Grey matters: Why NGOs should start thinking like self-publishers

Among my favourite clients are nonprofit advocacy groups that champion causes I care about. These organizations pour an astounding amount of effort into their research, which usually culminates in reports destined for media, key policy makers, and the general public. These reports, which can contain a wealth of information that researchers would find valuable, are generally available for free on the NGO’s website. Unfortunately, more often than not, there they languish.

Policy reports and other NGO publications that don’t have ISBNs inhabit the murky world of grey literature—written research material that’s not formally published and hence not catalogued. As a result, they’re almost impossible to discover. Sometimes even Google won’t find them unless you know exactly what you’re looking for and use very specific search terms.

The Canadian Public Policy Collection and Canadian Health Research Collection are two databases that aggregate grey literature and are decent places for researchers to start looking, but these curated archives are far from exhaustive. For instance, one advocacy group I work with, Pivot Legal Society, has more than twenty publications, but only four are listed in the CPPC.

Grey literature’s poor discoverability means that these important publications don’t have the reach or longevity that they could have. A source of the problem is that most NGOs don’t consider themselves publishers. Abby Deshman, at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says, “We just don’t have publishers on staff… so that expertise about what we could do and what we could gain by doing it is not generally available.” Both Deshman and Tracy Torchetti at the Canadian Cancer Society told me that they’d love to increase their publications’ reach.

So what can these organizations do? The first step is to take advantage of the infrastructure built to accommodate the legions of self-publishers:

1. Get an ISBN (or ISSN) for your report

ISBNs cost up to $125 per title in the U.S. but are free in Canada for all publishers, self-publishers included. (If your publication is a serial, consider getting an ISSN). Assigning an ISBN to your title automatically plucks it out of the realm of grey literature and allows you to…

2. Submit metadata to Bowker’s Books in Print

Once you have your ISBN, you can fill in a form to have your bibliographic information listed for free in Bowker’s Books in Print—one of the major databases that libraries consult for their acquisitions.

3. Upload your metadata to a print-on-demand (POD) provider with wide distribution

When I rebuilt the Government of Canada’s plain language guides, I made them available through CreateSpace, Amazon’s POD platform. I set the list prices at their lowest possible, which would cover printing, binding, and Amazon’s cut of any sale. That said, I never expected to sell any copies through CreateSpace; in fact, in my descriptive copy, I included the URL of a site where people could download a free PDF. By putting the guides on CreateSpace, though, I made their metadata discoverable through Amazon’s network, and Amazon’s listing would in turn come up more readily in Google searches.

Another POD provider for independent publishers is IngramSpark, which will also make metadata available on its worldwide network, but, unlike CreateSpace, it has some modest upfront set-up and market access costs.

4. Send copies of your reports to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) for legal deposit

Legal deposit probably doesn’t enhance discoverability, but (perhaps for idealistic, sentimental reasons) I do kind of like that what you send them “becomes the record of the nation’s published heritage.” Once a publication has been added to the LAC collection, its metadata is entered into LAC’s database and can be retrieved through a search. LAC also accepts digital-only publications.

5. Use SEO techniques for your content

Most NGO publications that I’ve worked on end up as PDFs, which search engines can be reluctant to index (compared with HTML). Find PDF optimization tips here and here to increase the chances that they will show up on Google searches.


Finally, take advantage of the databases available to advocacy groups:

6. Submit your publication to the Canadian Public Policy Collection…

…and, if your publication is health related, the Canadian Health Research Collection. Despite their lack of comprehensiveness, the Canadian Public Policy Collection and the Canadian Health Research Collection are “still way better than anything else out there,” says academic librarian Franklin Sayre. These collections are home to a lot of grey literature, but they also house publications that have ISBNs and ISSNs. They are open to suggestions for publications to add to their databases. Although the full search and retrieval functions for these databases are available only to libraries that have paid for access, you can download Excel files with the list of titles available in each database. These files (this one for CPPC, and this one for CHRC) list URLs for the full text.


Those of us who work with these organizations on the publishing end could help our clients add value to their publications by letting them know about these options. Given what Deshman and Torchetti have told me, NGOs may not be aware of some of the steps they could take to maximize the lifespan and reach of their painstaking research.

Huge thanks to

  • Abby Deshman, for giving me the scoop on the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s publishing practices;
  • Frank Sayre, for invaluable insights into grey literature, the CPPC, and the CHRC;
  • Tracy Torchetti, for canvassing her colleagues at the Canadian Cancer Society about their publishing practices; and
  • Trena White of Page Two, for confirming details about Books in Print.

8 thoughts on “Grey matters: Why NGOs should start thinking like self-publishers”

  1. Great article, Iva. I think you’ve helped me more than I helped you. I’ll definitely be sharing this with my colleagues at the Society.

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