Want to be an ELT author? Don’t know how to get started? Neil Wood, Managing Editor for Business English, ESP and EAP titles at OUP offers some advice.
If you have aspirations to be an ELT author, it pays to know what you’re letting yourself in for. Be under no illusions – the work is demanding and the rewards, at least in financial terms, are by no means guaranteed. So how do you get started?
There are a number of ways, but it usually starts with a proposal. There are basically two kinds: those which arrive unexpectedly on an editor’s desk, or in their inbox, and those written in response to a request from the publisher.
What the publisher is looking for will obviously vary, but in responding to any proposal there are usually three basic questions that need to be addressed.
1. Is it of publishable quality (or does it have the potential to become so)?
2. Is it commercially viable in its present form?
3. Does it fit in with our current publishing plans?
The first two are self-evident, but question 3 is often crucial, especially for speculative proposals. ELT publishers normally have a publishing plan stretching several years into the future and developed in response to quite specific market requirements. Sending in an unsolicited proposal is therefore largely a matter of luck – unless it arrives on the editor’s desk at exactly the time they are looking for something similar, it may not be accepted.
That said, there are famous examples of unsolicited proposals that went on to become blockbusters – the Streamline series was an early OUP success which arrived unannounced and proved enduringly popular. Then there’s ‘the one that got away’ – at least one major publisher failed to see the potential of Raymond Murphy’s idea for a student grammar before it was snapped up by CUP. In that case, the rest, as they say, is history.
So what does submitting a proposal actually mean? Whether you have an original idea that you’re convinced has the potential to become the next Headway or Market Leader, or a publisher has approached you to put together a proposal for a specific piece of writing, there are basically three steps.
Step 1: Test your idea
Before you begin, ask yourself a few preliminary questions. What is new or different about your idea? Why is it likely to sell, and where are its primary markets? Who is it actually for? And is it suitable for teaching situations all over the world?
Do a little research. Find out about the competition – which books are similar to what you’re proposing, and how is yours better? If your proposal is unique, try to establish whether you’ve really found a gap in the market, or whether this is a book that has no market.
Get some early feedback from people you trust. Ask colleagues to comment, or talk to visiting sales staff or editors from a publishing house about your ideas.
Step 2: Prepare your proposal
First, consider emailing a short description of your ideas to a publisher, then talk to them on the phone to find out if there is genuine interest in the kind of project you’re considering. If they then ask for a detailed proposal, it should include the following.
1. An introductory letter and your CV. Be prepared to sell yourself – publishers need to feel confident that you have the appropriate knowledge and experience.
2. A concise outline of your ideas. This should include:
- a brief description (what it is, what levels it covers, length, number of components, etc.)
- a more detailed rationale (underlying principles and pedagogy, original features and strengths, why it’s better than the competition)
- a market analysis (who it’s for and where it will sell).
3. Some sample material – a complete syllabus, at least one sample unit, including audio scripts, teacher’s notes, any reference material and, if necessary, descriptions of any artwork.
Step 3: What next?
Basically, you wait. Normally several editors and /or expert readers will comment on your proposal before a decision can be made, and this takes time. If the publisher is interested in taking the process a step further, you’ll probably be contacted to arrange a meeting. If your proposal is not accepted, you should receive a letter explaining why, and your proposal will be returned.
So how do you decide who to send your proposal to?
OUP is one of the largest ELT publishers in Britain, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s right for your idea. It pays to look at the lists of various publishers to see how your proposal might fit. If you can, find the name of the editor you think might be interested in your proposal, and address it to them personally. And if you decide to send your proposal to more than one publisher at a time, let them know this.
Although many ELT books are commissioned from established authors, most publishers are on the lookout for new authors, who are usually experienced teachers. The qualities they are looking for will vary, but creativity, flexibility, application, and an ability to stick to deadlines are at the top of the list. As an author, you’ll find yourself working closely with an editor and perhaps a co-author, so it’s important that you can respond to other people’s ideas as well as producing your own. Equally, it’s important to be aware that the writing process is evolutionary – material usually undergoes many revisions before it’s regarded as complete and publishable. Authors therefore need to be able to respond well to constructive feedback from their editor, from market research, or as a result of trialling materials in classrooms.
And what of the rewards? A very small number of ELT authors get rich; most don’t. But quite a few make a decent living and many more find that income from their writing – whether in the form of fees or royalties – provides a welcome supplement to their teaching income.
Perhaps one final question to ask yourself is, do you have the dedication and energy to write an ELT book? Because if your proposal is accepted, and you sign a contract, the only guarantee is that you’ll be committing yourself to months, probably years, of hard, unrelenting work. Most of it will be enjoyable, though there may be times when you’ll wonder why you started.
But it’s hard to beat the feeling of satisfaction when a pristine new book arrives on your desk, hot off the press, with your name on the front cover. Before you know it, you’ll be thinking about the next one. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!