Publishing Your Family History Book

How to Prepare Your Family History Manuscript for Publication

Vintage family photo album and documents
Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images

After years of carefully researching and assembling a family history, many genealogists find that they want to make their work available to others. Family history means a lot more when it's shared. Whether you want to print a few copies for family members, or sell your book to the public-at-large, today's technology makes self-publishing a fairly easy process.

How Much Will it Cost?

People who want to publish a book ask that question first.
This is a simple question, but has no simple answer. It's like asking how much a house costs. Who can give a simple answer, other than "It depends"? Do you want the house to have two stories or one? Six bedrooms or two? A basement or an attic? Brick or wood? Just like the price of a home, your book's cost depends on a dozen or more variables.

To estimate publishing costs, you will need to consult with local quick-copy centers or book printers. Obtain bids for the publishing job from at least three companies since prices vary greatly. Before you can ask a printer to bid on your project, however, you need to know three vital facts about your manuscript:

  • Exactly how many pages are in your manuscript. You should take the finished manuscript with you, including mock-ups of picture pages, introductory pages, and appendixes.
  • Approximately how many books you want printed. If you want to print under 200 copies, expect most book publishers to turn you down and send you to a quick-copy center. Most commercial printers prefer a run of at least 500 books. There are a few short-run and print-on-demand publishers who specialize in family histories, however, who are able to print in quantities as small as a single book.
  • What kind of book features you want Think about the paper type/quality, print size and style, number of photos, and binding. All of these will factor into the cost of printing your book. Spend some time browsing through family histories at the library to get some ideas on what you want before heading to the printers.

    Design Considerations

    You are writing your family history to be read, so the book should be packaged to appeal to readers. Most commercial books in bookstores are well designed and attractive. A little extra time and money can go a long way to making your book as attractive as possible - within budget constraints, of course.

    The layout should be appealing to the reader's eye. For example, small print across the entire width of a page is too hard for the normal eye to read comfortably. Use a larger typeface and normal margin widths, or prepare your final text in two columns. You can align your text on both sides (justify) or only on the left side as in this book. The title page and table of contents are always on the right-hand page - never on the left. In most professional books, chapters also start on the right page.

    Printing Tip: Use high-quality 60 lb. acid-paper paper for copying or printing your family history book. Standard paper will discolor and become brittle within fifty years, and 20 lb. paper is too thin to print on both sides of the page.

    No matter how you space the text on the page, if you plan to do double-sided copying, be sure that the binding edge on each page is 1/4" inch wider than the outside edge.

    That means the left margin of the front of the page will be indented 1/4" extra, and the text on its flip side will have that extra indentation from the right margin. That way, when you hold the page up to the light, the blocks of text on both sides of the page match up with one another.

    Be generous with photographs. People usually look at photographs in books before they read a word. Black-and-white pictures copy better than color ones, and are a lot cheaper to copy as well. Photographs can be scattered throughout the text, or put in a picture section in the middle or back of the book. If scattered, however, photos should be used to illustrate the narration, not detract from it. Too many photos scattered haphazardly through the text can distract your readers, causing them to lose interest in the narration.

    If you're creating a digital version of your manuscript, be sure to scan the pictures at at least 300 dpi.

    Balance your selection of pictures to give equitable coverage to each family. Also, be sure you include short but adequate captions that identify each picture - people, place, and approximate date. If you don’t have the software, skills, or interest in doing it yourself, printers can scan your photos into digital format, and enlarge, reduce, and crop them to fit your layout. If you have a lot of pictures, this will add quite a bit to the cost of your book.

    Next > Binding & Printing Options

    << Cost & Design Considerations

    Binding Options

    The best books have bindings that allow them to stand upright on a bookshelf, have room for a title on the spine, and are sturdy enough not to break apart or lose pages if dropped. Sewn bindings and hardback covers are best. Budget considerations may say otherwise, however. Whatever binding you choose, be sure that it is as sturdy as your budget can afford. And even though they don't stand as nicely on a bookshelf, spiral bindings do allow the book to lie flat for easy perusal. The cover of your book should also have a finish or coating to prevent it from becoming smudged or discolored by normal handling.

    Printing or Publishing the Book

    Once the design and printing specifications are chosen for your book, it's time to obtain estimates for the printing and binding. The printer or publisher should present you with a detailed list of costs, and a cost per book based on the total number of books ordered. You may want to get a bid from both your local quick-copy shop, as well as a short-run publisher.

    Some publishers will print hard-bound family histories with no minimum order, but this usually increases the price per book. The advantage to this option is that family members can order their own copies when they wish, and you aren't faced with purchasing books and storing them yourself.

    Explore the options available from these Short-Run Family History Publishers.

    Kimberly Powell,'s Genealogy Guide since 2000, is a professional genealogist and the author of "Everything Family Tree, 2nd Edition." Click here for more information on Kimberly Powell.