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Parlaying a Kind Word into a Major Textbook Sale

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That first big textbook sale,
the one that earns you a chair at the big publishers’ table, requires patience.
Hang in there. As the author of <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Transforming Lives
, a composition
textbook for grades 9–12 and first-year college, I made sales at the
college level immediately just by talking to colleagues and peers and giving
away review copies. My first high school sale took me a year.


I teach the college course no one
wants to take but everyone has to take to graduate: Freshman Composition. The
main element is the much-reviled research paper. Eighteen years ago I
discovered an alternative called the I-Search paper that differs from the
traditional research paper in two main ways. First, students select their own
topics because the topics matter to them, not to the teacher. Second, unlike
the traditional research paper, which is basically a five-paragraph essay blown
out to 20 pages that are written the night before the paper is due, the steps of
an I-Search paper—articles, books, interviews—are written
chronologically as they happen. Each step has two parts: a summary of what the
student learned and an evaluation of that step’s value in answering the
student’s questions. These subtle differences yield profound results. By the
end of the semester it is not unusual to hear a student say, “This class
changed my life.”


Bottom line: The I-Search paper
changed my attitude toward teaching because it changed students’ attitudes
toward writing and researching. Colleagues encouraged me to write the textbook
for it; peer reviewers praised it; but the major publishers rejected it as a
niche book. I had no interest in smaller publishers. I was confident I could do
a better job myself.


When the book came out in 2003, I
brought it to class to show my students. One student, who had been loving the
class all semester, bought a copy for her mom, who, it turned out, taught high
school English in Detroit. She came to meet me on the last day of class and we
became friends through our common desire to get the book into the Detroit


We met several times that summer
to strategize. Every time, she raved about the book. Some comments surprised
me. I took voluminous notes. We developed a plan: I would talk to Dr. Joyce
Moore, a key decision-maker in the Detroit Public Schools English Department,
then wing it.


I decided to make a cold call at
Dr. Moore’s office. I didn’t expect her to be there, so I wrote a cover letter
to leave with the book. I used bullet points compiled from the notes I had
taken at those summer meetings to highlight the reasons my book was right for
her students and noted that I would call in a week. When I arrived I was
surprised to find her there. But, she warned me politely, she had little time.
I said I was grateful for any time she could give me. As we talked, she scanned
the book. She asked questions about specific passages. By the end of our
meeting, half an hour had passed. She told me to call her in three weeks.


So I did. Our conversation lasted
two minutes. I said, “Hi, this is Ken Wachsberger.” She said, “We’ve got to get
you on the agenda to meet the department heads.” I said, “I’m there.”


A week later I attended the
department heads meeting. I had rehearsed my notes until I had my rap
memorized, and that was fortunate because the tables were laid out in a
rectangular U-shape. I stood in the front with no podium to hide my notes. But
because I had memorized my rap—down to the “Uh”s and “Er”s and
“Oh”s— I seemed to be talking extemporaneously. I spoke for 10 minutes,
answered questions, and left to great applause.


The next day I called Dr. Moore to
see what people really thought of me. “The teachers would like you to lead a
three-part workshop to teach them how to teach the I-Search paper,” she
informed me. “And they would like you to give a PowerPoint presentation.”


“Great. No problem,” I said. Then
we hung up, and I said, “Oy. Problem”—because I had never done a
PowerPoint presentation.


Prep Work


But, driven by adrenaline, I had
the entire draft completed in a week. I met with Dr. Moore again so she could
see my outline and we could set a date. As luck would have it, the teachers had
an all-day in-service program the week before the first workshop session was
scheduled, in March 2004. I got myself invited, created a posterboard
presentation, wrote a press release based on the cover letter I had written for
Dr. Moore, brought a stack of books and a sign-up sheet, and spent the day
talking to teachers one-on-one and recruiting them for the workshop.


Forty teachers attended, three
times the usual workshop turnout, I was told. For the evaluation form, I wrote
a series of short-answer questions. Why didn’t I use True-False, Yes/No,
fill-in-the-blank, blacken-the-bubble, or any other format? Because I wanted
testimonial quotes for my Web site. I got plenty.


Seven months later I led another
three-part workshop in Detroit. It wasn’t as well attended as the first because
I didn’t have the advantage of the all-day in-service, but the attendees were
just as pleased. Also, for that one I gave the teachers more than they asked
for: High school teachers need to earn continuing education credits to keep
their licenses current, so I filled out the paperwork to get my workshop


By the time of the second
workshop, I had published the second edition of my book—with a foreword
by Dr. Moore. Immediately after that workshop, I began outreach beyond the
Detroit schools, and I attracted the interest of a grant writer I met at a
national conference. She’s helping me find grant money to do focus studies and
curriculum development because she saw how much I believed in my book and my


Oh, and before I forget, the
school system bought one class set apiece for all the teachers who attended the
workshops. In Detroit, classes average 35 students, so my total sale was over
2,000 books. I just might pay off my Visa yet.


The latest development, as of
mid-July, is that I’ve made my first sale to Boston Public Schools, one of the
prospects I contacted as soon as the Detroit sale was complete. This one also
took a year to complete, and since it’s for 20 copies for high school
principals who will review the book, I hope it’s just the beginning for sales
in Boston.


Patience isn’t my best virtue, but
it paid off with Transforming
, which is why I urge you to visualize, keep the vision, and
believe in yourself: If you don’t, why should anyone else? If you do, you owe
it to your community to let them know about your discoveries.


Ken Wachsberger is the publisher
of Azenphony Press. To learn more, visit www.azenphonypress.com.



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