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.

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