by Carla Douglas (@CarlaJDouglas)
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.