Voices

How to structure and write a self-published e-book

By Nik Peachey

15 May 2017 - 21:04

In his second article in a series on self-publishing, author and digital publishing specialist Nik Peachey explains how to get on with the task of writing and structuring a book.

Getting started

Once the euphoria from raising the funds to write your book wears off, you are left with the task of actually producing it. Working alone on this can be a daunting task.

When you crowd-source funding through platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, they usually give you a completion deadline by which you should honour your commitment to your backers and deliver the finished product. When I raised the funds for my book, this deadline was three months. It ended up taking 18 months. Here’s what went wrong, and what I learned as a result.

Find out what your readers want

Before I wrote my book I decided to crowd-source its content. That doesn’t mean that I got others to write it, although a few people contributed small sections as part of the fund-raising campaign.

Instead, I asked teachers what they wanted or expected to see in the book. To do this, I used a great tool called Tricider, and created a questionnaire that I circulated through various teacher networks on social media. Here you can see the results of my questionnaire.

Take suggestions on board, but be selective

There were lots of great suggestions, so I took them all and built the chapter structure around them. This turned out to be a big mistake. I tried to include everything, which was part of the reason why the book took 18 months and ended up over 400 pages long, with 27 video tutorials and more than 300 images.

Motivation can be a challenge

When I wrote my book, I was already an experienced blogger and writer, and had produced a lot of work for publishers based on tight deadlines. But producing a whole book is very different from blogging.

When writing a blog, I can generally finish a post and publish it the same day. Then I start getting feedback, responses, and a personal boost from the accompanying social media attention. This short cycle of writing to publishing makes it easy to feel motivated. You see the results of your work quickly, and then move on to something else.

Crowd-funding helps you stay focused

However, when writing a book you have to handle a long stretch of delayed gratification, so staying motivated is much more difficult. This is where the crowd-funding aspect helped. I received funds to write the book based on pledges, in many cases from people I knew either personally or professionally. The sense of honouring my commitment to them, and the knowledge that they trusted me, kept me pushing the project forward even when I really wanted to give up.

When inspiration is lacking, there are always other things to do, so I would start working on the design and mock up a chapter. Doing things like that can help you to see the book coming together, and get things back on track.

What I got right

I got a lot of things partly right. It was a good idea to ask my potential audience for ideas for content, as this told me what they wanted and acted as market research. The problem was trying to include such a large chunk of information in one book.

What I do differently now

What I do now is based on a concept from technology product development, called a 'minimally viable product' or MVP. This is a product that is developed with enough features to satisfy early adopters. The final, complete set of features is designed in stages, after considering feedback from the earliest people who use it.

Now, when I'm writing, I prepare a large overview of the book I’d like to create, then split it into smaller sections or chapters that I can publish online as individual units. This means I can get feedback on these smaller units, generate some income, and eventually combine them into a larger overall e-book.

This is how I approached my recent e-book. I started by writing and publishing individual lesson plans, then combined the lesson plans into a book of ten. The next stage was to write a short booklet on exploiting infographics, which had started life as a collection of articles from my blog and so on until I had the finished book.

A 'little and often' approach is easier to maintain

I start with blog posts and lesson plans, build them into chapter-size booklets, then combine these into books. Approaching the writing this way has provided me with more attainable milestones, and keeps me motivated.

It also results in a more manageable writing schedule. I took a month off to write my first book, but this meant writing over eight hours a day, which was pretty hard to maintain. Now I just write for two to three hours each day. I can achieve a tangible result in those hours, and the overall material develops at a much more steady and consistent pace. Best of all, I can fit my writing around a full-time job so I still have a steady income.

A professional editor is invaluable

As part of the crowd-funding process, ten volunteers agreed to give editorial advice on parts of the book, and to read and give feedback on the completed book. That was great and really helpful, but it can’t compare to having a professional editor with you from the very inception of the book.

A full-time editor would probably have persuaded me to drop a few chapters, which I eventually had to do. They might also have helped me make tough decisions about trimming and deciding what to leave out of the book at the very early stages, before I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to produce too much.

So, my advice is to get an editor, or at least someone you can bounce ideas off and talk to about the book at various stages. An editor will give you an outside perspective on the form and structure of your work, and tell you whether what makes sense in your head will make sense to a reader. This can really make a lot of difference and help you to stay sane and motivated through the long haul to finally publishing the completed book.

How to find an editor

Getting an editor can be costly and difficult, as you want to know you’ll have a good rapport together. If there is someone you work with or respect within your profession, and they have the time to spare, then you could ask them. There is also an organisation called The Round which helps English language teaching authors with editing and marketing.

If all else fails, you can edit your own work by leaving about a week before re-reading anything you have written. I went over my work three or four times in the end, and I still spotted mistakes soon after I’d published it. One of the benefits of e-publishing is that fixing mistakes and pushing a new version live is reasonably quick and simple.

Nik Peachey is a freelance teacher trainer, materials writer, blogger and consultant specialising in digital publishing and the development of digital resources for teachers, available on his website. He has been involved in English language teaching since 1992 and has worked all over the world as a teacher, trainer and project manager.

The 2017 ELTons awards, which reward innovation in English language teaching, will be live-streamed in June 2017. Follow the link to find out more and consider applying for next year's awards when applications open in September 2017.

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