Self-Publishing: Books, E-Books, and PDFs

by Meryl Schumacker, CG

In the September, October, and November 2018 editions of NGS Monthly, Aaron Goodwin offered his suggestions for how to begin writing your family history. I have been following his series with enthusiasm, and I am thrilled to contribute this installment.

I am fairly comfortable as a writer; my first career was in television writing. However I am new to the process of genealogical publishing. As I continue with my own family history monograph, I have been struggling with the question of what to do when I am finished. Should I publish a book? Or is digital preservation the way of the future? Today, we’ll be discussing different options for publishing your family history.

We’ll be considering three different formats:

  1. Hard-cover or soft-cover book
  2. E-book
  3. PDF format (digital file)

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I enthusiastically invite you to share your own experiences in the comments. This overview aims to introduce you to a few options, at a range of price points, that may help you produce your family history.

Self-Publish a Book

For many of us, publishing a book is the dream. Books are both beautiful and authoritative, and they can become family heirlooms as they pass from generation to generation. On the other hand, producing a book is no easy task. A book must be designed and formatted with elements like a table of contents, an introduction, and chapter titles. Books can also be expensive to print, depending upon the materials and page count. Selling a finished family history book can help to recoup costs, but many self-publishers do not break even.

Still, a book is quite possibly the best option for long-term preservation of our work. Books can be donated to libraries and institutions for safekeeping after we’re gone. Hard copies cannot fall victim to changing technology or file formats, issues that loom over all types of digital preservation.

A myriad of companies offer book-publishing options; here are three to get you started. All three print both hard- and soft-cover books and include customization options ideal for both the design-inclined and the design-challenged. If you have self-published with another company, please share your experiences in the comments.

  1. Lulu

Lulu is certainly one of the most popular companies for self-publishing, and for good reason. Lulu is ideal for those who want to build their book completely from scratch, upload, and print. The company does offer templates, though it is my experience that they are a bit more bare-bones and less intuitive compared to those at other companies. If I were designing a book using a program like Adobe InDesign, I would probably self-publish with Lulu.

  1. Blurb

Blurb is best known for its photo books; however it offers text-only options as well. Blurb has a range of templates that make it easy to drag-and-drop pictures and text. Footnotes and endnotes copy into Blurb’s templates with minimal tinkering—a plus for genealogists. If I were designing a book with a mix of images and text and wanted the ease of a template, I would probably use Blurb.

  1. Shutterfly

In addition to photo prints, coffee mugs, and refrigerator magnets, Shutterfly also prints custom books. Marketed as photo books, Shutterfly’s many templates include text-only page layouts. Shutterfly’s templates are the most user-friendly of these three companies and include optional design elements like colorful backgrounds and clipart. The most significant drawback to Shutterfly is that footnotes, endnotes, and generational numbers (i.e. superscripts) do not copy-paste into text fields.

Self-Publish an E-Book

For iPad and Kindle users, what could be better than a family history e-book? E-books offer portability and can be backed up on a cloud, perfect for long-term storage. Although e-books come with many of the same production requirements as hard copies, they may be less expensive to produce and can be sold online.

The chief benefit of an e-book—its compatibility with modern technology—may also be its greatest liability. File formats and devices change rapidly; an e-book produced today may not be compatible with the e-reader of tomorrow.

Both Lulu and Blurb, highlighted in the Books section above, offer e-book publishing.

Self-Publish a PDF File

I know, I know—when we envision our perfect published family history, it probably doesn’t look anything like a PDF. PDFs certainly don’t have the same, oh, gravitas as a hardcover book. But hear me out.

PDFs are inexpensive: simply convert your word processor file, and voila! No need to mess around with InDesign or a book template. While file formats have certainly evolved in the last decade, PDFs have shown greater longevity compared to some. Plus, they work equally well across devices, Macs, PCs, and smartphones alike. PDFs are easy to share electronically via email. For those who prefer hard copies, they can be printed and bound at an office supply store.

Your readers may also enjoy the benefits of a PDF. You (the author) can embed hyperlinks that allow the reader to easily jump to a footnote, an image, or even skip from the table of contents to a chapter. Finally, and I think this is particularly appealing to genealogists, PDFs allow for infinite changes. If you make a new discovery about your ancestor, simply replace your old version with a new one.

There are cons to PDFs. Although text is not editable, a reader can copy-paste passages. The risks of page separation and copyright infringement are greater with a PDF than a printed book. While PDFs are easy to share with individuals, few libraries or institutions accept PDF donations (at least at the present time). A hundred years from now, PDFs may no longer be compatible with devices.


How to choose? Consider your purpose in writing. Is your goal to preserve your work for generations to come? If so, nothing beats a book. Does the thought of designing and formatting an entire book make you break out in a cold sweat and shut your laptop? Remove the pressure and opt for a PDF; you can always print it later. But if you’re breaking out in a cold sweat just reading this, consider hiring someone to help you with the writing or design processes.

One of my favorite aspects of the recent NGS Monthly posts has been the message to remove mental impediments and start writing. All of these options have their pros and cons. Choose one that is the best fit for you.


Meryl Schumacker is a Board-certified genealogist in New York City and the founder of We Go Way Back LLC. Her work focuses on New York City families and genetic genealogy (DNA), as well as Jewish and African-American ancestry. In 2017, she received the Walter Lee Sheppard Jr. Prize and the Association of Professional Genealogists’ Young Professional Scholarship. Find her online at, on Twitter @waybackgen, and on Instagram @wegowaybackllc.

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