No better time for teachers and librarians to introduce teenagers to self-publishing than now

We live in an age in which the resources necessary to self-publish are readily available. Many adults self-publish their books and see them distributed to online retailers and libraries. Some libraries are beginning to facilitate this, especially with seniors who are memoirists, but what of students? What of adolescents whose hearts are filled with passion for life and who need to express their thoughts and feelings, to know that their words can find readers, and that their ideas matter to others? Now, thanks to Smashwords with its technology and how-to guides, educators and librarians can help these young people find their voices and speak to the world.

I send a big thanks to Tonya McQuade, poet, teacher and pioneer in both ebook publishing and in educational leadership.  Tonya McQuade began writing poetry as a child. She has won awards for it, published a book of her own writings, and appeared in anthologies. She has taught high school English for over 20 years. But in 2014, she found herself inspired her to go into self-publishing with her students.

She knew that when students write for an audience, when students write with the knowledge that their words will reach people who will understand them, then students become young writers. They are not writing to satisfy a course requirement or to please a teacher. They are writing to express themselves. And this can change their lives. But how did a busy educator whose forte was poetry not technology find the time and resources to make this work, to write, organize, publish and distribute an ebook? If it had been a printed book, the cost would have been high, but as an ebook, money was not a problem. The problem, had there been one, would have centered on the technology. But there wasn’t any problem.

Los Gatos, California, was the center of a vortex of indie author energy. A great and serendipitous confluence of people and ideas met there, and the dream of publishing ebooks of student writings became a reality.

McQuade taught 9th grade honors English at Los Gatos High School for five sessions per day. Not an easy task. Smashwords, which provided the technology and the know-how, was headquartered in Los Gatos. Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, was a graduate of Los Gatos High and eager to share his knowledge with students. Henry Bankhead, a librarian with a passion for self-publishing and a vision of libraries as centers of community publishing and beyond, worked at Los Gatos Public Library. Tonya was friends with Heidi Murphy, then Co-Director of Los Gatos Public Library. Henry Bankhead was the other Co-Director. Through these personal connections and new ways of thinking about authorship, publishing, and the role of libraries in their communities, Tonya found the support she needed to publish her students’ writings in the Los Gatos vortex.

Once these personal connections were made, Mark Coker and Henry Bankhead spoke in-person to McQuade’s classes about the business of self-publishing, the benefits of it, the best practices and so on. Tonya and her students also benefited from Coker’s guidebooks on ebook self-publishing. She found that her students were impressed with the statistics that Coker had compiled, which showed the growing trend toward reader preference for ebooks and away from printed books.

On the practical day-to-day level, McQuade organized her classes into teams, so they could divide up the work of self-publishing. She did not try to do it all herself. While each student contributed one poem to the anthology, they also worked in teams that took responsibility for editorial, layout & design, art & photography, marketing & publicity, and event planning. The layout & design team organized the book into sections by theme and did the layout. The art & photography team provided illustrations. Marketing & publicity wrote press releases, ran a social media campaign, and organized the pre-sale of the book.

The students took their book through all the stages of editing and revision that books need and then released it concurrently with a book launch party organized by the events team and held at the Los Gatos Public Library. Rather than giving their book away for free, they charged $2.99 for it and donated the monies raised to their class senior prom. Parents and students attended the launch, and some of the students read their poetry aloud as part of the event. The number of students participating, and the number of parents attending the launch parties has grown from year to year and is now in the hundreds.

Because of the pre-sale work of the marketing team, Windows to the Teenage Soul hit number one in poetry in Apple’s iBooks store on the day of its release and generated several hundred dollars of profit toward the senior prom. The book and its successors remain available through online retailers and library ebook platforms.

Tonya McQuade’s freshman honors ebook anthology project is now in its fourth year, and she looks forward to seeing what her students will do, this coming spring. I asked if this project were not a bit overwhelming, but she said that aside from the class time devoted to it, which amounts to a little over one month during the part of the year when she teaches poetry, she spends only about ten hours on it outside of class.

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But, can other educators and teen librarians create similar projects? There is no reason that they cannot. While local expertise may not be available everywhere, Mark Coker’s books on self-publishing are available for free via Smashwords, so anyone can learn the steps and the best practices.

Now that McQuade’s has led the way and created a replicable model, there is no reason that other educators cannot follow her lead and begin publishing student works through Smashwords. The same goes for teen librarians. You will need computers and the Internet, which most libraries and high schools have. Much of the work can be done in the free Google Docs, but at some point the book will have to be put into Microsoft Word for uploading to Smashwords. Smashwords provides all the technology necessary to create an ebook from a Word file, as well as the distribution channels to put the book into iBooks, OverDrive, and other retailers and library ebook platforms.

McQuade’s work with her ninth grade honors students at Los Gatos High School demonstrates that a non-technical educator and her students can produce and publish a book of student writings using only commonly available computing equipment and the free Smashwords distribution service. I am including links, below, to an article that she wrote giving a thorough description of the project, as well as to other documents that will help teachers and librarians begin their own versions of this project. By all means, buy a copy of Windows to the Teenage Soul and enjoy a glimpse into that magical place, but then read the articles in the back of the book so you can do your own student publishing project.

The technology is available at no extra cost. The expertise is free for the asking.There has never been a better time for teachers and librarians to introduce their teens to self-publishing and to enroll them in the ranks of published indie authors.

If any of our readers are doing this or contemplating it, NSR would love to hear from you and share your story.

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3 thoughts on “No better time for teachers and librarians to introduce teenagers to self-publishing than now”

  1. Marilynn, thank you for your comment, but I think the point is to give the teens a way to voice their thoughts and feelings, rather than to require them to meet adult literary standards. If they begin writing and take it seriously in high school, then as they gain life experience their work will deepen. I would not expect a high school student to meet professional adult standards in poetry any more than I would expect him or her to meet professional sports or musical standards. Just as young athletes and musicians need opportunities to play in public, so do young writers.

  2. In high school and college, I worked on each school’s literary magazines, and I worked slush pile in each. Almost all kids that age have nothing new to say and say it badly, usually in the same way.

    I’ve also read a number of novels by teenagers that have been self-published. While I admire them for finishing a novel, the results were dismal.

    Pardon me, I need to do a brain enema in an attempt to remove the sludge of those memories.

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