This month’s guest post is from Katie Barron, who gives us the story of her self-published book and the challenges she met – and overcame – along the way.
The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.
Going it alone: Amazon warrior or Don Quixote?
by Katie Barron
I met some of the lovely MaWSIG people at the Meetup in Oxford last autumn. The seasoned pros in the materials-writing voyage told me what I had heard before on my Delta course: that you can’t just publish a book in ELT. You can contribute to books. So have fun with that (if you can get the work) and be content.
But what if you don’t agree with the way the coursebooks do things?
I started off my zig-zagging working life as a financial journalist. I had to pick out the best performing investment funds for Investors Chronicle magazine. The funny thing was, the more you looked into it, the more you found how similar the funds were: all buying the same stocks. They rose and fell in line with the market, not daring to be different.
Maybe the herd instinct is a rational response in a competitive market. It is certainly striking how similar ELT books for beginners to lower intermediate are, down to almost identical chapter headings: Unit 1 – Names, Unit 2 – Nationalities … Teams upon teams are writing these things, but I imagine the writers must be coming under considerable pressure to do it the same way it’s always been done. I have not found in the mainstream any control experiments to see if, say, ‘Body’, or ‘Shopping’, would work better as a first unit.
I wanted to write a self-study series called Handy English. The idea was a helping hand for students struggling with courses, or adults struggling with working life: A–Z format, minimal rubric, lots of illustrations (especially at the lower levels). I started in at Elementary level and wrote the text on the train to work while I was pregnant. That was the easy part!
The first problem was that a lot of people, even publishers, find it hard to imagine a finished product from a draft. I had 100 pages, with between two and eight illustrations per page. I couldn’t afford to pay an artist for that much work just to submit to publishers.
I piloted the text without pictures at Oaklands College, St Albans, and gave the students the challenge of illustrating the text as a way of checking comprehension. The piloting led to a lot of changes in the rubrics – chapter headings, explanations, instructions – mainly minimising them. It was useful for me, but not that much fun for some of the students, who hated drawing!
At the London Book Fair, it was the foreign publishers who were available to chat at their stands. Andrew Betsis of Global ELT encouraged me to be an ELT rebel but suggested starting at the advanced level, where there are fewer books. A Singapore publisher would have liked Handy English if it hadn’t been self-study. He wanted classroom books, so as to make bulk sales.
My book went in a drawer and I got on with mothering. But then I read about publishing eBooks via Amazon for free, so I decided to try self-publishing.
I sent a tentative email to the Illustration department at the University of Hertfordshire, wondering if my book might be a project for some of their students. Ten young artists came on board on a profit-sharing arrangement and produced the lively humorous atmosphere to the pages that I’d imagined. It is dead fiddly paying those royalties every quarter to all those artists, but worth it.
The main point to make about self-publishing via Amazon is that it is absolutely free: no sale, no cost. Their digital publishing arm, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing gives you 70% of every sale. Their paperback publishing arm, CreateSpace, takes a higher percentage, especially if you want to publish in colour, but you can set the price you want and they will show you what your profit will be for whatever price you choose. Their print quality is excellent and they will give you a free ISBN. However, if you want copies for yourself, you have to buy them like everyone else.
I published in both media, print and digital. With both, uploading texts is easy. With Amazon Kindle, you can upload a Word document, so long as you have kept to simple formatting (they have a formatting guide). As I had a complex layout and wanted to upload a PDF, I used their option of Kindle Textbook Creator, which you can download for free and rapidly. For CreateSpace, you upload a PDF.
I recommend a professional designer for the cover. Once you have uploaded your PDF to CreateSpace, they will send you a specification that includes the spine thickness, for your designer to follow. My cover cost £40, designed by the Mailboxes shop round the corner from me in St Albans. Publishers and booksellers all read the back cover so you have to swallow your pride and ask your contacts for quotes to put on there.
And the downside? The vastness of that Amazon catalogue. I was advised to change my title from Handy English A–Z to Learn English A–Z on the basis of market research into keywords (see sites such as www.merchantwords.com). But, to my frustration, after the book went live on Amazon, I typed ‘Learn English’ into the Amazon’s search engine and up came Learn Spanish, Learn Knitting … I had to scroll down several pages before I met my book. It’s all done on sales figures – a catch-22. Six months down the line the situation has improved as my sales figures, still modest, have nevertheless pushed the book onto the first page of the catalogue.
Amazon is not suited to EFL students browsing for a book. So I am very happy that Anthony Forrester is now publishing Learn English A–Z Meet the British! on his digital education platform, Intrinsic Books. And from this month the Bournemouth English Book Centre is stocking it and helping with the publicity. But this has only happened because I produced a physical book to show to publishers and booksellers – the book printed by Amazon CreateSpace.
As they say, ‘Build it and they will come’. I don’t know if I have a money spinner yet. The two Amazon companies are paying me £25–£30 a month and I have to give about a third of that to my artists. But I like my book!
Katie Barron has 20 years’ experience teaching ESOL and EFL, in the UK in FE settings, in Ireland in community projects and in Italy at the University of Trieste. Her self-study book for Elementary students ‘Learn English A–Z: Meet the British!’ is now available through Amazon, www.intrinsicbooks.co.uk and www.bebc.co.uk. Facebook: Learn English A-Z Blog: www.katiealicebarron.wordpress.com Tweets: @KatieStAlbans
Congratulations Katie … for the book of course and for the blog post. I loved the way you got the illustrators on board and I bet they are all delighted to be ‘in print’ and have something real to add to their portfolios. As someone who has several self-publishing ideas up their sleeve, you’ve given me plenty of food for thought and practical advice. Good luck with the new outlets too. Maybe you can give us an update in a year’s time – unless you’ve retired and are living it up somewhere on your inflated earnings.
Thank-you for the encouragement! I’ve just seen your blog posts at https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/katherine-bilsborough I especially like your thoughts on praising and building confidence. Maybe a book on the psychological aspects of EFL??
Great article, Katie. Well done. Self publishing is a minefield for the unaware and ill-prepared, your article is a good guide on what to avoid and what to do!
Thanks Anthony. I think professional publishers are excellent at analysing and segmenting the market. Teachers like myself have a tendency to try to please everyone at once. It’s a learning curve!
It’s so interesting to read. I’m inspired to sell on Amazon.
Did you use any tools like https://kparser.com/amazon-keyword-tool/ to creat appropriate titles and descriptions for your selling pages?
Keep us in touch with more advice 🙂