So you’re thinking of writing an academic ebook…

As regular readers of the Whisperer will know, last year I published a small book called Tame your PhD. Last week I published a review of Dr Nathan Ryder’s ebook, so I thought I would catch you up on how mine is going.

In 8 months I have sold 1022 ebooks on Amazon and 90 paper copies via the print on demand service Lulu. Profit over the 6 month period? Around $1000. I’m not going to quit my day job anytime soon, but its not bad going for a skunkworks project. Since the book quietly sells a couple of copies each day, and Amazon has started recommending it to me (at least they get the target market right!), I expect the profit over a one year period will be somewhat larger. I’ll admit, I get a thrill every time I get a cheque in my letterbox with “Amazon digital services” written on it.

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 8.09.48 PMTo be honest, I sold many more copies than I anticipated. The proceeds have been more than enough to pay for web-hosting and a new custom style sheet, as I originally planned. So a big thank you to everyone who bought it, especially to those people who rated it and did lovely reviews on Amazon.

Since the Thesis Whisperer is a non profit site,  I am saving the rest of the money to pay for professional help on my next publishing venture.

The point of this post is NOT to brag about my sales, but to share some of what I have learned. I suspect some of you have a blog and might be thinking about whether it is worth doing an ebook, or you might be doing a PhD and wondering what your publishing options are after you graduate. There’s plenty of technical and content authoring advice on the web and whole books have been written about how to self publish. However I’ve noticed most of the advice out there is directed at two kinds of authors: fiction and commercial non-fiction. There’s a dearth of advice on publishing academic content so, as a start, here the three most common questions I have been asked about doing an ebook and the answers I’ve come up with.

Self publishing isn’t ‘real’ academic publishing – so why bother?

Authors who chose to self publish used to be considered losers – rejected by the publishing houses but unable to accept it. Catering for the so called ‘vanity publishing’ market was a way for small publishing houses to make money. Many self published authors ended up, not with fame and fortune, but with 500 copies of their book in the garage and a hole in their wallet.

All that has changed with the growth of completely free self publishing platforms such as Kindle Direct and Lulu. You can self publish with little to no capital or risk. As a consequence there is an emerging trend in fiction to use self publishing as a proof of concept process. Established publishers are picking up books which have demonstrated sales and cutting a deal with the author to republish in a more polished format.

We’ve yet to see the proof of concept trend in academic books – but why not? Academic book publishers are a threatened species; the volume of sales is low and the production costs are high. Have you noticed how jaw droppingly expensive many academic books are? High prices restrict access to your work, but I suspect many publishers don’t really care. Academic publishers are more interested in selling to libraries than individuals. I think this is a pity because books are a great format; despite a plethora of content on the web people still want to read them.

Self published efforts don’t ‘count’ in most research metrics… at the moment. Who knows what the future holds? There are fashions in research metrics and you can go mad – or lose your soul – trying to conform to them. I would rather focus on doing good, useful work and sharing it with as many people as possible. Self publishing takes time, but you can reach more people than you can with a journal paper if you play it right. As a profile raising exercise alone I think it’s worth the effort. In any case, the income might soften the blow if your efforts are not counted in the next ERA or REF collection.

Will I need to rewrite my thesis into a book?

Probably. My experience of working blog content into a book is that it isn’t hard and doesn’t take very long.

A few publishers have approached me over the last couple of years. One set of negotiations stalled over my insistence that the book be low cost (most PhD students are poor!). All the publishers have rejected the idea of re-publishing blog posts because they were already available for free. But I believe books are a convenient package; easier to digest than a blog. I had faith that people would be willing to pay a small price for the convenient format and, since it never needed go out of print, the small profit would add up over time. Further, I published without digital rights management, which means you can buy the Kindle version and convert it into any format you want, using a program like Calibre. Publishers tend to be dead against this idea as it makes pirating easy but I reasoned that if people could read it for free on the blog, and were taking the trouble to actually buy it, pirating would be a small problem in the scheme of things.

It seems I was right on both counts – having faith in your readers does pay dividends. If I’m just a tiny bit smug about this I hope you can forgive me.

A thesis has been peer reviewed, so you have valuable, useful content to use as a basis for your ebook. In some technical disciplines there might be little to no point in reworking your text: the people who will be most interested in it will be able to deal with the jargon and assumed knowledge. I note that Paul Trowler, a sociology professor has been putting up methods books which are basically collections of lecture notes – perfectly acceptable for academics like me who have background and interest in these techniques.

Other academics might need to consider how the jargon and assumed knowledge might be limiting the potential audience for the work. You might, for example, have a history PhD that will be of general interest to a much larger audience, if you were to pare back the theorising and focus more on the story you have to tell.  You might not have to do this reworking alone. Can you buddy up with someone who has the skills and split the profits? I’ve noticed that ex-journalists write great science and history books and have less steady employment prospects than they used to. Seems to me there are a lot of opportunities for fruitful collaborations!

Should I pay for copyeditor / typesetter / graphic designer?

Yes. But you don’t have to.

My twin sister, Anitra Nottingham, was a book designer in a former life and is doing a masters degree. I convinced her to do the cover in return for all the hours I have spent copy editing and making suggestions on her thesis drafts. You can, however, whip up a cover easily enough if you don’t have cash. The beauty of an ebook is you can replace the cover down the track if you get some money to pay for it.

Copy editing and typesetting are highly technical. People often correct my blog typos and others read over the ebook manuscript for me. I spent much more formatting the books, both ebook and print, than I did reshaping the content. Yet there are still a small number of mistakes. Only one of the Amazon reviewers pointed this out and I think that shows that it’s all relative. Some people will be upset if there is one or two boo boos – others are not so bothered.

Still, I wish I had paid professionals. Next time I will.

I’m WAY over my 1000 word limit, so I’ll stop here for now. Do you have any questions, experience or thoughts to share about academic self publishing? I’m happy to write a second post on some of the technical aspects of the process if there’s enough interest. Your questions in the comments will help me focus in on what you want/need to know – so please comment away.

Related posts

Tame your PhD as a $3.99 ebook

Tame your PhD, the print edition for $14.99 though Lulu and through Amazon

A shameless plug explains the content of the book and why I wrote it.

43 thoughts on “So you’re thinking of writing an academic ebook…

  1. Hillary Rettig says:

    I teach writing productivity at places at Grub Street Writers, Mark Twain House, etc., and I think indie publishing is nothing short of writer’s liberation. I tell all the writers we’re living in a golden age for many of the reasons you describe, Inger, and more. Traditional publishing is rife with irrationality and inefficiency, and the whole system is set up to control, and to a large degree, exploit the author. I could go on and on (and in classes I do).

    There’s also the point that traditional publishing is fundamentally disempowering, and disempowerment is the fundamental cause of writing blocks, something no serious writer can afford to risk.

    So I agree 1000x with everything you said, and indie published my latest book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block. (The entire last section is devoted to the needs of academic writers, btw.)

    Great copyediting is essential to your credibility. Also the book’s cover is super important to sales. The designer should be savvy enough to create a cover that thumbnails well.

  2. Christina says:

    I think the answer to the question of self-publishing your PhD depends on where you’re going with your career, and what field you’re in. If you’re not in a “book-discipline”, and/or if you just want your work to get out there before you turn your back on academia, I’d recommend self publishing. If not, I’d definitely be prudent. The ARC encourages, and increasingly even demands, open access publications (what the taxpayer pays for should at least be available to them), but its assessors (for grants and ERA, as you say Inger) are trained to look out for outlets that are hard to get into… And the bitter irony of that is that you may well have to PAY a publication subsidy to get in, too: so you’d carry a cheque THERE long long before ever receiving one in your mail.

  3. Fiona Willer says:

    I’m wandering my way through a part-time research masters (to convert to phd when allowed) and raising two small children. I have just published what evolved from my literature review and intervention protocol via lulu because I didn’t want the world to have to wait god knows how long until I have publishable outcomes. Since publishing I’ve done a national conference workshop, radio interview, been invited to speak at a number of unis and had webinar and workshop requests. It’s also put me in touch with the leaders in my field internationally. I’m sure my eventual thesis will be far better for all of these new professional connections.
    If you’ve got content and you think it will appeal to others, then publish!!

  4. Alecia says:

    I am one of the 90 who bought the hard copy and it has been well worth it- I am just about ready to submit. I am now at the “I hate you thesis” stage. This book has kept me sane throughout the process. Thank you Inger. You have reached even the southern most tip of Africa.

  5. Michael Porterfield says:

    I just graduated with my PhD and want to turn my dissertation into a couple of articles and now reading your blog, would be very interested in knowing more about the self-publishing route via Kindle Direct. Thanks and great entry.

  6. Karen says:

    Thanks for writing this article. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately but there really isn’t a lot of information about publishing scholarly work this way. I would be very interested in a follow up about the technical aspects, especially for independent scholars (people who have moved away from academia but still do research work).

  7. Stephanie Watt says:

    I too have been thinking about this topic. I’m a freelance editor, and since my first year of grad school (nearly ten years ago), I have dreamt of working with academics to create trade-type accessible based on research. Self-publishing seems like a great way of doing that. But I’m just not sure how that would work with the foundational academic practice of peer review (though I can see how it could work for a PhD leaving academic or an independent researcher). Gutenberg-e is interesting, but, to my knowledge, it’s still funded by a traditional publisher (Columbia University Press). Check it out at
    Anyways, I’ll be sure to follow this conversation! Thanks for the interesting and timely post.

      • Stephanie Watt says:

        I’ve heard of presses going OA (Athabasca University Press and MIT Press), but this usually means that the monograph is available in open access after a year or two. So ANU ePress is special. I think that universities and university presses will become increasingly important as webooks and open access become mainstream in academia. In the natural sciences, open access has known the most success, but it also seems like a world where journal articles and papers take precedence over monographs. Anyways, exciting times!

        • Thesis Whisperer says:

          Yes, we’re proud of ANU’s model. I believe they were the first in the world to try this way of doing things and the fact that they have found a viable and sustainable model means a lot.

  8. piratejenn says:

    I am trying to find information on putting an academic book in, including citations and online links. I cannot seem to hit on the correct search words. Any help on this?

  9. Deborah Lupton says:

    There are quite a few options for publishing in open access, self-archived forums for pieces that are shorter than books. Eg university e-repositories. You can publish working papers, preprints and post prints there for instant open access.

  10. Ferial says:

    I bought the book and gave another copy to a friend for her birthday & she loves it too. I read your blogs and I always feel like you’re sitting in front of me, talking to me. I admire you Inger, in fact you inspired me to start blogging 🙂

  11. Anthony Haynes says:

    As an author and academic publisher, I read this with interest. I’m sympathetic to self-publishing as an option but feel there is something of a contradiction here. You say that publishers’ production costs are high but then imply that self-publishing doesn’t cost much. Why would the cost of a service (e.g. proofreading) be less for one party than another? There are two explanations: either because the self-publisher might skimp (by, say, ‘whipping up’ a cover’) – but then you end up with an inferior product (a point implied by your recognition that using professional suppliers would be better). Or you pay in some other form – for example, by bartering services and thus paying with one’s time.But a non-monetary cost is still a cost and to proceed as if it isn’t would be simply poor accounting. I’ve tried to set out the requirements of accurate accounting (in its broadest sense) for slef-publishers here:

  12. Dr Ian McCormick says:

    It sounds like your book did quite well. There are many costs involved in publishing in addition to the research and the writing. Clearly it’s very expensive to publish if you pay for all the professional services. The compensation is that your royalty will be 20% to 85%, rather than 3%-12% offered by a tradition publisher. But remember that most specialist academic or self-published books sell fewer than 200 copies. In my view, it’s probaly best to use Kindle DP or Smashwords for ebooks and CreateSpace for print copy. None the less you should aim for quality and work hard! It’s probaly best to use Kindle DP or Smashwords for ebooks and CreateSpace for print copy.

    • Dhotdhot says:

      Appreciated by the younger geoaretinn, measured by an increase in the number of teens listening to classical music, and creative value as in the way it helps people concentrate, and the euphoric state of calmness it can give a stressed out teenager.

  13. John Smith says:

    Hi Inger, Thanks for sharing your valuable idea about self publishing. Especially for academic writing it is very important for a writer to control the content and idea of the their academic research, it also provide good opportunity if we go for online publishing as it has the wider range of audience, easily accessible to every one and faster in comparison to other mode of publishing. The important aspect of online publishing is that it does not effect our economical condition.

  14. learnearnandreturn says:

    Hi Inger, that’s for this. One question – did you arrange to get an ISBN for your book? And if not, does that mean there’s no copy lodged with the National Library of Australia? If not, I think that’s a pity.

  15. Elegwen O'Maoileoin says:

    Having been knocked out of my PhD by several converging calamities, I was very sad to find it near impossible to keep up with my fields of interest during an ensuing few years of disability.

    The prices of academic books are insane. When you can’t even travel to a local university to use the library, I can say I thought a lot about how much sense it would make for academics to abandon their publishers en masse (like musicians did to MySpace!) and go indie.

    Hell, I would drop $0.99 a DAY, per POST of a Zizek research blog. Or Caputo or any other academic or researcher I like. Like a musician, just go to their site and buy the post “title” and download the entry.

    Not only do I not miss the many flaws of the academic economy (overpriced books, as you say, marketed mostly to LIBRARIES), but I think scholars and researchers are coming last to the party. Music changed (is ANYONE GOOD with a label anymore?), and like you say fiction and pop-non fiction are in high gear and indie authours are making money. Many due to niche market interest.

    What IS an academic scholar except a producer of niche interest?

    People say education must change. Well, I think beyond “making money” scholars do now have a chance to communicate to more people, and also free themselves from many of the restraints of the academy.


  16. sunny says:

    Very useful post! Thank you! I was approached a publisher recently for my MSc thesis but the deal seems very unfair to me as a new author. Then I thought about self-publishing it. I believe the point you make on how people access your work is quite relevant. One question, is the way amazon market the book is enough or you had to invest on marketing somehow?

  17. Road to Servitude says:

    Reblogged this on wallacerunnymede and commented:
    ‘Self published efforts don’t ‘count’ in most research metrics… at the moment. Who knows what the future holds? There are fashions in research metrics and you can go mad – or lose your soul – trying to conform to them. I would rather focus on doing good, useful work and sharing it with as many people as possible. Self publishing takes time, but you can reach more people than you can with a journal paper if you play it right.’

    Interesting. I think platform building is good in itself, but it may also assist in challenging one’s own sense of the boundaries between ‘academic writing’ (whatever that is!) and other genres, formats and styles that are not ‘typical’ of mainstream ‘scholar’s work’ (again, whatever that is supposed to mean…)

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