I am reading an excellent sci-fi novel, The January Dancer, by Michael Flynn. In describing Brigit Ban, one of his characters, Flynn says, “…she was the sort for whom a well- constructed narrative is worth a thousand detailed facts, and on occasion she was known to discard a fact or two to save the narrative.” Great description! Also, important advice for memoirists and family historians. Whether telling your own story or that of your family you have a mass of facts at your disposal. Creating a book involves choosing which of those facts to include and which don’t make it into the book. Not all facts are equally important.
Authors published by traditional publishers counted on and received quality editing before their manuscript went to press. A self publishing author must make sure that his book receives no less professional attention before publishing it. Harriet Evans, author of the novel Love Always, said recently in a piece in The Guardian, “It is vital that an author has someone willing to be tough with them. It's in their best interests.” Why?
There’s a branch of the family tree that a lot of family historians ignore – themselves. People often express frustration about not being able to discover interesting stories as they research ancestors. They say, “I wish I’d asked ________to tell me more family stories before he/she died.” When future historians in your family look back, will they say that about your generation? They won’t if you preserve your own personal history.
If you haven’t yet explored the TED talks (TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading) check them out at http://www.ted.com/talks. You’ll be sure to find something that speaks to your particular interests.
For me, that particular interest is in books – reading them, making them, sharing them. So this talk from Chip Kidd, king among book designers, pleased me to no end. Chip Kidd brought us the distinctive book cover of Jurassic Park, and one of the best-designed, all-around-best books on my reading shelf right now, Haruki Murakami’s IQ84.
Chip Kidd is clever, he’s funny, and he is right on about books! Check out his performance for a laugh, and maybe it will also inspire an idea for how you’d like your book to look.
“One in three children admit they don’t want to listen to their grandparents because they find them ‘boring,’” said The Mail Online reporting on a poll taken by print on demand publisher Blurb.com. “42% of parents say children tune out when elders start to speak about the past.” That’s a real challenge for anyone working on a family history book. The vast majority of those authors say they want to write a book to preserve the family history for the grand children. How can a family historian make sure she captures the grand children’s interest? One important way is to recognize the difference between researching and recording the family history and telling the family story.
An author aiming for commercial success must approach their book as a business person. Your book is, after all, a product you wish to sell. One of the first questions to consider is, how have similar books done in the marketplace. Michael Larsen, a partner in Larsen-Pomada Literary Agents wrote in Katherine Sands’ excellent book Making the Perfect Pitch: “The moment you have an exciting idea for a book… • Check the competition • Make yourself an expert on your subject by reading the most important the most important competitive books and browsing through others.”
Anytime you run into anyone interested in books, be they readers, authors, book sellers, or publishers, you find people anxious to talk about what’s happening in the publishing world. Lately that conversation has focused on the implications of the Justice Department’s recent lawsuit against Apple, and publishers Hachette Group, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Penguin, and Simon and Schuster who the government alleged engaged in the fixing of e-book prices Everybody seems to have an opinion. This weekend the New York Times Sunday Dialogue presented some excellent opinions on the topic Books in a Digital Age. They are worth your time.
We spent the weekend at the L.A. Times Festival of Books having some wonderful conversations about books. One of the topics authors seemed most interested in was who controlled the rights to their books. Great question! Copyright is what often comes to mind first. The U.S. Copyright Office says, “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” Should you register that copyright? The Copyright Office explains, “In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.” The so-called “Poor Man’s Copyright” in which you mail a copy of your work to yourself may establish the fact that you created the work, but does not provide legal protection. The Copyright Office explains, “There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”
“One of the markers of a life well lived must surely be the stories, experiences and memories that are told, retold, remembered and re-experienced throughout the life span,” said Kathleen Adams of the Center for Journal Therapy in Denver which conducts life story writing programs for seniors. The Grub Street Memoir Project in Boston has recently published its second anthology My Legacy is Simple. The first is titled Born Before Plastic. Alexis Rizzuto, the Memoir Project manager and senior writing coach, says that two striking features of both books are the ability of the seniors to make their stories “come alive” and the “profound sense of place” their stories of Boston contain.
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.