Self-Publication Takes the “Student” out of “Student Writers”
This case study describes a collective self-publication project I facilitated with college students in a freshman English class. Through a series of rigorously structured steps, the students composed and revised original pieces of personal narrative writing, arranged their pieces into individual chapters, combined their chapters into a multi-author manuscript, and published the resulting book, which we called Writing Our Truth: Stories of Struggle and Survival, using the KDP platform on Amazon. Along the way, students not only received a crash course in writing for publication, but they also developed online marketing materials to promote the book; made decisions about the book’s layout, format, design, and editing; and collaborated to coordinate a book launch party and to schedule other promotional events. Most importantly, they came to identify themselves as professional, published authors, which, in fact, they were. As part of their experience as professional writers, the students have not only seen their own book get published, circulated, reviewed, and sold, but they have also been interviewed by a film crew about their writing, they have discussed their craft with other professional writers, and they have been planning their own marketing strategy. In public appearances and media interviews about their writing, as well as in our in-class discussions, they came to talk about their writing as a vocation and a craft. This experience provided a dramatic lesson in the ability of self-publication to increase the relevance of writing assignments, to foster a sense of community, and to empower students to own their voice and to write their truth.
The case study will describe the process we used to complete this enormous project in the span of a single semester. We started off with a clearly articulated schedule of deadlines that would ensure that we would have enough time to compile the content for the book, to arrange and edit it thoughtfully, and to oversee the publication rollout. We organized the semester into a writing phase, a design/editing phase, and a marketing phase. Our last class was the book launch party. Over the course of the semester, the classroom activities varied widely according to the phase of the project, beginning with “open mic” style readings in which the students shared their memoir essays with one another, then evolving into workshop and peer-review sessions, and finally transforming into a series of editorial “board” meetings, where we all sat around a big table and brainstormed ideas about what the book should look like and how we should let people know about it. Although the particular class of students who worked on this project was somewhat unique (they were all in a cohort model together, and they all shared an enthusiasm for writing), this book-writing project is entirely replicable in other contexts, with the right preparation. The case study will also consider ways in which this project can be modified for different disciplines, and it also provides important suggestions for avoiding some of the pitfalls and complications that we encountered.
After completing this case study, participants will be able to…
- Describe how multiple means of action and expression in the postsecondary classroom can be accomplished through a self-publication project.
- Identify possibilities for using self-publication projects in their classroom.
- Make a plan for incorporating a self-publication project into their classroom.
The book project is rooted in a UDL-based pedagogical model that emphasizes personalized learning and multiple means of action and expression, and it evolved as an application of these principles to student writing. Eodice, Geller, and Lerner (2017) have found that “students find writing projects meaningful when they have opportunities to connect on a personal level, to find meaning beyond the specifics of the assignment itself, and to imagine future selves or future writing identities connected to their goals and interests” (p. 29). When students think of an academic paper as an end in itself, it may be difficult for them to think of writing assignments as “agentive, relevant, and consequential” (p.29). One way of restoring these important qualities to the writing situation is to frame the writing of a students’ essays as a step along the way to producing something more permanent and meaningful. The specific UDL principles that this project aims to address are primarily those listed under guidelines 5 – provide guidelines for expression and communication – and guideline 7 – provide options for recruiting interest. Guideline 5 includes an emphasis on using “multiple media for communication” and “multiple tools for … composition” (2011), which the book project certainly does. Guideline 7 emphasizes the importance of optimizing “relevance, value, and authenticity,” an aim which has been achieved by providing students with a space to reflect on their lives and discover their own unique voices. My anticipation, which has been dramatically fulfilled, was that the goal of publishing a book would increase the quality and meaningfulness of student writing and also enhance students’ involvement with their own coursework and with the class in general.
The idea to write a book actually came from the students. They were all enrolled in a memoir-writing class, and they all shared an interest in telling the stories of their lives. As they described some of their personal learning goals, it became clear that there was a lot of overlap among the different students’ backgrounds and personal motivations, and that all of their stories were, in a sense, one story, and that this story could be imagined as a composite book. Once the idea of writing a book came into focus, it provided a challenging but galvanizing common purpose that shaped our approach to the class.
The most immediate challenge was that of writing the book itself. With about ten students in the class, we calculated that every student would have to write at least ten pages of content in order to develop sufficient material for a slim, 100-page volume. We also calculated that this content would have to be generated by at least the mid-point in the semester in order to ensure that we would have time to edit it, publish it, and shepherd it into the market. Establishing a timeline and a schedule of deadlines for the project helped to bring the task into focus.
Given the exigencies of this schedule, and given the diversity of the students’ own stories and voices, I did not want to be overly prescriptive in telling them what to write about or how to write about it. I wanted then to feel free to write about whatever was on their minds, in the most natural way that came to them. For this reason, although the “routine” syllabus for the memoir class contained a large number of readings from famous memoir-writers, I eliminated the professional writers and used the students’ own writing samples as the “texts” for the class.
In the first few classes, we discussed the genre of memoir itself – what it usually is and isn’t – and brainstormed as many different memoir topics as we could come up with. We found a number of Internet articles with titles like 55 Memoir Ideas and 650 Prompts for Narrative and personal Writing, and free-associated with them. During these initial conversations, I encouraged the students to generate their own lists for potential memoir essay ideas, sketching out an outline for their own writing agenda going forward.
Most importantly, we tried to establish an intellectual climate where any writing about anything would be respected and supported. While creative writing classes are frequently conducted according to a “workshop” model, where student work is subjected to critique by a peer community, I wanted to promote more of an “open mic” atmosphere, where everyone’s voice would be supported and nurtured for its own sake. Toward the end of the semester, I would have an opportunity to discuss this classroom dynamic in a short video, Figure 1, about the work we had done in the class. When students responded to each other’s readings, they were encouraged to address questions that emphasize positive feedback, such as:
- What did you like most about this piece of writing?
- What other stories or texts did this piece of writing remind you of?
- What words or sentences stand out as particularly memorable or noteworthy?
- What do you want to know more about?
This non-judgmental environment allowed the students to develop their writing according to their own impressions of what they were hoping to achieve, and to enhance students’ appreciation for the variety of ways that human beings use language to communicate and understand their own lives.
Part of respecting this variety included providing students with multiple means of expressing themselves throughout this “creative” of “generative” phase of the book project. While the “live readings” played an important part in the class sessions themselves, outside of the class, the students developed their writing into “multiple media for communication.” Each of the students posted “6-word memoirs” to a website that specializes in this genre, and they all set up their own blog sites, where they would post drafts of their stories and see each other’s writing (see examples here and here). We also recorded some of the live readings, Figure 2, to share on social media, and some of these videos incorporated textual, Figure 3 or visual elements, Figure 4 as well. Throughout this flurry of activity, we all pushed each other to imagine new ways of telling our stories and expressing our ideas, respecting and celebrating the diversity of our communicative strategies.
Compilation and Editing
After five weeks of generating content, we turned our attention to an assessment of the writing the students had done. This new phase of the book project began with the following assignment:
Please compile your memoir essays into a single document that will be the rough draft of your chapter. You may consider adding in your six-word memoir, as well as any pictures or other visual elements that you think would enhance your chapter. Make sure to proofread through the whole document.
In class next Tuesday, you will deliver a brief presentation of your chapter. We will put your chapter draft up on the Smartboard, and you can talk us through the decisions you made in putting your essay together. Consider such questions as:
- How does your chapter tell a “story” with a beginning, middle, and end?
- What are the most significant themes that run throughout your chapter?
- What do you think is the strongest essay in your chapter, and what do you like about it?
- Which essay in your chapter could best benefit from some revision, and what would you do to add to it, edit it, or change it?
- If you were to add another essay to your chapter, what would it be about?
I look forward to talking with you next week about your chapters!
Some of the students arranged their memoirs chronologically, so that their chapters moved forward in linear time. Other students took a more thematic approach, where the individual essays were organized according to the way they developed a particular theme, and other students prioritized the “emotional curve” created by a certain arrangement of individual pieces. Each student was encouraged to use the organizational strategy which seemed most appropriate to their own writing, encouraging them to experiment with multiple formats for compiling their chapters. Since the students were already intimately familiar with one another’s writing, they were well-equipped to provide informed and judicious editorial suggestions about how the different pieces fit together, and several students produced more content and revised existing chapters to enhance the cohesiveness and continuity of their chapters.
As they organized, revised, and edited their memoirs, the students became more familiar with the particular attributes that made their writing style unique. We had conversations about how certain aspects of a student’s writing style reflected elements of his or her personality, and we also observed numerous similarities among the different writers’ chapters, similarities of tone, subject, and language that testified to the shared conditions under which the students had been writing. The conversation about the arrangement of individual chapters naturally developed into a conversation about how to sequence all of the chapters – whose should be first, whose should be last, etc. – a discussion that required a nuanced sensitivity both to the conventions of written texts and to the qualities of their own and their classmates’ chapters.
Mostly, these conversations played out around a large “editorial” table that we made by moving all of the desks into the center of the room. Once a draft of the complete manuscript had been compiled, I made weekly trips to the biggest photocopier on campus to print out enough galley proofs of the complete manuscript so that everyone could have one to refer to during our meetings. As weekly revisions were made to the manuscript, these enormous print jobs became weekly affairs, but the impact of seeing the document take shape in a pile of copier paper became an extremely motivational influence, allowing us to begin to envision the individual contributions as part of this larger whole.
Over the course of these editorial meetings, we also began to consider questions about what the book would look like. One of the writers had included in her chapter a photo of a still life painting for which she had won an award. The halved peach in the picture reminded us of the book’s theme of “peeling back the surface” of people’s lives, and the vibrancy of the colors suggested the vitality of the voices inside. We had our cover image. We also referenced other examples of personal memoir books to get ideas about what our book should look like. Informed by these examples, we hashed out a title, composed a marketing statement for the back of the book, wrote bio blurbs and took selfies for the “About the Authors” section, and settled on a font for the text and a scheme for laying out the chapters so that they always began on the right-hand page. The students also collectively decided that they wanted to write a “Note to the Reader” that foregrounded their sense of shared purpose in writing the book.
During this phase of the class, we invited several speakers to class to share their own experiences with self-publication and to serve as a sounding-board for questions about how our project was coming together. With a self-imposed deadline looming for submitting the manuscript, the class worked together to comb through the manuscript to make last-minute editing decisions, and, at last, we had a finalized book-length manuscript of 118 pages, ready to hit the digital shelves.
Publication and Marketing
To publish the book, we used the KDP platform on Amazon, which offers a free self-publication option that is intuitive and easy to use. While we waited for the sample copy to arrive in the mail, we set up a Facebook page, wrote Twitter posts, composed a press release about our book project for local media outlets, and contributed to a blog article for the University’s website. We also found ourselves giving interviews to educational researchers who produced a video, Figure 5, about our book project. Stimulated by these interviews, we also worked together to sketch out ideas for scholarly posters, presentations, and articles that we could conceivably write about our experience working on the book project. We discovered to our collective surprise that we were doing just as much writing after the book had been published than we did when we were actually writing the book. Once again, the students found many opportunities for communicating their experience through multiple means of representation. Moreover, this phase of the class was characterized by a strong sense of purpose, since we had a very specific objectives for the writing we were doing to advertise the book. The incentive to share their story, the collective support they received from the rest of the group, and the excitement of being involved in a unique writing situation all worked together to engender a keen sense of the “relevance, value, and authenticity” of the work we were doing.
One of our visiting authors also suggested that we organize a launch party, which we scheduled for the last day of class. We then spent the final weeks of the class preparing for the launch party. Not only did we need to create a flyer and some social marketing content around the event, but we also had to develop a PowerPoint presentation to describe the book project to the launch party audience, plan how we would organize the readings, prepare answers to likely questions from the audience, and practice appearing on a panel and performing a public reading. The launch party event, Figure 6, provided an emotionally satisfying opportunity for the volume’s contributors to definitively shed the “student” designation and to accept the collective recognition of themselves as full-fledged writers, full stop.
Indeed, part of what has been so motivational about this project has been the students’ sense that, in writing this book, they are no longer “students” at all, but professional writers operating on an equal footing with established writers. In many disciplines, the gap between student and expert is characterized by objective criteria, from having a certain knowledge-base to achieving formal licensure or certification. The field of composition, however, is relatively unique in that the only differentiators between writing students and writing experts are platform and mindset. Writers who publish their work in a blog, an online video, a podcast, or a self-published book are working as professional writers, with all of the rights, privileges, and honors thereunto appertaining; ie, the right to discuss the topic of writing from an expert’s point of view, the privilege of critiquing the work of other writers, and the honors of social prestige that attend the highly-regarded and storied profession of the writer. The availability of publication opportunities on the Internet allows people who happen to be students in a writing class to instantly transform themselves as if by magic into novelists, pundits, critics, commentators, social media personalities, content creators, and other types of expert rhetoricians who use language to influence opinions, raise awareness, provoke debate, and shed light in intimate corners of human existence. Tom Woodin has observed that, “[w]hile literacy students have often been portrayed as needing to master ‘basic skills,’” educational opportunities that encourage students to publish their writing illustrate “how more complex and philosophical notions can be part of the learning process” (2008, p. 231). The thoughtfulness and poetic depth of the essays in Writing Our Truth provide vivid examples of how the prospect of self-publication can incentivize freshman-level student writers to express themselves in surprising and evocative language.
The same qualities that make publication so motivational, however, can also present landmines and pitfalls. Everyone involved with this project agrees that the process of writing and publishing “Writing Our Truth” was profoundly educational, and one of the most important things it taught us was what we should do differently if and when we ever try to replicate this experiment. Ultimately, disagreements among the student contributors led to the decision to “pull the plug” on Writing Our Truth, since they threatened to cause the exhilarating experience of making the book to devolve into an acrimonious and tendentious aftermath. Any educators who consider self-publishing a multi-author volume of their students’ work should implement the following precautions.
- The most important principle to bear in mind when helping students to publish their own writing is to always ensure that the students feel confident that they have final editing authority over anything they write. Some of the stories in “Writing Our Truth” were extremely personal, even confessional, and, although I clarified to the students at every point that anything they included in the final manuscript would become public information, some of the students had changes of heart after the book was published about which details of their lives they wanted to share. In order to respect their concerns, we published a few “revised editions” after the first publication, but this process became onerous, contributing to our decision to “un-publish” the book.
- Arrange to have any publications hosted on an institutional KDP page, instead of the instructor’s personal account. This precaution prevents the instructor from being responsible for the logistics of the publication beyond the end of the class itself, enhances the professionalism of the product, and allows administration to wield some control over the fate of the project.
- Have a frank discussion about money and copyright, and draw up a formal contract signed by all of the students that clarifies the financial and legal aspects of the publication arrangement. In our class, we discussed these topics at our “publication board meetings,” but students who were absent on that day felt that they had not been represented in those decisions, leading to another source of conflict. It would be best practice (and extremely educational) to invite someone from the institution’s legal department to come to class and talk students through the legal issues involved and to oversee the drafting of a document that specifies the details of the publication arrangement.
- Closely related to the previous point, the best policy for anyone working with groups of students to publish their writing is to avoid including any profit margin in the sale of the book. KDP allows authors the option of setting the price of a book so that it covers the cost of producing the book, and nothing more. Setting the price of the book at this baseline price point would have helped prevent student concerns about what became of these monies. During our meetings, however, some students suggested donating any profits to local charities, which we agreed to do, so we programmed in a minor profit-margin into the book’s sale value. While this was a well-intentioned gesture, it proved to be logistically cumbersome, and led some students to feel that money thy had earned was being siphoned away from them.
- From the first day of class, I tried to keep expectations low. The most common thing that happens to self-published books is that they occupy a lonely and unvisited Amazon page for decades, representing a significant accomplishment for the people who wrote them, but occupying their own small world. Our book was supposed to be a kind of drawing-room exercise, a humble utterance in the void. At one point, however, when people at our institution became excited about the promise these writers displayed, someone made an enthusiastic but ill-advised suggestion that we could mail a copy to a celebrity friend of the University, who might then feature it on her talk show, who might then invite the authors to appear on the show, which might then launch their writing careers, etc. As well-intentioned as this suggestion was, and as exciting as it was to the students, it tugged on the students’ literary ambitions in a way that made it feel like the stakes had suddenly become much more urgent, and this sensibility poured fuel on some of the students’ minor disagreements, causing them to flare up more conspicuously.
- Perhaps the best and simplest piece of advice is to agree on a “sunset date” for the publication. Even if students are completely pleased with the book they have produced, they may change their minds five or ten years down the road, and digital publication is forever. As a way of lowering the stakes of the publication project, a provision that the book will be un-published after three or six months of the last day of class is a sensible strategy, and this provision can be written into the publication contract drawn up and signed by the contributors.
If anything, our experiment in self-publication worked too well. It engaged the students so totally and at so many different cognitive and affective levels that they were unwilling to “let it go” at the end of the class, eager to continue revising and promoting their book even when the rest of the academic calendar indicated that it was time to move on to the next semester and the next complex of writing challenges. As a writing teacher, this project has easily been one of the most memorable and effective activities I have ever facilitated. Not only was it inspiring for me to see how passionately the students responded to the challenge to write and publish their own book, but I also learned a lot about writing and publication as an instructor – not only about the logistics of how to organize such a project, but also about the more important questions about what motivates people to tell their stories, how writing our truths can shape our lives, and how the process of publication shapes writers’ relationship to their writing.
Black, J. and Moore, Eric J. (2019). UDL Navigators in Higher Education: A Field Guide. CAST, Inc., 2019.
Lee, G.V. and Madden, M.E. (2019). The power of life histories: Moving readers to greater acts of empathy through literature and memoir. Forum on Public Policy Online, 1(2016). Retrieved from http://forumonpublicpolicy.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Lee-and-Madden.pdf
Stoneman, Lisa G. et al. (2019). Book publication as pedagogy: Taking learning far and wide. Art/Research International, 4(2), 568-589.
Voorhees, T. (2016). Lived experience as pedagogical resource: Roward an auto-ethnographic pedagogy of writing. CEA Forum, 45(2), 86-117.
References & Resources
CAST. (2011). UDL Guidelines. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org/?utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=none&utm_source=udlcenter&utm_content=site-banner
Edoice, M., Geller, A.E., and Lerner, N. (2017). What meaningful writing means for students. Peer Review, 19(1), 25.
Woodin, T. (2008). “A beginning reader is not a beginning thinker”: Student publishing in Britain since the 1970s. Paedegogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, 44(1), 219-232.
About the Author
Randy Laist is a professor of English at Goodwin University, where he is also a Teaching Fellow in Universal Design for Learning.