Self-publishing in ELT (Part 1)

My recent post on whether ELT brands had become more important than ELT authors generated lots of interesting discussion in the comments, and a few things in particular jumped out:

Jason R Levine:

… in the age of education 2.0-3.0, have the ELT teachers, content creators, and curators become more important?

Eric Roth:

Given the available technology and teacher’s greater awareness of the immediate needs of their students, I expect an exponential increase in teacher-created materials that drift into the ELT marketplace.

Paul Dummett:

I see three things happening now …  c) more authors self-publishing and self-promoting. This last group will work for specific groups and interests, but occasionally one will break through to a much wider market – as a talented author of fiction or musician does from time to time.

Paul Hancock:

Titles based on high quality writing do indeed become brands in themselves, with their own identity and approach, and I think many teachers will always enjoy being associated with them, rather than downloading different disparate pieces of material of unreliable quality and having to work out how to use them coherently.

So what’s the theme here?

Image by Flickr user JD Hancock. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Image by Flickr user JD Hancock. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

There seems to be a sense that a rise in the amount of self-published ELT content is on the way. In fact, it’s an argument I’ve made myself in the past. At TESOL France in 2010, I argued that the move from Web 1.0-style content (top-down, expert-created, passively consumed) to Web 2.0-style content (bottom-up, user generated, dynamic) across the Web as a whole had given teachers exciting new opportunities to become content creators, and to create more emergent, relevant, learner-focus materials (credit to Cleve Miller for originally planting that idea my head). Those materials might only be for the teacher to use with his/her students, but a logical next step is to make them available to a wider audience — to publish them.

A rise in ELT self-publishing would also seem to make perfect sense given what’s going on in other areas of the industry. Just last month, The Guardian reported that “self-published titles accounted for over a fifth of crime, science fiction, romance and humour ebooks sold in UK in 2012″. And at the 2012 Roger Smith Cookbook Conference, there was much talk of how successful food bloggers could monetize their writing, either through self-publishing or advertising revenue.

But we should be wary of applying trends from the wider world of publishing (or education for that matter) to ELT. Language teaching is a tricky business, and it can add layers of complexity to what are otherwise relatively straightforward models (for an example, see MOOCs). So, in a two-part post, of which this is part one, we’re going to try to answer the following questions:

  1. What’s the current state of the ELT self-publishing market?
  2. Why and when should you consider self-publishing, and what can you do to ensure your success?

The current state of the ELT self-publishing market

So, here follows a brief and entirely unscientific survey of the current ELT self-publishing market. It’s not intended to be exhaustive, but it does give something of a snapshot of the kinds of thing people are up to.

Broadly speaking, there are three things going on:

1. Authors self-publishing print books

It’ll come as no surprise to learn that this is a relatively small group, and the reasons are fairly obvious: producing print books adds a level of cost to the whole process which most authors won’t want to incur; there’s also the issue of dealing with distribution, which can be a(n) (expensive) headache.

There are options, though. In an excellent post on his own experience of self-publishing, author Hall Houston explains:

POD (print-on-demand) companies have made it very easy to put together a book. Companies such as XlibrisAuthorhouseLuluiUniverse, and Createspace all offer a wide range of services and packages. You can decide which level of service you want. The most reasonable packages simply offer the book on their websites and add an ISBN number. If you are willing to pay more, you can get help with editing, proofreading, cover design, and marketing.

A couple of years ago, Paul Emmerson produced a very high-quality example of a self-published ELT print resource book (Management Lessons), and it would be very interesting to know whether the investment was worth the return.

That said, with the inevitable slide away from print towards digital, this seems like a high-risk route, especially given the alternatives (see below), which would explain why it doesn’t seem to have taken off to a massive degree.

2. Authors self-publishing ebooks

I must admit that unless I’m missing some huge marketplace of self-published ELT/ESL ebooks, this area seems (surprisingly) flat, too. If you search ‘ELT’ in the iBooks store, you get 17 titles. Given the fanfare that greeted the announcement of Apple’s iBooks authoring tool a few years ago, I expected to see a lot more out there. Perhaps an issue here is discoverability — “the ability of a consumer to find a product at the time when they have a need for it” – something that also plagues the app market on iTunes. But we’ll talk more about that in Part 2 of this post.

What is interesting here is that a trawl through the Amazon Kindle store reveals evidence of a burgeoning independent ELT ebook publisher scene. The big players in this exciting new space are obviously The Round and ELT Teacher 2 Writer, who’ve both been putting out high-quality titles for months. But beyond those two are other interesting projects: Dorothy Zemach’s Wayzgoose Press and Eric Roth’s Chimayo Press, for example.

Is this moving beyond self-publishing into something different? Maybe. The Round’s model, in particular, is extremely interesting. I’ve heard Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings refer to it as ‘reverse publishing’: the author fronts up the funds to get the book produced and edited; in return, the typical author/publisher royalty split of 10%/90% respectively is reversed. Smart stuff. Expect to see more of this over the next few years.

3. Authors distributing content via websites, blogs or online learning platforms

This is the area that’s seen the most action over the last few years, and several sites have become household names to ELT teachers around the world. Sean Banville’s Breaking News English is massive, containing over 1,700 lessons. If he’s got over 7,000 likes on his Facebook page, I can only imagine what kind of traffic he’s getting. And that matters, because all of the content on Breaking News English is free; the revenue would seem to come from advertising. The same model is at work over at Exam English (82,000 Likes!). What makes both these sites successful is that they’ve tapped into very concrete customer needs: most teachers want up-to-date lesson plans based on current events; and most students taking exams want free practice material. Et voilà!

So what’s going on outside of the advertising model? Teachitworld is the biggie, giving teachers a platform to upload their resources and take a share of the subscription revenues. English360 do something similar, but in many ways more exciting, giving teachers the publisher-grade tools to write and publish online course content which they can make available to the wider English360 community in exchange for a royalty. You can find out more about that from Jeremy Day.

What’s next?

Image by Flickr user Natalia Romay. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Image by Flickr user Natalia Romay. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

A couple of things seem to be missing right now, things that I’m sure we’re going to see at some point in the near future.

Firstly, it strikes me that one of the big things the ELT self-publishing scene needs is a dedicated marketplace for self-published ELT content, a one-stop-shop that teachers can go to in order to browse, search for and buy self-published material from a variety of sources. The good news is that rumour has it there’s something very exciting in that vein on the horizon. More on that later.

The other thing I think we need is the first major, breakthrough self-published ELT coursebook. A lot of the content out there right now is either aimed at teachers or very much ‘resource’-based (that is, individual activities, lesson plans or worksheets). I think the reason that no-one’s broken through so far with a self-published coursebook option are fairly obvious, but it’s surprising that no-one’s gone down the crowdfunding route yet. (By the way, if you have written the breakthrough self-published ELT coursebook, and I’ve just missed it, give it a plug in the comments!).

And what have I missed?

So that’s my brief overview. I’ve no doubt missed a ton of interesting stuff, so feel free to add to these ideas in the comments. Coming up in Part 2 of this post: if you are going to self-publish, what can you do to make it a success? We’ll also address the elephant in the room: quality control.

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