By Toby Koenigsberg
About a year ago I decided to publish an e-book.
I’m a music professor, and I had written a textbook on songwriting and music production. I had been giving the book away, and lots of students were using it. I decided that it was time to officially publish it.
I looked into a lot of options. Major academic publishers were interested. I considered self-publishing through Amazon, Apple, and Google, among others. There were so many details to think through; everything from royalties, to file sizes, to how the book would actually be viewed by students. I also had to consider how the method of publication would be perceived in academia.
Kobo’s payment rate was more generous for authors than those of other companies, and certainly far more generous than those of academic textbook publishers. 70% was just about the best author payment rate I could find anywhere.
Kobo allows book file sizes of 100 MB, and the 70% rate is not impacted by file size. With other companies, the file size limit was smaller, or as the file got larger, the earnings got smaller. I liked Kobo’s simple and generous approach.
How the book would be viewed by students was a complicated issue as many of them would be reading it on shared lab computers. A student would need to be able to access the book from any computer, and from any number of computers, and the next student who used the same computer would need to be denied access to the first student’s books. Some companies use cloud readers for this purpose (websites through which a customer can access her library), but I found these to be awkward. A book inside a cloud reader inside a web browser was just too unwieldy. Some companies limit the number of devices on which a customer can view a book to a certain number of registered ones, which obviously doesn’t work in computer labs. The Kobo Desktop Application, by contrast, is easy for consumers and computer lab administrators to install. It’s a tiny program—less than half the size of my book—but serves exactly the purposes I need: A student can read her books on any computer that has the application, then log off, and once logged off, the encrypted files are not viewable by anyone else (if they are even stored on the computer at all).
I was pleasantly surprised when employees of Kobo Writing Life reached out to me personally shortly after I published. At other times they gave me technical assistance, even with the formatting of my e-book, which seemed ‘above and beyond’ to me. (I must note here that for most of the EPUB formatting I used a program called Vellum, which was expensive but worked very well.)
So that’s why I chose to publish my e-book through Kobo. It seems like an obvious choice in hindsight, doesn’t it?
The question is: Why aren’t more professors doing this? The team at Kobo Writing Life tells me I’m somewhat unique, which is why they asked me to write this blogpost.
What I can say is this: Whether through Kobo, or through a different platform, I am absolutely convinced that more professors will soon be self-publishing.
I have to admit that, as a professor, I was very tempted to work with a traditional publishing company. Not because of distribution, of course. Publishing companies today don’t really do much more with respect to ebooks than Kobo does. Ebook publishing is almost a simple matter of just creating a website and an app at this point. But academia is—rightly—oriented around reviewing professors’ work from many vantage points, and a publisher is a kind of external reviewer. If your book is published, that means someone outside of your institution who makes decisions about book quality, and does so professionally, determined that your book met a certain standard.
There is also the issue of having an editor. There were a few little errors in my book that students discovered (and reported to me). An editor might have caught these in advance. On the other hand, it was nice, when I discovered an error, or decided I wanted to make some other change, to be able to edit the book myself, without the filter of an editor, and have the resultant corrected book be available to customers through Kobo within hours. And in any case, one can always hire an editor. (On college campuses, there are people all around who can assist with editing, EPUB formatting, and really anything else a self-publisher may need.) So the benefits of working with an editor seem to me muted by the benefits of having editorial control. The real issue, in my mind, as a university professor, is external review.
In the coming years, the question confronting professors who write books and their institutions will be: Is it worth relinquishing control over one’s book, and most of the royalties, to a publisher, solely because of the publisher’s function as an external reviewer?
I think that, due to tradition and inertia as much as anything, most professors and most institutions haven’t really grappled with this question yet. Because if they do, I think many will conclude that the answer is “no.”
After all, aren’t there people outside of publishing companies who can review a professor’s work? In fact, in academia, there are many ways that external review takes place.
It’s interesting to me that my field, music, is one that has had its own disruption in how content is distributed. Many artists now forego the use of record labels and use distribution platforms themselves to provide their music directly to audiences. Of course, this has well-documented problems, namely that content creators don’t make much money from their content; the distribution platforms do. And maybe, eventually, something like that will happen with the self-publishing of books, too. Right now, for many authors, the reverse is true: Kobo is offering a 70% payment rate.
But in academia, for those of us whose scholarship and creative work involves creating and releasing music, the issues are similar. How does one demonstrate musical quality in the absence of a record label, which performs much the same external review function with musical recordings that a book publisher does with books?
I note that one measure that is used as an external review can be the number of streams or views that a piece of content has. SoundCloud, YouTube, and others display this information. As a teacher of popular music, I actually do think there’s value in popularity, and that these numbers can serve as a kind of external review, though not the only one, or the most important one, or even a necessary one.
What intrigues me is what methods of external review academia will inevitably adopt in the future for professors’ books, as more professors realize what I have—that self-publishing is the obvious choice for many of us. It will be an exciting time to be a professor, to be working in academia as it reengages with, adapts, and applies the age-old principles of academic freedom to new situations, and to new scholarly and creative works.
Toby Koenigsberg is the Associate Professor of Jazz Piano and Associate Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Oregon, and a Specially Appointed Guest Professor at Shikoku University in Tokushima, Japan. He received his Master of Music degree in Jazz and Contemporary Media from the Eastman School of Music and pursued graduate study in classical piano at the Peabody Conservatory. While attending Eastman he received the Schirmer Award, given to the most outstanding graduate jazz performer in a graduating class.
A critically acclaimed recording artist for the Origin and Ninjazz record labels, Koenigsberg has performed at major venues throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.
Koenigsberg is published by the Jazz Education Journal and by JazzED magazine. He has presented at the annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education, the Royal Academy of Music in London, England, the Shenyang Conservatory in Shenyang, China, and at universities throughout the United States. He is the author of six books on piano playing, musicianship, songwriting, and music production.
In the past several years, Koenigsberg has led an effort to create and implement new curricula in popular music at the University of Oregon, including courses in songwriting and degree concentrations in Popular Music Studies. The program in popular music is now the fastest growing music program at the university, and in less than two years is already one of the largest.