What better way to preserve your neighborhood’s history than with a book? It’s a
permanent document that can be passed down through the generations, it can bring
residents together in the research, writing and photo-gathering, and it can even be used as
a fundraiser for the neighborhood’s civic league. Here’s how to embark on such a project:
1. Determine how you will publish.
Unless you have a publishing house in your area that specializes in regional titles,
you’ll be hard-pressed to secure a traditional publisher interested in a book with such a
localized, niche market. So what are your other options? You could self-publish, hiring
out (or finding pros in your community who might work pro bono) the cover and interior
design, typesetting, photo layout, printing and binding. Or you could use a subsidy
publisher, a company that charges you to publish your book. Some, like the Donning
Company, specialize in commemorative “coffee table” books and pictorial retrospectives.
Donning published Colonial Place And Riverview: 100 Years Of History, a pictorial
volume about two historic Norfolk, Virginia neighborhoods I co-wrote with Artemis
Stoll. Most of these companies offer in-house editing, design and marketing services. In
the long run, your cost per book may be greater using a subsidy publisher, but if you don’t
have the time or inclination to chase and secure bids from graphic designers, printers and
the like, the convenience is well worth the cost.
2. Determine how you will pay for it.
If you decide to go the self-publishing route, you might sell advertising within the
book — think your school yearbook. Or you might seek investors, perhaps local
businesses or prominent citizens who might underwrite the cost of your book in exchange
for an acknowledgment page and the assurance they will be repaid from the book’s sales
proceeds. In the case of the Colonial Place/Riverview volume, two local realtors who
were also neighborhood residents provided the capital for the book to go to print. Using
the Donning model, the CPRV Civic League was made the “beneficiary,” meaning that
after the realtors’ investment was recouped, any proceeds thereafter went directly to the
Civic League. The book not only preserves the community’s history, but it also raises
funds for civic activities.
3. Get the word out.
So you’ve decided how you will publish and how to foot the bill. What next? Shout
it from the rooftops: You’re putting together a history book of the neighborhood and you
need everyone’s help. You need oral histories, family photos, old newspaper clippings,
advertisements, historical mementos and souvenirs — material your neighbors no doubt
have stored up in the attic or tucked away in family photo albums and scrapbooks. We
were fortunate to have a neighborhood website, newsletter and monthly civic league
meetings through which we could let residents know about Colonial Place and Riverview:
100 Years Of History. The resultant outpouring of stories, letters, photos and other items
was gratifying; the book could not have been completed without the residents’ help.
Hit the local history section of your library, the local historical society, nearby
college and university libraries. Many city government offices hold a treasure trove of
history, as well — trace property titles, investigate tax records, check out wills and
probate. Does your state have an historic preservation office? How about the National
Registry of Historic Places?
5. Make a marketing plan.
Once your book is written and published, how will people know to buy it? And
where will they buy it? In the case of the Colonial Place/Riverview book, we solicited
local businesses to stock it. Most did so happily and for free, displaying the book
prominently; others charged a small consignment fee. We made sure the book was
available online at Amazon.com. We did several booksigning events, at retail locations
and at civic league functions. And we pitched the book to local and regional media,
getting great exposure through reviews, feature stories, TV and radio appearances. End
result: We sold two-thirds of our inventory in eight months, and expect to sell out of our
first printing within a year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan VanHecke, author of books for adults and young people. Learn more at