November 9, 2019 9:34 am

Old-school Typewriter
Norman Eng

Read chapter 9 for next week’s class.

Be prepared to discuss the handout tomorrow.

List 3 things you learned from this article and share on the discussion board.

A lot of professors assign readings like these; i.e., students read a piece of text, respond to it in some way and/or come prepared to discuss it in class. Yet over half of students don’t do the assigned readings, and often it’s because professors assign too much. (1, 2)  

Maybe it’s time we stop assigning readings. 

Perhaps we should instead start assigning tasks.

Picture this: You’re teaching about gender inequality. You want students to read a handout on this topic, but you're concerned they won’t read it or that they’ll only do so superficially. Instead of telling students, “Read this handout and write a one-page response,” you might assign the following task:

Research the pay gap between men and women in 3 different industries/jobs. Explain why you think these jobs pay unfair wages. 

Here’s a meaningful task students can focus on, rather than on some handout. But for students to report on unfair wages, they need to read up on the topic, right? That’s where you recommend certain sources:

To help, I’ve provided two handouts and a video. Refer to at least three ideas or supporting details from any of these sources in your write-up.  

See how the readings play a secondary, almost incidental, role? 

This is the case even if the reading comes from a textbook. Let’s say you teach Introduction to Biology, and this week you need to cover chapter 35, titled “Vascular Plant Structure, Growth, and Development.”

You could assign Chapter 35 and hope students read and digest all the terms covered. Or you could focus on one particular area—the structure of leaves and their functions—and turn it into a task/assignment:   

Collect 3-5 different kinds of leaves (yes, actual leaves!) and analyze them. Tape them onto a piece of paper and label as many parts as you can that are visible. The more you’re able to do so, the better. Chapter 35 will help you do this. Come prepared during class to discuss what each part does. 

While there are many (perhaps better) ways to ensure students understand plant structure, the lesson here is the same: don’t make reading the main thing, even though we know it’s a necessary part of the assignment. 

So, why might a task-based approach to reading motivate students more?

Essentially, it mirrors the way we read in real life. Aside from reading for pleasure, we read because we want to get better at something or know more about a topic. Books such as How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, The Self-Driven Child, and Raising Kids Who Read have provided me, for instance, with incredible insights into raising my twin infant girls. Yet I would never read such books if it didn’t support my larger parenting goals. 

Intentional reading also changes the way we read, turning us from a passive reader who “proceeds from the first word to the last word of a text at a rate predictable by the text’s structure, to one of a purposeful information-seeker who adapts the way they read to achieve that purpose.” (3) With my parenting books, I have selectively skipped paragraphs, sections, and even whole chapters that I considered less relevant. Why wouldn’t we expect students to be just as discerning?

A task-based approach can work even for literature classes or courses where students read fiction text. Compare two ways to approach Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man:

Old Way:

Read Chapter 1 and come prepared to discuss the roles that the narrator is forced to play during his class speech. [Here, the reading is the main focus.]

New Way:

Think about the last time you were forced to “play a role” you didn’t necessarily want to play. Post a short paragraph describing this role and why you felt this way. Make sure to include how it compares with and differs from the narrator’s experiences in Chapter 1. [Here, the reading serves the larger task/assignment.]

Of course, reading literature has a generally different purpose than reading nonfiction text; in fact, oftentimes reading here is the goal. Students in a literature circle (which is kind of like a book club for students) or a graduate research class, for example, are analyzing texts for their own sake. 

For most of us, however, readings serve as the “information transfer” phase of learning. 

The next time you plan readings, consider the larger goal you want students to reach, the task you want them to complete, or the skill you want them to develop. Then provide the resource(s) to help them get there. It might include not just readings, but also videos and other primary documents. 

Let’s break down a task-based approach to reading into four steps, each with an example: 

STEP 1: Decide the goal/task AND the readings (ideally, you want to make sure the reading is essential to doing well in the task). 

ObjectiveThis week, I want my education students to be able to teach adding and subtracting with math manipulatives.

ReadingThey will read Chapter 9, “Estimation and Computational Procedures for Whole Numbers.”

STEP 2: Frame the assignment in terms of the goal or task ONLY. Ignore the readings in this step (it will be incorporated in Step 3).

Your goal this week is to figure out the best way to teach addition and subtraction using base-ten blocks. (Add details if necessary.) 

STEP 3: Add the readings as a recommendation (to help students accomplish their task/goal).

Use the strategies from chapter 9 to decide which works best for you and write a 2-paragraph plan.

STEP 4: Tell students how the information will be used (and how they are held accountable).

Next week in class, you will share your plan and decide which ideas work best!

Put together, here is the fleshed-out assignment that students see, packaged around a hypothetical scenario: 

Meet Julissa.

She’s eight years old and in third grade. But she has trouble multiplying two-digit numbers. Conceptually, she knows that multiplying has something to do with groups. Yet the traditional algorithmic way to multiply is too abstract for her. 

How would YOU teach Julissa? Your goal is to figure out the best way to teach multiplication using base-ten blocks. Consider the strategies from chapter 9 and decide which resonates most with you—and which you think would actually help Julissa.

Write a 2-paragraph plan explaining/justifying your instructional choice. Next week in class, you will share your plan and come to a group consensus.

See how I embed the reading without explicitly assigning it? This task would be impossible to do without reading the chapter. No quizzes, “gotcha” questions in class, or reading responses are necessary to compel students to read. 

Just make sure you hold students accountable for doing the assignment. In some cases, the simple act of having them share their thoughts in class is enough. Other times you may decide that the task is worth a certain number of points and/or that students have to post their responses on the online discussion board.  

As you can imagine, it’s not always necessary to use a task-based approach. Some readings, such as an article on how to land a job interview or a chapter about the impact of social media, are inherently purposeful and motivating for students. Using task-based approaches depends on you and your goal. 

Perhaps the real promise of task-based approaches to reading comes when we can stop dictating the sources. Students would be the ones who must figure out what texts to read and what videos to watch. All we have to do is come up with the goals or tasks. That’s when students become true self-directed learners. 

For now, let’s start by positioning reading where it should be—in service to the goals and tasks we assign. This would be a significant step to helping students see reading as useful, rather than as simply something they must do. 

Let me know if this approach to reading helps - leave a comment or question below!



(1) Hoeft, Mary E. (2012) "Why University Students Don't Read: What Professors Can Do To Increase Compliance," International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 6: No. 2, Article 12. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/ij-sotl/vol6/iss2/12/

(2) Cynthia S. Deale & Seung Hyun (Jenna) Lee (2021) To Read or Not to Read? Exploring the Reading Habits of Hospitality Management Students, Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Education, DOI: 10.1080/10963758.2020.1868317

(3) Durik, A. M., Britt, M. A., Rouet, J. (2017). Literacy beyond text comprehension: A theory of purposeful reading. United States: Taylor & Francis.

From 2012 to 2015, I was toiling in academia.

The teaching. The planning. The grading. The emailing. The researching. The writing. Doing all the things I’m expected to do as a budding scholar.

Like many contingent professors, I naively thought that the PhD label would make me like TV’s “The Bachelor,” with several universities vying for my attention. Sure, my work was slowly building a foundation. But it wasn’t accelerating me toward professional recognition and success. Or financial stability.

The problem? I realized I was waiting to be chosen—by book publishers, journal editors, peer reviewers, and hiring/grant committees. Battling to get in just so the gatekeepers would accept me.

[Read that struggle in Part 1]

It was time, I decided, to choose myself.

I was going to publish the book I wanted to write (not the book I should write), massively impact the world, and break free from the shackles of academia. Go big or go home, right?

So I stopped caring about what hiring committees thought. If they only cared about books published by Pearson and Routledge, that was of my control. Like so many things in life. There was no way I would leave my fate to the hands of institutions anymore.

What better time to do this than now—when anyone can turn entrepreneurial?

So, first things first. I inventoried my knowledge and skills and asked myself: Could I, for instance:

    • help others write better papers?
    • develop better resumes?
    • research information?
    • increase their motivation and productivity?
    • copywrite?
    • engage students in the classroom?
    • present more effectively?

With 20 years of marketing and education under my belt, I was confident I could, at the very least, help the novices in those areas.

But there were other things in self-publishing to consider aside from the topic. So, I did the research. And the more I dug into the process, the more excited I got.

Self-publishing, I found, had two big advantages over traditional publishing: 1) higher royalty rates; and 2) much more freedom and control. Let me break it down.

Higher Royalty Rates

With traditional publishers, authors earn anywhere from five to fifteen cents royalty out of every dollar; so, on average, they make a dime. If my book retails for $25 and I sell 200 copies a year (which is not bad for a niche or academic book), I’ve earned $500 (1).

    • 10% royalty rate for a $25 book –> $2.50 per book
    • 200 copies sold –> $500 earned ($2.50 x 200)

While this isn’t bad, it isn’t worth the time and effort (2). At least for me.

What if, instead, I had the opportunity to earn up to seven times that amount? That’s $3,500 for the exact same book—except this time through self-publishing rather than the traditional route. And that’s just for 200 copies.

When I publish independently, I can keep much more. In some cases, up to 70 percent (3).

If I sold double the amount of copies (400), we’re talking $7,000 in a year. THAT’S motivating.

With Teaching College—this one book!—I averaged $2,200 in royalties each month, which added up to $26,500 in 2017. In 2018, my royalty total increased to $35,000. Again, this is just for one book (4). The passive income I receive every month through self-publishing’s higher royalty rates ultimately laid the foundation for my business.

I can’t overemphasize how critical this was for me. Why? Because it’s hard to build a business without money. Websites, especially when used for business, cost money. At the very least, they need a hosting platform (a place where your content lives) and email marketing services (to help you communicate with your customers), which can get expensive. Even a blog—a professional quality one at least—requires me to spend some money to start and maintain.

When tech expenses drain me every month, how can I even focus on building a business? Self-publishing a book freed me to think broader and more long term. Speaking of which . . .

Freedom and Control

Self-publishing simply aligned with the way I work, especially in terms of making decisions. With traditional publishers, the editorial team basically decided the title, the cover design, the distribution, the price, and the marketing. They also suggested (or in some cases, dictated) certain content changes. At times, that back-and-forth conversation felt like a battle of wills.

Convention, however, was what I really questioned. Knowing that most authors don’t earn much, I felt annoyed that books written by academics sounded so similar: boring, stuffy, and focused too much on theory. What if I don’t want to follow the typical way? Why were these book covers so uninspiring and “me-too” (5)? Who is going to buy this? What’s the plan? How are publishers going to generate interest and buzz for my book?

As a former marketer, I didn’t feel like they were optimizing my chances for success. How is a content-driven, nonfiction book going to get readers excited? Why will readers select my book compared with other similar titles? Why were books priced so high?

I remember filling out the publisher’s marketing questionnaire one day. It asked me to summarize my book, come up with keywords (which makes the book searchable online) and titles of similar books (so that the marketing team can position the book), develop talking points for sales representatives, and describe my book’s strengths. And while some publishers set up book fairs, conferences, speaking gigs, and/or editorial reviews for their authors, the majority of them don’t do much substantive marketing beyond asking authors to promote their book on social media.

Which shocked me as a first timer. How many scholars knew the reality? I wondered.

It dawned on me that publishers would never push my book as hard as I would. They won’t fight to ensure its success—like putting me on book tours and podcasts or spend advertising dollars on Facebook and Google. Why? Because their limited resources go to the Malcolm Gladwells (6) of the world. His book and the few others like it would make more money for the publisher than the scores of other books authored by the rest of us combined.

But what if my goal is to become a bestseller? What if my book could help the larger public in a way they weren’t being helped right now? What if my book could launch a business?

Unfortunately, my goals aren’t the publishers’ priority. Understandably.

I’ll have to pitch for my own podcast interviews and book reviews. And then market it. In other words, I’d be doing their job.

If publishers don’t have the time, resources, and expertise, then why bother? Through self-publishing, I could make all the creative and business decisions and outsource the rest. Freelancers and self-publishing services abound to execute my ideas. That’s today’s gig economy.

The process of designing my book cover illustrated this freedom and control. Since it’s all about standing out among the search results, my book cover needed to be bold and simple. My first book, Teaching College, does just that. Take a look:

The title of my book Teaching College (top) is easy to read and “get”

While it won’t win any design awards, it will catch the eyes of readers interested in this topic. It’s also easy to “get.” That’s important when browsers scroll through a list of books online, as they would on Amazon.

The point is, in a self-published environment, I have that control. I get to collaborate with my freelance designer and choose what works. Here are examples of four cover versions for a different book I wrote, Presenting: The Professor’s Guide to Powerful Communication:

(Note: only black-and-white, not colored, concepts are displayed here)

Having that variety allowed me to poll the one that colleagues, friends, and families liked most. With that data, I was able to publish the version with the best chance to sell. Talk about controlling my destiny.

(Guess which one polled best? To find out, click here.)

Would a traditional publishing house do this for me? How much time do they spend coming up with a title and cover that will resonate with readers? How can they convince me they’ve done the research to ensure their version works?

The flexibility to design my own cover was just the tip of the iceberg. What if I wanted to charge a certain amount for the book? With Teaching College, I got to test the different price points (yes, you can change the price whenever you want as an independent publisher) and find the sweet spot that maximizes sales. I launched it for free and then $0.99 to spread the word. That’s shockingly low, but I learned that hesitant customers will more likely try a new book if it’s below a certain threshold—as in below five dollars. Publishers simply have no time to test that sweet spot for all their books.

Within the first two months I gave away over 1,900 copies of Teaching College. The resulting momentum (and attention) landed it in Amazon’s bestselling list—in seven education book categories (7).

So, it’s fair to ask: Is all this a game? Let’s just put it this way: it would be no different than the game that gatekeepers play, which kept me completely at their mercy. At least when I make my own decisions . . .

In the end, our goals weren’t compatible. I wanted to transform the lives of my readers and build a foundation for a side business; the publisher, on the other hand, wanted to maximize corporate profit. That meant directing resources toward the books with the highest chances for success. That one insight convinced me I made the right choice to self-publish.

Caveats to Consider

Despite my enthusiasm, however, I didn’t realize the amount of work involved to publish on my own. I plowed through, taking on all the trials and errors. Here are my three biggest lessons I learned about  independent publishing as a way to break out of academia.

First and foremost, self-publishing isn’t for everyone. The ideal independent publisher has an entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself spirit, like I had. I was dissatisfied with the “set-it-and-forget-it” approach of traditional publishing and wanted to learn the whole process—from planning to writing to marketing. Many scholars, however, aren’t confident (or willing to go) beyond the writing part. They prefer to let publishers do the rest.

Next, self-publishing may not be right if you’re on the tenure track. Independently published books will unlikely play any role in tenure decisions. Committees still want to see books published by the likes of Routledge, Harper Collins, Pearson, and Random House. Prestige and perception still rule academia. For now.

Finally, it takes money to make money. Are you willing to fund your book upfront before seeing royalties? The cost to hire editors, cover designers, formatters, and other freelance professionals can run anywhere from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars. I was fortunate to make that money back fairly quickly, but much depends on factors like how much you want to invest, how much the book resonates with readers, and even what book categories and keywords you choose.

Becoming an Entrepreneur

With self-publishing, I basically earned a degree in “starting my own business.” One that is insanely practical and valuable, and that doesn’t saddle me with that kind of student debt. What I learned mirrors the process entrepreneurs and startups go through—minus the pitching for venture capital:

Step 1: Have a world-changing idea (that’s been researched)

Step 2: Develop a prototype based on this idea

Step 3: Test and iterate along the way

Step 4: Release and sell this product/service

The best self-published (nonfiction) authors basically do the same: They start with a world-changing idea that’s been researched and vetted. Then they craft and revise their writing. Finally, they publish and sell the book. For the beginner, of course, there are a lot of details to consider. But by publishing, that author can leverage the book into a true side or full business—through speaking, consulting, and teaching. As I often hear, the self-published book becomes your business card.

For me, it’s led to podcast interviews, one-on-one coaching, workshop training, keynote speaking opportunities, and creating online courses—all of which is allowing me to expand.

Would any of this happened if I followed the conventional path in academia? If I had gone with a traditional publisher? I think you know the answer. I certainly would not have gained the experience and confidence to start and run a business.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re likely thinking about ways to leverage your expertise. Maybe you’re intrigued about how to become more entrepreneurial and launch your own independently published book.

With two successful self-published books under my belt, I want to pass everything I learned to the similarly frustrated or entrepreneurial-minded professor who’s spent years toiling in academia. That there are ways to turn the hard-earned knowledge and skills you’ve spent years gaining into a career (or at least side business) beyond the university walls. And do it successfully.

Start by downloading my free quick-start guide, called 7 Steps to Self-Publishing a Profitable Book in 6 Months: A Professor’s Guide.

7 Steps Self Publishing-COVER

Click here to access the guide

This guide is focused on the big picture—i.e., how to set yourself up for self-publishing success. Without this foundation, you could end up like the majority of independent authors who prematurely jump right into writing and never sell more than 500 copies lifetime.

Let’s impact the world through your book. Tell me your thoughts—on these questions as well as on my self-publishing guide by leaving a comment below!

Here’s to the start of a new journey. More to come.


(1) The amount an author actually makes with traditional publishers can get complicated. For example, he or she can earn a lot less if the royalties are based on net profit. This is the amount of profit publishers make off the book, typically 50 percent of the book’s amount. A good primer on how publishers pay authors can be found here.

(2) This amount doesn’t even consider the book advance, which is the amount authors get up front to defray costs related to writing the book. But think of them more like a loan (without the interest). You still have to pay it back, so to speak, when you start earning royalties. Let’s say I receive a $5,000 advance. Based on a 10 percent gross royalty off a $25 book, I’d need to sell 2,000 copies just to pay off that advance (i.e., to break even). Anything earned after paying off that $5,000 is what I keep. 2,000 copies is a lot to sell. Especially if I’m in a niche discipline like higher education instruction. For many academics, moving 500 copies is decent. (Then again, if I were getting a $5,000 advance, it means my publisher has confidence the book will do fairly well. They are, it should be noted, experts at calculating risk.)

(3) In regard to self-publishing, royalty rates can also get complicated. The bottom line: Rates span anywhere from 35% to 70%, which are higher than the range for traditionally published books. Amazon, the largest book seller in the U.S., lists how they break down their rates here.

(4) Note my Teaching College book included a Kindle/ebook format, a paperback, and an audiobook, which widened my audience and increased my revenue stream. I highly recommend creating multiple formats where possible.

(5) “Me-too” is a marketing term that describes products or services that are similar, and therefore, indistinguishable to each other. This is typically due to market oversaturation and lack of creativity. Think of the glut of cereal or soda brands in a typical supermarket as me-too products. As a businessperson, you don’t want that label assigned to your product or service.

(6) Malcolm Gladwell is the bestselling author of popular psychology books Blink and Outlier.

(7) The term bestseller is very nebulous, to be honest; such a status can be gamed—the same way as any prestigious status—whether it is on Amazon’s or The New York Times’ list. However, it can still act as a useful measure.

  • THIS is what I was looking for! I’ve been looking to expand, as you say “beyond the university walls.” Looking at your PDF guide and it’s a very very helpful foundation. Any chance you’ll write more about this? Or offer a class on this???? Inquiring minds want to know

    • Really appreciate hearing this, Jeff. I’ve been getting lots of positive responses and inquiries. I’ll definitely put some thoughts into this. Bottom line – a lot of profs (and honestly the general public) are interested in putting their expertise–whether from academia or elsewhere–out there. I’d love to help others feel that freedom and control as I’ve had. Stay tuned.

  • Congratulations on the success of your book, Norman! I really enjoyed reading this blog and learning more about the process of self-publishing. I am inspired and motivated by what I read here and am now looking forward to accessing your guide to self-publishing. Thanks for sharing your journey with us!

    • Glad this helps, Amita! If you ever have questions about this process, let me know! Apparently, there’s some real interest in this area, so I’m working out a way I can be most useful.

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