Publishing a classroom book with on-demand printers    
Making something wonderful

On-demand printers are a cost-effective way for school groups to publish a few dozen or a few hundred professionally printed books. Ronan high school English teacher Christa Umphrey shares her experiences in publishing two books--profiles of Vietnam and World War II veterans--as part of the Montana Heritage Project’s participation in the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress.

by Christa Umphrey

Growing up surrounded by words and stories, I have always thought there was something magical about books. Friends and family members who know me well never let me run into a bookstore to pick something up while they wait. Trips into bookstores are never quick, and I’m always collecting books faster than I can actually read them.

Many of my students are particularly baffled by this strange obsession with books. They can’t see why people are so taken with these bound stacks of paper. But they see others like me and the way we look at books, the way we handle and speak of them. They don’t get it, but they know the obsession is real.

This is why it works to have students publish a book. Even those who have never valued books themselves know that other people are impressed with writers, and they wouldn’t mind people talking about them the way they talk about other authors.

For many reasons, publishing a book is one of the most rewarding projects my students and I have undertaken. When students know they have a real audience, it improves the quality of their work. Taking a project to a published final product makes students think a little more about the words they’re putting down, and keeping the best student work around and visible helps raise the standards of quality from year to year. This helps students learn to think and write more clearly, which is one of the most important things I’m trying to accomplish in the classroom.

At the beginning, most students are only mildly interested in what I think of their work, and even then it’s less what I think than what grade I’ll give them. I’m not a very important audience.

But when they see newspaper clippings on the walls of work other students have done, they become curious and ask, “How do we get our stuff in the paper?? When they see magazines or brochures from past years around my classroom, they get a little competitive and think they may do something better. With a bigger project, like a book, students are even more likely to buy in.

A while ago, as students looked through last year’s book—a collection of essays based on oral interviews with World War II veterans—I asked them to critique it and then to decide our direction for this year.

Their reaction came in two stages. First they were impressed: “Someone from Ronan published a book?? “Freshmen did this?? “Why didn’t we get to do this when we were freshmen?? But they quickly turned competitive and critical. These students, with whom I hadn’t yet had much of any discussion about writing, created a list of things their book would do better. It would be more focused and detailed, it would use stronger verbs, it would have more variety in sentence length, it would include more of the veterans’ thoughts about events, it would give clearer descriptions of the settings. I was pleasantly surprised.

Though the book project required more work than anything else I had students do, it was the work that they found most worth doing. As the project progressed, students went from apathy, to annoyance, to excitement.

I think choosing a rich topic is vital. Students got to know the veterans whose stories they were telling, and the topic was important enough that they wanted to get it right for them. If you are going to spend a lot of time on something, it needs to be something worth your time. After spending hours with veterans and listening to their stories, students believed their time was well spent.

The publication process was simpler than I’d expected. We decided to use an on-demand publisher because this new technology makes short-run books much more affordable than it would have been a few years ago. Most of the on-demand publishing companies I looked into will take manuscripts at any point, from a Word or WordPerfect document to finished PageMaker or QuarkXpress files. We decided to use Trafford (http://www.Trafford.com), which offered the best combination of service and costs. We retained full control of the copyright, and we can order as many books at a special author’s rate as we want. (The author’s price is based on the number of pages. For a 100-page book with a glossy, laminated cover, this is about $5 per copy.)

The printer can assist with editing or layout or cover design. Of course, the more assistance you need, the more it will cost. And their time is expensive.

We were able to send them finished PageMaker files for the text and a graphic we did in Photoshop for the cover, so we only had to pay the base rate for setting up the print file. Through Trafford this varies from around $500 to a little under $1,000, depending on how much help you want with publicity and distribution. They will do order fulfillment and take credit card orders on the internet. Visit their web site for details: www.trafford.com.

All options include assigning an ISBN number and creating the print file, so the book will never go out of print. Because books are printed as they are ordered, there is no extensive inventory. Twenty years from now, a descendent of one of our veterans should be able to order a fresh new copy of the book.

Trafford also sent out press releases, which led to a story in the Missoulian.

After we’d done all the research and writing and revising, we really did have the most difficult work behind us. Once we had the book assembled and the layout complete, it was just a matter of waiting, phone tag, and some e-mail exchanges over a few weeks to clear up small details as the publisher worked on the production of the book.

I didn’t involve students to a great extent in the technical processes of publishing our first classroom book. This was mainly because I didn’t know what it involved, and I didn’t feel I could give up any of my already limited classroom time to have them figure it out with me. For our next project though, I think students can do much of the work dealing with the publisher as well. Doing real work in the real world is powerfully educative.

This project worked well, despite wide variances in students’ writing abilities. Though a small honors class helped, most of the work was done by a typical cross-section of the ninth grade students at Ronan High School. This included quite a few whose skill levels were below ninth grade. Many of these students claimed to hate writing. They hadn’t often produced school work they were pleased with, and most of their writing assignments got returned with a poor grade and were quickly forgotten. Instead of learning to write, they had learned they weren’t writers.

So it was important to allow enough time for revision and editing.

On the other end of the spectrum were students who wrote fairly well. Because of this, they were accustomed to getting good grades and moving on. They weren’t used to getting suggestions, revising, or having to work on their writing.

Both groups were very resistant to spending so much time on one piece of work in the beginning, but as they spent more time on it, most began to develop something that pleased them.

And other people were pleased as well. Community response has been wonderful. People who haven’t been involved with the school for years gave students positive feedback. We received thank you notes from veterans, a typewritten letter from the local librarian asking to be kept on a mailing list for new publications (along with suggestions for new topics), and inquiries from other communities about how to get copies. I took requested copies to the senior center every day for a week and a half.

But of course, the most important benefit of this project was that some of my students find books a little more interesting. Not only are they starting to glimpse the magic behind books, they understand that it’s a magic they can create.
 

2004 Michael L Umphrey | Permalink