My Journey to Self-Publishing (and what a long journey it was)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

By early 2005, I had been researching my family history for about 15 years and had amassed tons of data that resided in a family history software program, Legacy 5.  At that time (and even now), I printed off my family group sheets and pedigree charts and stored them in a ring binder where they were easily accessible, but the ring binder wasn’t an interesting read for anyone else.  Even though I was also an avid scrapbooker, I had difficulty in scrapbooking genealogical information where, for the most part, there were no photos only census records, birth/marriage/death certificates and photocopies of parish registers.  I was disappointed that the information I had ever so carefully collected was now simply “going to waste” as nobody looked at it, especially as my parents and sister lived in Britain where I am originally from.

On recommendation from Claire Smith-Burns, a fellow KDGS member, I purchased and read Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s “How to Write your Family History”.  This book is a great read and reasonably priced at (RSP $29.99 CDN) and I highly recommend it to anyone thinking about publishing a family history.  The first thing I learned from this book was that I didn’t have to do it all.  Sharon’s book suggested that I first determined the scope of the book.   Why this was a surprise to me I don’t know, but somehow I had set an expectation for myself that I should publish my entire family history or at least my entire paternal or maternal lines.  This was a relief as I knew that the very fact of trying to get ready to publish was causing me to delay the project.  As all genealogists know, for every ancestor you find there are two more waiting to be discovered.  You are never “done” with your genealogy and now this book was telling me that this was OK that I didn’t have to be finished, I simply had to define what I was going to include in the book.

The next thing I learned was that my book should be interesting.  This probably sounds funny to anyone reading this article but seriously, try reading an article in the National Genealogy Society Quarterly and you’ll soon discover that most written genealogies read more like lists of names, dates and facts.  The standard genealogy report formats are designed to provide genealogical data in an easy to comprehend written form but there is no requirement to make it interesting for the reader.  Now Sharon’s book was telling me I needed a plot and to develop themes in my family history, and it even explained how to create these using genealogical examples.  It further went on to introduce the concept of social history which Sharon explained “fills out the facts, breathes life into your ancestors, and turns the reader into an eyewitness of your family’s life.”

With these two ideas under my belt, I defined the scope of my project.  The story would be about my ancestors Carlo Aggio and Harriet Rayner, and would include information about their parents, children and grandchildren, most of which had ended up in workhouses or orphanages in Victorian London.

Now I had to develop a plan as to how I create my family history book.  While Sharon’s book stressed the need for proper citations, illustration, indices and appendices, she seemed to approach the project from the point of view that the book would be written by gathering all the documentation together and starting the text from scratch.  This didn’t sit well with me.  Why duplicate this effort, when I knew that my genealogy software could create a report (albeit uninteresting) that I could use as a base for my book complete with citations and an index?  So I decided that my approach would be to create a genealogical report of this family, export it into Microsoft Word and simply add more content to it to create my book.

I spent many hours doing background research to put my ancestors into historical context for the relevant time period and locations but by September 2005 I was finally ready to create my narrative report in Legacy 5 and begin combining the background research with the genealogy report.  This was where things suddenly didn’t go to plan.   I discovered that while Legacy could create a report that Microsoft Word would open, it didn’t export my 100 or so citations to Microsoft Word properly.  It created the citations in the body text and did not use Word’s footnotes or endnotes feature.  This was a huge problem because I knew I wouldn’t be able to add additional citations and have them renumber automatically.  In practice this would mean that every time I added a citation I would need to renumber every citation that followed it.

I enquired with Millennia Corp, the publishers of Legacy 5, about whether this would be corrected in the then due out Legacy 6.  They not only confirmed that it would not be a feature of Legacy 6 on launch, and they did not have an estimated date as to when the feature would be added.  After searching around online, I discovered that The Master Genealogist 6 was able to produce the report I needed complete with citations that Microsoft Word would read properly.  After trying to import my Legacy data file several times into TMG6 I discovered that TMG was losing part of the citation data!  Finally by January 2006 and several technical support calls and emails later, I had the report I needed in my hand (or rather in Microsoft Word) and could begin the merging of my genealogy with my background research*.

By the end of 2006 my book was finally complete. The text had been created, documents scanned, illustrations added, citations checked and the whole thing proofread. The next challenge was to determine how I was going to publish it.  Traditionally genealogists have been faced with enormous costs in publishing a family history book.  Publishers charge a certain amount to set up the book for printing and then want to make a minimum print run of a certain size.  This makes obtaining a single book an expensive prospect and, unless you can sell all the extra books, isn’t very practical.

In the Spring of 2007 I discovered online publishing.  Companies specializing in printing digital storybooks.  These full color books are printed with a hard cover, on archival quality materials and are hand-stitched so pages won’t fall out over time.  Books can include any combination of text, photos or even scrapbooking elements that you want.  They have several book sizes available including the horizontal 11 x 8.5 inches I selected for my book.  The online software is easy to use and after a couple of days uploading the contents of my book and finalizing my book project I was ready to order my book. I ordered two copies of my book which arrived 3 weeks later.

The amount of actual effort required to create my book was not huge even though the book took just over two years from inception to print.  Now I have been through the process it is much easier (and quicker) to repeat it. I have since published a few more books: a 4 generation pedigree book, a biography of my father based on letters he has written to my children, a history of the Hamilton family from Hamiota, Manitoba.

Genealogy is hard work.  We should take the time to share and enjoy our work with our family while we can.

* I have since switched to using Rootsmagic 4 which also exports citations to endnotes/footnotes in Microsoft Word. It is much easier than TMG to use and is substantially cheaper too.

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