Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
It’s not difficult to be controversial in ELT and, about a year ago, I seemed to generate some with a post questioning the major publishers’ fondness for the big names of ELT when choosing course book writers.
I didn’t mean it as a reference to anyone in particular and have since met quite a few of those big names, although mostly it’s that I am starting to realise which names are big. So, I maintain that the status accorded by the publishers isn’t necessarily reflected in teachers’ or, much less, students’ radars. I still think it’s a concept built and perpetuated by those in the publishing industry rather than wider ELT. Everyone who tells me I’m wrong is a materials writer, editor or publisher!
At TESOL Spain in Madrid this weekend, I made sure to stay for the closing plenary because one of the big names was leading it. Herbert Puchta.
Honestly, it wasn’t until I started being told who the big names were that I even heard of Herbert Puchta despite having used, and ordered, English in Mind for several summers at Bede’s School (for which I co-ordinate the academic side of the operation). However, all those people who’ve told me he’s a big name, have also unanimously told me he’s a great speaker. Such is his reputation that even people who’ve not seen him speak have told me this.
I went, not to find fault but to understand, but I guess, that attitude is tinged with some propensity for criticism – and not the kind Herbert meant with his talk on promoting critical thinking in Young Learners.
In spite of that, thirty minutes in I found myself planning to buy his book Teaching Young Learners to Think (CUP) for at least two of our centres, if not four if budget allows. Herbert went from theoretical to credential establishing to personal anecdotes to practical, classroom examples and completely sold that book without pushing anyone to buy it.
It was simply that the book matched his topic and the exercises perfectly demonstrated the classroom activities that would achieve the title of the talk. (his handout here) He never mentioned the publisher, never showed the cover of the book or the price, just weaved in his website where the book is displayed, again without directing anyone to seek it out.
That is a masterclass on how to present in a way publishers would love. I have no doubt that Herbert Puchta can go to any conference or institution and the virtual cash tills will immediately start ringing.
And that is perfectly possible to replicate by any author that is comfortable in front of an audience and can structure a presentation in the way described above.
What Herbert has over new writers specifically is years of experience. I absolutely don’t discredit that. He can fall back on hundreds of talks to students and teachers to pull an impromptu session out of the bag and he has masses of knowledge about EFL, Second Language Acquisition and a host of other things newer writers know far less about.
But, as long as I care about my product as much as he does and can talk about it, I’m very sure, that sales would follow me around if I were sent off on a promotional tour. Seeing Herbert once is enough to show me how to plan a talk. The difference is that publishers have apparently no interest in sending me anywhere to do that.
If their reasoning is that I’m not a big enough name I just don’t think that matters. If the product is good, as Teaching Young Learners to Think looks to be, the talk is well structured and the speaker is confident and enthusiastic about the product, they can turn tours into sales. A salesrep could do this – except they are far less interesting to a crowd than the author.
People want to know who is behind something and why they did it. I’d bet they care far less what the product is. So I think this would work for many digital products as much as for books.
So, to the three publishers I’ll have books out with by summer 2014, book me up! Even better, get Herbert Puchta to mentor me and a few other new writers you’ve got knocking around because someone’s got to take over the reins at some point. Don’t train people to present, train them to sell without appearing to and get the expert to do the training.
Send the new writers out and they’ll become well known and their books will sell more. If not, there becomes less and less reason for us not to find something better and more profitable to do than write your stuff in the first place.
PS Herbert, in my opinion, Handout 2, statement 5 “Everybody likes seeing koalas” is not an opinion as stated in the answer key, but a fact (about an opinion) that can be tested and proved wrong by finding one person who doesn’t like seeing koalas. I think what it should say is “Seeing koalas is a lovely thing to do” which would then make it an opinion. Or “I feel as if everyone likes seeing koalas” which is then my opinion about a fact.
But then, what would I know? I’ve forgotten most of what I learned on my philosophy degree.