A Touch of Class: Tips on Self-Publishing Textbooks

By: Timothy Penning, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA
Feb. 1, 2020
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Three things I noticed in recent years inspired me to self-publish my own textbook. One was an increase in the number of students not engaging with traditional textbooks, and another was professionals frequently asking me to have coffee so they could pick my brain about public relations. These conversations, with people new to public relations or in completely different professions, often focused specifically on how to write news releases or work with the media. 

The third thing that led me to self-publish my own textbook was a conference for college professors that I attended last summer, which inspired me to take to the full extent some changes in pedagogy I had been exploring. This included doing a “flipped class” approach in several of my courses, including media relations writing. This meant that instead of lecturing in class and then having students do assignments on their own time, I would have them engage the information outside of class and also apply it in classroom activities with me present to assist them.

I converted my lectures to a PDF book and posted it on my course website for students. To ensure they would read it, I made the material approachable and practical. Along the way, I learned a few things about self-publishing a textbook:

Make audience interest paramount.

Publishing your own work can seem like an exercise in pride, but the goal must be to gain readership, and that has to stay front and center from planning to publication. With my book, I wanted to reach traditional college students who are currently in class, and professionals who have specific learning objectives, short-term tasks, or professional development goals.

Set practical expectations.

If someone wants to put out a novel, then the  obvious goal is for readers who seek entertainment. Textbooks are a different matter — they’re all about learning. A textbook’s writing style, length and any illustrations, activities and exercises all must appeal to intended readers.

Organize the book strategically.

People often buy books based not only on descriptions, but also on their tables of contents — which also show how books are organized. College courses usually last 15 or 16 weeks, so planning that many chapters for a textbook is a good strategy. If a PDF book is intended for professionals, its sections and headings and the ability to jump to a specific chapter can be selling points.

Format first.

Whether the book will be published as an e-book or hard copy, the major publishing platforms — including Apple Books, Amazon and Barnes & Noble — each have specific formatting requirements. To avoid having to reformat your book later on, set up author accounts on each platform and check their requirements before writing. 

The “Apple Pages” software has a feature that lets you export your book to Apple Books. Amazon’s Kindle has its own free software called “Kindle Create,” which can convert a source file to something that works with Amazon Kindle. Otherwise, a Microsoft Word document, PDF or EPUB format can be accepted, provided that fonts, margins and other aspects meet standards. 

Create a strong cover.

Contrary to the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover, people in the publishing industry stress how important covers are for gaining attention, communicating credibility and helping sell books. The various publishing platforms offer templates to create book covers, but it’s best to have an original cover that stands out, rather than something generic. Authors should check cover specifications and design their own, or hire a designer to create a visually appealing cover that captures attention and sets the right tone for the book.

Weigh your price strategy and goals.

You might set your book’s price to cover your publishing costs or to make it affordable for intended buyers. It’s best to price the book lower than traditional publishers would, but not so low that the book seems to have little value. Find books on similar topics and price yours competitively. You might choose to offer your PDF book free on a personal or business website to establish yourself as a thought leader.

Look professional with copyright and ISBN.

Publishing platforms will ask about the book’s copyright and ISBN (International Standard Book Number). Having both will protect your book, make it easier for readers to find, and establish an air of professionalism. Register your book’s copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office and order its ISBN. Bowker Identifier Services can help with both.

Remember to promote.

For authors, self-publishing offers total control, but that also means total responsibility for every aspect of publishing your book, including promoting it. The best promotional methods include establishing a platform on social media as an expert on your book’s subject matter, dedicating a webpage to the book as a quick referral link, offering to speak on the book’s subject, writing guest columns on relevant topics and pitching traditional media. 

Just as industries from music to education have been disrupted, so too has book publishing. There is an opportunity and a need for more authors to publish their own work. Self-publishing your book may not lead to fame and riches, but it can be a new way to teach and communicate.  


photo credit: isovector