More About Real Writers Publishing Co.

Thank you to those of you who asked to know more about how we manage our school publishing company. I’ll do my best to lay it out, bit by bit. When I went back to look, sure I must have a write up somewhere, I was surprised to see how much of  the planning has been mainly on the back of napkins. If you have questions, or you’d like to talk more about it, feel free to email me (kgordon@region15.org).

Deciding on a Publishing Capacity

When we first began this project in the fall of 2015, I sat with our interim Librarian to gauge what we thought we could handle. We really didn’t yet know what it would take to go from a submission to a published book. And you won’t either until you decide things like, do you plan to leave invented spelling in the books of your primary writers? I think it’s charming and authentic, and really quite impressive. My initial partner on the project felt strongly that if we were going to put it in the library it needed to be conventionally perfect. Two different approaches require differing time and input.

However, I did want to give our authors a special experience in which they could feel a (small) degree of the work and effort that goes into professional publishing. Real writers don’t often get it just right on their first try. They revise. Reread. Listen to feedback from other readers and writers. Revise. And edit. Writers (or their publishing team) need to think about illustrations, text features, cover design, dedications, and more. I wanted it to feel just weighty enough that writers would feel quite proud of their achievement.

Originally we thought we could publish 15-18 books at a time. For us that could mean roughly 3 books per grade. With some experience under our belts, we’ve cut back to 5-10 in a round. There are two of us shepherding the project. Perhaps, if there was a bigger publishing “staff” we could effectively support more books. By the way, hats off to all the classroom teachers who routinely captain 20+ authors at a time!

Deciding on a Publishing Schedule

Our publishing company has been holding three rounds of publishing per year. We’ve called for submissions in October, January, and May. We originally came to those dates  with questions like:

  • When can we showcase the newly published books to the school and families? (Conference week, our One School One Book Family night)
  • When do the two of us have a full day to commit to the Publishing Workshop? (Though to be fair we each snuck out to fulfil previous commitments to intervention groups, etc. since there was a second adult.)
  • How much lead time do we need to read submissions before the Publishing Workshop? (We generally give ourselves a week…though that’s sometimes tight since some of the books are 40-80 pages long.)
  • Do we want to capitalize on an event in the school calendar to boost participation and excitement? (Next fall we’ll publish shortly after returning from summer break to encourage voluntary summer writing. We might call for submissions shortly after an author visit.)

Each round consists of the Call for submissions, two or three weeks for authors to write or select their project, the selection week, a publishing day, and a week or so of post workshop production, binding, etc. All told, plan to give yourself about 6 weeks.

Call for Books & the Selection Process

Our call for books is a single page flyer. We send one home with the youngest child in each family (our regular Brother/Sister distribution list). We post them all around school in each grade level hallway and high visibility areas like over water fountains. Once or twice we’ve added it to the morning announcements as well. And our principal mentions it in one of her weekly emails to families.

The first year, we asked each teacher to submit three pieces from their class instead of reaching out directly to writers. It engaged most of our teachers, but not all teachers submitted student writing. Some teachers selected the strongest pieces from their class. Others chose to submit pieces from writers to whom it would mean the most. That was an amazing experience. Two of the third grade authors in our very first round told me, “I didn’t think I was a real writer. I didn’t ever really like to write before.” My heart melted right then. THAT was exactly why we were doing this. We chose to move away from teacher submissions partly because we got the impression it was an added burden on teachers, and partly because not all students who wanted to be published were even submitted. This year authors placed their submissions in a box in the library. Though in reflecting, I think I’ll make our next call open to student authors or their teachers who may want to nominate them.

We don’t have a special rubric or selection criteria, exactly. It’s more–holistic might sound like the professional version–a gut thing. Some books jump out of your hands and into your heart. Those are yesses. Some have good bones. The story has a good premise and the author is using some good craft moves that could be refined with some work. Those also go in the yes pile. Some are so unclear that readers would have a difficult time following them. Those need major revision. We take into account how much revision a submission will require before it’s ready to publish. I’ve taken these authors aside to thank, cheerlead, and coach before sending them off to keep writing and revising. Last year I even started a biweekly writer’s group over lunch for five of our young novelists whose books were so long (one as long as 80 pages) that revisions (heck-editing alone) would take more than a single day. The girls loved the lunches and were perfectly happy to publish later in the year.

The Publishing Workshop

You’ll surely put your own spin on a publishing workshop based on your expertise, passions, and facilities. We gather our authors together and pair them up to read each others books and provide some writer to writer feedback. We confer into some of these conversations and with individual authors as well sharing what we noted as we were reading their draft. Each author develops a revision plan. Some of these are quote brief because they’d done it before submitting, but some are meaty. At some point in the day we introduce the idea of the special pages or features of a published book. I once prepared a lovely presentation with models from a gorgeous picture book, but of course the day I was going to use it some emergency cropped up and I wasn’t able to be there for the beginning of the workshop. In reality, we roll this out to each writer as they finish their revisions and edits. We take a picture of each author for their About the Author page. Sometimes authors write their own. Other times they interview one another and write it for a fellow author. Once we had a 5th grader who was our Editor in charge of About the Author pages. This time some of our returning authors decided they wanted their back cover to have blurbs from other published authors. So they coordinated it amongst themselves. In the morning there’s a working snack. We have lunch together in the library. Authors leave in a staggered wave depending on when they finish.

Post-Production

The time with our writers is tremendous and energizing. It’s the post-production punch list that can feel daunting. Once our writers have done their part and their books’ pages are printed, our work begins. We produce a copy for the library shelves, another for the author to take home, and a spare set of pages for the “vault” (a safe shelf in the back office of the library) in case the library copy is damaged. We laminate the pages to protect them. Trimming all the pages might be the biggest time sink. I’ve been known to sit in my car outside a hockey rink trimming pages before a game or during a practice. For the very lengthy books we only laminate the front and back covers. For most books the ABout the Author becomes the outward facing back cover. For those books who wanted blurbs, we made the About the Author the inner facing back cover and laminated the two together back to back. We use the binding machine to add the plastic spines to each book. Originally we were publishing as 8.5’x11″ but this time we shifted to a paperback size. Our novelists were thrilled. It did require some additional formatting puzzles, but we had a good team to work through them. ANy day now we’ll finish producing the books. Our library aide will add them to Destiny and assign them a barcode. They’ll find their new homes on our very own PES Author Shelves.

I’d be thrilled to know that more schools were publishing their authors for wider audiences. If you decide to ‘franchise’ the Real Writers Publishing Company, I wish you all the best!

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