IBPA Member Spotlight: Steve Peha
Thursday, December 6, 2018
Posted by: Christopher Locke
Author Publisher Steve Peha Teaches a Unique Approach to College Application Essays
|Author publisher Steve Peha teaches college application essay techniques to 9th grade students.
IBPA member Steve Peha has made it his life mission to teach kids excellent writing skills through his tutoring company Teaching That Makes Sense. He founded the company back in 1995, and one of the projects he heads up is helping students with their college applications every year. This year, the demand for college application assistance has grown so much that Steve has even had to seek volunteers to assist him.
“Writing is not a strength for most kids,” says Steve. “With over two million applying to college each year, that’s at least two million essays that need to be written. There is also a very dire need to show kids how to do the essay differently: a way that helps them learn skills they’ll need for college while they write the essay.”
This different approach is to tell the students to “pick yourself, then pick your essay prompt.” Steve does this by having the kids conduct an exercise that leads them to discover what their core values are. “All college application essays turn on a simple pattern: core value + valuable experience = a foundational aspect of our character. This is exactly what admissions folks want and need to know about us.”
|Be a Better Writer: For School, For Fun, For Anyone Ages 10-15 by Steve Peha and Margot Carmichael Lester
Steve’s unique approach to teaching writing led he and his wife Margot Carmichael Lester in 2016 to write a book, Be a Better Writer: For School, For Fun, For Anyone Ages 10-15. The book’s goal is the same as his tutoring goal: “to give writers everything they need to take a good shot at any kind of writing they want to shoot for.”
The book has been such a success that he and his wife are currently working on a few more titles. Next up is Be a Writer Like… Advice, Encouragement, and Techniques from Writers for Writers. After that, they are planning the next book in the Be a Better Writer series, Write Your Way to College and Career.
As Steve works on both of those books, though, one of his biggest priorities is finding volunteers to assist him in helping students with their college application essays. If you would like to volunteer, click here.
Two Questions with Author Publisher Steve Peha
IBPA: Can you list three key lessons you’ve learned about how one can succeed as an independent publisher?
Steve Peha (SP):
- Seek permission. We all publish better stuff and market it more successfully if we think of earning the permission to put it in front of readers. Everything we publish is a request for the honor of being able to help someone with something they care about.
It’s not easy asking for help. So it really doesn’t do much good for me to write as though I’m saying, “Hey Kid! Pay attention! Ya gotta learn this stuff!”
What I need to do is the same thing I do in classrooms and workshops: I show kids how I write, assess their interests, and facilitate their desire to learn what matters most to them. Then I show them where those “matter-most” things are.
For example, when I’m with a writer, and I see that they’re having a problem, I usually say something like this: “Would you like a little trick for that?” or “Is there something I can show you here to make the writing more like you want it to be?” or “Here’s what I do when I’m working through that problem.”
And there’s no expectation on my part that my advice will work. So I also say, “Give it a try. If it doesn’t work, let me know. I’ll find you something else that might help.”
Sometimes writers say “No!” they don’t want any help. That’s fine. But most of the time, they say “Yes!” and then it’s less about being a teacher imposing myself on someone and more about being a fellow writer who has been invited to put his two cents in.
- Provide value. I know this sounds obvious but let me tell you why it’s not. We all have a natural tendency to let market conventions determine the value of what we do, or to let our personal feelings about a book convince us that it will have the same value to someone else besides ourselves and maybe our mom and dad.
As authors and even as publishers, we’re not great at knowing how valuable a book will be to someone else. And if we’re really trying to create stuff that is new and different and better, the market can provide misleading valuation information as well.
This is why I take a value-pricing approach. I set an initial price based on the premise that I’ve created a unique book that is worth about 200% of average for my category. I do this on the basis of my assumption that the book I’m publishing is better than most or all books in a tightly focused category. If it isn’t, I shouldn’t have spent six months and $15,000 putting it out because it’s not going to sell against the offerings of companies with tons more marketing muscle.
If the book sells well, wins awards, and gets good reviews, I’ll probably raise the price to a point just past where any expert would say I couldn’t go. I’m not doing this to be some renegade or to take advantage of people. I’m doing it to translate social proof into higher profit. For example, I added $5 to the price of Be a Better Writer after it had been out for 18 months or so. I also want to communicate through clear pricing signals that I complete only on quality, never on price.
With the recent price increase of Be a Better Writer, profit per copy now is almost 50% higher than it was originally. It’s losing steam in monthly sales. But that’s largely because I haven’t gotten the next edition out yet.
I’m not yet selling a ton of books by any means. But Be a Better Writer recouped all of its costs in its first year and, not counting my time and energy as author and publisher, it is a “profitable” title now even if my nascent little publishing company is itself not yet operating in the black.
My rough estimates tell me I’ll need this next title coming out in a couple of months, one more, and an updated edition of Be a Better Writer to have a solid business going. This seems very reasonable to me for the publishing industry. It’s not like doing tech startups. It’s a much longer ramp up and, ideally, more of a lifestyle business for me as I age into the last third of my life.
- Be helpful. I want to project my naturally helpful nature in all my books, but that’s not what this is about. Being helpful in this sense is about helping people with whatever they need, whether they’ve bought my books or not—even if they’re not asking for help with writing.
For example, with this college essay program, I do get paid a small amount of money to do formal workshops and to take individual kids step-by-step through the entire process. But the online community I’m building is free. And all the time I give to kids after the workshop reduces my hourly wage to something so trivial it isn’t worth counting.
Similarly, any teacher anywhere can ask me to teach a live video-based lesson to their students. I Skype all over the world to work with anyone who wants to work with me. That’s free. And so is my multi-thousand-page library of teaching materials.
Is it time-consuming? Yes. Is it exhausting? Certainly. Does it go to the bottom line? It goes to the bottom line of my well-being. And to the bottom line of the universe. Actually, I believe it eventually goes to my bank account. But the key word here is “eventually.”
If you want to make a living with writing and publishing, you have to be in it for the long haul. I have people I helped in my first years of teaching who come back 20+ years later to tell me how they’re doing—and they’re usually tickled that I’ve got a book or two they might want.
It’s the person, not the purchase that gets me up in the morning with the courage to face an always-overflowing inbox. This is what I live for. The books are what I want to live on but I may derive more income from other related activities at certain times. Who knows? I don’t live a lavish material life, but the emotional labor I invest in others pays itself back ten-fold.
IBPA: Can you give three tips about how someone can “be a better writer?”
SP: How about if I just give you one tip that’s three times better than any other tip?
Here it is: Master the art of the start.
Get really good at writing every kind of interesting beginning you can. Good beginnings are easy to find because they’re right at the beginning. There are probably about 50 different types, maybe 100 if you want to break it down that far. Every form usually relies on 3-5 common types of beginnings. Fiction writers have many more choices than nonfiction writers. But all of this is a very manageable and learnable thing.
As a writer and especially as a teacher of writing, focusing on beginnings has been the single most valuable thing I’ve ever done for myself or for anyone else.
IBPA: Thank you, Steve, for sharing your experience and insight with the IBPA community!
Sign up as a volunteer for and learn more about the Be A Better Writer community here.
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