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.
Perhaps your book would interest a wider circle: people who know of your family, or perhaps a general readership of complete strangers. Why would they want to read about someone else’s family? Because family histories, like memoirs, sometimes contain the heady stuff of first-class drama.
If you have a famous or influential “celebrity” ancestor, your family connection, your access to private records, and informal, personal knowledge of the subject can be invaluable. This is particularly true if others have already written about your ancestor. This indicates that there is interest and a buying readership for another book on the subject.
A similar premise for a popular book would be about a novel experience or lifestyle. Perhaps you have an ancestor who is fascinating, although unknown, who can become a “celebrity” of sorts through your book. Pioneers and adventurers and survivors and innovators are all heroes, and their stories have a universal appeal that is larger than life.
Sometimes it isn’t an individual that appeals to readers; it is the unique place and time that your family member experienced. Just think of the powerful appeal of The Diary of Anne Frank. The musings and discontent of a teenager aren’t of great interest, but we experience the time and place through her eyes. Many authors “novelize” their ancestor’s lives, developing the book with supplemental research about the place and time, and some speculation about actions and motives.
Some subjects are inherently more interesting than others. If your family’s celebrity, or his novel experience, or his period/place is already of interest to others, you will find a cluster of books surrounding the subject. These books have paved the way for you, and their readers may well be hungry for more information. Check out the topic, read book reviews on amazon.com, and investigate these other books, perhaps contacting their authors for an informal interview.
It is exciting to publish for a broader audience, yet there are some sacrifices a commercially publishing author must make. Unlike a typical broad-scoped family history, a book to be sold should focus solely on one concept, its appealing premise. The general public won’t care about most of your family photos and documents, and irrelevant stories should not be included. The book must be edited and designed professionally to commercial standards. And finally, the author must inform the world that the book is out there, waiting to be read.
Publishing a book for a broader audience undoubtedly has great rewards, but it is not for everyone. If you only have the time and inclination to produce just one family history book, perhaps it is better to leave your descendants that broad-scoped legacy. Include all the family trivia that might be lost otherwise. Your family and friends can be relied on to applaud your efforts. They are the ideal audience, grateful and uncritical, because they recognize that you wrote the book for them.