Monday, January 09, 2006

Self-publishing a lab manual

About a year and a half ago, I started teaching a new lecture and lab course. I wrote most of my own labs for the course, and for the last few semesters I've been distributing the labs as handouts on my course website. This has been far from ideal, however, as the vast majority of students didn't print out the labs, and many failed to refer back to past labs, even when they were relevant to current content (as a side note, the lack of printing is probably partially my fault, as I always had extra copies of the day's lab in lab).

So, the time has finally come for me to publish my own lab manual. I looked into having the manual published by a professional science publisher, and while they were extremely willing to give me help (and many publishers came to my office to talk about the project), there were two major problems: price and flexibility. I was often quoted prices over $30 or $40 for my 250-page, black and white manual, which seemed somewhat steep (see below for comparisons). The largest problem, however, was flexibility: all the publishers would have required me to do a printing run of at least 200 or 300 copies, meaning that I wouldn't have been able to revise the manual for at least two years. Considering that I haven't had time to perfect every single lab, and there're still a few labs I'm working on writing my own versions of, I just couldn't commit to that size of a run.

So, instead of going with a professional science publisher, I'm self-publishing my lab manual. There are a number of companies that will do print on demand (POD) publishing; both Cafepress and Lulu will publish 8.5" x 11" spiral-bound black and white books. The price and minimum run size of these POD companies is near perfect: both will print the book for less than $17 per copy (students can buy the book directly through the POD company's website), and neither has a minimum run size or up-front fee.

There are some definite downsides to self-publishing a manual, however. The professional publishers all showed me huge databases of images that I could draw from; by self-publishing I'm now responsible for clearing all copyrights for all images (and other content) in the manual. Thankfully I don't need too many images, but even so, in the past two weeks I've sent out dozens of e-mails requesting permission to use various images in the manual. A relatively minor problem is that none of the POD publishers I've seen have an option to have perforated pages, which will make end-of-lab worksheets somewhat more annoying to collect (they'll have to be torn out of the manual). I'm also now responsible for all formatting of the manuscript - the only thing the POD publishers do is take a Word file and print it as-is. This means that I've just taken a crash course in publishing style guides and how to use Word professionally (thank you Google!)

Formatting the manuscript has, so far, been the most time-consuming task (other than spending the last two years writing the labs). Even though I've used Word regularly for more than ten years, I can't believe how much I didn't know. I've now learned how to use styles, the outline view, section breaks (which, for instance, let you always start a chapter on an odd page), bookmarks and cross-references (which, when combined, dynamically update links such as "see page X"), the outline view, and automatically generated tables of contents. Probably the most useful of these new skills was an understanding of styles: they've allowed me to reformat my 20+ labs into a format that is consistent throughout the book, yet is easily changeable. For instance, now that I have styles set up, I can change the font (or paragraph spacing, or bullet style, or whatever) of all the body text in my 200+ page document without changing anything about my heading, captions, or other text styles. It's amazingly convenient.

Here are a few of the many pages I've used to study up on Word; I highly recommend them:

Yes, You Can Use Microsoft Word to Set Type That Looks Professional.

Microsoft guide to styles, which links to how to apply a style and how to format a style.

The above led to how to create a template, a very useful guide to making and formatting a good Word template to start writing.

Using outline view - assuming you're using headings properly (which I am now!), learning how to use this view will save you lots and lots of time.

How to create a table of contents.

A short note on how to prevent sections of text from splitting across pages.

A summary of how to format front matter differently from the rest of the book.

Two summaries of how to do page numbering in Word.

Cafe Press guide to front matter - a great guide to what goes where.

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