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Educational courses and nonfiction books go hand-in-hand. It's not unusual for course instructors to write books based on their courses. Online courses have an advantage in this regard, since much of the course material is already written down in narrative form. Creating a book, though, is quite a different endeavor from creating an online course.
If you're considering converting your online course to a book, at the outset you need to ask yourself certain interrelated questions:
What Kind of Book
It may seem natural to convert an online course into a textbook, seeing as it 1) serves the same instructional purpose, 2) likely already includes exercises and other study questions, and 3) can be jointly marketed to the same audience.
But developing a book needs to be thought out carefully.
First, ask yourself if a textbook based on the online course would make sense commercially. If your own students are the primary audience for the book, that's a relatively small market. Traditional textbook publishers want to see a large potential market, and your online course may be in a niche specialty area. If the book is intended to be used specifically in conjunction with your course, prospective students may question why they need to purchase a physical book in addition to accessing all the course material that's online.
You also need to consider how you will expand the number of words in your course outline and notes to fill the number of pages expected in a textbook. I recall initially thinking that if I simply converted my five-week online course to a book, the book would be less than 100 pages. Adding more examples of the same content may not be a good idea.
Considering the factors of audience, publisher, and book scope, it may make more sense to write a professional book rather than a textbook. Although a professional book has a fairly narrow market (those in or interested in a given profession), it still appeals to a broader audience than a textbook. There's no implied goal of comprehensive instruction, no need for exercises and study questions, no need for book customers to consider themselves as students.
A professional book can be a lighter read and more informal in style than a textbook, while remaining serious. Another advantage of writing a commercial book, rather than a textbook, is that you have more flexibility in what kind of content to add when supplementing the quantity of text from an online course to fill out a book.
Online lesson texts are short, and even if there are numerous pages, the amount of text would never total as many pages expected for a commercial book. You can be creative in how you supplement your text, but it will require additional research. For example, you can add discussions of the history of the field, the state of the profession, case studies, emerging trends, sidebars profiling people or organizations, etc.
When I turned my 13-lesson course "Creating Website Indexes" (see "Creating an Independent Online Course for a Niche Skill") into a book titled Indexing Specialties: Web Sites, totaling 153 pages (excluding the foreword, introduction, and index), I only needed to add some information about the history of the field and explanation on how to use two additional software tools.
When I later expanded a 5-lesson continuing education workshop Taxonomies & Controlled Vocabularies (Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science) into a 414-page book, The Accidental Taxonomist, which turned into a 414-page book (including the appendices), I added:
Another way that you may be able to supplement content is with illustrations, screenshots, and other images. Your online course likely has external links. Your book can therefore include screenshots of those externally linked sites, when relevant.
When figuring out who is going to publish the book, your options are self-publishing, using a professional association, or looking for a commercial professional publisher. Unless you can argue that you have a large audience, mass market trade publishers will probably not be interested in your work.
Two of the existing books in my narrower field of taxonomies had been self-published, one of them even as a course textbook. Self-publishing is clearly becoming more popular and easy with online, on-demand publishing services, such as Lulu.com. Self-publishing, however, has the drawbacks of putting all the burden of marketing on the author, not enforcing editorial and typographical quality, and perhaps not selling as well due to the lack of a reputable publisher in the customers' eyes: "If your book is good, why wouldn't a commercial publisher publish it?"
If you are writing a professional book, then you shouldn't overlook the possibility of the professional association in your field serving as the publisher. Many professional associations publish books written by their members, often in partnership with a commercial professional publisher, thus giving the opportunity of authorship to otherwise untried authors reaching a somewhat limited but focused professional market. Author royalties may be lacking in such an arrangement, but at least you get the desired targeted exposure and the reputation as an author for your next book.
My initial book publishing experience was with a professional association, turning my online course "Creating Website Indexes" into a book of the American Society for Indexer's Indexing Specialties series. As a member, I had met the society's book publishing coordinator at one of the annual conferences. Although I hesitated at first, knowing I would not earn royalties, I decided that the added promotion for my ongoing online course would be worth it, and my previous attempt with a commercial publisher proved unsuccessful.
The full version of my independently offered course had been 13 lessons, so little additional content was needed. And the task of editing the texts into book chapters took about 10 weeks, working on it part-time. Thus, the limited amount of work in converting the course into a book manuscript made this "volunteer" work worth the self-promotion I subsequently obtained from it.
Getting a book published by the professional association served as my credentials, one year later, to a commercial professional publisher, who accepted my next book proposal, which was also based on an online course. The publisher, Information Today, Inc., was in fact the partner publisher of the American Society for Indexing, and thus I had the opportunity to meet the editor-in-chief in person at a conference.
With the incentive of earning royalties on the second book, I put in considerably more time and effort to make a better and lengthier finished product. Working part-time, on and off, it took me close to a year to re-write and supplement my online lesson texts to create the book, The Accidental Taxonomist, which was three times as long as my first book.
Editorial Changes and Additions
A book is typically written in a different style than online texts. At the very least, the language is slightly more formal—not as chatty. For example, I used the second person ("you") in my online texts, but eliminated it in the book. While this revising was more work than I expected, it was still far easier than researching and writing from scratch.
Unless you are writing a textbook, exercises or assignments in online courses also need to be changed into narrative examples. After all, if you had created them to teach a principle, they are probably useful. Most, but not all, exercises can translate into narrative text well. When I had a colleague check over my book manuscript, she said that one example did not make sense. I realized that the example had been based on an exercise, and while it served well as an exercise, it did not work as straight text. In the end, I cut it out.
In print, there's no room for factual inaccuracies. Attributions are often required, too. While, theoretically, we shouldn't see errors in our online courses either, that environment is a little more forgiving. We can update an online text any time. Differences of opinion are tolerated. Typically, no one but the students are reading your online texts.
A book, on the other hand, can be read by anyone, including other authors in the field or competitors who might look for excuses to criticize the text. Books are also subject to published reviews. Therefore, in contrast to online courses, questionable facts must be checked carefully for a book, and an expert reviewer must go through the copy closely. Prior to submitting a book to a publisher, one or more professional "experts" in the field need to review and critique the manuscript for accuracy, completeness, and impartiality. Some publishers may do this on their end, but if not, it's the author's responsibility.
Other components of a book— front matter and back matter—also supplement the core text. Besides the expert reviewers, another expert should be recruited, perhaps someone renowned in the field, to write a foreword. On the other hand, the author will likely write his or her own introduction or preface, explaining the background of the book, mentioning, among other things, that it was based on an online course (that's still available!). The book will also need a bibliography or further reading section. A book's bibliography is expected to be more extensive than what you may already have in your online course. You also might choose to have additional information in an appendix that you had not previously written. For The Accidental Taxonomist, I added a glossary. In my online lessons, I had simply included external links to a number of glossaries on the subject, but that wouldn't suffice in print.
A final detail: images. Image size and quality (pixels per inch) is significantly lower for the Web than for print. Thus, you will likely have to redo all your online images, returning to the original source, taking a new screenshot, and saving it at a higher resolution (about 300dpi). This can be tedious, but it does add value to the finished product.
If I had not written an online course first, I would have never ventured to the next step of authoring a complete book based on the pre-existing content. Content reuse is important is saving one's time and energy. Reaching a wider audience for my ideas and the synergy of marketing both course and book have been great benefits. I encourage other writers of online courses to seriously consider converting their lessons to published books.
About the Author
Heather Hedden, principal of Hedden Information Management, provides services and training in creating commercial and enterprise taxonomies and in indexing. She teaches the online workshops "Taxonomies & Controlled Vocabularies" and "Creating Website Indexes" through the continuing education program of Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science. She is author of The Accidental Taxonomist (to appear May 2010, Information Today Inc.) and Indexing Specialties: Web Sites (2007, American Society for Indexing).
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