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Self-Publishing Design Writing and Creative Work

Aaris Sherin

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Self-publishing has really come into its own. In the past self-publishing has sometimes gotten a bad name because of lack of editorial oversight and not all P&T committees will count self-published writing for tenure. But lulu, blurb, and amazon and other print-on-demand services mean that anyone can get their ideas out to readers.

In my experience, self-publishing is ideal for topics and writing that are unusual and/or not immediately relatable to traditional publishers. I've published a few books but always traditional channels where they've been accepted through the editorial process and/or peer-review. I'd love to learn more about self-publishing! Please share information about the nuts and bolts of how its done as well as why one might choose to self-publish design writing and creative work.

I'm including images of two of my favorite self-published books and magazines and hopefully their authors, James Panafino and Garth Walker will tell us more about their creative and editorial process.

BTW - Pannafino has sold as many or more of his book Interaction Design: A Visual Guide than any of my own books. And Walker's Ijusi never fails to keep me interested with wacky graphics and on-point content.

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Hey! I have a copy of James' book that he kindly sent me. 

To me, this issue is all about audience. If you are looking to get your ideas out to the general public, self-publishing seems to be the best choice these days. Daniel Shiffman's The Nature of Code is a great example of a kickstarted book that raised far above his original target.

But you rightly note the challenges of self-publishing for those who are up for promotion, tenure or regularly face research assessments. Part of my role is to assess research, and my university has a clear policy of requiring quality assurance for all research outputs. Self-publishing is a clear no-no, and even more traditional publishing houses that ask for a small fee for publishing your book are looked at negatively. 

In truth, my institution ranks the value of all book publishing -- no matter the publisher -- as significantly lower than getting your writing accepted into highly ranked peer-reviewed journals.

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That's a great point about target and positioning. Sometimes an author might have a vision and be able to engage with an audience via a funding source like kick-starter and successfully self-publish a book.

The differences in how institutions view self-publishing (and publishing in general) are super interesting and seem very varied. Self-publishing would be looked down on at my own institution but if one could show impact (sales figures, citations, references in other media etc.), that would be counted. There seems to be quite a bit of diversity in how publishing and more specifically self-publishing is regarded when the author is going through tenure or promotion.

I'd love to hear how other institutions view self-publishing – please let us know by responding to this thread.

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Hi there

I started self publishing my experimental graphics magazine ijusi (juice in isiZulu) in 1994 - an outcome of the then 'New Democratic South Africa' under Nelson Mandela. The idea was to explore my personal ideas around "what makes me African - and what does that look like?"

In a short space of time I discovered a lot of designers in a lot of places shared this thinking. That led to issue #1 being printed in a run of 300 copies in 1995 (the issue was designed in 1994 but no way of publishing at the time). 'Global travel' then ensued as a result of designers and publishers worldwide wanting to know more about 'graphic design in South Africa' after apartheid. Oddly the interest has (and still is) greater outside of South Africa than in. Local designers generally aspire to "make it big in London, Paris or New York". Very few do.

Some twenty-three years and 32 issues later, Im still publishing one issue a year (with the occasional gap year/s) in a print run of 300. Each issue is themed around whatever floats my boat at the time of generating a brief in the form of a 'call for entries'. Much of the content is the outcome of student workshops I host with design students all over South Africa, which are then selected for inclusion in that particular issue.

The magazine in non-commercial and is free to anyone who arrives at my studio door asking for a copy. For those further afield, Fedex or courier is the only alternative. I personally fund the costs (not cheap). The content at times is controversial (sometimes very) but I follow the words of the 1st Duke of Wellington, "publish and be damned".

The latest issue #32 on my personal collection of 'found photographic images' is attached. The extended captions were a very interesting component. I worked with Steve Kotze, an old mate who's a historian and researcher (and expert on Zulu history) on the Zulu specific images. Steve uncovered some amazing stories in the process (thanks in part to the wonder that is the internet).

See more on every issue of ijusi here: www.ijusi.com


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Of course it depends upon the specific work and institution, however my bet is that most higher ed institutions do not consider self-published works to be as prestigious as works published by academic presses. I would go so far as to say some institutions might not hold commercial presses in as high regard as university presses.

If one is not concerned about tenure and promotion, the issues to keep in mind are distribution and promotion. For works that are tech-oriented, people may seek out them out online and so little promotion is needed. For creative works, non-tech nonfiction, and fiction, one might need to actively promote the channels of distribution.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks to Aaris for starting this thread.

I'll try to keep this as short as I can. First I have so much respect for authors that go through a traditional publisher, Aaris and Robin have written a number of great books and the amount of time they put into all of those endeavors is impressive.

For me I knew I wanted to share information in a format of a book, I even was close to signing a contract to do a book on Comics and Design but it fell through. The more research I did I found out that authors not only wrote the book but sometimes designed it (or at least sourced images for the designer to use) and also to the bulk of promoting at times. All that and they didn't always fully own the content they created. My thought process was since I might have to do all that work, I might as well own the content and get more of the profit. It was a bit of a perfect storm, as the internet was at a place that there were enough channels for distribution and exposer since more people shop online than at a bookstore.

I wrote, "Interdisciplinary Interaction Design: A Visual Guide to Basic Theories, Models and Ideas for Thinking and Designing for Interactive Web Design and Digital Device Experiences" with the idea that it could be used in college classrooms. I made it black and white to keep the price point down and affordable. I created my own legal company and tied it into both Amazon and Barns and Nobles. It's print on demand so I didn't have to keep 2,000 copies in my garage and mail them out, I don't have time for that. 

Since I am a college professor I would present on conferences on the content from the book and besides giving some copies away for free (desk copies, at conferences or teachers that would ask) I didn't directly pay for any promotion.

Here are the print copies I sold each year:
• 2016 – 1,774
• 2015 – 1,711
• 2014 – 1,239
• 2013 – 853
I am lucky a number of colleges required the book in their classroom. Note I only sell it in printed format, if I did a PDF then only one student would buy it and it wouldn't be viewed the same. I get like one request for a digital copy a year (there is no digital verison), not much at all.

This worked for me, but I understand how many professors would want to go through a publisher, maybe for promotion reasons or just the accomplished which I respect. When I went up for promotion, I had to show sales numbers, what colleges were using my book and references from peers. When someone says self-publishing within scholarship there is 100% a stigma related to it. If your department or school is against and won't listen to other factors then it may not be worth one's time. 

For me, I like owning the content I created and get 100% of the profits. I am super happy when I hear college professors are using my book in their classroom to educate their students. While I am not getting rich off of my book when I did my taxes one year my tax person was shocked when I gave them my book sales numbers :)

Lastly, I feel like I gotten great support from my peers like Aaris who have written a number of books for publishers. I have never been judged or looked down upon.

I hope this helps others,


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  • 2 weeks later...

One of the issues with self-publishing would be whether it goes through a rigorous editorial process, as it would go through with established publishers. @James Pannafino I believe you have people review your content, and you collaborate often when you write? Can you discuss when, how, and what you ask readers, reviewers, editors, etc. do as you go through the writing process?

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@Dan Wong, you bring up some points indirectly. I am curious to see what people think of the publishing industry as a whole. Is it healthy, or design publishers closing down like Rockport and HOW Design press making the editorial process better, do they need writers more than authors need them? If publishers can't make money, how can they pay editors to go through a rigorous process? This is not the case for all, as we see friends publish quality books of late.

To answer your original question, I pay an editor to review my work for grammar and spelling and sometimes will ask others to review drafts from time to time. I do ask a selected few professionals to give quotes for the front of the book. Time to time I'll send the book to a professional review company, but not ones I have to pay. Faculty who use the book in their class is the sincerest way to show respect for peers in my situation. Why would a professor have students buy and use a book in their class if they didn't respect the content. Also, you have to take reviews on Amazon with a grain of salt,  as sometimes they give bad reviews because of shipping issues or something outside the content of the book.

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