How I Used My Self-Published Book to Teach My Students

POSTED ON Mar 20, 2015

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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By Brian South (@stanhubrio)

Self-publishing your first novel is a learning experience for anyone, but Brian South, a high school teacher, took his students along for the ride. And, today, he shares a bit about what they all learned along the way.

I published a novel called The Zombie Sheriff Takes Tucson: A Love Story, but this article isn’t really about that. It’s about how I used my self-publishing experience to better connect with my students.

High school teachers like me struggle to find authentic learning situations for students, as you can probably guess. No matter how realistic the scenarios we provide our kids, we’re still in a school, there are still standards, and there’s still a grade.

As I began to seriously consider self-publishing The Zombie Sheriff, I had one of those epiphanies teachers try so hard to get their students to experience: what if I brought my kids on the self-publishing journey with me?

Besides being an English teacher, I also advise my high school’s literary magazine, Vertigo. One day, after the content of my book was finalized, I talked with some of Vertigo’s staff about my project before our meeting began. I told them I had written a comedic horror/Western about a zombie sheriff that tracks down lawbreakers—and eats them. It’s really a story that defies genre, though; just as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a bunch of hysterical and completely random observations about life couched in a sci-fi book, this is something of the same in a horror novel. With horses.

Picking a Cover

After the kids stopped laughing and telling me how hilarious that sounded, I explained to them that I had solicited cover designs from freelancers through the crowd-sourcing website (a tip I got from reading this blog!) and had narrowed the possibilities down to five finalists. Since these students have extensive experience with cover design (and it’s admittedly not my forte), I asked if they wanted to give me some input.

Four of the cover finalists

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3 4

Four cover designs for The Zombie Sheriff

Boy, did they. They were very blunt about which covers were eye-catching and which they wouldn’t look at twice. One cover in particular that I thought very appealing they didn’t even put in the top three. When I asked them why they scored it so low, they told me it wasn’t right for the book; the title is The Zombie Sheriff Takes Tucson: A Love Story, they pointed out, and while the book is a comedy, it’s also part horror. The cover I liked was more highbrow, accentuating the intellectual side of my book. To draw in the right audience, they said, I needed a combination of horror and comedy, not just one or the other.

The Winning Cover

Winning CoverThey were dead right (excuse the pun). Talk about a teachable moment—for me. I realize that high school upperclassmen aren’t exactly the target demographic for this book, but what they were saying made complete sense, once I was able to take an outsider’s point of view on the issue. One thing I’ve realized with self-publishing: it’s so easy to become the only person whose opinion matters, when in the end your opinion is probably the least important. It’s the audience that matters.

Weeks later, after the cover was finalized, some of the Vertigo staff wanted me to explain to them the process of self-publishing from start to finish, and I was happy to do so.

I described how you can hire freelancers—not just people putting in some extra time during their lunch break, but actual professionals—to help you with the things you might not be so good at, like:

  • editing
  • copyediting
  • formatting
  • layout
  • cover design
  • marketing
  • and a thousand other things

They were fascinated that there were so many jobs involved in putting together a book and that there were people out there who specialized in each one. Come to think of it, I remember a time when I was, too.

The most disorienting thing for me was when I discovered that, after years of teaching students about traditional publishing (the “right” way to get published), I was now, not an expert, but certainly knowledgeable enough about how to publish oneself, and the students saw that as just as valid as going through the conventional publishing process. To them, there is no “traditional” publishing anymore.

In the end, we all learned something. My students learned the ins-and-outs of how self-publishing is done at the moment (though what it will look like tomorrow, I haven’t a clue), and I learned that an indie author, above all, has to leave pre-conceived notions at the door and get as much input as possible. As one of my students pointed out, it really shouldn’t be called “self-publishing” at all, with all the help you can get.

I couldn’t agree more.

Brian South headshotBrian South has taught English at Naperville North High School for eleven years and at the College of DuPage for the past five. He holds a BA in English from the University of Notre Dame, where he won the Richard T. Sullivan Award for fiction writing, as well as a Masters in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University. Brian and his wife, Sarah, live in the Chicago area with their three sons, Finnegan, Sawyer, and Oliver.

The Zombie Sheriff Takes Tucson: A Love Story is a comedic horror/Western novel that tells an absurd, tongue-through-cheek tale of reanimated cowboys, undying love, and the lengths to which one zombie will go for justice. And for brains. For more information, visit

Photo: Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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