The story of 'A History of the Blacketts'

On Monday 23rd November 2015 we sold our last copy of ‘A History of the Blacketts’ and no longer have any copies left out of our 500 print run. No further editions are planned. This is a brief outline of how the book came about, how it was written and brought to publication, and a number of other aspects that you might find interesting, particularly if you’re thinking of publishing your own family history book. It’s not intended to be a definitive guide to publishing your own book, but you might find some of the problems we encountered, and how we dealt with them, of some interest. (NB. We’ve included at the end of this article a brief list of some of the technical issues you might encounter if you decide to go ahead with your own book).

1. How it all started

In early 2007 the three ‘Blacketteers’, Al Kirtley, Pat Longbottom and Martin Blackett, met at Pat’s home in Yorkshire to discuss the possibility of setting up a website and/or bringing out a book, principally to share the results of our past researches into the Blackett family. A fourth ‘Blacketteer’, John Burnell, a former lecturer in genealogy, had sadly died on 30 January that year.

After much discussion, it was decided to shelve the book (no pun intended) and concentrate on building a website. A website rather than a book had a couple of advantages:
(a) we still had work to do on verifying and connecting several major trees prepared by earlier generations of Blackett genealogists. Once a book was published it could not reflect that subsequent work. A website, however, could be updated constantly.
(b) a website would give us the means to establish contact with other researchers into Blackett family history, and to pool the results of our research. It would also give us a better idea of how many other Blacketts interested in their family history were out there and, if we got it right, could also give us a platform to promote a book if we ever got round to publishing one.

Over the next few years the site grew steadily, developing beyond merely a platform for the rapidly expanding family tree, (which now contains well over 40,000 names), until it eventually emerged as the pre-eminent online source of information on the Blackett family, including images and articles covering a number of notable and/or interesting Blacketts. In early 2012, at one of our periodic meetings to review progress, Pat’s original idea of publishing a book was raised again.

2. The idea takes shape

All three of us liked the idea of bringing out a book, but we had absolutely no experience of how to go about it. Firstly, however, we had to consider if there was ‘space’ in the market for another book on the Blackett family. It was only a few years since the last remaining copies had been sold of ‘My Name is Blacket’, by the late Nick Vine Hall, originally published in 1983. And in 2004 A. W. Purdue had published ‘The Ship that Came Home’, the idea for which was inspired by a recently-discovered manuscript written by Lady Alethea Blackett in the 1880s. Would we merely be duplicating these earlier works?

We decided there was indeed room for a new book, provided it was carefully written. Nick’s book, though devoting its first chapter to the early Blacketts, had then focussed on a London branch from whence came a major Australian branch of the family, and Bill Purdue had deliberately concentrated on some of the great houses owned by different branches of the Blackett family. There was enough previously unpublished (at least in book form) material to warrant a new book.

Having made the decision in principle, it was agreed that the book should cover the broad history of various branches of the Blackett family century by century, from the earliest recorded days of the Blakheveds of Woodcroft, County Durham, to the present day. Although much of the genealogical research was based on the combined efforts of all three ‘Blacketteers’, supplemented by other contributions from visitors to the website over the years, it was essential to divide up the job of producing the book. Al, who had recently published a novel on Amazon Kindle, agreed to write it, Pat would proof-read and check it chapter by chapter, and Martin, an accomplished photographer, would provide the bulk of the ‘in-house’ illustrations. In a moment of weakness Al agreed to try to produce one chapter per month, which, combining the 14th/15th and 20th/21st centuries into one chapter each, would mean finishing writing the book by the end of September 2012. (He made it by the skin of his teeth.)

At this stage, we had no more than a vague idea of what the book would eventually look like. Should it be paperback or hardback? Should the illustrations be in colour where possible? Would we be able to produce a book that was interesting to read, without sacrificing scholastic integrity? And how would we manage to get a book published that was aimed at a relatively small potential audience?

After making a few enquiries of commercial publishers it became clear that we would have to publish the book ourselves. It was just too specialized a subject for a commercial publisher. That meant finding a suitable printer, and Pat soon came up with a firm in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, The Amadeus Press, who had recently published a hardback book for a local history society. The quality of the printing, binding and illustrations was first-class, and we decided – wisely as it turned out – to use them.

At a meeting with the printers it became clear that we could opt for hardback – our preferred choice – but to keep costs within reasonable limits, colour illustrations would form a central section of the book, other illustrations throughout the text being in monochrome. The printers would give us guidance in converting the raw MS Word pages to a format suitable for them, and would advise on format and positioning of images, technicalities of captioning, etc. It would be up to us to design the dust jacket, though that would obviously have to conform strictly to the external dimensions of the book itself.

The actual text of the book had by now been written and the notes, without which the book would have no scholastic integrity, were largely complete and checked, as were the appendices and index. Throughout the intervening months we had also been obtaining copyright clearances for using the large number of photographs and other illustrations which would supplement those taken by Martin. We had also obtained the necessary ISBN (International Standard Book Number), required for selling through online and physical bookstores and by libraries. And where, in a few cases, we’d quoted from other publications, we’d obtained permission from the authors to include them, obviously with accreditations.

We’d already decided in principle that the profits, if any, from the book should go to charity, and we chose two charities which we knew were supported by Blackett descendants. Firstly, Linda Rickford, with whom we’d had contact in connection with her branch of the family tree, was a trustee of the Astro Brain Tumour Fund. And Sir Hugh Blackett, 12th Bt., who had agreed to write the Foreword to our book, was a patron of Rainbow Trust. Those would be the charities to benefit, but at this stage it seemed unlikely that we would even cover the substantial outlay, much less have any profit left over. The printers had told us that the minimum print run would have to be 500 copies. We would probably be lucky if we sold even half of those.

Pat then came up with the idea of inviting people to subscribe in advance to the book. That included the three of us, as we’d decided against any ‘freebie’ copies for ourselves or our families. Subscribers would pay a discounted price in advance of publication and have their names included in a List of Subscribers printed in the book. (This practice was relatively common in the 19th century.) That would help towards the initial costs and should help sales get off to a flying start.

Following the guidelines from the printers, we now sent them a CD of the draft book, including notes, appendices, index and rough positioning of the monochrome images that would appear throughout the text, plus the colour images for the centre section. We now turned our attention to how we would sell the book, and in particular the methods of payment we would offer. We had opened a bank account for the book, (our bank agreed to waive any charges as all profits would be going to charity), into which cheques for copies of the book could be paid. However, we also needed an online payment method for overseas purchasers, plus those UK purchasers who preferred to pay by credit card. A review of online store facilities quickly identified Shopify as the most cost-effective and flexible platform for a “one-product” small store such as ours. Shopify also accepted payment through PayPal, which was a much cheaper option for us than opening accounts with a major credit card company such as Visa, Mastercard etc. Having opened accounts with Shopify and PayPal, we now set about building our “store”. That entailed designing and writing the pages, including the various options for postage and packing. We already knew from the printers the approximate weight and dimensions of the books and the cost of the cardboard sleeves for posting them (which we obtained from the printers). These would be added, at cost, to the price of the book, and we set up various options for the various shipping rates, depending on where the books would be sent, including airmail and surface mail options. We also designed a form for UK purchasers to pay by cheque if they preferred.

3. Crunch Time

It was now the beginning of 2013. We were within a couple of months of the book being ready, and could invite people to subscribe to it. As well as mentioning it to immediate family and friends, we posted a page on our website, with links to Shopify and to the form for payment by cheque, and also emailed the considerable list of people who had contacted the site over the years since its inception. We also added a notification on the Blackett message boards of genealogy sites such as AncestryRootsChat etc. There was nothing more we could do except sit back and see how many orders came in.

The results were better than we could have hoped for. By the time our initial discounted offer to subscribe had expired we had received orders for 200 books. We could now give to the printers the pages showing the list of subscribers, which would complete our work on the book. Galley proofs were quickly approved, followed by the receipt from the printers of the books themselves. The three of us met at Pat’s house and over two days parcelled up, addressed and posted the orders. Each copy included a bookmark – a postcard depicting Woodcroft as it probably looked just over 100 years ago – signed by the authors on the reverse. So far, so good.

4. The follow up

We had got off to a good start, but we still had 300 copies of the book to sell, and without the inducement of the initial discount. We were still receiving orders, but we still needed to do more to publicize the book. Firstly, Al, who had done a genealogy broadcast some years earlier for BBC Radio 4, managed to secure interviews about the book on Radio Newcastle and Radio Tees. We had also had flyers printed, and set about distributing these to museums, cathedrals, bookshops etc. around Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire. We also distributed small numbers of copies to bookshops, mostly, though not exclusively, on a sale or return basis. Finally, with some trepidation, we accepted offers from a couple of local newspapers to review the book.

The reviews of the book, particularly in the Stanhope local paper, were extremely favourable, as were comments from initial purchasers of the book, and these we posted on the page on our website. We also added Amazon.co.uk as an additional distributor for UK purchasers (their fixed postage rates made sales overseas uneconomic) and soon started receiving additional orders through them.

By spring 2014, 12 months after bringing out the book, we had sold 400 out of our 500 print run, including, gratifyingly, sales to the history departments of several leading universities. This was better than we had expected, and in the summer of that year we were able to distribute £1,000 equally between our two charities.

Although it was to be another 18 months before the last copy was sold, the book had turned out to be a commercial, as well as a literary, success, and we were able to make the final distribution of profits to our charities on 15 April 2016. The presentation took place at the ruins of Woodcroft, near Frosterley, Co. Durham, the home of the Blacketts for over 500 years from the 13th century, and to see some photos of the day please click here. The amount raised for our charities is reward in itself for all the effort that went into the book, but perhaps we can also take pride in the fact that we have contributed something to the published history of the fascinating family known as the Blacketts.

(NB. Although we no longer have any remaining copies of ‘A History of the Blacketts’, some copies of the excellent book, ‘The Ship that Came Home’, as mentioned above, are still available from the Matfen Hall gift shop.)

Notes (tips for publishing your own family history book).

  1. Before you start, be prepared for a lot of hard, time-consuming work. Preparing the Notes for your book – and where you cite other publications these should include author, publisher, year of publication and page numbers – will probably take at least as long as writing the book itself. The index will also take some time to prepare.
  2. Make sure you’ve got someone else proof-reading the book and checking your facts. Every author makes mistakes, but these must be picked up before the book is published.
  3. Before choosing your printer, make sure you’ve seen examples of the quality of their work. Follow their guidelines in formatting your text, images and captions etc.
  4. ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers). If you want to sell through bookshops, including online retailers such as Amazon, you’ll need one for your book. In the UK these are obtainable from Nielsen Book Services Ltd but the minimum you can buy is a block of 10, costing (at Dec 2015) £144 including VAT.
  5. If you’re not sure there’ll be sufficient demand for a quality hardback book, (where the minimum print run is usually 500 and the up-front cost will be several thousand pounds), consider cheaper self-publishing ‘on demand’ options, such as CreateSpace. But also bear in mind that this will almost certainly be the only book you’ll write on your family history. As a general rule, go for the best quality you can afford.
  6. Make sure you’ve thought through how you’re going to publicize and sell your book. If you want to maximise sales, that’ll mean offering the option to buy it online. That’s where Shopify and PayPal come in. Remember that bookshops will expect a trade discount. (Amazon’s is reflected in its commission rate.)
  7. Don’t try to make a profit out of postage and packing. Charge that at cost, (updated as and when postal rates change), but don’t forget to include the cost of a sturdy cardboard posting sleeve so that your book reaches the purchaser in pristine condition. (Our sleeves cost us £1 each.)
  8. After your initial rush of orders, be prepared for sales to settle down to a steady trickle. If your book’s good enough you’ll eventually sell most or all of your copies, but you’ll have to be patient.
  9. And finally, never give up – all the hard work will be worth it in the end.