Writing Genealogical Books (National Institute)

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Ahhhh ... writing a book. Here is a longer-term project than writing an article, although sometimes a series of related articles you have written can become a book. If you have already made some strides with writing, you will know if you are a person who can work like a beaver focusing on that one project until it’s finished ... or if a book project does not come that easily for you, it may be something you work on at designated times over a period of months or years. Actually, what you are working on is a manuscript and does not become a book until it is in print.

Questions and goals to consider:

  • What kind of subject—a family history, a guide to resources, a methodology manual, a study of a special subject, a one-name study? Creating an index or database for special collections?
  • Can you sell the idea to a commercial publisher, or will you self-publish?
  • If an independent publisher is interested, what kind of contract do they offer? Are your rights protected? Do they offer a royalty?

Family Histories

The manuscript itself can grow out of the research reports and charts you assembled in the past. Naturally, you will collect biographical data, social context, illustrations and so on, to enhance the overall presentation.

The main things we want to emphasize about compiling a family history are:

  • Citing your sources—footnotes or endnotes are obligatory for a professional, whether this is your own family or you are compiling it for a client.
  • Using a recognized lineage or genealogy format—the NGSQ System or the Register System are widely accepted standards. The National Genealogical Society’s (NGS) special publication Numbering Your Genealogy: Basic Systems, Complex Families and International Kin (Curran, Crane and Wray) is an excellent manual for clearly formatting your work.

Family histories normally have a limited market and are self-published. Some authors/compilers can arrange funding from a coalition of family members. In addition to the cost and preparation time, you will want to donate several copies to libraries or societies which are relevant to the geographical area of the ancestors.

It is almost mandatory that you have a guide to follow for the first time. Patricia Law Hatcher has written a very helpful book called Producing A Quality Family History. It takes you through all the requisite steps for creating a useful and attractive book, with all the details—organizing the project, how to write the narrative, grammar styles and technical advice. It also deals with creating bibliographies and how to incorporate photos and illustrations effectively. See also Carmack’s You Can Write Your Family History.


Manuals or guides to certain resources come under this category. It can also include indexing, abstracting, transcribing and annotation of existing material such as original document collections or the consolidation, commentary or correction of previously published works. These latter might involve less creative writing and probably more format planning in advance. You would want to consult books that others have produced, to examine how they did it and how successfully they achieved their aim.

You can also consider collaborations: with a genealogy society on a subject of their interest, or with a colleague(s) for a cooperative venture or compilation of articles on a predetermined topic. This might help underwrite your costs. Sharing the work and the writing for your first-time experience can be confidence-building for all involved.


Local histories are always popular within a limited market. They can be done with a great deal of genealogical content, especially regarding early settlers and prominent figures. Some candidates to approach for potential sponsorship of such a project would be a municipal office you are familiar with, a historic church, or a well-established company or business that has been serving the area for a long time.

Publishing and/or Selling Books and Products

Being a publisher is a very specialized niche requiring additional background, experience and skills in fields other than genealogy. Deciding on which subjects or proposals will sell, reading manuscripts and dealing with authors can be time-consuming, with much attention to costs and deadlines. You may not find potential authors flooding you with material! In fact, you may have to seek them out yourself and convince them to start writing.

You need to be hands-on at each stage of the process from budget to contracts to visual specifications and design. A skilled editor and good proofreaders are necessary for a professional product. What kind of printing method will you choose, and how many copies will you order?

Have you thought of becoming a shop owner? Virtual or physical? Books about genealogy subjects, family histories, local histories, old maps, postcards, artefacts and crafts are all possibilities. Check out the market before you plunge ahead. Choosing what to sell is a major decision. Choosing where to sell it depends on whether you can afford a separate physical location. If you can’t, the obvious places are genealogy meetings and conferences. Other potential venues will come to mind, such as flea markets. Then you need to know when and where those events are happening so you can attend. In that case, you will need to make certain you have home storage space for your inventory. A vendor needs signage and accessories for an attractive display. Would some existing publishers or suppliers like to have a representative in your area?

The Web—Personal Sites, Listserves, Newsletters and Blogs

Working on or with Internet material takes special electronic skills, obviously—how to create a website, using software programs for newsletter layout, starting and managing an email listserve, and the like. We won’t say much here about this aspect, as most of you will expect to learn these skills by taking an appropriate course or being mentored by an experienced colleague.

Whatever you post to the public becomes published material. Copyright belongs to you, and most people properly show this on their Internet site (keeping it updated annually). You are “virtually” free to express yourself, your thoughts and your opinions, short of plagiarism, slander or criminal intent. On some Internet material, it is difficult to find the name and address of a website owner or listserve manager. As a professional, we expect you would exhibit professionalism in this regard.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.