At last Friday’s opening reception for the Burlington Book Festival, two young authors — poet Christopher Lawless and playwright and humorist Alison Wisch — signed copies of their first published books. They were introduced by Tim Brookes, director of Champlain College’s Professional Writing program, whom Wisch thanked for giving her a “challenging and incredible learning experience.”
Most colleges try to prepare students to write presentable, even publishable prose. But Champlain is doing something new: publishing its students. At Lulu.com, an online company that produces books using inexpensive print on demand (POD) technology, consumers can buy The Short Sweet Guide to Dialogue and Best Student Creative Non-fiction, both authored by the Champlain College Publishing Initiative. The paperbacks are designed to be used in college writing classes, but at slightly under $20 each, they’re cheaper than most commercial textbooks. That’s partly because they were written, edited, designed and marketed by students.
Brookes says he got the idea last year during a meeting with his program’s advisory board of media professionals. As the board discussed the importance of keeping students up to date with new technology, one member scribbled a note and passed it to Brookes: It read, You should start a publishing company. An editor friend of Brookes’ offered similar advice and touted the power of POD: “You can go from having an electronic file to having a finished book in a matter of hours,” Brookes says.
With advanced students providing most of the labor and Lulu.com doing the printing and fulfillment, the project had low overhead. Brookes decided to “start small and local,” producing “books for use on campus where a course book didn’t exist,” he says. While most writing courses use anthologies of big names, Brookes is a proponent of using good student work as a teaching tool, calling the method “a conversation across a table rather than a lecture.”
Now the CCPI is moving its production from Lulu.com to Manchester Center’s Northshire Bookstore. The store’s website calls it the first independent bookseller in the U.S. to own an Espresso Book Machine — a nifty new POD device that makes it possible to produce a whole book “right here — from printing to binding to trimming.” Northshire’s website is already selling copies of Wisch’s play 25 Squirrels and Lawless’ poetry collection East Slade, Maine, for $12 each. Lawless is a recent Champlain grad; Wisch a current student.
In the past, POD self-publishing was a last resort for authors who wanted to get their work out there. But for the Champlain students, Brookes hopes, it’s the first step into a career. He says he’s been approached by a nonprofit organization and other colleges seeking to use his students’ production skills. When the books sell, the apprentice authors “are earning money, a share of royalties from this book,” says Brookes. “We’re treating them like professionals. It’s an education they couldn’t possibly get in a conventional classroom.”