C is for Coursebook writing

23 01 2011

I recently got the following email:

I’m writing to ask if you could steer me in the right direction towards writing an ELT student’s book. … I have eight years’ teaching experience and the Cambridge DELTA. I’m presently coming to the end of my master’s degree … I will very much appreciate any suggestions you are able to provide.

As you can imagine, I was amused on two counts. Firstly, isn’t the writer aware of my less than coursebook-friendly reputation? And, more to the point, isn’t it a little naive to think you can just break in to this highly competitive field without so much as a by-your-leave?

Gathering dust (good title for a coursebook?)

However, the request got me thinking. It’s not unreasonable, after all, having taught a bit and having got as qualified as you can get in this field, to consider a move into some related area such as training or materials writing. It was more or less the point that I was at, when I first got into writing. In fact, it seems to me, on reflection, that my own experience might be instructive here. (At the same time, the world of publishing, and of ELT publishing in particular, has changed enormously since I first started writing 20 years ago. So I’m not sure if any advice I can offer is as apt now as it might have been then).

So: it’s 1991. I have just finished my MA and I am asked, by a leading publisher, if I will review a new coursebook series that is in production. (The connection is not entirely fortuitous, I have to admit, since the writers are both friends of mine, all of us having worked and studied together). I write the review, and this leads to my being asked if I’d be interested in submitting a proposal to write the first workbook of the series. My proposal is accepted and thus begins my apprenticeship into ELT publishing. (I was lucky to have an extremely patient editor who was able to curb my enthusiasms without destroying my confidence).

One thing led to another: I wrote the two other workbooks for the series, and then was approached by another publisher with a view to my ‘finishing’ a coursebook series that the existing writer was too busy to complete. Again, I had to learn how to adapt my own ideals to the constraints imposed, not only by the publishers and their reporters ‘on the ground’, but also to the other writers in the series and their particular vision. One thing you learn is how to bite the bullet, but not at the cost of a fair amount of agonising, and copious phonecalls and meetings. (To my shame, my pig-headedness on an issue of syllabus sequencing reduced one editor to tears).

A teacher’s guide assignment led to yet another coursebook project – this time a co-written one (the first that was mediated almost entirely by email, as it happened). And so on. The rest is NOT, as they say, history. I was starting to realise that the tension between my own principles – as developed in my teacher training – and the demands of mainstream publishing had reached breaking point. But that’s another story…

Nevertheless, I think there are some pointers to be gleaned from this account:

1. Don’t expect to start ‘at the top’. Materials writing involves a fairly prolonged apprenticeship, usually doing a lot of the spade-work that the coursebook writers themselves don’t want to sully their hands with.

2. Make yourself known to publishers, by offering to report on new projects, trial material, and write supplementary materials (tests, resource packs, online content, etc).

3. Give presentations at conferences, where you might just get noticed by a passing publisher, and asked to submit a proposal.

4. Don’t waste your time writing the complete draft of a project and sending it off to the publishers: find out what it is that they want first; write a pre-proposal, summarising the gist of your project, and, if the response is positive, prepare a more fully-developed proposal (with some sample materials).

5. Curb your enthusiams! Publishers respond positively to energy and vision, but not to off-the-wall, totally unmarketable ideas. The EFL equivalent of The Naked Lunch will never fly!

Any other tips from you coursebook writers out there?