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