Where Are the Self-Pubs in Educational Publishing?

by Carla Douglas @CarlaJDouglas

image by Libby Levi

It’s no secret that change comes slowly to education—it’s a big ship, and for so many reasons, it can’t change course as quickly as most of us think it should.

But education, at least in the K–12 stream, is embracing digital—from e-textbooks to tablets to blended and online learning, digital is making its presence known. The large, traditional educational publishers are certainly present, having introduced digital components to textbooks (iClickers, for example), online testing, e-textbooks and more.

And you don’t have to look far to see that there’s a mad scramble to be innovative. Startups are elbowing in with learning apps and other tech solutions for curriculum design and delivery. The digital dynamic is well represented. But the self-publishing revolution that accompanied the digital disruption of the wider publishing industry doesn’t appear to have hit education yet.

Where Are the Self-Pubs?

Well, I think they’re where they’ve always been: in the classroom, hiding in plain view. They’re here, but they haven’t yet embraced the idea that the education ship can and should change direction.

Teachers have always been self-pubs. Remember the Ditto machine? For generations, it was the instrument of content production. Teachers ran off math sheets, language arts readings and questions, review units, chapter summaries, tests and exams—anything that might be called a consumable. Much of the content they created themselves.

The Sharing Economy

Teachers are resourceful, and in public education there is often an air of scarcity and a perceived need for frugality. Teaching exemplifies the sharing economy—busy teachers trade their custom-made resources amongst each other to meet their local curriculum needs and to keep the classroom machine humming along. (Sometimes they share a little too generously: as creators of educational resources, we know that the photocopier has never been our friend.)

What does this have to do with the self-pub revolution? Teachers are already performing that role, to a degree, by doing what they’ve always done. They’re creating content—original or patched together from various sources—and distributing it to colleagues at little or no cost. Course textbooks selected and prescribed by school and board administrators provide the bulk of the curriculum, but locally developed materials supply the rest, and sometimes this is a large gap to fill.

Educational Self-Publishing?

But K–12 teachers haven’t yet embraced the indie model. For one thing, they’re distributing their content to a narrow base without considering wider opportunities. I get this—the life of a classroom teacher is hectic and demanding, and sometimes just looking beyond the next period is a challenge, let alone casting one’s eye to the horizon. But whether they are suppliers of content or consumers, teachers don’t yet seem ready to upset the apple cart.

Time for Disruption?

Is anyone prepared to interfere with what’s going on up the food chain in traditional publishing? Yes, there are small independent publishers that contribute handsomely to the curriculum resources pot. But they seem to have agreed—tacitly or not—to play by all the old rules. Not just by observing traditional pricing strategies, but also by following the terms for discounts, purchasing, shipping, billing, and so on, that harken back to the old model.

It’s like there are two worlds: the industrious hives of activity in schools and classrooms, which are carrying on much as they always have, and the established traditional educational publishers who continue to occupy their share of the turf.

There’s room for disruption here. We plan to be part of it.

Image by Libby Levi

Our Route to Self-Publishing: 3 Moments That Mattered Most

by Carla Douglas (@CarlaJDouglas)

Image by Jun
Image by Jun

Isn’t hindsight wonderful? If you’re willing to look back, you’ll find a map of not just where you’ve been, but also your wrong turns along the way. Better still, hindsight reveals those gilded moments when you made all the right moves, launching yourself in a new direction.

Over the past 12 years, we’ve made plenty of both. Here are three of the most significant moves we’ve made, to date. They’ve been pivotal, and have pointed us in the direction we’re now taking now with self-publishing.

1. We redesigned our first book.

We’ve always had a dual audience: the 15-year-olds who have to write a standardized high-stakes literacy test and the teachers who are tasked with preparing them for it. This move required us to shift our focus from teacher to student, but always with an eye on how teachers were using our books.

Changing our resource from a comprehensive teacher guide to a consumable workbook that students could use for self-directed study was the right move, and the incentive came from our publisher who, after all, had a direct link to teachers and schools. She was both listening to what teachers said and watching for trends. We subsequently revised and reissued this resource four times, and it remains our top seller.

2. We published an ebook.

Don't Panic 2.0: On-the-Go Practice for the OSSLT
Don’t Panic 2.0: On-the-Go Practice for the OSSLT

In 2012, almost ten years in, the ebook and self-publishing revolution was well underway. The market had slowly become saturated with similar resources and our sales continued the decline they’d begun in 2008. By now, social media was all we needed to track trends ourselves. Messages from our publisher—our link to our market and audience—were vague and intermittent: There’s an election around the corner. Budgets are very tight right now.  

With little to risk, we updated our most current workbook with new content, had it formatted, and put it up on Smashwords. Creating an app was also a possibility at the time. But this was 2012, and creating something that complex would have required working with programmers and designers priced beyond our budget.

Publishing the ebook was the right next move. Although we didn’t sell a lot of copies—we realize now that it wasn’t the best format for the skills we are teaching—it moved us forward in countless other ways.

For one thing, it prompted us to create our own website and social media presence, providing a place where we could interact with our audience first-hand. And this is where the real work began, researching trends in ebook production, how digital technology was being used elsewhere, sales, marketing and promotions—all the things we’d been relying on our publisher to take care of.

Education is notoriously slow to adapt to change. This worked in our favour, though, because when teachers were ready to dip a toe into digital, we were already there.

3. We created an interactive digital resource that uses free, widely available tools. It mimics beautifully the best features of our print book, but it enhances literacy development in ways that print just can’t.

What’s more, this happened almost by accident. We were attending an editing conference in 2013 when a teacher contacted us through our website. Describing herself as not especially “tech savvy,” the teacher explained that she thought she wanted a bulk order of ebooks—something students could download to a computer, complete their work, and re-upload to a teacher.

Our ebook wasn’t designed to do that, but Corina recognized right away that an interactive PDF, coupled with Adobe Reader XI’s Read Out Loud feature would offer students the options they needed. A back-and-forth exchange with the teacher, further adaptations to our student workbook, and voilà: a pilot of our new resource the following winter at this teacher’s school.

Yesterday we sold our first interactive resource from our website—and don’t think for a minute that getting there was easy or fun. But here we are, as a result, we think, of our readiness to listen to our audience, to be aware of trends in education and digital technology, and to recognize an opportunity when it presents itself.

Why We’re Choosing Self-Publishing Now

by Carla Douglas (@CarlaJDouglas)

Image by DieselDemon
Image by DieselDemon

For 12 years, we’ve been successfully writing educational resources and publishing them with an independent press. We’ve had a good run, producing eight titles, and our relationship with our publisher for the most part has been positive and warm. This fall, however, we’ve made a sharp turn. We’ve taken the publication process back, and we’re doing almost all of it ourselves.

Here’s a bit of background. Corina and I met on the job in 2001, writing and editing curriculum for the Ontario Ministry of Education. Around this time the Ministry piloted a province-wide literacy test—a requirement for high school graduation—that 40 percent of students failed.

Corina was certain that something was wrong with the test—how questions were worded, how students interpreted instructions. We scoured the Ministry website for anything we could find about the test and how it was designed, then we wrote our own guide that teachers could use to help their struggling students over this hurdle.

We wrote and revised several drafts in MS Word, and through some digging, Corina found a guy who offered her a password protected copy of his very helpful formatting guide, From Word to Print. (Thank you Jim Hamilton of Green Harbor Publications—the generosity of the self-pub community was evident even then.)

Then we needed a publisher. The test would be administered again in October. We sent out queries, and we generated some interest—first from a small educational publisher with an excellent reputation for teacher resources, who told us our book was “too niche.” Yes—a resource to guide 100,000-plus students through a high-stakes test each year was considered niche.

We also shopped our book to a major Canadian educational publisher who 1) wanted exclusivity for 60 days, 2) said that if accepted, the book would be published in 12-18 months, and 3) told us that author royalties were 6 percent.

We were pretty sure we could do better, and on the Friday afternoon before the Labour Day weekend, I searched once more, and sent a query off to a little educational press I’d never heard of. The publisher replied by phone the next day at noon, and she was eager to act on this quickly. She offered us a generous (for the time) royalty rate of 26 percent, and by the end of September 2002, we had books in teachers’ hands.

By the time we began sending out queries, we had a good product—professionally written and edited, print-ready, with a clearly defined audience and identified need. As authors, we’d done our part. But it was finding this particular publisher that was key.

She was a perfect fit. It’s a stretch to say that we chose her—we found her, and she chose us. She was always on the edge—not a traditional publisher at all, and she offered much more— something similar, really, to supported self-publishing:

Agile, nimble publishing, always with an eye on the horizon. We knew there was an immediate need to get a resource like ours into the hands of teachers. The test was brand new, and we were the first responders. Our publisher also recognized this, and had the experience with printing, marketing and distribution and a relationship with school boards and teachers to make it happen quickly.

A collaborative approach, including control over our work and retention of our rights. Collaborating with a publisher is a sure sign that that publisher is non-traditional. Over the years we created new resources in response to trends our publisher identified by listening to what teachers were telling her. Similarly, she could get behind most of our ideas for new resources, always with the marketing savvy and reach into the schools that we were lacking.

Generous royalties. For the time. Yes, we shared 26 percent (a rate later reduced to 20 percent when printing and shipping costs increased). But the only interest we had from a large traditional publisher offered a measly 6 percent, so 3 percent each.

Why, then, are we choosing now to take back our titles and self-publish?

For many of the same reasons we chose our independent publisher 12 years ago, except that times have changed (in case you haven’t noticed). For one thing, we are more experienced and confident. For instance, if a publisher were to tell us now that our yearly renewable market of over 100,000 students is a niche, we would not need to stifle that snort of disbelief.

Many of the functions our publisher performed can now be automated or handled electronically. Social media has made reach into schools much easier (if still a bit tricky) and truly, it’s been hard to watch 80 percent of revenues from our books drift past the window while we’ve held on (barely) to a paltry 20 percent. It took us a while to fully realize this, but when we did, there was no turning back.

Beyond the obvious efficiencies that digital makes possible, a couple of principles are guiding our decisions.

Educational resources should be digital—for ease and speed of delivery, and for the ability to update and customize content quickly. Why should schools wait a year or more for the most current resource? Why should they pay for shipping? Students have been ready for digital for some time. Teachers, too, are stepping forward to make this request on their students’ behalf. Digital also takes consumption out of play. Most of our resources are consumable workbooks, and making these digital reduces a huge amount of paper waste. But not until recently have the format and tools that best support literacy activities been made widely available.

Print is the anchor dragging behind our boat. For students who require a print format or schools that aren’t adequately equipped with computers, we are happy to make a printable download available—and the delivery is digital. But as long as we actively promote and offer a print book alongside our digital interactive workbook, we’ll be standing in our own way. So we’ve stopped. Pedagogically, the digital tools available to teachers and students using our interactive resource are far superior to anything available in print.

A couple of years ago we published an ebook, and last year, in response to a request from a teacher, we created and piloted our interactive workbook. Teachers have responded with interest and a bit of caution. But they like our books—which are tried and true, after all—and so teachers are willing to give them a try.

During this process, though, it became increasingly clear that our publisher would never give up print. She had stopped resembling a self-pub and seemed now to have more in common with traditional publishers, trying to wring the last nickel from a format that no longer best serves its audience.

How to Become a Publisher, Step 1: Build a Website

By Corina Koch MacLeod

Traditional Publishing Bingo


What’s the first step you need to take when you’re setting up a digital publishing company? Writing a business plan? Maybe not. I’d like to suggest building a website should be your first step.

Start With a Website

I have nothing against writing business plans, but the act of building a website is, to me, a more authentic exercise to help you consider what you want your publishing company to be about. You’ll need to know what you’re about in order to communicate it to your potential customers. Why not begin with that end in mind?

Self-publishing author Joanna Penn has said, “I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it down.” I believe that’s been true for us. Writing content for our website has forced us to narrow our focus and make lots of important decisions.

Start Small

We’ve published several literacy print resources in the past 12 years, but we’ve decided to focus on our bestseller for now while shifting from printed books to digital resources (with printable PDFs for those who still like print). We will roll out our other resources as time allows.

We realize the Don’t Panic Books website is a work in progress. We are going to make some mistakes, and we will need to make changes. It is, right now, our best attempt to communicate to our audience what we’re about and how we can help them.

As we begin to interact with our audience—something that wasn’t easily done when our publisher was at the helm—we can adjust our message as they make their needs more clear to us. Now, I don’t know of a customer who’d read your business plan, do you?

Steps for Building a Website

Are you setting up a publishing company, too? Are you considering selling books directly to your customers? Creating a website involves a few steps that can be a little confusing at first. Here are the basics:

1. Choose a domain name.
Your domain is the web address people will use to find your publishing company. Put a great deal of thought into what you’ll name your site, and make sure it’s easy to remember. There are many do’s and don’ts for naming a web site; you may want to consider all of them.

We didn’t choose the name of our publishing site: our audience did. The first book we published in 2002 was titled: Don’t Panic: A Guide to Passing the Literacy Test in Ontario. At the time there was a great deal of anxiety surrounding the test (hence the Don’t Panic in our title). Teachers were asked to prepare students for the test without resources to support this process. Teachers began to refer to our resources as “the Don’t Panic books,” so we stuck with the name. Listen to your audience: they may tell you something important.

When you decide on the name of your website, you’ll need to see if that domain name is already taken. You’ll then need to purchase your domain name from a site that offers domain names for sale. Go Daddy is a popular domain registrar, but it isn’t the only choice. We were able to purchase our domain name through our web host (see below).

2. Choose a web host.
A web host is a company that hosts your website. Think of hosting as space you rent on the Internet. Again, there are many web hosts to choose from, so do your research. We chose Bluehost because it

  • offers 24/7 support for the first year,
  • has some great website building tools,
  • offers a free domain name for one year,
  • will allow us to build more than one website with the same account, and
  • offers five free email addresses.

3. Choose a website building tool.
Website building tools are designed to make setting up a website easier. Gone are the days when you’d have to hand code your website in HTML.

WordPress is a popular open-source website building tool with lots of features, but if this is your first website and you’re looking for something easy to use, the Weebly website building tool is by far the easiest way to begin. Building a site with Blogger is an option, too, if you’re interested in blogging or setting up an author website, and not selling anything from your website.

We built our first two websites with Weebly, and housed our blogs on Blogger, but recently switched over to WordPress so we can make use of some of WordPress’ time-saving plug-ins. Both WordPress and Weebly have options for setting up an online store, or using plug-ins that enable you to sell books from your website.

4. Follow a tutorial.
Weebly is pretty intuitive, and I found I could just experiment with Weebly’s drag-and-drop features to set up a website with little frustration. WordPress was another story. It’s packed with features, and it can take some getting used to. I followed this tutorial by Simon Whistler to set up the Don’t Panic Books WordPress site.

5. Use a website checklist. Once you have your website set up, you’ll want to consider what features you’ll need. A website checklist can help you to make decisions and keep you on track.

6. Build anticipation. Your website doesn’t have to go live right away. It can go live when you’re ready. See if your website building tool has a “coming soon” page template or plug-in that you can mount while you work on your website in the background.

Setting up a publishing company is a bit of an undertaking, but beginning with a website will help you to set a direction and to clarify what you want to be about.

For more information on the ins and outs of setting up a website, see Jane Friedman’s post, Self-Hosting Your Author Website: Why and How to Do It.

Image by Shmuel

Why You Should Become Your Own Publisher

By Corina Koch MacLeod

Are you a traditionally published author who wants to self-publish?

Carla and I have been working with a small independent publisher for 12 years, and recently we’ve made the decision to self-publish our educational resources. To do so, we need to become publishers.

New Series

This post is the first in a series about the steps we’re taking to set up our publishing company, Don’t Panic Books. These won’t be “we’ve got it all figured out” posts, but rather, “this is what we’re trying” posts. So, if you’re on the fence about self-publishing, do stick around and watch our trials and triumphs.

Why Self-publish?

Why did we decide to strike out on our own? There are many reasons. Here are a few of them:

  • According to The Guardian, traditional publishing is no longer sustainable.
  • It’s time to move from print to digital. Print costs and shipping costs have skyrocketed. We can offer teachers (our audience) our resources at a lower cost if we can provide digital resources and resources they can print on an as-needs basis.
  • Removing shipping and printing from the equation means we may be able to automate the selling process. Because we’re also busy editors (hands-on time), we need to figure out where we can be hands-off.
  • Teachers are looking for ways to incorporate tech literacy into their teaching. Our interactive resources will make it easy for them to do so. There are many good reasons why going digital can help students learn.
  • There is a move in self-publishing toward “going direct”—selling from your website instead of relying solely on a publisher or distributor, such as Amazon. This is especially true if you have an established audience. Now is a great time to give that a try.
  • Author royalties for traditional publishing are typically low (8–15%), compared with self-publishing royalties (35–80%). Having said that…
  • We don’t have much to lose. These resources have been successful for 12 years. We’ve had a good run with them, and they owe us nothing.

Check Your Rights

We were able to stop the presses, so to speak, because we hold all rights to our books. We’ve realized that this arrangement with our traditional publisher has been rather atypical.

Many authors would like to take back their books from their publishers but can’t because the publishers hold the rights. Check your publishing contract. Some authors can get their rights back after a period of time. You may be one of them.

First Steps

In The $100 Start Up, author Chris Gillebeau writes:

“To start a business, you need three things: a product or service, a group of people willing to pay for it, and a way to get paid. Everything else is completely optional.”

We have our product—Don’t Panic Interactive: On-the Go Practice for the OSSLT—so we started our publishing company by devising a way to showcase it. In our next post, I’ll share the first step we took, and I’ll clarify a few things so you don’t run into the snags that we did.

Authors have been moving from print to digital and from tradpub to selfpub in waves since 2010. Are you a traditionally published author who is thinking about making the leap to self-publishing? What is the first step you’ll take to set up your publishing company?

Image by Bernard Goldbach

Going Beyond the Book: When What You Have is Not What They’re Looking For


by Corina Koch MacLeod

it's your call
Image by debaird

Is it possible that a book is no longer just a book?

I wrestled with this question when a teacher contacted us this week about a literacy workbook that Carla and I have written. The workbook has been used by schools to prepare students for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test for over 10 years.

We published an ebook version (Don’t Panic 2.0: On-the-Go Practice for the OSSLT) nearly two years ago, and while teachers have been curious about it, schools haven’t yet found a way to use the ebook in the classroom.

If this article is any indication, not all Ontario teachers are sure about the role of technology in the classroom, even though “69% of high school students believe mobile devices will replace textbooks in five years.” So, up until now, the print version has been the overwhelming preference.

Asking for Something that Doesn’t Exist

So back to the teacher… she contacted us about Don’t Panic 2.0, the ebook version. She had a problem to solve and it wasn’t going to be solved by a print book.

This teacher teaches in a fairly large school, and she and her teaching colleagues prepare students for the OSSLT by offering reading and writing workshops during lunch hour and assigning them sections of the Don’t Panic workbook for homework. The problem was that students needed to find teachers to pick up the homework assignment, and they’d have to connect with teachers two more times to drop off their completed homework and pick it up after it was marked.

Logistically, students chasing teachers and teachers chasing students became a game of hide-and-seek. The not-so-fun variety. She was hoping that something digital would solve the problem and engage students at the same time. She admitted that she wasn’t very tech savvy, but was willing to embrace a tech solution. Don’t you love her already?

After a bit of back-and-forth I realized that the ebook wouldn’t solve all aspects of the problemat least not elegantly. She was looking for something that she couldn’t quite articulate and that didn’t yet exist on our backlist.

Nimble Publishing

In the end, it occurred to me that the teacher was asking me to create an interactive PDF from our print resource that she could upload to her school’s intranet. I had recently learned that Adobe upped their game with Adobe Reader XI and with the ubiquity of tablets, PDFs appeared to be, suprisingly, back in the game as an e-reading option.

Students could download the file from the intranet to their home computers, work directly in the file at their computers (or tablets), and then upload the file for teachers to check. No chasing necessary. The teacher was over the moon about this idea until…

Cold (Tech) Feet

…she realized that she’d have to teach her colleagues how to learn to use an interactive PDFsomething she didn’t yet know how to do herself.

For those of you who don’t know, Adobe Reader XI now has amazing features that allow for interactivity. Students can write and draw on a PDF and teachers can mark up, leave written comments or audio record comments, on a PDF, too. Adobe also has a text-speech feature, which is a boon for English Language Learners and students who have communication-related learning disabilities. Learning to use these features isn’t at all difficult, but learning anything new can seem so at first.

Beyond the Book Examples

To support this teacher, we need to go beyond the book. We’ve done this already by creating the Don’t Panic Tips blog which helps to address a wide variety of topics related to reading in a digital world. More specifically, though, we’ll need to create some tutorials and a demo video or two on Adobe Reader XI that can step teachers through the process of using an interactive PDF. It’s not enough to tell our readers that using an interactive PDF is easy, we have to guide them, or show them.

Going beyond the book seems to be par for the course in publishing nowadays. And authors are finding some wonderfully creative ways to go beyond the book in order to support or attract readers.

Self-publishing gurus Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch, authors of Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How to Publish a Book, offer a self-publishing intelligence test to help authors wrap their heads around self-publishing and a free ebook template—the one they used to create their ebookto demonstrate how to style a Word document for ebook conversion.

Karen Bergen, author of Overcoming SAD: The Happy Hippie Yoga Chick’s Guide to Beating Winter Flip-Out (due out in November 2013) has included fun downloadable colouring pages and yoga videos that demonstrate the yoga  poses she describes in her resource-rich and lighthearted take on dealing with seasonal affective disorder.

There are lots of ways to go beyond the book. What are some of your favourite ways? Don’t be afraid to let your readers give you a nudge, like one of our readers did.

Related Posts

How to Use an Interactive Literacy Resource (for the OSSLT)
Playing With Interactive PDFs: A Discovery Learning Mini-lesson
Thinking About Dictating Your Book? Here Are a Few Things to Consider