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Self-Publishing a Workbook or Guided Journal

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

As I edited an author's business book for self-publishing, it became clear that a text-filled book was not going to work. Her book was jam-packed with exercises for readers to complete. We decided that reinventing her book as a workbook would be beneficial . . . and it was, for both her business and her customers.

The benefits of offering workbooks and journals include:

  • Interactivity and engagement with readers
  • High perceived value
  • Additional book sales opportunities if offered as a companion to another book title
  • Engages multiple senses when readers handwrite answers

I've created my own workbook of writing prompts, as well as a journal of sorts with thought-provoking questions. Here are some of the challenges I've encountered with self-publishing these types of specialty publications.

How to Self Publish a Workbook or Journal in Print

Because workbooks or journals contain written exercises, print books typically work best.

Perfect Bound May or May Not Be Perfect. Like cookbooks, readers usually like to have a book lay flat for writing in it. Services such as Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP, which has now merged in the former Createspace) only produce perfect bound trade paperback books which don't easily lay flat.

One way around the write-in difficulty of these books is to create a larger size edition. For example, the author client's book was converted into an 8-1/2" X 11" trade paperback workbook using Amazon KDP. The larger pages allow the book to lay flatter than smaller sizes. So if there is a significant amount of writing for readers to do, this larger size can be a cost-effective option to consider. For books where answers might be short, even smaller trim sizes (such as 6" X 9") can work, even if they don't provide an ideal user experience.

Spiral Binding. Of course, another option is to offer a spiral-bound edition. But that can be expensive due to its more fragile physical construction and distribution difficulty. Spiral-bound books can flex too easily and the spirals can catch and warp. That's why some distribution or fulfillment companies may request that spiral-bound books be shrink-wrapped. Plus, fulfillment services, such as Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA), can carry fees that eat up profits. Also, if a distribution partner cannot be secured, the author is left with handling all the sales, printing, shipping, sales taxes, and other requirements... and all the costs.

Hard Covers. For some journal book topics, even a hardcover edition might make sense. Self-published hardcover book printing is available through a few platforms such as Lulu, Mixbook, and others. But because of the expense, and accompanying high price that would have to be charged, this option might only make sense for keepsake-type journals. An example would be a guided journal to document a baby's first year.

How Many Pages Should a Workbook or Journal Be?

Got a great question in response to this post about the number of pages that should be in a workbook or journal.

The short answer is that there is no minimum except what is required for printing the workbook or journal. On Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), there is a minimum of 24 pages for printing a paperback book. There is a maximum number of pages that can be printed (550 to 828, depending on book trim size and paper selection). But it is unlikely that any workbook or journal would ever reach that limit!

My 101 Business Writing Prompts workbook was 140 pages and my Looking Questions though journal was 43 pages. One of my client's workbooks was 112 pages.

Although it will depend on your subject, consider the physical handling issues for the reader when deciding how many pages to include. A lower page count may even be better for books that are smaller in trim size (for example, 6" x 9"), especially if you go with a perfect bound paperback edition since it already has issues with laying flat when open.

Another reason why you'd want to keep a workbook or journal page count at a reasonable size is due to reader overwhelm. Books that take too long to complete may easily be abandoned before finishing. It's just too much work. Again, your subject will be the main deciding factor.

If, indeed, your book's topic or activity is expansive enough for a large page count, consider breaking it up into smaller editions that concentrate on a more narrow aspect of your subject. That could also provide additional sales opportunities for you, too.

Formatting Tips for Workbooks and Journals

In creating write-in spaces for readers, make sure you leave enough space between each line to allow for easy writing. Also, provide enough lines to answer each particular question so that readers won't be writing their answers in the margins!

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To insert horizontal lines, I use Microsoft Word's auto-formatting for horizontal lines.

Do eBook Workbooks Work?

I've offered eBook editions of both of my writing prompts workbook and journal titles using KDP. I've been surprised that I've actually sold a number of them in this format! Maybe these readers just want to save money on book purchases and this was a money-saving choice.

Of course, a workbook or journal on the Kindle app does not allow readers to enter their answers in the eBook. I'm guessing that these folks are using some e-device, or possibly a separate notebook, to get their answers written down.

When formatting a workbook or guided journal for Kindle or other eBook platforms, make sure to remove the lines from the manuscript prior to uploading! These lines look horrible in eBook readers. Just include the questions. Also, make sure to remove any print edition-specific instructions such as "write your answer in the lines below."

What about offering a download PDF instead of a Kindle eBook? Not recommended! While it would be convenient for readers, a PDF download can be shared everywhere on the internet, robbing you of sales and profits. Understand the risk before you ever consider offering a downloadable edition.

Pricing a Self Published Workbook

Pricing a self-published workbook or journal is really no different than pricing any other book.

However, one of the aspects of workbooks and journals that can trip up authors is that they have little text in them. So when seeing a low word count, authors can fall into the trap that more words equals more value and may be tempted to reduce the price of the book, or might even consider stuffing more words into it to make it seem "bigger."

Remember that developing thought-provoking questions is an art. Price according to how much value answering these questions provides, as well as how this book compares to similar books in the market.

Some coaches and consultants offer workbooks or guided journals as a part of their service package, or use them as part of their lead generation sales funnel. These can often command higher prices than publications produced for purchase by the general public. Again, assess the value provided, compare it with similar offerings in the market, and price accordingly.

Remember that developing thought-provoking questions is an art.

— Heidi Thorne

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: I’ve created a journal and have a print shop. I prefer spiral bound for its ease of use. What’s the best way for me to get it sold and marketing other than my followers on social media?

Answer: You certainly have an advantage by owning a print shop! :) I agree that spiral bound is the best for these types of books. But spiral bound books are so difficult to sell online from a logistics standpoint.

You could use Amazon FBA. However, remember that you may need to shrink-wrap the books to make sure they don't get damaged in warehouse storage and handling. The spirals can get caught on things which will not only damage the spirals, but subsequently the pages.

There may be other options through the likes of Etsy or Shopify where you sell direct to customers. But that could mean additional cost and labor for you for ordering processing, shipping, and handling. Also, be aware of the costs of these sales platforms. Price your journal to account for any additional expenses you'll incur. Same goes for Amazon FBA.

Question: I am working on a workbook/journal, and I need editing and formatting. I am working on a very limited budget. What is the best avenue for finding these services coupled with affordability?

Answer: I think your best bets for affordable editing and formatting are on sites such as Fiverr and Upwork. Because a workbook/journal is a bit different than other text-heavy books, get some custom quotes from service providers on these sites. Be very clear about how you'd like your book to look to avoid any misunderstandings.

Question: Is there a page limit for journal prompt ebooks on KDP? I've already published and have been told it's too short, not an "ebook" (traditionally), and I'm wondering if I should include more prompts or unpublish. There are 20 prompts, about 20 pages.

Answer: First, I'm wondering who told you it's too short? An eBook can be very short. I have a book that's about 30 or so prompts. But I have included some introductory material, too. If you're just publishing the prompts without any explanation or instruction, that's probably not a good user experience. Think about adding some valuable insight or instructions.

However, if you're talking about print, then it may not be enough pages to be printable on the machines they use.

Question: What are the best sites to self publish, and is it better to use a standard template or just make your own the way that you like it yourself?

Answer: I think your choice of "best site" will be determined by your vision for your workbook or journal. Amazon KDP only does perfect bound books which don't lay flat. Some journal publishers don't like that and may opt for hardcover or quick-print shop alternatives (spiral bound). It will also depend on how you plan to sell and distribute your book.

In terms of templates, again it will depend on what's required for your particular book. Templates on Amazon KDP/Kindle Create don't have a template that is specific for workbooks or journals. So you'd have to create your own. Because these are specialty publications, I think other self-publishing companies may not have templates either. Therefore, I think that you'll probably have to develop your layout either way.

Question: How can I protect my journals from someone else publishing their contents?

Answer: Well, that's more of a security question. I would keep a physical journal in a secure place where no one could find or access it. If it's an electronic file, you could put password protection on it. But realize that it may not be foolproof. In terms of rights, you are the copyright holder.

If you're worried about someone publishing it after your death, they need to realize that your copyright extends for several decades after your death. So your journal could become part of your estate.

If any of these are a concern for you, I would suggest having a conversation with an intellectual property attorney about protecting your work.

Question: Did you write the prompts in Word then convert them to PDF? Did you convert each page or save it as a zip file?

Answer: I wrote all the prompts and did the page layout in Word. I then uploaded the complete Word document to Kindle Direct Publishing (which, at that time, was Createspace). You should still be able to do that with KDP. No PDF, no zip file. However, for print on KDP, I think you can still upload a PDF of your manuscript if you're concerned about things getting shifted around in the Word document (it happens!). Experiment with it in KDP. You can use the Launch Previewer to make sure everything looks the way you want it to. Also, order a physical proof before you make it available for sale on Amazon to make sure it prints properly.

If you're not using KDP, you'll have to find out what your self-publishing company's procedures are to make it print properly.

For the Kindle eBook version, I deleted all the lines for writing answers and just uploaded the Word document to KDP.

Question: When publishing a writing workbook, how does copyright work when quoting passages from news articles or novels not in the public domain?

Answer: It's the same as any other book. You need to get specific written permission to include quoted material in your workbook.

Question: Is there a program that you would recommend to use for writing a prompt journal? Or should I just stick with MS office word and publisher?

Answer: I think MS Word is your best and most economical program for a writing prompt journal. I've used it for both of mine. Good luck with your project!

Question: Do you get an ISBN for your guided journals or workbooks?

Answer: Typically you would get an ISBN for a guided journal or workbook if you publish it on the likes of Kindle Direct Publishing. They automatically assign an ISBN to all print books, unless you provide your own ISBN.

If you print and publish on your own, you have to make a choice about ISBN. Check out the R.R. Bowker website (if you're in the United States, Bowker is the ISBN registrar) to review your ISBN options if you don't use a self-publishing platform.

Question: How can I figure out how much money I will make on each KDP published book? I know there is the printing cost, then Amazon takes a chunk as well. How do I know how much I am going to make on each sale?

Answer: Here's the information from KDP on how to calculate your print book royalty, plus a link to printing cost prices. Good luck with your book!

Question: How do you create the lines to write on and ensure they’ll be correctly formatted?

Answer: To create write-in lines, I use Microsoft Word's auto-formatting for lines. Here's the link to the MS Office support article.

Question: Are there guidelines to publish a journal?

Answer: Are you asking about publishing YOUR journal or diary that you wrote? If so, then it becomes a project more akin to autobiography or memoir. But if you are asking for guidelines to produce a write-in type journal for your readers, please reply with what guidelines you're looking for. Formatting? Content? Marketing? I'd be glad to answer a more narrow question.

Question: How does a copyright page work if I am publishing a journal book?

Answer: It works like any other book! Remember works that are tangible (whether physical or electronic) are copyrightable. You would use a copyright page at the beginning of your book.

Question: About how many pages would a good workbook be?

Answer: There is no number of pages that a "good" workbook is. It will depend on the market and the purpose of the workbook. One that I worked on with an author was over 100 pages. One of mine is less than 50. Get clear on what the person should gain from using your workbook and let that be your guide. Aside from that, there is a minimum number of pages that qualify for print on demand with the likes of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

© 2017 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 16, 2019:

You're welcome, Rachel!

RachelFChafin on October 15, 2019:

Thank you Heidi for such a wonderful and useful words on the topic, Really felt it very useful.. At first I wasnt able to read the full article in a concentrated way but after looking at the video I read the blog.. Because the video is the only source which made the article familiar among the readers, Thanks for such a wonderful information will definetly share this with my colleagues stating as one of the best blogs to go through.. Thank you Heidi.!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 14, 2018:

Hi Jeff! Well, if you use Kindle Direct Publishing, the cost could be zero if you do the layout yourself.

But if you need designers, that could run into a couple hundred bucks maybe. Depends on your project and the designer. I would look on Fiverr for some folks who could do it for a reasonable cost. Don't just go with the lowest cost person! Look at their portfolio (usually they post samples on the site) and ask for quotes.

The other costs would be for marketing and promoting your workbook.

Thanks for asking and good luck with your workbook!

jpat1975 on November 13, 2018:

Hi Heidi......just wondering what the typical start up cost is to self publish a workbook and if you can recommend an affordable way to find help in the production of the workbook. Thank you, Jeff

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 04, 2018:

Hi Glenn! Workbooks can be challenging and expensive from a production standpoint. I did them many years ago and it was quite a project.

I'll be anxious to hear how it goes if you do decide to go with Lulu. Please stop back and update.

Appreciate you stopping by and commenting. Good luck with your workbook and have a great weekend!

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on March 03, 2018:

I found this article extremely helpful Heidi. I was thinking of creating a workbook for something I’m involved with in order to teach others. I wanted to do it with CreateSpace, but I knew a bound version would not work for the reason you mentioned.

I’m glad I read your article because now I know that there are pros and cons of using a spiral-bound notebook. That was the other way I was going to go about it, and I think Lulu offers that option—although the cost of shipping is a lot higher.

At least you gave me something to consider with the extra information that I needed. Thank you.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 09, 2017:

AliciaC, with all the more academic material you create, I can see how this type of project could fit in with what you do. Thanks for the kind words and you have a great weekend, too!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 08, 2017:

This is another interesting article, Heidi. You've given me some ideas that I could use. Thanks for sharing them. I hope you have a great weekend.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 08, 2017:

Blond, you bring up some great questions!

Kindle eBooks have limited sharing capability in terms of number of books, time available, and with whom it can be shared. As well, readers need to use the Kindle App and/or device, subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, and/or fulfill other requirements. Authors get a bit of royalty for pages read in these shares through the Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Online Lending Library programs. It's not a lot, but it's better than having your work shared without limitation.

Conversely, PDF documents can be downloaded and stored on anybody's computer, uploaded to social media, shared via email... the range is frightening. When authors sell or offer their PDFs direct-to-customers online, they open themselves up to this potential unlimited sharing without compensation. There are some services that watermark PDFs for tracking and have other ways to help control this. But I'm not sure how successful those strategies are.

I hope that helps. Truly appreciate you bringing that up since others may question it, too. Thanks for your support, as always, and have a great weekend!

Mary Wickison from USA on September 08, 2017:

As always you've shown advantages and potential pitfalls for people to avoid.

I understand your concerns about not recommending a PDF but couldn't an e-book be as deleterious?

Since this isn't being written in as a hard copy would be, is it not possible to share an e-book?

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 08, 2017:

Happy Friday, Billybuc! Your coloring book is kind of workbook of sorts. So I think you can relate. Thanks for the kind words (and new moniker)! Happy Weekend!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2017:

Not for me but great information, Heidi! You are my guru...the guru's guru! LOL I like that!

Have a great weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 07, 2017:

Flourish, with your expertise, I'm sure you'd create a wonderful workbook. Let us know if you do. Appreciate you stopping by! Have a great evening!

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 07, 2017:

I could see myself writing one of these given my background in small group behavior and HR investigations. Thank you for the advice.

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