Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Family Manuscripts Found: Now What?

by Cat Woods

Over the years, I've frequently been asked about old, family manuscripts. Often times, somebody cleans out Great Grandpa's attic and runs across a collection of stories. Most often, they are children's stories. Almost always, the writer in us wants to preserve these memories forever—in the traditional publishing world.

"How do I get them published?" is the question I hear over and over again. But I have a different question. "For whom do you want to publish them?"

Is the intention to get Great Grandpa's words out there into the literary world as a historical reference, is it to make a fortune or is the intention to preserve the memory of Great Grandpa via his words? These are vastly different questions and require careful thought on behalf of the writer in us.

Commercial Considerations
What exactly is the collection of writings and how does that translate into the current market? Stories were written very differently back in the day (think A.A.Milne's wordiness in the Pooh stories compared to the pared down 500 word picture books of today).

  • Consider word count: picture books run about 300-500 words. Chapter books have a sweet spot of 7,500 words and are cohesive stories. Many of the old manuscripts in question run eight to ten handwritten pages—too long for your typical picture book and too short for your average chapter book.
  • Consider the style of writing: long-winded, highly descriptive tales are out. Colorful prose used to be the norm, but todays' kids run on the short and punchy side of writing.
  • Consider the theme/plot/premise: gone are the books as teaching tools. Back in the day, books were blatant, cautionary tales. They had distinct messages that were spelled out in a way that hip readers and editors are no longer interested in. If the entire storyline is a teaching tool, it likely has little place in commercial publishing today. It needs to meet all the criteria of a contemporary story: robust characters, conflict and resolution—in a way that speaks to the kids, not at them.
  • Consider illustrations: often, family-found stories come with hand-drawn pictures—beautiful renditions by Great Grandpa's own hand. Treasures for certain, yet almost guaranteed to be incompatible with current styles and formatting. Picture books average 28 pages with one to two illustrations per double page spread. The manuscripts I get questions about have anywhere from one to ten total illustrations.
  • Consider your openness to editing: no writing is ever ready to commercially publish without some kind of tweaking. It's hard enough to play around with our own words, but changing Great Grandpa's may be next to impossible from the emotional stand point. If you're not willing to edit, commercial publishing will not be your best choice.


There may be some contemporary options for these traditional stories. Depending on word count and writing style, they may make a great collection of board books. Simple, chunky stories with a cohesive theme or character can accommodate those 8-10 pages quite well. And the good news is that some small/niche publishing companies specialize in board books and are open to unsolicited manuscripts.

Another option for a 300-800 word tale may be the magazine market. But before you start shooting off Great Grandpa's words, please carefully research the magazine market. It is very nuanced and each mag is specialized in their needs and/or themes. They also have VERY specific word counts to consider.

Harder for the first-time writer would be publishing the collection in chapter book/novel format. Longer works may be consolidated into one, two or three volumes depending on the cohesiveness of the stories and the targeted age groups. As a caution: the manuscripts would have to be stellar.

Little Golden Books might also be a viable option for really well-written stand-alones. They have a line of stories that maintains the old-fashioned story-telling feel that might match Great Grandpa's words and illustrations.

Otherwise, Consider Self-Publishing
Self-publishing is wide open and can really create a nice edition of stories for close families and friends. It may also fill a regional niche and could potentially be sold at local bookstores, museums, Great Grandpa's church or other stores that support local artists. If money is the motivator, you will need to learn all the marketing skills of a traditional publisher to sell to a broader audience.

  • POD: many print-on-demand companies would be a fabulous option to get a paper copy into the hands of those who knew and loved Great Grandpa. Books could be bought as needed and could even be a fundraiser of sorts for family reunions or organizations that Great Grandpa believed in.
  • Electronic Publishing: Smashwords or Amazon would be a quick and inexpensive way to share Great Grandpa's stories. Potentially, it could also mean an accidental outside sale or two, or if done right, could be a small money maker.
  • Heirloom Binding: some stories are just meant to be preserved naturally. Depending on the paper and ink, these pages could be leather bound into an original story, and preserved for generations to come. I've created several heirloom gift books for families and have found the options infinite and the craftsmanship stunning.

Whatever you decide, don't jump into the project quickly. First, review your motives, then your time commitment, and finally, your options. What do you want to get out of this endeavor and how can you best achieve it? How does the quality of writing compare to the contemporary market?

Have you ever found stories from yesterday in a trunk, attic or basement? If so, what did you do with them? In your mind, what value do old stories have and how best can we preserve them? Or, is there even a need to preserve them? Do you think writing from days gone by has a place in today's market? If so, how can we best get these found manuscripts into the hands of today's readers?

Curious minds want to know.

Cat Woods prefers her stories to be published within her lifetime. However, should they gather dust in the attic until she no longer blogs at Words from the Woods, she would love for her manuscripts to be illustrated by her great grandchildren, bound in leather and shared at future family gatherings.


Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice! Styles have changed so much over the last few decades, it's hard to imagine anything being published straight off ... unless your family tree includes a Tolkein or a Twain :)

Lynn Proctor said...

we have found some writings especially since my mother's death---thanks so much for the information

Jean Oram said...

Very good point. I haven't happened across any old manuscripts... but if I do, I now know what to do with them!


Ellen M. Gregg said...

This is so timely. An aunt, long-passed, published a couple books of poetry locally about 60 years ago, and my father and I have the only remaining copies of a very (very) small print run. I've been considering reformatting them (they need it, badly), adding some regional photography and family photos, and uploading them to Amazon, B&N, etc.

Marcia said...

I think publishing family mss. is one of the best reasons to self-publish.

Cat Woods said...

Jemi~ Very true. It's why we need to read current books and not just write off the memory of books we read as kids. So much has changed in this world--including kids!

Lynn~ Found manuscripts from your mother sound positively lovely. I hope you enjoy the journey of working with her words!

Jean~ I don't have an attic, but my parents do. Wonder what might be hiding away up there?

Ellen~ Sounds like a great idea. What a fun way to honor your great aunt.

Marcia~ I agree. I wouldn't hesitate for a second to e-pub or even POD writing from the past. It's a win-win on many levels.

Man of la Book said...

As a book blogger (shameless plug: I sometimes get family manuscripts which got published to look at.

I'm always weary about these ones, I feel bad when I don't like them. Here we have grandpa/grandma put in writing stories for future generations and here I am, some schmo from Jersey, passing judgement.

I realize these stories weren't meant for me, and some of them are really good...but some aren't (unless you're a member of the family).

That being said, I always wish my grandparents would have done something similar.