Richard Gilbert, in a recent post on his excellent blog, Narrative, “Undercurrents in Narrative Essays” explored what engages readers. “Stories that grip us,” said Gilbert, “ involve some tension—a conflict or question.” When that conflict isn’t present the “narrative lacks any urgency or even movement…Such flat writing flunks the ‘So What?’ test.”
One of the ways digital printing has changed family history and memoir is by making illustrated books easier to create and less expensive to produce. A few well chosen images can make your book both more visually attractive and more reflective of the world you are trying to reflect in the text. If you are fortunate, you may have photos in your own collection or that of your family. But for many times and places images may not be readily available. Here are three sources of images that may provide what you are looking for.
Who should publish your book? Should you try to get a big advance from a traditional publisher or look into self publishing it? An increasing number of people are taking the second route, harboring the hope that they will emulate Paul Richard Evans who self published The Christmas Box which became the only self published novel to top the New York Times Best Seller List while still a self published book. Or can they become the next Amanda Hocking who sold over a million copies of her nine paranormal novels, earning over $2 million, when she released them as self published ebooks? Hopes aside, if you plan to profit from self publishing your book, you need to understand the advice offered by Steve Weber in his book Plug Your Book! Online Book Marketing for Authors. Said Weber, “No matter what kind of a book you have, its success depends on two things: It must tell a good story, and you must find an audience for it.” To build that audience authors are finding it increasingly necessary to become their own publicists, marketing and sales departments.
A good story, like a good picture, is more striking with a frame. Family history is more than a collection of facts gleaned from the vital records. When well written, it tells the stories of ancestors, giving their lives context and meaning. To you it is obvious: your ancestors’ stories are illustrations of a larger point. But will your readers understand that point? A frame is a narrative device to help your reader understand. A thoughtful introduction and conclusion frame a chapter or story by adding levels of meaning that aren’t explicit in the story itself. The frame is like a magnifying lens. Your reader can get a clear overview of the themes revealed in the stories of your ancestors.
Old documents are a common problem for family historians. At the recent RootsTech conference I spoke with several people had diaries, journals or books written by ancestors that they hoped to publish in whole or part. The question all of them posed was how to do it without having to retype the whole document. Optical character recognition (OCR) is one possible answer.
Our client, Johnna, called me with a problem. We completed her book early last year, and she published it with much fanfare, making it available on amazon.com. Her friends and family all bought copies. But then her life got busy. She has kids and a job, and her book project lost momentum. Now Johnna is looking for more and better ways to get her book out to readers. But what book, exactly? Softcover, hardcover, or ebook?
Softcover: Johnna’s religious self-help book, Celestial Marriage: Reflections on Marriage and Faith, is currently published in softcover. In fact, amazon.com will only sell softcover books. Softcover books are affordable, and given that Johnna’s book is filled with beautiful photographs, full color printing was a must. Amazon’s CreateSpace prints color books cheaply enough that the cover price is affordable for buyers online. Authors can buy copies even cheaper, at cost, and hand-sell them. And it cost Johnna nothing to put the book up for sale on amazon; print on demand means the buyer pays the costs of printing and shipping, not the author.
Pros: Sell and ship through amazon, no upfront costs, authors copies are inexpensive.
Cons: Quality is low, considering softcover’s glued binding, gives the impression of a cheap, disposable paperback.
Hardcover: Johnna would love to see her beautifully designed book in a classy hardcover. This would communicate its value as a “keeper”, and would justify a higher cover price, too. Big publishers will save on hardcovers by printing thousands, using offset presses. Smaller orders from self publishers are digital, and most digital printers have a minimum order of 25 for hardcover. This means some significant money out of Johnna’s pocket. The cheapest deal we could find for her 100 page full color book was about $32 a book. That would result in an attractive book at an unattractively high cover price, so it is unlikely she could profit.
Pros: Higher quality with longer lasting binding, better paper and cover choices.
Cons: Too expensive in small qualities to sell commercially; most suitable for high end private projects.
Ebooks: Ebooks are read by more people every year, and many authors hope to reach readers who purchase books through ereading devices. And there’s the complication: which format and device? PDFs can be read by any device, but they won’t resize as an ebook will. Kindle requires their proprietary format. Apple’s iBook for iPad accepts the universal EPUB, but requires an exclusive contract. B& N’s Nook is another sales channel, but it doesn’t get as much traffic. Should Johnna pay for two or three differently formatted ebooks? How to distribute them?
Part of the answer is Johnna’s existing website. Because she is already distributing digital media, she can sell her ebook on her website. Having paid once to format it, each successive sale is pure profit. However, her site will never receive the traffic that amazon does, and since her book is already on amazon, buyers can be sent to her page, see her softcover and Kindle version, and perhaps buy both!
Pros: Inexpensive to produce, a reformat of the original book files.
Cons: Ebook prices are significantly lower; profit per book is small. Requires many sales for success.
Our conclusions: Forget the hardcover; perhaps buy a few copies for the family. Use the internet to sell and distribute both the softcover and the ebook. Offer the ebook in the common epub format on Johnna’s website, and put the Kindle version up on amazon.
A good reporter must "…provide the emotional reality of the news, for it is the emotions, not the facts, that most engage and excite readers and in the end are the heart of most stories," said Tom Wolfe, journalist and author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s good advice for family historians as well as reporters.
Some of our Stories To Tell workshops begin with a “Dedication Page” exercise. We ask participants to answer two questions: • Who is your book for? • Why are they special to you? The exercise is designed to make participants think about the people who will be reading their books. Understanding the audience for your book can sharpen its focus and make it much more engaging.
What do you do if a family member is concerned about being listed in your family history book? This question comes up frequently, and together with client Marsha Allen, we devised a form letter to be sent to skeptical relations to solve the problem. Thanks, Marsha, for offering your records as examples.
First, we explain how genealogic records are recorded. Often, the relatives who distrust family histories are the ones who know the least about it. So we want to reassure them that we are following a tried and true format, one that every other researcher uses.
In many cases, the objection is based on a fear of identity theft. To alleviate that fear, we point out that this is information we have located through public records – we are not disclosing something “secret”. In fact, a cursory internet search will often turn up far more.
Next, we give an example of the record we wish to include. In many cases, the listing itself is enough to reassure the doubter. They will see for themselves how mundane these facts are, and that their family skeletons are not present here!
Most people, upon receiving this letter, will be satisfied that the author knows what she is doing! Those who had some concern will feel “heard” and be reassured; many will not care enough to take action. If you have a vehement objector, you have listened respectfully, and provided them with information and an appropriate action to take.
This win-win approach should settle any ruffled feathers among family members. Although you don’t need to send a letter like this to everyone, it is a helpful way to reach out to the few who may criticize, rather than applaud, your forthcoming book.
Thank you for the interest in the family history book I am writing. It will be called _____ and will be about _____________.
Genealogy uses documents that are in the public record. Birth, marriage and death records are catalogued by software databases for family lines worldwide. As I have worked on my book, I have adhered to the traditional format and standards used by professional genealogists. For example, here is the listing of my own father: (Insert a sample record from your family here)
GOLD, Everett Van Orden b. 6 Sep 1910 Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, UT; s/o Cyrus William GOLD & Annie Alazana PECK; m. 3 Sep 1938 Cristobal, Panama Canal Zone to Thelma Lucille GRUBER; d. 9 Mar 1996 Scottsdale, Maricopa, AZ.
Here is a record of a living person, one of my own sons, as an incomplete record sample: (Insert a sample record from your family here)
ALLEN, Byron b. 1972 AZ; s/o David ALLEN & Marsha GOLD; m. Janice GALE.
The above living person would be listed in a complete record as: (Insert a sample record from your family here)
ALLEN, Byron Frihoff b. 17 Jan 1972 Mesa, Maricopa, AZ; s/o David K. ALLEN & Marsha Jean GOLD; m. 17 Nov 1994 Chandler, Maricopa, AZ to Janice GALE.
I understand that you have concerns about identity theft. Although this information is available in public documents elsewhere, if you prefer, I will edit your record to protect your privacy.
Now that you have been informed of what the complete record would state in the book, if you wish to limit your record, please mail me to identify which facts you do not want to be published.
Do not include for ______________________(name)
______ middle name
______ birth - date and month
______ birth - city and county
______ marriage - date
______ marriage - location
Thank you for helping me to contribute to our family’s history in as complete a way as possible. I am sure our descendants many years from now will appreciate knowing about all of us.
RootsTech, where we spent the weekend, as its name suggests was heavy on using tech tools for family history. There were sessions on software, apps, social media galore. Our own Stories To Tell sessions focused on using Microsoft Word and Adobe Creative Suite to self publish family history books. With the conference’s emphasis on high tech, it was great to see that the idea of family history as storytelling didn’t get lost. Ian Tester, a product manager at BrightSolid, a British online publishing company, offered a Friday session titled "Telling Stories: Transforming the Bare Facts of Genealogy Into the Astonishing Tale of You and Your Family."
We’re excited to be here in Salt Lake City where the RootsTech Genealogy Conference has brought over 4,000 people to an intersection of family history research, writing, publishing and technology. We will have three days to talk with participants about book projects and to advise them on how to decide which digital tools to employ, and which might best be left to the experts, as they create and self publish their books. Genealogists are tech savvy researchers who can tell you everything about how software programs or web based applications will help them find an elusive ancestor. Most of them will say that someday they’ll turn their mountain of research into a book. But for many of them that means a whole new skill set and a world of new world tech. Navigating it can be a daunting task.
Not every photo needs a caption, and documents also frequently speak for themselves. Consider grouping pictures without captions in some sections of the book. It allows the reader to enjoy a purely visual, non-verbal experience, and breaks up the “wordiness” of reading stories. Photos that are best without a caption are self-explanatory. For example, if you have a grouping of baby pictures of little Joey, you needn’t identify him again and again. However, as a general rule, stimulating captions will complete your photographs and improve your book.
In recent years many people have taken to calling memoir personal history. This term gives the product an autobiographical cast. However it is important to remember that there is a significant difference between memoir and autobiography. An autobiography is a full chronological account of both the life and times of its subject with an emphasis on the interaction between the person and unfolding history. A memoir has a narrower focus placing the emphasis on the author’s memories, feelings and emotions. Nevertheless there is a place for historical detail in your memoir.
Almost anyone who begins a memoir or personal history project of any sort will sooner or later confront the limits of her memory. She will find herself or someone she is interviewing unable to recall the name of a person or the details of an event and that person or event is critical to the story she wants to tell. “I attribute this to what I call the ‘overfilled filing cabinet,’’ says Fred Cicetti author of The Healthy Geezer. “As we get older, we accumulate so many memories that it’s impossible to find the ones we want.” However, memory researchers have found that it may take some doing, but it is very possible to access those elusive memories.
David McCulloch, who has won Pulitzer Prizes for his books on Harry Truman and John Adams, knows how to write a good life story. Says McCulloch, “I believe very strongly that the essence of writing is to know your subject…to get beneath the surface.” As you create your personal or family history book that’s advice you should take to heart. Unfortunately it’s something we often forget when we set out to research our genealogy or create a family history. We turn into Joe Friday, the character played by Jack Webb on the old TV series Dragnet, who was fond of saying, “Just the facts, ma’am.” A plethora of tools beginning with ancestory.com and familysearch.org help us find more and more of those facts. But as we gather the facts we may miss the stories that would make the family history memorable.