I want to write a family history book but MS Word isn't cutting it...
June 20, 2016 8:20 PM   Subscribe

I have 30 years of family history research, documentation, photos, interviews, notes - I also have a bunch of info between my ears that I never got around to writing down. Funds are tight right now, so paying someone to write a book for me isn't going to happen. I need recommendations (as in, you've done this) for software, open source is best, which will help me organize and publish my family history as an ebook, with the option to pay a publisher some day for hard copies.
posted by brownrd to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
posted by bluecore at 8:24 PM on June 20, 2016 [10 favorites]

May I ask why MS Word isn't cutting it? I have coached people through the self publishing process for family histories, novels, and various non-fiction books using Word, and their books came out just great. We even used crazy features like regular expression support to do some more advanced editing. And if you learn how the styles system works, it'll be simple to make formatting changes in one place and watch as the rest of the text updates itself to reflect the changes.

You could try learning Scribus, but I'm not sure that'd be a super easy proposition. It's free though.

I also thought it might be helpful to recommend the e.g. "blog to print" services and see if they have features that let you arrange things the way you want. I have not used them, however.

Personally I'm itching to give AsciiDoc a shot for a longer work; it's a tad more of a geeky approach, but I think plain text is so simple to use that it'll probably be pretty fun. For short works I've been happy with the output.
posted by circular at 8:26 PM on June 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

circular, I tend to be a geek, so computers and software don't bother me - I just don't have an eye for design, and Word doesn't always behave the way I want it to. My wife says what I have done isn't bad, but it does look like a high school yearbook. I suppose there are worse things
posted by brownrd at 8:28 PM on June 20, 2016

For writing, Word is great. Pros often tell me to use Scrivener, but I've not seen it myself.

For page layout, which is not writing as such, and which is what you seem to be talking about in your update, Word is suboptimal. If you hit "high school yearbook" then you probably are doing a pretty good job. If you care to learn to bend it to your will, you can do some amazing layout work with Word. (From the days when I had to write job descriptions, my favorite qualifiers were "Can coax beauty out of MS Word" and "Is willing to use MS Publisher." You can make Word do what you need it to do.)

So, write your book in Word, but if you can avoid it, don't lay it out in Word. If you don't want to pay for pro software, then you will want to have your final text in Word, and then do the layout in an app like Scribus (or, maybe, Serif PagePlus, which costs money but isn't insane, or maybe), and then use the Word source as input for epub production, using other tools (say, Calibre).

I use InDesign. If money is tight, it's not what you want. Its learning curve is steep. However, it's by far the best tool for the job.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 8:41 PM on June 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

Hi. I'm a freelance copy editor, and I work for authors who are independently publishing. (90% of my clients are hybrid authors who maintain their publishing schedule with a Big 5 publisher and also self-publish because their fans will buy more.)(I'm telling you that so you understand that I work with legit people.) You should do what they do:

-- Write it in Word

-- OR, write it in Scrivener and then export to Word

-- Pay a copy editor to go over it (okay, had to throw that in, just because, but I realize this is probably just for family so yeah, I can see you skipping this, so...

-- Have a smart friend, or multiple smart friends proof it

-- Pay a book formatter to make it pretty. Guess what -- this is not expensive at all. If you want to memail me I can give you specific recommendations but my top clients, who are making lovely, extremely professional-looking books, are getting this done for $100 or less.

-- Bonus level: have someone design a nice cover for it. Using one of your photos, probably. This can be a little more expensive than the formatting, but still not very much $$.

-- Upload to Amazon where your friends/family can easily purchase an ebook.

-- And you've got a lovely file you can have printed one day if you want.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:45 PM on June 20, 2016 [25 favorites]

Scrivener will help you organize large amounts of materials in addition to being a place to write. I highly recommend it.
posted by gusandrews at 9:46 PM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Self-publishers are a friendly, helpful group. Start with the Kindle forums: http://www.amazon.com/forum/kindle

Any question you might have will have been answered there.
David Gaughran has a blog which gives some great advice. At this link, https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/basics/
you can download his really helpful FREE booklet Let's Get Digital: https://www.amazon.com/Lets-Get-Digital-Self-Publish-Publishing-ebook/dp/B005DC68NI?ie=UTF8&tag=lesgedi-20

Once you get the overview of how this works, you'll have a better sense of what you need to decide. Again, you couldn't find a more friendly and helpful group-- we all share information and trade insights (such as "how do I make this ebook into a print book?").
posted by my-sharona at 9:47 PM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Scrivener would be a good tool for organizing your various bits of writing, research, photos, and so on. While exporting to Word format seems to be a standard, Scrivener can also export directly to .mobi (the Kindle book format), epub, and other formats. I haven't done anything with a lot of pictures, or anything where maintaining page layout perfectly was a priority, but I've been really happy with Scrivener for making .mobi books that are mostly text with just a couple of images to share with a small number of friends.

Scrivener is meant to be a tool for organizing your work in progress rather than for final output, and it is fantastic. You might find it useful during the writing-and-compiling-resources stage of your project, when you don't really want to be fiddling around with specific layouts that will get messed up during revision.
posted by not that girl at 11:35 PM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Adobe's Creative Cloud subscription could allow you to license InDesign for less than 20 dollars a month. Don't know how much time is enough for you, but if this is something you can get done in a month it may be worth it.

Like all Adobe products there is a plethora of tutorials online. I don't know how the learning curve compares to other products out there, because I haven't tried the others yet.

InDesign is for layout, not writing. Write in Office.
posted by Cozybee at 3:56 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I will second (third?) Scribus as at least worth looking at. On the minus side, it can be a tad clunky and the docs aren't always the best. On the plus side, it's free, and it's an actual page layout program that will give you 100% control over where elements are placed, etc (versus fighting it out with Word, which really wants to "help" you). You can even import text from outside sources, so you can lay everything out in Scribus and write your text in a text file and then just pull it in.

Also, you mention being a bit geeky, so: Scribus saves its files as relatively straightforward (if verbose) XML. If you're comfortable with scripting, you can automate a lot of things via either simple text manipulation or actual XML parsing / DOM traversal.
posted by tocts at 5:41 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, I work in publishing, and all the material is written and submitted in Word. Final formatting is done in other programs, but it all starts in Word.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 5:54 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Word isn't a page layout program. (Says the recovering prepress guy...)

That said, as you write in Word, apply some Styles to your headings, body text, etc. (as opposed to just slapping on the Bold or making individual lines centered), even if they are the stock ones in the formatting menu up top.

This is because the process of exporting from Word into InDesign or QuarkXPress or whatever else can take huge advantage of these Styles and automatically format the text as it flows into the new document. It's frickinm' magic when it's done right.

Mind you, this benefits from you making a few short (4-page?) sample layouts to help pick a style, but it saves a tons of time manually applying those chosen styles once you've decided. (And it makes it possible for you to swap Styles on the fly if you want to make a separate version for e-readers or whatever.)
posted by wenestvedt at 6:41 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Regarding making an e-book, layout should be simple and aiming for "universal" -- ebook readers can change font size and page width, pushing everything else around in your document, so lining up pictures may not work as expected if you are trying for fancy magazine-like layout tricks for aesthetic reasons. Not that you can't make things pretty in an e-book, it's just that if you're trying to get your family history out there, the important part is the content, not the layout. Go look in the history section of your library and flip through some of the more obscure books, especially if they're from some small university press or historical society. Yearbook-like layouts all over the place. You shouldn't stress over it, the layout is secondary to the content, and if you're publishing for an ebook you might not have as much control over layout as you hope for.

Also, be aware of filesize and embedded images: Amazon charges fees based on download size, so make sure your images are formatted reasonably to keep your "delivery costs" down. It's possible to embed some really large images in your PDF that don't gain you anything in content but cost a lot in delivery fees.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:47 AM on June 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

I just switched to Scrivener after years of writing professionally in Word, and find Scrivener is absolutely brilliant.
posted by Skipjack at 8:34 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you're feeling really nerdy, look into LaTeX.

There are a lot of templates others have made, with typesetting appropriate for bound books. It's a rabbit hole for sure, but a fun and flexible one.
posted by sazerac at 9:51 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

posted by agregoli at 9:54 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have to say... you all zoomed right in on the heart of the matter... Layout. Thanks for all the helpful comments so far. I will leave the thread open a bit longer.
posted by brownrd at 12:12 PM on June 21, 2016

As witness to my total commitment to the No Such Thing As A Dumb Question principle, I will ask: have you gone to the library or bookstore and simply flipped through books, just scanning to see what catches your eye? And have have you searched Pinterest for terms like "book layout design" to see what comes up? (I suspect that a lot of it will be single page pieces like posters, or else cover layouts, but it's still something.)

You know your own source material, like how many pictures and how much text you have to work with, so you should be able to look at a page and say, "My stuff would suit this" or "Gaaaah." I have my own subset of a big family history project that I wrote about ten years ago. Last winter I found a ton more material, and I decided I needed to add the stuff but also to improve the layout -- and so I now pay pretty close attention to my initial reaction when I scan a page, and also I notice whether I get lost when reading (which some layouts do, like the two-columns used in scholarly journal articles) or stay engaged.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:16 PM on June 21, 2016

I have put together two family-history books intended just for family, and both times I used Blurb and its "BookSmart" layout program. Wrote all the text in Word (or LibreOffice, really), and then laid it out in "BookSmart" which is free to use. They also do ebook conversions for $10, which I don't know anything about as I haven't done it, but the photo/text books of family photos and narrative printed in hardback came out REALLY NICE and you can send the link to interested relatives to order themselves a hard copy. (I imagine the ebook thing works similarly.) Layout is easy in BookSmart and they give you a lot of page layout choices.

(I have experience laying out newspapers in Quark XPress; I found BookSmart to be a nice mix of easy and flexible for wanting to put together a nice-looking family book that had some specific features (and did some things I knew I could do in Quark), but not wanting to spend my whole life futzing with layouts.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:01 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

This has been very liberating, as I was writing and then trying to format each chapter as I went along in Word. Thank you all so very much!
posted by brownrd at 5:53 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

You might also like Apple's Pages, which is available as a free cloud-based app through iCloud. I use it when I need to do page layout that doesn't require the bells and whistles of InDesign.
posted by lukez at 6:05 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Scrivener for organizing, LaTeX for making it look like a real book, if you do intend to print some.
posted by Scram at 8:25 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your 3:13 pm response, telling us that "layout" rather than "organization" is what you are seeking, should redirect the answers. With this in mind, the Top Ten List is a start.
posted by yclipse at 2:52 AM on June 22, 2016

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