How Nonfiction Authors Can Profit With E-Learning

by | Dec 6, 2010

Even today, I can clearly remember the feeling of overwhelm when I began my publishing company in the 1980s.

It seemed that every day I was confronted with decisions to make on matters I knew nothing about. Some of these decisions, I sensed, could torpedo my efforts to create a professional, competitive publishing program. But which ones?

One day it was ISBNs, those mysterious numbers everyone talks about, and which show up on the back cover of books. The next day it was the Library of Congress instructions for copyright, and the fear that if I did it wrong somehow a black helicopter would swoop in and declare my book “null and void.”

Irrational? You bet, but that’s what happens when you confront obstacles in an unknown field. Since you don’t know anything, you make stuff up, because “nature abhors a vacuum.”

And keep in mind this was all before the Internet. In those dark ages reliable, actionable information—the bread and butter of many nonfiction authors—was hard to come by, impossible to “sample” and took a long time to be delivered.

How People Find the Information They Need

Today, authors thinking about publishing their own books, or starting micro-publishing companies, have lots of resources to turn to for education on the many subjects publishers need to know.

For instance, when I started in self-publishing there were only two books widely available on the subject—from Dan Poynter and Marilyn Ross—now there are dozens.

Since there was no internet, there were no “searchable” sources. Now there are many, although users will have to decide for themselves just how authoritative, accurate or useful they are.

There are also non-profit groups that can help aspiring publishers learn their trade. Many of these are associated with organizations like the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) that run excellent educational programs, and they are quite worthwhile.

But unless you live near one of these groups, you’re out of luck.

We also have the burgeoning field of e-learning. These are programs available online where you can get information and instruction in different formats. Again, you have to assure yourself that the people presenting this information are the people you can trust for guidance.

I think the future of specialized education inevitably lies online, in this digital delivery of educational materials from trusted sources. The kind of guidance any newcomer can use. And the kind that you can access from anywhere, at any time you have the need.

Experts Agree on This

And why not? Digital learning has some clear advantages:

  • Reasonably priced—By breaking subjects down to their component parts, prices can reflect just the piece of the puzzle you are interested in today.
  • Immediately available—If you need to know today how to get an ISBN, and the best way to do it, you don’t want to wait until the next meeting of the North Lansing Book Publishers Club, do you? You want it now.
  • Access to experts—As more and more business moves online and into the social media world, we have access to all sorts of publishing experts in design, marketing, editing, all sorts of disciplines. These folks used to be locked up in tall buildings on Sixth Avenue in New York, but now they are only as far away as your inbox.
  • Targeted learning—Rather than having to wade through 400 pages of information to find what you’re looking for, digital education can create “learning modules” that address just the subject you want to know about, a huge time-saver for busy people.

You can see that nonfiction authors, and particularly authors of how-to and instructional books, or any book whose subject matter would lend it to being broken into subject areas or convenient “chunks” can be used as the basis for e-learning projects. This is the raw material for content marketing.

You may have to look at your content in a new way. E-learning concentrates on addressing specific areas in which the reader wants to increase their knowledge or acquire new skills. Some subjects work better in one format than another. Here are the three most popular formats:

  • teleseminar—group conference call where a presentation is made and listeners may be able to ask questions and get responses in real-time. Also available as recorded sessions for download.
  • webinar—like a teleseminar but with visuals, which might be PowerPoint slides or live-action presentations. Can include audience participation or be made available on its own.
  • e-courses—while the teleseminar and webinar involve instruction, live or recorded, e-courses are a way to deliver progressive instructional content over a period of time. Might include lessons, activities, goals, worksheets and other educational aids, these courses are often delivered by email.

The Time is Now For E-Learning to Become Part of Your Plan

Millions of people are looking for training right now. Community colleges are overwhelmed with applicants exactly at the time their budgets are being cut. We’re learning that we have to be creative just to survive.

Nonfiction authors with skills and experience and a serviceable style for presenting their material should be finding every way they can to get their content to the people who need it the most.

Would your book lend itself to e-learning? I’m actively involved in exploring these methods for delivering educational content, finding ways to put into action what I’ve been writing about in this article. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by otubo,

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. EvolCampus

    Good post!
    The e-learning platforms are very profitable. In education, they serve to create and deliver your own online courses. Thanks to e-learning platforms, online education is increasing, and it has many advantages.
    A greeting.

  2. Carol Topp, CPA

    My publisher is interested in doing webinars, teleseminars and podcasts to promote my new book: Business Tips and Taxes for Writers. She’s less interested in doing book reviews or a blog tour. I think e-learning can be a new tool for marketing non-fiction books.

    My topic, business and taxes for writers/authors/freelancers/bloggers, etc. lends itself to webinars and teleseminars. We’ll see how it goes.

    I think that the idea is to sell books (and my consulting services) by teaching. Like you mentioned easy access to experts (I’m a CPA) is important.

    BTW, I teach a on-line class for teenagers who want to start a micro business. I use and embedded YouTube videos I created with my flip camcorder. It’s worked OK. The blog feature which I use as a homework forum needs some improvements, but it’s OK for now.

  3. Julia Lindsey

    That is actually a very big help. I am most comfortable in front of a large group with an outline and an audience that likes to discuss the topic. So for me the best way may be video conferencing that is interactive. It would be the most in my comfort zone but would still reach the distant learners. I have been trying to figure out how to mix all of it and have been stuck on the project for months. This approach is likely to get it done the first of they year.

  4. Kevin Sivils


    Less is more – really.

    The first conference I ever attended for distance learning/e-learning I attended a great two hour session by a professor whose area of research was tests and assessment for distance learning, particularly e-learning.

    For traditional high school teachers this is a BIG issue – how do we assess the students? For many consumers and deliverers of e-learning modules this is not that big an issue.

    The professor spent 30 minutes writing on a huge dry erase board all the cool ways teachers can deliver content and engage students via e-learning methods. After filling up the board, and leaving me feeling very small and overwhelmed the professor then posed the question, “how do you assess all of these methods?” You could have heard a pin drop.

    She then stated essays work. We know they work, they have worked for thousands of years. We know how to assess an essay. Short answer questions work and we know how to assess short answer questions.

    Her message was start with what you know how to do and adapt the technology to how you teach, don’t adapt how you teach to the technology. As you learn more, experiment with little lessons and determine how to assess the new idea. If it doesn’t work, move on.

    Less is more – don’t overwhelm yourself. I have some youtube reviews I made for my students. They are not professional grade – just films of me from the little built in camera on my Mac and some images inserted through iMovie (our school uses Macs). The students love these reviews and they can watch them from anywhere they have internet access.

    The first one took me two hours. The rest of them required about 15-20 minutes to produce and I now have them saved and can use them again.

    I use Yahoo Group e-mail message boards – they’re free, can be moderated and access limited to my students. I use them for on-line class discussion.

    This might not be what you had in mind, but it is a start – start with what you know and go from there.

    If I can do it, you can do it!

  5. Julia M Lindsey

    Thanks for the information. It looks like a great convention and very reasonably priced.


  6. Kevin Sivils


    You might want to look into this conference. I may be attending it with our director of technology from our school.

    You would be amazed at the possibilities. I attended the Texas Distance Learning Association’s convention in Houston where I teach and was literally overwhelmed at times by the possibilities. You definitely have to start with what you feel comfortable with.

    Here is the link for the conference:

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for the link, Kevin. Your thought about starting with what you feel comfortable with seems exactly right. Taking on too much may be one way of getting nothing done.

  7. Julia M Lindsey

    I am working on a e-learning seminar for business owners who want to publish a book. I have experience getting in front of a large crowd with a power point and talking for 4 hours but I am struggling setting up an effective e-learning program. I am working on a questionnaire to see how my readers prefer to learn.

    What have you found to be the best format. Do you think it should be a mix of e-book, audio and video?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Julia, I think if it’s something you’re doing for the first time it might be overwhelming to try to put together audio, video and text. Although people who write about these programs make it sound easy, it’s actually pretty complex to get all the pieces in place and working properly. You might think about a basic text presentation and use any audio or video you generate as optional extras for those who want to use them. It seems more important, especially at first, to make sure you have the framework right and all the parts interacting properly. I’m going through this too, so I know how daunting it can be.

  8. Kevin Sivils

    I am a high school history teacher and basketball coach. I teach U.S. History and elective courses in the History of WW II and the Vietnam Conflict. The school I teach at is a “lap top” school. A fancy name to say the teachers and students have lap tops.

    Summer school is what is called in teacherspeak a “blended format.” We have three days of face-to-face (f2f) and two days of distance learning.

    We have a “portal” for our students to use. I put all of my course materials on the portal. It is both a blessing and a curse. The time to prepare lessons with technology – and to do it right – is mind boggling. However, that save feature is a dandy. I have created some great lessons that keep the kids engaged, occupied and interested and best of all, they learn!

    The learning curve is pretty steep for the creators of the lessons – not only do you have to know your stuff in terms of content, you have to know how to use the technology.

    Having said that, technology as a delivery system for education, of all types, is not only here to stay, it is coming down the pike with mind blowing speed.

    I use blogs for my classes, e-mail message boards, youtube, streaming video, content I have created, online archives, etc. The main struggle is as Michael states, separating the wheat from the chaff.

    e-learning is here to stay and it is going to get bigger and bigger. It is economical in many ways and very customizable. I wish I had time to venture into this new form of commerce but my “real job” and my venture into self-publishing just don’t leave me any time to do so just now.

    • Joel Friedlander


      That’s really interesting to hear how you’re adapting technology and social media functionality to make teaching more interesting and engaging for your students.

      I have to agree with you that there’s a huge amount of work for content creators to move content to these various platforms, and just when you get set up with one technology there are new ones to deal with.

      On the other hand, I wonder whether, once the courses are designed and executed, if you won’t see a big time savings as you re-use the courses in later years.

      Two of the things I really like about e-learning are the ability to deliver content at regular intervals, and the viability of creating targeted content that answers specific sets of questions.

      I think e-learning is here to stay. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  9. Michael N. Marcus

    >>Today, authors thinking about publishing their own books, or starting micro-publishing companies, have lots of resources to turn to for education on the many subjects publishers need to know.<<

    Sadly, a lot of the resources are wrong.

    When I started self-pubbing in 2008, I bought nearly 40 books in an effort to learn the business.

    Among the misinformation provided by alleged experts was that it can cost $6,000 to develop an author's website, owns Lightning Source, Microsoft Publisher is good for formatting books, getting an ISBN is difficult, Amazon requires a 55% discount, ugly book covers are OK for online selling, TNR and Arial are good choices for book text, and self-publishers park their cars outdoors because their garages are filled with unsold books. It took me a while to separate fact from fiction.

    Conflicting rules about "style," such as 10 vs. ten and the need for using "thin spaces" within an ellipsis can be frustrating for newbies.

    And recent books from some of the most-respected and experienced experts in self-publishing are just plain ugly and/or unreadable. They are quick-and-dirty efforts to cash-in on past fame, and are bad examples of what is acceptable.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults),"

    • Joel Friedlander


      There’s no doubt that the variety of people offering instruction in self-publishing now includes both publishing pros with years of experience as well as authors who have gained all their experience on one book over the past six months.

      We’ve all learned by now that the best approach to “experts” you encounter online is caveat emptier, “let the buyer beware.”

      I think your comment emphasizes how important it is to find trustworthy and reliable sources of information. This is one of the reasons reliable authorities like the Chicago Manual of Style are relied on so heavily. And it’s also why I’m so interested in ways to bring that kind of reliable information to self-publishers trying to navigate toward a well-published book.



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