Books Blog post, Do We Need Stories?
As you use the exercises outlined in our article “Gathering Life Story Ideas for Your Memoir” or those described in greater detail in the Stories To Tell Author’s Guide, you may feel a bit overwhelmed by the number of memories you have triggered and the volume of stories you might include in your memoir. Relax. You can’t include everything that has happened in your life in your book, nor would you want to.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Good advice, and yet that’s exactly what we all do. Appearances matter. You know when you see a well-designed book, as compared to an amateur DIY project, in the same way you see and know the difference between a designer suit and a workman’s overalls. You may never have met me, or any other book designer, but you appreciate our work every time you browse in a bookstore or library. When you’re writing a book, you think only of the text. You imagine your text in a printed, published book. Yet there’s a step in between a manuscript and publishing. We must transform that Word document into a digital file that a printer will use. (Actually, two files – the interior of the book, and the cover.) Large publishers have an art department to handle this step, but self-publishing authors usually hire a book designer. A book designer serves two functions for a self publishing author.
How can you know if your audience will find your book interesting? That depends on who your audience is, and what they find interesting. Your hard-earned knowledge is fascinating to you, but what excites your readers? The earlier you ask yourself this question, the easier it is to choose the contents of your book. Many family histories are intended for private publication and they will only be read by the family. In this case, you can concentrate on sharing personal, or even intimate, family stories, photos and documents. This “insider” history, along with the family’s jokes, beliefs, recipes and myths, will fascinate your relatives, and intensify the sense of identity and belonging that families enjoy.
Writing a children’s book is a unique challenge for an author. Children’s books are illustrated books. So the author, from almost the moment she gets an idea for a children’s book, thinks about the illustrations which will accompany her words. For the first time children’s book author this usually raises the question, where do I find an illustrator for my book? The answer is less simple than the question. It begins with another question, where do you want to publish your book? Do you hope to sell it to a traditional children’s book publisher in exchange for an advance and a share of any earnings the book might have? Or do you plan to self publish your book and undertake the work of marketing and distributing it yourself?
If you have finished writing and revising your memoir or family history book, you may imagine that completing your manuscript means you're done. But authors who self-publish have a a final critical step to take before publication – book design. Book design combines decisions about elements of the book, style, organization, illustrations, layout, and cover design. The choices you make about the design of your book will give it the unique character you wish to create. Here are some of the things to consider when designing your book:
It’s easy when your book is a mystery, or a children’s book, or another easily identified genre. People know if they like those type of books. But some writers have an idea they want to write about, and like a square peg in a round hole, they don’t have a nice genre slot to fit it into.
In business, we are all taught to give an “elevator speech”, to describe in just 30 seconds, if need be on a short trip to the upper floor, what exactly it is we do. Why? So people will know if they are interested in us and our business. The same goes for books. They need to be easily slotted into a genre category, for the ease of the casual browser, who will likely make a snap judgment.
Just take a look at your supermarket’s bookshelf. The genre is announced loudly by the book’s cover design, and reinforced by the tile and promotional copy. These westerns and romances and thrillers are easy to recognize and are guaranteed to sell.
Other genres are more troublesome. I’ve been reading In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a new book out by Margaret Atwood. (If you haven’t read her, I cannot praise loudly enough Atwood’s fascinating novels, essays, and poetry.) Margaret Atwood has been hard to slot in the book-buying world. She terms The Handmaid’s Tale and some of her other novels “speculative fiction”, which has aroused the ire of science fiction fans who would like to claim her as one of their own. Ursula K. LeGuin criticized Atwood’s genre definition, writing in a Guardian article, “This arbitrary restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.”
Atwood tells this story to illustrate a point: calling it science fiction or speculative fiction may seem to be just semantics, until it isn’t. Atwood defines the genres this way: science fiction deals with things that might happen in the future, such as space colonies. But speculative fiction deals with things that might be happing already; it is a more direct commentary on current culture; and it’s not necessarily “scientific”. And fantasy, also often lumped in with SF, is about things that have never happened and could never happen – think unicorns.
Why niggle about this? Because of the book marketing campaigns that follow once a book is slotted into its genre. Or pounded in, like a square peg into a round hole. Atwood describes her horror when her publisher released her books with lurid, sexy covers. Imagine how disappointed those misled buyers would be to read her un-sexy words! She imagines poeple angrily throwing her words into the trash, unread. Ouch.
The publishing industry used to dictate a lot of these genre terms, as they had a pipeline to the bookseller’s shelves, arranged by genre. It was out of the author’s control. Now, in this brave new world of self publishing and online social marketing, we must think about genre, and decide how to present ourselves. Carefully.
Many of our blog readers, and our author clients, fall under the big genre umbrella of biography. This encompasses autobiography, memoir, and family history, and many fascinating topics are also nestled under there too, such as a memoir about a career as a spy or the biography of an avid butterfly collector.
So how do we communicate what exactly our books are? First, unless you’re as good as Atwood, stay under the umbrella and associate yourself with what is already known. Not sure? Find comparable books and see how they have described themselves. Or ask an editor. Next, communicate your identity clearly. Link the genre with the specific subject, such as Suspense Thriller, Cold War or Self Help, Diabetes. Develop a good elevator speech, and try it out on those who have read your draft. Be accurate.
Next, design the book to look like what it really is. Sepia photos on the cover are fine for a memoir, but they are the kiss of death for contemporary chick-lit. (Chick-lit’s neon colors and cartoon illustrations wouldn’t do well for most memoirs, either.)
And last, perhaps most important, find ways to tell the story of your story. Talk about what your book means, specifically, so that people care and appreciate what you’ve written. If you do this part well, you can communicate your unique idea and transcend your genre.
Wow! There are a lot of people with a book they want to get into the hands of an audience. We spent last weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books, with thousands of other book lovers, answering questions and talking to people who had books they are working on. What was amazing was the range of books they asked about.