Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

The cult of celebrity in ELT

As a writer, and a newish one, I’ve been turned down a lot. I expect to be turned down a lot more. In fact, far more than I expect to be given work. I think I’ve got fairly realistic expectations here: I’m never going to be rich, no one will ever know who I am and I’ll end up still having to occasionally borrow money from friends in more stable jobs when I get caught out by cash flow situations when publishers take their time paying. (Cough! Nudge!)

But what I wasn’t expecting was what has started to be a pattern: Responding to ads for writers or for book proposals and being passed over in favour of the authors they were using anyway.

An ad suggests they’re looking for, or are at least open to, new writers. The “big” names are presumably known to them so why bother advertising if you’re just going to use them anyway? Why bother advertising at all if you’re too scared to take a risk?

I put “big” in inverted commas quite deliberately. Please take a moment and jot down all the big name ELT writers you can think of…..

Done? Didn’t take long, did it? Now, if you can pick up your pen again and flex your wrist, I think the next list will demand a bit more stamina.

Name all the good and all the well known course books and resource books you can think of. I think EFL bears the distinction between good and well known since Headway is likely to be on that list somewhere. (Did I say which adjective I think best applies to Headway? You said that not me!)

I couldn’t tell you the name of a single one of the authors of the books I have used and liked the most or those I have bought for Summer School. Even if I could prise  some names from my subconscious, I couldn’t tell you if they’ve written the entire series. The name I know the best, for whatever reason, is Scott Thornbury and, forgive me, but it wasn’t until recently that I realised he hasn’t written a course book ever.

So why are publishers so preoccupied with this? This isn’t a rhetorical question, I genuinely want to know.

Maybe it’s because they use writers that are easy to work with, who know the ropes and what’s expected of them. Are editors scared of imparting a bit of their knowledge and supporting new voices and fresh talent?

Or do they just not know their job well  enough and are relying on the expertise of experienced writers? After all, a lot of editors are younger and longer out of teaching than writers who tend to keep their hand in with classes. But maybe new writers would be more adaptable, more willing to take criticism, more humble, hungrier and worth a punt.

Perhaps it’s that these seasoned writers draw in the crowds at conferences and so provide a ready made market of loyal fans. Well, for starters, EFL conferences might be well attended, but they’re not exactly packed to the rafters with teachers waving wallets around, racing to get their new copy of English File signed by whoever it was that wrote it.

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Also, most language schools buy books, never asking teachers which ones they like. And most of them choose books from the catalogue blurb. I know because that’s how I chose most of the ones for Summer School. I doubt the majority of secondary schools abroad buy books based on authors either. I suspect they choose with the aid of their local sales reps.

So, it looks to me as if no-one cares about these “big” authors except Commissioning Editors. Which explains why ads for writers generally lead to work reviewing material produced by “big” name authors. They tell you this is the way into writing for them. I’ve yet to see evidence of it. But I have reviewed some godawful stuff which should be in your classrooms in the next couple of years.

One selection of proposed texts had some that were so lame I thought they were red herrings designed to weed out the insincere or brown nosing reviewer who thought a universally positive review would be the best way to get in with the publisher. Needless to say, I was quite honest in my review. But I asked the editor in a roundabout kind of way later – OK not that roundabout – and she was surprised as all were genuine suggestions.

Another time I submitted a proposal and was then asked to do a further indepth development of my ideas as were a lot of other new writers. Not a single one of the ones I knew of got the callback. I bet they’re going with a “big” name. Maybe our ideas were too radical. I know mine were. In EFL comparable terms of course i.e. not very.

As I say, I expect rejection but I did the proposal with full cynicism that it was all for show. I think the reasoning is flawed if the fear is that using a new writer is too much of a risk because our names won’t draw in the punters. The “big” names are probably not the reason for a course book’s success or failure anyway.

Or am I wrong? Do you follow the authors as if they’re the EFL equivalent of Stephen King, John Grisham and JK Rowling?

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57 comments on “The cult of celebrity in ELT

  1. Ebefl
    March 20, 2013

    Ah but did you get passed over for a big name or did you just assume that happened?

    Interesting to know thornbury hadn’t written a textbook but then it would be too ironic considering his dogme stance.

    • Nicola
      March 20, 2013

      Assume but let’s say it’s a reasonably informed assumption. Plus other stuff that’s happened like asked to write some listening or reading texts at very short notice so presumably a project is behind or needs fresh input, agree, do all or some of them, editors happy but then taken off it as the main writers suddenly decide they can, after all, do it themselves.

  2. stevebrown70
    March 20, 2013

    It’s a bit like pop music, isn’t it? With coursebooks, publishers have found a formula that works and are scared of moving away from it. They want to know what they’re getting, and they can be sure of getting this from writers they know.
    Personally I feel that ELT is stagnating. There’s very little new stuff out there and, although issues are being raised and there is increasing agreement that the status quo isn’t ideal, there seems to be very little desire from publishers (and other key stakeholders) to address these issues.
    I’ve got an article out in this month’s English Teaching Professional that goes into more detail about this.

    • Nicola
      March 20, 2013

      Completely agree and good analogy although I’d say it went further as, with pop music at least it IS the artist’s name that’s selling the music even at times when the material itself doesn’t justify it. In ELT it’s the book’s name, not the writer’s, that sells it. Whether that book is actually any good or the product of stagnation as you say is (probably true) and a separate point almost.
      Publishers often have focus groups to discuss projects under development. Cash poor teachers get a nice three hour earner and of course would like more of this easy work where someone is actually interested in their opinion (often lacking in schools) so they are probably more positive than they would be when faced with the usual turgid materials and slagging them off in the staff room while scrabbling around for things to make the material more teachable/relevant.
      When I designed a course for Summer School I went to the school and asked teachers to give me feedback. It took several goes to convince them I just wanted to know and wasn’t going to be precious about it and that I’d be incorporating their suggestions (not had time to do that so far so even with the best will in the world…). I also watched some lessons to see what teachers were doing with it. Maybe publishers do that, I admit I have no idea what the rest of the process entails.
      Is your article available online?

  3. bealer81
    March 20, 2013

    Have you thought about contacting these guys – http://the-round.com/

    The blurb on the blog is below.

    About
    the round is an independent collective of creative individuals in English language teaching.

    It was founded by Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings in spring 2011 and arose from a series of conversations about bridging the gap between blogs and books – and about the difficulty of placing innovative, niche or critical materials with the big ELT publishers.

    Our mission is threefold:

    to provide great material for educators (fairly priced and readily accessible)
    to give a fair deal to authors (who sell and retain the copyright on their own work)
    to be a learning environment (where we share expertise and ideas)
    The website, designed and developed by Mark Bain, is a shared space for marketing products by round authors and disseminating round news and ideas.

    You can also find us on Twitter and Facebook.

    • Nicola
      March 20, 2013

      I’ve heard of them but not looked into it in any detail. The thing is I WANT to write for major publishers, they have a huge distribution network and a far wider reach than any independents at the moment. I think, as with mainstream publishing, the independent and self published authors are going to rise up and take some market share eventually and publishers will have to change the entire way they work.
      Groups like The Round will probably be instrumental in that but the block I think is that this is teachers talking to teachers and they’re not the customer, language schools do the buying.
      How many teachers want to spend their own money on materials for class on anything more than a few occasions or beyond subscribing to a website that has downloadables (likely of dubious, or at least varied, quality) except maybe OneStopEnglish…oh yes, owned by a major publisher! Incidentally they have competitions where teachers can submit materials for the generous prize of being featured on their website but not for any personal revenue. Thus drawing other teachers into the site by making everyone feel like they’re in a caring, ideas sharing community and that your materials writing career might be launched here. I’d love to know if anyone has actually been offered paid work by that publisher as a result of winning that competition. Maybe I’m being too cynical. It has been known to happen!
      And, I’m willing to bet the materials that win the competition on originality are more original than anything in the course books. Hmmph!! I used to think I was alone in thinking of more creative or original things to do with classes. And then you meet other teachers or go to conferences and see all this fantastic stuff and you realise there’s an army of people with the same approach but you never see it coming from the coursebooks. Mainstream education is streets ahead of ELT in this respect even, although they only have their own country to think of. Anyway this is becoming longer than my post!

  4. linksandanchors
    March 20, 2013

    I always assumed that most EFL text books were written by a faceless and humourless committee – who make vanilla ice-cream when they are not writing course books. I am pretty sure that the vast majority of EFL books are bought in bulk by schools which reduces the potential marketing impact of a “big” name writer. I don’t think that there is much advantage to EFL publishers to promote authors by name they want schools to buy into their series or the imprint.

    • Nicola
      March 20, 2013

      Exactly what I’d assume about schools buying style. In fact, I’ve not noticed course books even being advertised although I know publishers send the “big” names to conferences. It’s true that these people draw a crowd but because their names are on a series, it’s not the name that makes the series.

      Conference attendee: (looking at program of talks)…Who the hell is X X…ahh! They’re the author of [insert coursebook]. I wonder what they’re like? How many beige items are they wearing and why did they write such a dull book?

      Conference attendee: (after probably a good talk) Oh, now I know who wrote that book my school makes me use. They’re more interesting than their book after all and now I know some ways to take it “off the page” so it’s less boring in my classes…where are the free drinks? Is anyone handing out free pens?

      What they’re not thinking: I must buy that author’s other books!

  5. Jo Cummins (Creativities)
    March 22, 2013

    I found your post very interesting because, firstly, I’m just starting out as a materials writer too (I believe we have the same agent!), but also because I realised, worryingly, how many ELT coursebook authors I could actually name!!
    Anyway, I guess I have had a quite a different experience to you so far. I’ve done a bit of reviewing in the past, I’ve written materials for a website for a few years. Then, since having my son, I applied for one (adveritised) writing job (not for a major international publisher, but rather a major publisher in a specific European country) and got taken on (along with several other new writers) as a writer on a big series of coursebooks for them. I also applied for work as test task writer for a big chain of language schools and have started writing for them. Neither of these jobs are particularly exciting, or are they really things I would write if I had complete freedom but I do see it as good experience, learning how to work with editors, learning about the process and will also hopefully show other publishers I’m not completely unproven. And they bring in fairly regular money! But like you, one day I hope to write for a major publisher and have some influence in what I’m doing!
    I believe Lindsay Clanfield (one of the founders of the Round) was one of the early lesson share winners on One Stop English funnily enough. I think the major publishers will definitely be keeping an eye on what the round are doing so it might be worth considering?
    I wonder if editiors keep commissioning the big names because they know what they are getting, and because they know they are reliable. Although often it seems to be one big name who does all the promotion, and gets to steer what is written and behind them there are a whole load of people who are doing the actual work and just following briefs without much say in what they are doing. I think increasingly though there is a change in the way teachers want to do things, and the books aren’t really reflecting this so I maybe it is just a case of being patient, chipping away and waiting for an opening, or a big shake up to happen?

    • Nicola
      March 22, 2013

      Well that’s the exact opposite of my post!! Note all how I am not deleting it in order to preserve only my point of view 🙂 That is quite encouraging actually. I didn’t realise you were on Nick’s books too…I bet you know the coursebook proposal ad I’m referring to!

      • Jo Cummins (Creativities)
        March 22, 2013

        No, I don’t know it, I’ve only just signed on with Nick (I was number 19 ;)) I don’t think I’m saying totally the opposite to you, but it’s interesting to hear different experiences and points of view. And I’m sure I only know the names of quite a few coursebook writers because I am a geek!

    • mikecorea
      March 22, 2013

      Hello folks,
      Very interesting post on many levels. Thanks Nicola.
      I guess I have a lot to say on this topic but I will do my best to keep it brief.

      I think Jack Richards, the author of Interchange (and methodology as well as listening books), is a name that many people would be familiar with. Just as an example.

      Jo mentioned Lindsay Clanfield of the round. He is also the author of the coursebook (series?) Global. I don’t know what that means one way or the other but I thought it would be worth mentioning. If you’ll excuse me sharing my own stuff and you’d like to read a bit more about how Lindsay got started and some of this thoughts on publishing you can see my interview with him here:
      http://www.koreatesol.org/sites/default/files/pdf_publications/TECv16n4-12Winter.pdf
      (start on page 12 )

      Like you, Nicola I have reviewed some stuff that seemed pretty shocking to me!

      Cheers and thanks again for the interesting read.

      • Nicola
        March 23, 2013

        I’ve never heard of either of them! But asking the question was one way to see whether it’s just me or not. Will check out your post…

  6. Simon Greenall
    March 23, 2013

    In no particular order, a response …

    I didn’t know there was a pattern to new authors ‘being passed over in favour of authors they were using anyway’ although I bet it’s not always about the ‘big names’ changing their mind and deciding to do the project after all. We’ve all been noticing a move away from royalties to fees, and even what I now learn are called ‘heritage authors’ are not getting repeat commissions or new projects. The business of the big publishers is in the last few months in a process of redefining its outcomes, its business models, and I don’t think you’re quite as left out of the frame as you think. All of us are.

    Headway is well known because it used to be good, but has been around for a long time, and I guess it has been given a new edition once to often. But no one was obliged to keep buying it, and the publisher was responding to market forces. Sorry, I don’t have a brief for defending Headway, but I respect it, its publishers, its authors and its users very much.

    I suspect that you’re right about no one caring much about ‘big authors’, but including commissioning editors. There haven’t been author led projects since the mid-Eighties, only market-led ones. Sorry if that’s not your impression, because I really would like you to be authors of the mid-Teens.

    Scoot Thornbury did write a coursebook some years back, but I say this for accuracy’s sake, not to deny the validity of your point.

    Publishers are extremely cautious about commissioning anyone these days, and we’re about to see a complete refashioning of the whole ELT publishing industry over the next year. If you’ve been disappointed in the past year, it’s probably because of the turmoil which is happening in ELT publishing at the moment.
    You’re right that these days the book’s name is more important than the writer’s. In fact, I’d even go as far as saying that it’s the colour of the cover which is most important.

    I’m horrified by kinksandanchors assumption ‘that most EFL text books were written by a faceless and humourless committee’. It’s not true, and it’s cynical to say this. There are some extremely dedicated editors working on these projects – I’ve never met any editor who has not genuinely wished to improved whatever I’ve written – and while I’ve been called many things, but no one has accused me of being humourless or faceless :).

    I went through all of these trials thirty years ago when I began my career as a coursebook writer. I want you all at all costs to carry on the work into the future. I know it’s frustrating, but I went through all that too. You aren’t on your own, remember that there’s a new Materials Writers SIG starting in IATEFL, there’s a discussion group called ELT Writers Connected on Facebook, and there are many friends who want you to succeed. If you want to get in touch, write me on FB or Twitter @simongreenall and I can DM you my email.

    I’m passionate and 100% supportive of people who want to break into the profession, because it needs you, and if it doesn’t, then my work over the last thirty years has been wasted.

    • Nicola
      March 23, 2013

      Thanks for a really supportive, heartfelt reply. I was, in some ways, writing a bit tongue in cheek, as is my wont but it all came from a genuine place. I do think I’m starting to make some headway (no pun intended) and Graded Readers is something that I feel I am making my own anyway, but the feeling that I’ve been about to be offered work which is then taken away because the authors decided they could do it themselves I can now perhaps put down to them being on fee based work and so every bit that’s fielded out to another writer is money out of their pocket which makes more sense.
      I think the comment from anchors and chains is not meant completely seriously but it is true that course books are sanitised to quite an extreme degree to fit all markets possible so I’d guess this is what that meant.

    • dzemach
      March 23, 2013

      “I’ve never met any editor who has not genuinely wished to improved whatever I’ve written”–that’s been my experience too, and I’ve worked with a ton of editors at all of the major publishers. Lord knows I’ve fought some pretty fierce battles over scope and sequence, organization, texts, and even individual words (and these days, increasingly over fees and contractual issues), but I’ve never felt an editor didn’t care and wasn’t doing his/her best to produce good materials.

      I’ve probably done more editorial work on large courses than authoring work, and I absolutely go to bat for my authors when it’s justified. Still don’t win every disagreement, but it’s certainly not for want of caring or respecting quality work.

      I do think publishers like to work with ‘known quantities’ on projects because you want a team that works well together and puts out quality material on time. Why would you not want those things? When I’m offered editorial work, my first question is “Who are the authors?” because I want to work with agreeable people who are engaged with the work, who produce quality stuff, and aren’t too special to be edited.

      • Nicola
        March 23, 2013

        I’m saying I think the idea that there are big names is a concept that might not be accurate because I can’t name them. I ask if anyone else can, apparently some people can. I have heard from people I know in editing that they have authors they usually work with, in which case I don’t get why they’re advertising and then going with their same team anyway. I don’t get why they advertise for writers but give only reviewing work. I like the reviewing work but I don’t need to be sold on it as the way into writing to want to do it. They’re different things. I was at a conference in the UK where a publisher was giving a talk about how to break into writing but it was really about reviewing their materials. I don’t think I said anywhere that editors don’t care – perhaps their hands are tied to a certain extent by what they perceive the market to demand but it’s certainly the case that there are some very bland unusable materials out there – some of which I have to teach from and heavily supplement/skip entirely to make more class friendly.

      • dzemach
        March 24, 2013

        Well, yes, some (many?) people, and certainly those who write ELT materials and those who aspire to, *do* know the names of published writers. Here’s a good reason for you to do the same: Because it can lead to paid, published work. For example, you said you’d never heard of Jack Richards or Lindsay Clandfield, which I found rather astonishing. Time to google. 😉 I got my start in ELT writing when I was offered the chance to work on a video activity book and accompanying teacher’s guide to a course–and I took that job because the course was authored by Jack Richards. And because I did know who Jack Richards was, the one request I made on my contract was to have my name appear on the cover, which it did. Because I knew that would impact my career as a materials writer, which indeed it did (and just last year or the year before, I actually wound up as Jack’s editor on one of his professional titles). I’d never met Lindsay Clandfield in person, but I certainly knew his name and the course he’d authored, so when the commissioning editor on the course I was consulting on said there was a chance that we could get him as a co-author on the upper level, I said, “Snap him up!”

        I certainly hope you had heard of Simon Greenall before he answered your blog post, but on the off chance you hadn’t, then you should hit Google again and do some research, and then take him up on his generous offer to connect on social media.

        Publishers ask potential writers to start with reviewing materials because that gives them the chance to see a) how well you write, and b) how well you know the field and materials. Make a good impression there, and you’ll doubtless be tapped for larger future projects. So, they’re different things in a way, but they’re certainly connected.

  7. dzemach
    March 23, 2013

    I didn’t realize if I worked on a major coursebook I was assumed to “wear beige.” Honestly, I was a bit taken aback by what almost seemed like hostility in your post towards published authors. Not quite sure what to make of that, especially since you then said you did want to work with major publishers.

    • Nicola
      March 23, 2013

      I’m sorry you think it’s hostile, it’s quite tongue in cheek which is the way I tend to write. I have nothing against any of the authors, how could I since, as I say, I don’t know who any of them are! And my beige comment refers to how boring a lot of course books are and what that might lead you to (wrongly) assume about the authors who are in fact, writing to briefs that aim to make books sellable in the most conservative of cultures.

      • dzemach
        March 23, 2013

        If you don’t know who any of them are, then why assume they were chosen because they were “big”? Each time a publisher has approached me about a possible project, I’ve still had to ‘try out’ with sample materials, and was not picked every time. When I worked as a series consultant, the publisher asked me to recommend the author team–but all of those people still had to submit sample materials. Some of those names were “big” and some were not, and none were chosen because their materials were bland. For me to make a list of ELT authors took days, actually, and they made my personal list because I thought their books were good.

  8. Sue Kay
    March 23, 2013

    Hi Nicola. Two colleagues and I have set up a service to support new writers who want to get into publishing. Check out eltteacher2writer.co.uk. I’m an author and my two colleagues are publishers – teachers were always asking me how they could get known by the publishers, and publishers were always asking my colleagues if they knew anybody who could write x or y. And this is how we had the idea for a kind of match-making service between writers and publishers, backed up by a training course in the skills of ELT writing. Registering in our database doesn’t guarantee a job, but we know that publishers are actively using the database to find new writers, so at the very least it could up your chances.

    • Nicola
      March 23, 2013

      Thanks, I do know of it and signing up is on my list of things to do!

      • Sue Kay
        March 23, 2013

        Great – look forward to seeing your name appear there.

  9. linksandanchors
    March 24, 2013

    I have nothing against the “big names” of EFL text books (whose names seem to escape me and most of the people who have replied to Nicola’s original post). I am sure they are all lovely, amusing and highly intelligent people who (if I knew their names) I’d like to invite to my next pool party.

    Like a lot of EFL teachers I embraced the DIY-materials/Dogme approach. Mostly because the content in mainstream EFL course books is bland, boring and uninspiring; for me as a teacher as much as for my students. Everything about course books, from their titles and the graphic design to the topics, examples, characters, exercises and useful grammar info-boxes, is as contrived, bland and artificial as the English that I associate with the BBC of the 1950s.

    Frankly modern course writers could learn a lot from Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer which, despite being full of grammar tables and long lists of exceptions, had just enough war and violence in it to keep me (as a young teenage boy) vaguely interested.

    So it isn’t the writers. That means the sales and marketing departments of publishers have to take responsibility. Publishers want to sell huge numbers of books and support materials to schools. This requires the editorial team to produce books aimed at a mass market. The EFL book market is segmented into huge demographic groups defined by age and ability. This focus tends to rule out the quirky, amusing, risky, sexy, edgy and thought provoking. It also means that you never find dogs, homosexuals or feminists in EFL text books because such topics do not help sell books in many markets.

    Will a publisher ever commission a series aimed at a smaller market? How about a course book aimed at urban teenagers in Latin America who are into The Walking Dead, Twitter, tattoos, house parties, the Harlem Shake, David Guetta, smart phones and Canada? I doubt it. Yet without a clearly defined customer it is going to be difficult to make a course that is really engaging.

    So, while I seem to be right in thinking that most courses are written by committee. I was wrong to characterise EFL course writers as faceless and humourless – that describes their product pretty well but, I admit, not the authors.

    I am totally open to being wrong. But I am not seeing much evidence here that might change my mind.

    PY

    P.S: My user name is Linksandanchors – Not Kinksandanchors or Linksandchains (though these are clearly better than my real name).

    😉

  10. Jo Cummins (Creativities)
    March 24, 2013

    Thanks Nicola for starting this discussion, it has turned into a very useful post! Mike’s tips are great and it is nice to hear from Simon Greenall that perhaps things haven’t changed that much! I can’t find the facebook group he mentioned though, does anyone have a link? It’s good to hear from all sides, editors, authors (old and new) and teachers using coursebooks. I think things are changing and everyone is just waiting a bit to see what happens, hopefully exciting times with lots of opportunities for all 😉
    (Linksandanchors – can’t see the coursebook you describe for Latin American teenagers ever being commissioned, largely because can you imagine how quickly it would date!!??)

    • stevebrown70
      March 24, 2013

      It’s very interesting to see that coursebook writers and individuals who work for publishing companies are keen to see changes happening as well. I’m very keen to see just how the ELT publishing world might change – and when.

    • Nicola
      March 24, 2013

      I have been really happy what an active discussion this turned into. I’ve taken Mike’s brilliant comments down as he’s very kindly agreed to write them up a bit into a kind of guest blog post as I think comments can sometimes get buried and that stuff was gold! Will let you know on Twitter when it’s up.

  11. hughdellar
    March 25, 2013

    I’ve been following this post with considerable interest Nicola. I’m an author myself, at last some of the time, though certainly not one that would consider myself a “big name”, despite the fact that I have been lucky enough to get sent all over the place by my publishers over the last decade or so.

    In my defence, though, I’ve never ever worn beige and share your aversion to it.

    I think Simon is spot on when he talks about the churning going on under the surface in the industry at the moment, and that this will have a knock-on effect for all us involved in writing in any shape or form. I also agree with him that factors beyond names are far more important than which authors are on the cover: design, marketing message, sales force of the publishers, etc. However, I do also know that if you’ve done one book that has been popular in certain markets, the fact that another book appears with your name on it doesn’t do its prospects any harm.

    I also think you really ought to be more aware of what else is out there in terms of other product. There’s no shame in being aware of who’s written what, what their strengths and weaknesses are, if there’s common threads across their work, how they’ve put things together and structured what they do. It’s one of the ways we all learn to write – by spending inordinate amounts of time poring over the writings of others, even if we end up coming to the conclusion that it’s not much cop!

    Anyway, to really address your main concerns in this post, i think there are a couple of factors that have been overlooked: one is simply the fact that publishers run to insane deadlines, usually over-promising and under-delivering on the timetabled front – and this favours those who endless experience who can – often quite literally – toss stuff out overnight! That it may well be reworked versions of previous work matters less than the fact it’s on time. I know from my own experience that when we’ve tried to bring it promising young writers we’ve met at conferences, etc it’s failed simply because they didn’t know the ropes in terms of how finished work should look on the page, formatting, standardisation of rubrics and tons of other tiny little glitchy technical details.This, coupled with a lack of experience when it comes to dealing with tight deadlines, means they end up dropping out and the work goes back out to more experienced writers used to ‘saving’ companies in these situations. It’s short-sighted on the part of publishers, for sure, but is very much a reality of the process.

    Add to this the fact that the indies have all but been swallowed up and the picture gets bleaker. When I was coming up, I was lucky enough to work with LTP (if you don’t know them then you should!! :-)), who basically set aside as much time as we needed to get a book into shape and taught me a lot in the process. This kind of nurturing and ‘grooming’, if you like, doesn’t happen as much now as smaller companies with a specific vision have all been subsumed into the big beasts.

    One final interesting point to ponder: the BIGGEST draws at conferences are actually very rarely coursebook writers. Instead, they’re folk like Jeremy Harmer, Michael Swan, Mike McCarthy, Henry Widdowson and the like, folk more towards the academic end of the spectrum in general, but folk with substantial bodies of work, often rooted in theory and research, and folk with years and years of slog under their belts. The rest of us are just racking up stripes as we go!

    • Nicola
      March 25, 2013

      Thanks Hugh, this deserves mulling over and a blog as a reply rather than commenting individually as things people have said have made me reformulate quite a few of my original thoughts. I feel a bit underqualified to comment much actually given the people who have given so much insight into the post. Quite ironic if you think about it…big names forcing me off my own blog post!! That’s a joke just in case anyone is offended 🙂 But I just wanted to say I was barely out of TEFL short trousers:P when LTP were bought out by Heinle so I don’t think I *should* have known them!

  12. hughdellar
    March 25, 2013

    Youth, whilst a marvellous thing (unless you’re boasting about it in the company of those no longer in possession of this gift), is simply no excuse!

    At the risk of sounding like your grandfather: If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.

    • Nicola
      March 25, 2013

      At the risk of sounding like a recalcitrant teenager sulking at the back of the history class with an attitude face, do I have to learn all the publishing takeovers and authors as well as the Methodology history I did on the MA??? 🙂 Incidentially, I’m a big fan of Innovations but only today learned it’s yours. But, nevertheless, its influence helped me with a Skills book proposal I just did so thanks!

  13. hughdellar
    March 25, 2013

    Ha ha. This means I fail the Big ELT Cheese test, which pleases me.

    • Nicola
      March 25, 2013

      Ha ha, you’re Big Cheesy enough to make it onto my ELT Celebrity Encounters blog post series if I bump into you at a conference in the future.:)

  14. Pingback: Ten Questions to Ask Before You Write a Sample by Mike S. Boyle | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

  15. A very thought-provoking post and a great discussion thread – well done, if nothing else, you’ve made some great contacts! I think all the points I wanted to make after reading your post have now been covered – I’d certainly second Hugh’s points about publishers needing writers who can ‘hit the ground running’ with stupidly tight deadlines and squeezed budgets.

    I also just wanted to second the idea about getting involved in other stuff within publishing – one thing definitely leads on to another. I’ve just finished writing my first coursebook after 14 years doing ‘behind the scenes’ stuff – although don’t let that put you off, I wasn’t pushing for authoring work for most of that time 🙂

    • Nicola
      March 26, 2013

      14 years?! Someone else told me 10 and I thought that was long enough…I plan my life in 6 month chunks at best! But I’ve been quite happy doing the behind the scenes stuff too. I am still in love enough with writing that any form of it is fun and actually, going by the time frames people are giving, I must be doing quite well that the first Graded Reader I tried to write is now a published book with my own name on it and more in the pipeline. Plus, quite excitingly some potential developments in fiction writing if JK Rowling’s agent follows up their interest in a manuscript I sent them. I am not sure that will help me with ELT work…it’s about as far away from the kind of thing you could ever put in a course book as you can get! Even further than Hugh Dellar’s vetoed Innovations ideas 😉

      • Ha ha! Don’t worry, I didn’t set out all that time ago to be a coursebook writer, in fact, over the years it’s something I’ve actively avoided (for all kinds of practical, mainly financial, reasons). Like you, I just look at the next thing ahead and see where it takes me. Actually, some of the most enjoyable and rewarding jobs have been the ‘least glamorous’. I’m not convinced that being an ‘ELT celebrity’ is really all it’s cracked up to be 😉

  16. Paul Hancock
    June 4, 2013

    I just came across this. Just wanted to say that when I was commissioning for a major ELT publisher we were desperate to find new authors, and commissioned samples from lots of them. There was no pressure to go with known authors, as it was recognised that apart from a handful of examples, users of ELT coursebooks are barely aware of who has written them. The truth was that most samples written by would-be authors were very disappointing. There’s such a difference sometimes between that strong feeling that you could write stuff as good as, if not better, than what’s published, and the reality of actually being able to do it. ELT writing isn’t as easy as it looks, and while many people are capable of writing nice material which is fine for their classes and goes down very well with them, that’s not the same as writing material that can work in the hands of any teacher, and with any mix of students. I could see that some writers had potential, but the time and effort that would be needed to coach them in how to write better materials is something that publishers are unwilling/unable to provide.

    To be honest, if you don’t think that Headway is good, then I’m not convinced that you have an eye for really good ELT writing. Why do you think vast numbers of teachers have continued to use a course that’s been out 25 years? No-one’s making them, and there are rather a lot of alternatives on offer. Headway is written with a craftsmanship, attention to detail, and a solid sense of what will really work in the classroom, with teachers and students of varying abilities. Its apparent simplicity is deceptive, and one of its authors once said to me that the art of good ELT writing is to spend many many hours writing something, so that the end result is something that looks like it must have taken a few minutes to write. I’m afraid most people who are convinced that they could do better if only they were given the chance are seriously deluded.

    One thing I always did when turning down samples was explain in detail why I thought it fell short of what was required. As I am now working as a writer myself, I’m aware that that is unfortunately far from the norm.

    • Nicola
      June 4, 2013

      Thanks for your comments, always interesting to know what’s on the other side of writing samples.I think, as with most professions and in particular the arts, there are always far more people who think they can do better than actually can. Those people will find something else that best uses their talents. But it’s a shame that potential talent is something editors and publishers don’t have time for! One of the many reasons I think Nick Robinson and his agency will do well – he has the expertise to bridge that gap.
      I mentioned Headway, rather glibly, as an example of a book that has bored me and my classes to tears on the unfortunate occasions I have had to use it. Why was it successful for 25 years? I imagine because there wasn’t a lot of competition. I can’t say that for sure since I wasn’t teaching then. Maybe I don’t have a good eye for what works in class, despite teaching in various different countries and contexts in ten years. Perhaps my students haven’t had a good eye for what interests them either. But there are certainly a lot more interesting/ workable options on the market since I started teaching and I’d choose any of them over Headway.
      From countless staffrooms I remember most teachers spending an inordinate amount of time turning some of those dry, dull materials into something that they can fill a class with.Perhaps that’s why some of those books lasted so long – those teachers that weren’t good enough to get commissioned were only good enough to do what the books were not capable of – stimulating good classes.

      • Paul Hancock
        June 4, 2013

        Well, my point was that you might not like Headway, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not ‘good’ in terms of being extremely well-written and workable. The proof of that pudding is in the vast amount of eating that still goes on. I think you can argue that there wasn’t much competition for it in the early days, but there has been a staggering amount of competition for its users for the last twenty years, so you’d have to think of a better reason why so many teachers still choose it. As for boring, I wonder if you’ve seen some of the more recent editions? I edited a few of the 3rd and 4th editions, and would be surprised and disappointed if people thought that those deserved the label ‘dry and dull’. It moved on quite a lot in those years, and became much more international. Check out the 4th edition Intermediate some time.

        I agree that it’s a real shame that publishers don’t see the value in bringing on potential authors. I imagine that even if you could persaude them to put some resources into doing that, they’d be afraid that those authors could then go and write for the competition. But the real reason is that schedules are horrendously tight, and editors just don’t have time to nurture talent for future use. Which is why it will be up to agencies to do that for a fee. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll find more writing work if you keep trying. But you have to be aware that it’s becoming an increasingly poorly paid option in many areas. Pearson have started the race for the gutter in refusing to pay royalties to authors, and unfortunately the fees that are offered instead show little understanding of the value of good authors, and the time and effort they need to spend on their writing if they want to produce material that is genuinely stimulating and effective.

  17. Nicola
    June 4, 2013

    I have to admit I have not used Headway myself for ages. I know that at summer school last year I piloted new books and had some centres using our older syllabus, including Headway to get teacher opinion and pretty unanimously phased out the older books in favour of Interactive, Speak Out and English Explorer. However, this is for Teen and Younger Learners. If I come across a bookshop stocking the newer edition, I'[ll check it out.
    I am already coming up against the royalties decline and am finding royalties offered as a way of offsetting a low fee or not offered at all. I’ve yet to see the royalties on my Graded Reader so don’t know how much I would be missing out. I have not found the fee based work to be particularly reflective of time spent but if that ends up with writers putting less time and effort in, it will show in the product and the publishers will have to think again, presumably.
    Self publishing or indie publishing is probably the next corner to turn if or once a marketplace is established – and then some of the power will return to writers as it has in other areas of publishing and music. Those writers will then truly have their own following and be turning down deals from publishers again. I can’t see why the model won’t follow the same pattern, although I wonder how it can happen at the moment.

    • Paul Hancock
      June 4, 2013

      I did some indie publishing myself many years ago, a book and audio CDs. It’s not that difficult to do in terms of production, but marketing and distribution present some serious challenges. I gave up on the marketing front completely after a while, but interestingly the title is still selling 14 years after I stopped trying to advertise it, purely by word of mouth! The digital age seems to present more opportunities for indie publishing, without the problem of physical distribution, but it can actually require more investment to get digital material together, and people want comprehensive digital packages provided on learning platforms with learning management systems, so I think that might make indie publishing harder.

      • Nicola
        June 4, 2013

        Impressive! The marketing side of it is where I think the self publishing for EFL is tricky. And exacerbated by the fact your end customer is not really the teacher or student. I wonder how this huge volte face Pearson are making will change the distribution channels and open them up or close them to others. But also think you’re right, that a simple book is not what the digital world wants.

    • dzemach
      June 4, 2013

      I think Paul’s point was, if you want to write materials that will be widely used, then you SHOULD know what’s selling and why. You don’t have to have used Headway in the last six months personally, but before you attempt to write a coursebook proposal, I presume you’d get sample copies of everything that’s selling well (on purpose, not just if you happen to come across them) and talk to teachers and classes that are happy with them. You have to think beyond just what you and a few friends like to teach from–you’re trying to reach classrooms you’ve never seen in countries you’ve never visited. It takes some research.

      That’s something that publishers are supposed to be able to offer authors–market research in a lot of different places. We could argue of course about how effective that research is; it really depends on the publisher and the titles in question. I’ve gotten some crap advice from publishers and some spot-on really useful advice. But what I see when I visit classrooms and teachers in China and Libya and Guatemala and Yemen and Mexico and Thailand and Algeria and Costa Rica is different from what I see in my own institution. If you’re not able to conduct that kind of research first-hand, you’ll need to figure out other ways to do it (if self-pubbing) or find a publisher you trust.

      Now that I publish other people, I can say yes, I’ll work with less experienced authors, but their material takes more time to shape than that of people who’ve written before. So in order for me to work with someone new, they need to be bringing something special to the table, whether that’s a skill or an attitude or lots of hours to work or something else. Wayzgoose Press would take a proposal from Paul Hancock at any time, though. *wink*

      • Nicola
        June 4, 2013

        From everything I hear from editors and insiders, coursebook proposals direct from writers that get turned into coursebooks is not something that happens any more. Editors commission something based on their market research and then find people to carry that idea out. I probably wouldn’t try and write a whole course proposal again, it was an interesting exercise, it was never going to lead to actual work – well it might, but it will be component parts of it. Which gets you on editor’s radars and hones skills. I think, considering I hav only really started doing this as a concrete career choice in the last 12 months, that the fact I was approached, did a successful proposal for and won, a Speaking Skills book with a big publisher shows I’m on the right track even if I have not researched and copied as extensively as you advise. I took their concept based on what they know they’ve sold and added my own ideas based on ten years of teaching and helping students, some innovation and what I and “a few friends” like and don’t like to teach. I also raided Hugh Dellar and his excellent Innovations books for inspiration!

  18. MellyMar
    September 30, 2013

    Thank you for this interesting and insightful post, Nicola! I meant to go to bed 1 hour ago but the comments have kept me enthralled!

    I just felt the need to refer to the point you made about language schools not consulting their trainers on teaching materials.

    When I first started out as a practitioner in Germany I worked for a number of franchise language schools that in fact even use their own materials (no comment). The private schools, however were very keen for their trainers to suggest good materials.

    For the past 4 years I have taught EAP and ESP at a German university and we select our materials ourselves. I know from colleagues at many other universities that they also enjoy this freedom.

    The reason I mention this is that we have noticed how interested publishers (German & UK) have become in what our students need, what we teach and how we teach. There are indeed ELT publishers out there who ask for our feedback and advice on materials and also seem keen to commission (unknown) experienced practitioners to write for them. Whether this willingness eventually amounts to anything remains to be seen.

    I develop my own course materials, but I have not approached publishers, sought out an agent or been down the self-publishing route–yet! Who knows what the future holds! I wish you the best of luck 🙂

    • Nicola
      September 30, 2013

      Thanks for commenting. You’re lucky, or Germany has really high standards as I’ve worked all over the place and never been asked what books I’d like to use although I did ask for feedback when buying books for summer school and tried to take it into account.
      I may be cynical but from experience I strongly doubt any of the people approached to write new material ever actually do write anything that goes into a book or if they do, it’s not their own ideas they’re writing any more. I’ve attended talks at conferences that are supposedly about getting into materials writing but are really just looking for people to review their products. At one talk, the publisher was saying what they’re working on for the future and apps were mentioned, among other things. So I asked, how I could go about pitching them my app idea. They were totally unprepared for it, and stumbled over “Oh, well I’m not really the person who deals with content.” Fine, who is then? No answer.They just weren’t looking outside their pool. And I had already written a Graded Reader for their company. Publishing doesn’t move fast enough to take ideas from new writers…but you might, if you’re lucky, one day get to write a Teacher’s Book and that might, one day, propel you into something else if that editor then moves up and takes you with them.
      I am sure self publishing is the way to go, it is just a matter of the right platform coming along – and that will happen, it’s happened in music and mainstream publishing. EFL publishing is working out which way to go but it’s like the Titanic trying to waterski – too heavy to do it fast enough.

  19. Pingback: Blog Stats – how did I do in 2013? | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

  20. Pingback: A conversation about conferences | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

  21. Walton
    May 5, 2014

    Great post. Out of curiosity, where do you find ads for writers? I never know where to look. So far networking and repeat business (and technical writing gigs) have sustained me, but it’d be nice to know where to find listings of materials writing jobs.

    • Walton
      May 5, 2014

      Also, I’d love to link to this post and the comments on the blog of the Materials Writer Interest Section of TESOL if that’s ok.

      • Nicola
        May 6, 2014

        Sure! Thanks!

    • Nicola
      May 6, 2014

      I’ve only ever seen an ad once and it was really an ad for reviewers which pretended to be for writers. I don’t even look for them now. However, ELT Teacher2Writer would be a better place as it’s more of a hook up service.
      But…er…I have an agent now – and so do you!

      • Walton
        May 6, 2014

        I do have an agent, which has also been really useful for getting gigs–I was sort of sweeping Nick in with networking in my comment.

        And I was asking about ads mainly for the MWIS blog. Sorry if I misread your post. You wrote that you respond to ads for writers or book proposals. I thought maybe you knew good places to find gigs. I agree that ads are hard to come by, one of the big reasons I was happy to sign on when Nick offered his services!

      • Nicola
        May 8, 2014

        No, I think I saw ads that ended up going nowhere on IATEFL and one of the things I pitched for Nick was a call out from a publishers that led to them giving it to a big name. Oh, I was sooo shocked. That same publisher has changed a lot of editors and is asking around again. I didn’t bother sending anything!

  22. Pingback: Mike Boyle Shares 10 Questions to Ask Before Taking on a Job | MWIS Blog

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This entry was posted on March 19, 2013 by in Thoughts, Writing and tagged , , , , , .
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