So you’re thinking of writing an academic ebook…


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.

To 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.

Inger Newburn wrote this blog in