On writing an eBook

insthegram-logoSo, I’ve written a book.

I always thought the first book I ever published would be more fictional, but it turns out I know quite a lot about using Instagram in Higher Education, and so InstHEgram, a ‘Uni’-versal guide to Instagram in Higher Education was born.

This eBook, which published on Thursday 2nd March (World Book Day) is my final submission for the MA in Online Journalism, and based on a pilot project I ran on The Open University’s corporate Instagram account as part of my day job on the university’s social media and engagement team. Based on the real experience of using Instagram daily to promote brand awareness, the book is a warts and all story of my learning journey and includes hacks (useful tips or cheats), actions (mini exercises to help you grow your Instagram account) and some free planning tools to help plan content. While the focus of this book is Higher Education – because that has been my experience – it should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about Instagram as a channel and how to use it for business.


Why an eBook?

So why did I decide to publish an eBook? Well, it’s probably been influenced by the fact I wanted to be an author when I was in primary school and the majority of my writing these days is short-form (social media) or blog posts. And I wanted to test if I had it in me to conjure up 15,000 to 20,000 words on the same subject. Turns out I had 24,000 in me. Throughout the MA, I’ve covered community engagement, audio, mobile journalism, social media and websites. Pretty much every project I’ve worked on has resulted in some kind of website. So from a professional development point of view, self publishing and long-form writing are pretty new to me, as was the technology and process for bringing an eBook to life.

How did I do it?

Having read eBooks by fellow MA students before me, Dave Allen and Franzi Bahrle, and inspired by my tutor Paul Bradshaw, an accomplished online journalist and many-times published author, I chose Leanpub as my self-publishing platform. I suppose I could have chosen to do this in a blog format, which would have worked just as well, but I blog all the time. I don’t publish eBooks all the time. Publishing is also something I’m interested in personally – when the MA finishes and I get my life back I’d like to work on something more fictional and self publishing appeals more than the time, effort and repeated knockbacks of the traditional publishing world.

What I’ve struggled with

Promoting a book seems very self indulgent. I’m confident in my work and capabilities but not massively one for the spotlight, especially when I’m putting myself under it. For me, this book is about The Open University, Instagram and my MA, less about me – it just happens to have my name attached to it. So coming up with a promotion plan ahead of publication date felt a little uncomfortable. Neither is this project about making money – people have to pay for the book, although it’s a miniscule amount, but this endeavour is not a money-maker for me, and I don’t expect it will generate much anyway. It’s been about professional development – future aspirations (I’d like to be a lecturer one day and publish more often), learning new skills, and a way to help showcase the work we do at the OU.

I’ve also struggled with ‘when to publish’ and luckily World Book Day cropped up and forced me to stick to a deadline which at times has been uncomfortable. The book could be better, I could have worked harder at the format, included more images, added more links and academic references and worked harder on the style and tone. I feel like it could have been more clever. I wanted to write in the style of this blog, but more so my personal blog at robynbateman.co.uk – informal with a hint of humour. But that’s hard when writing about facts. With more time, the book could have been sharper, wittier, pithier, included more live examples. But I have a deadline and part of this MA is about the learning journey and recognising room for improvement. And if I’d kept at this until it was perfect, it may never have seen the light of day. Which is something I need to remember when publishing my work in future, when not bound by an MA deadline.

Overcoming challenges

There have been several challenges, the biggest actually writing it. I do this MA on top of an almost full-time job and two small children. Study is confined to evenings and some weekends and it’s pretty exhausting. The end of the day is not my best and as all writers will know, it’s a task that needs full attention, limited distractions and time to plough on through those tricky bits, rather than procrastination. For these reasons I bagged myself a place on the Urban  Writers’ Retreat, a series of retreats for anyone who wants to simply focus on writing, whatever that writing might be.


A toilet window moment of procrastination on my writers’ retreat. Tinkered with using the ColorSplash app and prime Instagram fodder.

Three full days of writing, all meals provided, a gorgeous room with a comfy bed, roll top bath and view of the Devonshire countryside. Perfect! Aside from meals and some chatter with the other writers in the evening – or a countryside stroll in the middle of nowhere when fresh air is needed – I spent a full three days writing. I bagged my space at the end of a large dining table, looking out through a huge sash window and a flock of sheep. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Armed with my book outline and the knowledge I was hoping was in my head, I poured out more than 20,000 words in those three days and managed a quick first edit too. This gave me a fabulous head start and left proof-reading and a few rounds of edits – enabled by my army of proof readers – a series of manageable evening tasks. In fact, motivated by the amount of work I had to do and backed up by the perfect location and writing set-up the only procrastination I did was to take a photo of the pretty toilet window, which I posted to Instagram. So it’s on topic!

Pros and cons of Leanpub

I enjoyed the Leanpub process, my self publishing weapon of choice. I’ve learned a lot about publishing formats, Markdown (which I’d never heard of before), the magic of writing in Dropbox and transforming those words into something that looks like a book. And I’ve worked with my web design whizz (and husband) Richard of Westfourstreet on the branding. I was a little nervous of Leanpub to start with, worried that it would be over-complicated and take just as long to publish the book as it would to write it. But it was pretty painless – the preview feature is great and Leanpub reply to emails very quickly. I had a couple of issues, mainly around formatting images, aligning them and resizing them. Initially they appeared large and floating in the middle of the page and, as a former sub-editor (copy and page layout), how something looks when it’s being read is important to me. The Leanpub manual is scarily large and I confess to having skim-read all of it before getting started. But most of it is fairly intuitive.

Pros include the fact you can preview your book an endless amount of times before publishing which is great during the editing and proof-reading rounds, to see it’s formatted and looking like a book. You can write and publish as you go, indicating via a percentage how close to complete your book is. Initially I thought I’d go down this route, writing and publishing as I went but just wasn’t brave enough. Formatting via Markdown is basic – both in terms of using it (it’s easy) and in terms of what you can do. To start with I thought this would be a problem and the book wouldn’t look as clean as I’d like, but actually – and as the Leanpub team themselves state – this process isn’t about spending hours and hours formatting, it’s more about publishing your writing. Enhanced formatting would have slowed me down, no doubt, so I’m grateful for its simplicity.

Leanpub now charges you a fee to start using it – it didn’t when it first launched in 2010. That fee is $99 per book (so I am yet to break even with book sales) and you can no longer publish a book and ‘sell’ it for free. Their lowest fee, so they continue to make money on sales albeit just 10%, is less than $1 and I’ve set my book’s price (you can choose a sliding scale) between between $1 and $4.99. So far 90% of my sales have been for the full price but as Leanpub tells the buyer what percentage of the sale will go to the author, I think it’s a clever way of guilting people into paying more. I certainly paid top whack for the books I’ve bought on Leanpub for that reason. Being able to publish and not take money for my eBook would make me feel much more comfortable about promoting it. It would have also opened up more avenues for promoting it – no one minds people posting on Facebook groups etc when you’re offering a free resource but if you’re asking for money, no matter how little it is, it comes across as a bit sales-ey and self-promotional. I am genuinely interested in sharing my knowledge, not making money, and would prefer the OU got the publicity, not me. This has also reduced the promotional opportunities available to me in-house. I will post on the OU intranet about the eBook but it will be linking to a free PDF copy via our social media toolkit (open to the public) rather than to my Leanpub page where people will have to pay for it. This makes it harder to know how many people have viewed/read/downloaded the eBook from anywhere other than Leanpub.

book-coverIt’s not just my mum buying it!

So, at the time of writing this blog post my book sales are in double figures. Just! This might sound low but hey, it wasn’t just my mum who bought it!

And I’m supplying PDF copies to friends and relatives who promote the book via social media for me. The next step will be to get it on Amazon and see if that makes a difference.

Shares and feedback most welcome!

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