Start the Presses

November 01, 2002 3 min read
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Sidestepping big publishers, teachers roll out their own work.

The first time kindergarten teacher Deborah Morse Scala played the “Magic Carpet” song for her students, she knew she had a hit on her hands.

Scala had wanted to use music to signal the start of story time in her class at Littleton Elementary in Morris Plains, New Jersey. Rather than shop around for an appropriate tune, she and her friend Cheryl Terhune Cronk, a composer and classical guitarist, decided to take a stab at writing their own. It began with wind chimes and featured Cronk singing, “Come to the magic carpet, quiet as a mouse/It’s a place that’s filled with wonder as I read a book out loud.” When Scala popped the ethereal recording into her stereo, its effect on her students was Pied Piperesque: Intrigued by the lyrics, the kids hurried to the reading rug without a word of instruction from their teacher.

During the 2000-01 school year, Scala and Cronk wrote other songs that helped the teacher’s class run smoothly. Students gathered happily when they heard the “We Make a Line” song, and if a kid spilled something, the “Oopsie Song” calmed everybody down.

“I believe a verse in a song is worth 10,000 words,” Scala says. “I wanted to share that.” So she and Cronk decided to write a book about using music in school. It took a year to record 12 songs and write an accompanying manuscript, titled Classroom Management With Music.

That was the easy part. Over the next eight months, they submitted their work to 75 publishers—and received 75 rejections. Instead of giving up, the pair decided to take matters into their own hands. They chose a printer and set about self-publishing their book and CD. When they made their first sale via the Internet to a teacher at a neighboring school last spring, the two felt validated.

Scala and Cronk are part of a growing group of educators who are turning to self-publishing to disseminate their ideas. Emboldened by ever more sophisticated personal computing technology, the number of Americans who print and disseminate their own work has increased tenfold in the past decade, says Dan Poynter, author of The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book. The crowd certainly includes teachers, he notes, drawn to the pursuit because it allows them to bypass the competitive world of educational publishing.

Poynter maintains that, in the long run, writers can make more money releasing their own material than working with a publishing house. But the endeavor typically requires a significant amount of cash upfront for software, professional proofreading, printing, marketing, and the like, with no guarantees that these costs will be recouped. It’s not surprising, then, that money is not the primary motivation for most self- publishing teachers.

Fran Hamilton says she chose to self-publish Hands-On English, her 1998 grammar handbook, because she didn’t think a large publisher would appreciate her work and because she wanted to retain creative control over her material. Although the St. Louis junior high school teacher has recovered the $25,000 she invested in the project, she still describes her book as a labor of love rather than a profit-making venture. “Sales are rewarding just because I know my work is getting out there,” she says.

Self-publishing is a labor-intensive process even for successful writers. Bonnie Williamson, author of A First-Year Teacher’s Guidebook and six other books about education, cautions fellow teachers that the activity “will take over your life.” While working on her first books in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Williamson would wake at 3 a.m. to write and edit before putting in a full day at school. To market her work, she spent countless hours chatting up bookstore managers and staffing booths at national education conferences. The 73-year- old resident of Folsom, California, is now retired, but she still works part time at her self-publishing business, including doing all her own packing and shipping. Yet knowing that she’s been able to help other teachers through her books—especially new teachers, who she says are “thrown to the wolves”—has made the work “a joy.”

Scala and Cronk have a similar outlook. They’ve sold only about 20 copies of their book so far; but, Cronk confides excitedly, “We’ve started doing another one.”

—Meghan Mullan


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