Why Self-Publishing May Be the Best Writing Lesson Ever

Brian South is an English teacher in Naperville, Illinois, a suburb 30 miles west of Chicago. He is also the faculty advisor of the literary magazine at Naperville North. When Brian began taking steps to self-publish his own novel, he did something few teachers feel totally comfortable doing—he invited his students to be part of the process. Bringing your outside interests into the classroom is tough for many teachers because they feel like they have to compartmentalize themselves. Others feel so pressed for time that sharing personal interested and hobbies seems like a burden. However, after he read a part of his novel at his school’s open mic night, students in the creative writing club had a lot of feedback for Brian, who not only listened, but also soon realized that sharing his journey through self-publishing a novel could be an important way to empower students and potentially transform their lives.

Brian says he’s always been interested in reading and writing, a passion that eventually led him to pursue a career as an English teacher and to study for a master’s degree in writing and publishing. He had the idea to write a comedic zombie-western mash-up novel, and spent a great deal of his free time working on the book. He sent it to literary agents and got a few positive responses, but never sold the book through traditional means. With his background in studying publishing, he decided to self-publish. He knew the book was funny and engaging and that there was an audience for it.

Self Publishing Image

Photo Courtesy of Brian South

Brian wrote and rewrote The Zombie Sherriff Takes Tucson. He had beta readers take a look and make comments, he added layers to the book to add more humor, he wrote as often as a father of three children could. Five years after sharing the first chapter at the open mic night at his school, Brian had the story right where he wanted it. He began to research the best platforms for self-publishing. At the same time, he shared the process he’d gone through with the students at the literary magazine. Just like his previous classes, they were full of ideas. One student suggested he make bookmarks, an idea that eventually morphed into printing business cards as a play on one of the characters in the book who has a business card for every occasion.

Their enthusiasm for his work drove Brian to include the students in even more decisions about the self-publishing process. He used the site 99 designs to get his book cover created. The site lets multiple designers pitch ideas for you – and your students – to choose from. Brian had narrowed the covers down to 5 or 6 different designs and presented them to his students. He had one in mind that he liked, but the conversation with his students changed his mind and blew him away. They suggested that some of the covers were not appropriate for content of book, some were too gory and others too western—the covers didn’t sell the idea that the book was a comedy. Brian says, “They immediately began talking about what was appropriate for the audience. The things I’d been teaching for 11 years were the very things they were sharing with me and reminding me to think about.”

Of the overall experience, Brian says it was the “most authentic thing I could bring into the classroom. By making students a part of the process, it showed them what they could accomplish. It was a really big thing for them to see me taking some of their advice and points. They saw some of that advice turning into a reality.”

What Does Self-Publishing Look Like in a Classroom?

Brian’s experience was a personal one that he shared with students. But throughout the process he marveled at how easy the actual publishing part was. He is sure this process can easily be translated into the classroom, so that students are self-publishing their own material. The process of creating a book from scratch covers several important English standards, but also gets students involved in many practical, real life tasks. Let’s look at some of the steps your students might take while self-publishing:

  1. Decide on a project: What is your goal for the final project? Will each student publish something separately, or will the class create one product together? For first-timers, Brian suggests doing this project with a group already set up to publish, like a literary magazine or a creative writing club. That way you’re not juggling the individual projects of 30 or more students. In 2012, students at Los Gatos High School self-published the poetry anthology Windows to the Teenage Soul. The eBook contains a teacher’s guide that details how to replicate their process.
  1. Write: Okay, this one is a given. What’s more authentic than writing a book to be published? This isn’t a five-paragraph essay that will never see the light of day; this is content for a book that someone could potentially hold in his or her hands. Students will be focused on creating amazing content, rather than just quickly finishing an assignment
  1. Make edits and revisions: This part of the writing process can often be a struggle for students who don’t want to change their work once they’ve completed a draft. Imagine the power of the whole class working together to create a book that the world will see. Students collaborating in this capacity will give more thoughtful suggestions and feedback to ensure the project is perfect. This type of editing will go way beyond grammar worksheets.
  1. Decide on graphics and illustrations: Self-published work sometimes gets a bad rap for unprofessional-looking graphics. Perhaps a writing and art club can work together to create the look for the final book. Deciding on which illustrations best depict the story or content can help students consider the audience and the overall aesthetics of the book.
  1. Marketing and event planning: How will you get the word out about your book? Your students are masters at social media. Get them to organize a social media campaign. Help them out by introducing them to apps like Hootsuite to organize and plan their marketing strategy. Students may also want to hold a public event at a library or bookstore. The logistics of planning an event, including finding a location, setting up and taking down the event, arranging food, organizing a program, and promoting the event, include math, English, civics, and economics skills that students will develop in an authentic experience.

How To Get Started with Self-Publishing

Brian’s experience was that the tools for self-publishing are simple and self-explanatory.  The hard part is getting the book written, edited, revised, and illustrated. Here are a few resources that walk you through the publishing process:

  • Amazon’s CreateSpace: CreateSpace is a simple, self-publishing tool. The site walks you through the process of formatting your content for publication. It prompts you to add metadata, like author bio and book description and that’s it! After you upload the cover and the book content, you can order hard copies of the book at cost.
  • Kindle Direct Publishing: This is another simple to use Amazon product. You upload your book, which takes less than 5 minutes, and within a day or two it is available as an eBook in the Kindle stores worldwide.
  • Smashwords: This site converts your document to an eBook format and then distributes to libraries and other online retailers, like Barnes and Noble.

In Short

Brian South’s experience with self-publishing taught him valuable lessons about how to bring authentic, immediately rewarding experiences to students. He says, “Seeing your own work in print is empowering. It makes students wonder what else they can do if they put their minds to it.” The process of self-publishing takes students through so many important, useful steps—it’s true project-based learning—it’s a wonder more classes aren’t doing it already.


  1. Kris

    July 3, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Self-publishing was not easy but I wanted to know I could survive financially off my writing so after a few years and after a very successful book being published I can honesty say I figured out most of the tips and tricks of the trade I invite you next week to review this insight with me during a FREE webinar Wed and Thur! personallife-coach.com/go/how-to-get-a-celeb-to-write-your-foreword/

  2. Kristen Steele

    August 3, 2015 at 9:03 am

    The message here is fantastic. Self-publishing really does teach you many lessons. It teaches you dedication, hard work and self-motivation. If you’re self-publishing, there is nobody telling you to work harder. It all comes from the author’s passion, which makes the achievement of self-publishing all the more impressive.