Publishing Your Family History

Early in 2021, my two brothers and I collaborated in writing personal stories of our childhood and young adulthood,  growing up in a village in Ontario. Canada.  It became a book, professionally printed, bound and published in a volume called, The Gillespie Family of Coe Hill, Ontario. This history preserves our memories from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s.

Even though I had already produced several booklets over the years, those were printed and combo-bound in my office (spiral spine). It had been about 10 years since I last published something.  This new effort was using a professional,  printing firm for the first time.  Although I am happy with the results, and so are others involved, it would have really helped if I had studied the publishing business of today before I began. Let me provide a bit of new knowledge I learned.

  1.  Purpose:  Each of us wants to be remembered, to find some significance in a world that is rapidly changing,  Preserving a history of the past has been mine for some time, after I retired from a medical and teaching career.  What is your purpose in what you want to create?  Will it bless someone, teach, remember the past, encourage? Those are the most valuable works to embrace. Finding your focus is important.

My own children and those of my siblings have limited or no knowledge of what we experienced growing up. Coe Hill was a farming community and people used agricultural methods that no longer exist,  except being mentioned in a few  books and the odd website.  When I suggested writing the stories of our childhood and youth,  both my brothers agreed. Suddenly we were busy sharing emails back and forth, and I started writing my own story.

We learned a lot about each other’s experiences,  some of which were a surprise.  Even though we lived in the same home, had the same parents, went to the same schools, we had different experiences and social contacts. Oh how the mind forgets as one ages,  which can be very frustrating.  What was the name of that woman who had the hair salon beside Sprackett’s Store?  Who lived in that house across the road from the Fairgrounds?   I  made a chart of our village and got help  to remember who lived where in all those buildings back then,  as a prompt.  I now wish I had added that village chart to the book. Of course most of it has now changed. Each of my siblings and I moved away at different times.

We all wanted to honour Mom, who suffered so deeply, but was a kind,  gentle woman and never got the recognition she deserved. The Dedication will preserve her memory,  with its photos of her life and a brief summary. This isn’t her story, but her influence was a positive one. Thank you, Mom. Since Dad died when I was a child, and this website honours him, he is only briefly mentioned in this project.

Mabel Miller Gillespie

My brothers and I each have our own section and chapters in the book, each section ending with a personal photo album.  I then added more general family photos, an intro and ending, and brief genealogy charts for both our parents,  as far back  has I have traced our history.  77 printed pages in the finished volume. Now we chat how we wished we had added even more memories.

There is a deep satisfaction knowing our family will be remembered in our small village a bit longer after we are gone. So, know what matters to you,  as you begin your own creation. Take time to think that through.

2. Method:

I started typing my memories in a new MS Word document on my laptop, and retyping the drafts arriving from my brothers. When it came time to send the finished computer files (one text; one photos) to the publisher, I discovered they wanted it in a completely different format.  This was a shock and upsetting. I knew very little about the new format and how to convert my document without having to retype it again. It had taken hours and hours of work, well over a month of serious typing and lining up photos on pages and trying to get the editing just perfect.  I even printed out a copy of the book for reference,  so the printing firm would know which picture went where on the pages. Although it helped, the files still had to be changed to pdf, page number deleted, margins changed and so on.  Who knows what they will want when you start your own work.

So before you begin, several things I would suggest. Look at what others have done, even what  publishers were chosen. That is found on the copyright page just inside the front pages of any volume. That will also help you visualize how to set up that  page in your own book. Do you want to use a local publishing firm, or should you explore other options? Will this be a commercial volume to sell to recover your initial costs and make a bit of profit, or is it just a record in a nice format to share with family and friends, as we did?   I would suggest you find a publisher to consult with staff for guidelines,  as you begin the process.

If you want a smaller volume in finished book size,  as I did, you’d better check the cost. That became the deciding point for me  and why I changed its size. It was very disappointing initially, but a strong awareness  now of how my own perceptions and budget had influenced that final decision.

Consider if you will self publish,  or hire someone else to that for you. Businesses like Amazon publish books, but take a  cut of the selling price. I know someone who used Amazon and did an excellent job. I now know there are many companies who do this.  I should have investigated this before I began, but I didn’t. I  think I might consider this route to save all the hassles involved until one learns the steps involved for future efforts. That is the reality of the changes in the publication business over even the last 10 years.

I felt confident of how I wanted the book to look, its divisions, its finished size and a full colour on all the photos.  My brothers left all those details to me. I got a quote from a local printing office which was fine, until the final bill,  which was something quite different and a bit upsetting. Those increased costs came from extra work they had to do and other factors.  I must share some of that adjustment, but not all.  People have to make a profit to run a business, but even this is a learning curve. You might want to consider getting several quotes,  because this is a competitive business,  meaning use that to your advantage. There shouldn’t be much difference in those quotes, but learn in what way you can juggle giving up one feature in order to have another that you  really want to keep.

Do have a budget.  Keep a sharp watch on costs,  cause they add up so fast. Don’t forget about taxes, even postage and packaging, even gas costs for travel to distribute the books,  once you have them. Prices will keep climbing, so have a thousand dollars as a starting baseline for a small production.

I was about to suggest a number of volumes for that count,  but realize the expense will change all the time. Have a good idea how many volumes you want published and if the publisher will give a discount for higher volume. They need your business. Know the core cost per finished volume before you set the final selling price. If the volume sales are low for awhile,  you may need to adjust that  selling price over time, but that can go either way, up or down.  So consider adding advertising to your budget,  even management fees if you hire someone to market your book for you. That is what Amazon and others offer.

Perhaps ask friends to review your book before it is printed, to give their input, even editing advice.   The printing company will send you the final computer copy before printing so you can make minor adjustments, if needed.

Both my brothers told me how many volumes they wanted. I added my own count, and added a few more for the total number of volumes I wanted printed. This was a  fairly accurate count, when most were later distributed.  The publisher actually gave me two more volumes than I ordered.  There are probably details here that I never explored that you might find helpful in choosing the final production volume and details.

3. Reasons & Lessons Learned:

We did not do this to make a profit. Several people offered to pay for their volume, but in the end,  that was not important to me, meaning please enjoy the gift. A copy has gone out to our families and  friends who are still living from that period.  It was fun exchanging a personal history book with some authors I know. I even got a request for a volume from a major historical society, and still have a few more copies for future needs.

I will, however, be far more cautious in future publications and find an easier way if I do another book. Our purpose has been fulfilled. Thank you Wollaston (Coe Hill) Public Library,  who welcomed a copy and has it in their circulation library for older local families in the area to enjoy.

It feels good to leave behind something  personal of our life in that village,   other than words on my Mom’s tombstone. Not gone yet, as each day is welcomed in this journey of life.

Norma at her Mom’s grave in Coe Hill.

4. More Considerations: 

Consider who owns the copyright, the publisher or you?    Not realizing the significance of that, I did not know you can obtain your own ISBN numbers from the government website for free. The publisher was planning to charge me $30  for this, and offered to reduce this cost in our final financial arrangement.  I definitely wanted the ISBN number on the back of the book for later scanning by libraries, etc, wherever the book might be found. ISBN is very important on publications in Canada. I have reserved several numbers on the government copyright website to self publish in the future. Each county has its own rules and system in this regard.

Book cover I wanted green for my Dad’s Irish background on five lines of our family history.  I no longer like the colour red, but our Scottish Gillespie roots are also not forgotten in that background colour palette. Red for Scotland. Colour matters to some of us, as my whole library was colour-coordinated.  No, I wanted to no photo on the cover, but others often do. It’s a nice place to provide a glimpse of the book’s purpose, advertising. Even the spine can have the title across it. Want a glossy look to the cover? Just realize that all of these things cost more, as another alert.

The title was so simple. It fulfilled its purpose. I never considered another. The most important thing about this publication was that it brought my two brothers and I much closer as siblings. It promoted healing between us and opened up a channel of communication we never had before this publication and remains to this day.

5. Personal memories

I miss those days so much sometimes.  I would  be sent up the  ladder in the barn and on top of the mow. With a hay fork, I grabbed  the arriving loose hay and struggled to shove it around me, stomping on it to tramp it down. I had to keep the sides built up a bit and the top level. On the wagon below, the two men shoved their forks into the piles of hay  on the wagon, as the team of horses rested. Sometimes  as the men lifted together,  they threw that dried grass all over me in fun. I would shake it off,  sputtering and dusty,  and frustrated,  as I tried to keep up, not at all pleased.

The mow grew higher and higher,  as more wagon loads were brought into the barn from the fields. Someone would drive the team,  while another walked along beside it and forked the mounds of hay up onto the wagon as it paused. Backing the team into the barn to unload again.  No baler back then. No tractor.  They would all come much later.

That barn has fallen down now and those men are gone. The farm sold,  and land broken up.   I can remember the Holstein calves in the horse stalls;  the time that Albert built the machine shed;  and when he installed the first milking machine in the lower stable. There was a great big vegetable garden on the way to the house, cause I helped weed it.

Learning to milk a cow by hand as a little girl sitting on a stool. But getting punished by a stubborn one,  who slapped her tail against my face and kicked out. Albert put the  metal clamps with a chain  on her back legs to stop that, and took over, while I moved to a gentler cow.  I can almost hear the sounds and smell of that stable in my mind,  as I pen these words.  Each cow had it own place in that long line up on a long raised platform. They would walk in,  sometimes pushing between others to find their spot. I would help tie the metal chains around their necks,  while they enjoyed their grain.

Years later I worked for a modern dairy with purebred Holsteins in Prince Edward County. It hosted Japanese tours and had top of the line  machinery,  printouts on each cow’s performance,  and a completely different milking system. It  was never as enjoyable as the fun I had on this old farm, and growing up in a village where you knew most people.

Many times I walked through our woods and across those fields to get to and from the farm I loved.  I often looked for cow tracks on the ground,  as I hunted for the cattle at night,  to drive them to Albert’s barn. Usually I would  meet him with his border collie, who quickly nipped a heel of a slow poke. That herd  roamed in many directions over our property that Albert rented. Yes, I have loved rural living all my life,  but listen now to a city awakening  in the background. Our memories give us comfort,  sometimes. Takes a lifetime to learn to block the ones that don’t. This book is a testimony of a history that gave me some of my happiest memories in  my life.

Perhaps I will begin to scan more stories from the book for you to enjoy.  The time I drove a team of horses to the field to rake hay, when I was 12 years old. The team walked along quietly until I turned them, and suddenly they would trot off,  trying to run back to the barn. My feet didn’t touch the floor boards to brace and stop them.  I just hung on to the reins, and yanked the chord as fast as I could to lift those banging tines to release the hay,  until the horses stopped at the fence and I gained control again. So glad I was still okay as I bounced around quite a bit. Back and forth, up and down the field. No photo back then,  but here is one I found online that looks just like my experience.

One barefoot child is sitting on a hay rake behind two horses. The other child is standing directly behind the hay rake which is in a field.

A year later, I wish now I had prepared a CD or DVD to add in a sleeve on the back cover of each volume.  The book in  different format,  so it can be viewed easily on a computer screen. I wish my brothers and I had read our own chapters out loud on the tape, as many seniors cannot read any more, eyesight failing,  just as mine is.  It would preserve our voice even after we are long gone.  Thoughts to record us live from a Zoom session never occurred to me until now, but my brothers may have balked at that.  Here it is, a simple volume to preserve memories of the past, and how it came to be.

I wish you well in your own publications.  Here are a few others from my collection from the past.

My Mom’s family history I prepared for her sister’s family.

One of three Gillespie volumes of the indexes with microfilm codings including Births and Deaths arranged in three ways, by date, by location and by first names. Handy volumes. Now all transcribed to this website. More records now in public domain,  as a new year of records is released each spring.

It was fun preparing this volume for my girl of family recipes. Both she and I still refer to it occasionally.  It represents volumes of other interests I prepared, besides genealogy.   Below is another

An in depth Biblical study from Adam to Jesus, with multiple time period charts showing listing of family linked people,  events, prophets, world history, ending with notes. Investigating the mystery of the different genealogy accounts from King David to Joseph, earthly father of Jesus. Related archaeology researched. Satisfied my own belief about  these difficulties for a Biblical scholar, but not including them in the notes provided.