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.

29 thoughts on “Self-publishing in ELT (Part 1)”

  1. Hi Nick,
    Thanks for another interesting post.
    Just one thing to add on the discoverability side. When you’ve been searching for ELT material in the ibook store have you had your professional publishing hat on? ie how many non-native English speakers would search for ELT in the ibookstore if they wanted to learn English? Probably not that many. I just did a few quick searches for ‘learn english’, ‘English study tools’ etc and there are tons more! It’s hard to tell if they are self-published or not but I think it highlights one of the issues why self-publishing (or even “normal” publishing for that matter) is so much harder via the online market places. Authors and those who sell via online market places need to learn a whole new set of skills in terms of being able to make their resources discoverable as well as think like the consumer you’ve written for (hopefully!).
    I suppose it’s also one of the issues the big ELT publishers are struggling to get to grips with ie moving from a B2B model to B2C. It’s not like being able to sell your nicely pigeon holed ELT vocab book on the language shelves of book shops or directly to language schools. So I definitely agree that a one stop shop for ELT resources would be useful. Although will you still try to sell via Apple/Android or cut them out altogether…?

    • Excellent points, Sophie!

      “When you’ve been searching for ELT material in the ibook store have you had your professional publishing hat on?”

      I did exactly what you described 🙂 And you’re absolutely right; it’s not how a learner would search. But would they search in English at all? I’ve just searched ‘aprender inglés’, and of course you get some hits, but only if the author has used those words in Spanish; there’s no cross-over to other related titles in English.

      I’m actually going to look at this in much more depth in the next part of this post.

        • Great looking book! I’m going to try one of your samples in my classroom on Monday! I totally love student-centred lessons that get them talking -especially when the subject is current and fresh! I’m also working on an ebook – releasing in August. I hope to dedicate a page to ESL Blogs and Ebooks in the future. Please visit and feel free to add any comments with a link to your book! My blog is fairly new and right now it acts as a hub for all the ESL resources out there as well as weekly posts on a suggested theme or topic for teachers.
          Good luck with the books!

    • Can I add…

      If you’re a teacher then you probably would search for ELT materials in the ibookstore, but would you search for them based on level, region/territory…

      I suppose this is a question for teachers, so…?

  2. An interesting read, Nick.

    I am proud to be a part of the round. And I’ve also got some resources coming out at teachitworld next month.

    I would say that quality control is such a big obstacle. Having a piece of work properly edited really is essential, but professional editors are rather expensive (and rightly so, they do a great job). To be honest, I got quite a large discount on the editing fee because editors want to see projects like the round succeed. However, I’m sure that self-publishers and up-and-coming authors will have to pay full market price in the future. That will be prohibitive for many.

    I’m not sure what the solution is to that. But I do think that the round model has legs. Authors who work together under the umbrella of a brand will have a much better chance of reaching the sales figures to justify the costs.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Tom, and congratulations on getting your book out with The Round.

      We’ll be talking more about quality control and the editorial process in the second part of this post.

  3. Very interesting post, Nick. On self-published print books, another example worth flagging up is Johanna Stirling’s “Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners” (I think it was done through Lulu), – a book on a rather specialist & neglected area, which wouldn’t probably get off the ground with a bigger publisher, but clearly put together with great passion for the subject & professionalism and filling a definite classroom need (especially ESOL, and for certain non-Roman alphabet L1s). It bagged an award nomination or two I think. I’d be interested to know why she chose the print over e-book route, but I suspect the photocopiables had something to do with it.

  4. Great article! Thanks for sharing the resource links. I am very interested in ELT publishing. As a matter of fact, I self-published a children’s book titled ” A Very Thankful Story”, with English language learners in mind, on Lulu ( last year. I think having a one-stop-shop for ELT materials would definitely benefit the field and burgeoning authors and consumers.

  5. Hi Nick and thanks for mentioning my self-published Management Lessons. Just to correct you, it is available as a PDF as well as print. On my site you can buy print only, PDF only, or both. I have sold around 400 in total so far, split 50/50 print and PDF.
    I gave details of my costings and breakeven point in this slideshow: It’s close to breaking even – but remember that the cartoons on every worksheet were a huge cost: 50 x £50 each = £2500. The person who did them had this as his rock-bottom walkaway price – he’s a professional and they are very good.
    These sales figures are a little disappointing, but I have noticed what I think is a knock-on effect to my print titles (Email English, Business Grammar Builder etc.). Sales of all my titles, even old ones, are all going up. So for me the combination of my website and my self-pub book go to build an awareness of my name. I could push this multichannel personal brand building even more if I was more active on LinkedIn, Twitter etc.
    Also, I have been told many times by publishing insiders that sales at this level are fine for a first title, and that I should continue with more titles. They believe there is a multiplier effect as you begin to have ‘a list’. This is an option, but for the time being my energy is elsewhere: working on an eLearning site for Business English this coming winter.

    • Many thanks for taking the time to comment, Paul; it’s great to hear from you.

      It’s brilliant to hear some insight from someone who’s been through the self-publishing process. It’s fascinating to see that there’s been a knock-on effect on your other print titles; that’s very good news indeed. And it will also be interesting to see whether further self-published titles will contribute to that ‘multiplier effect’. I see no reason why they shouldn’t.

  6. Hi Nick – thanks for this. Self-publishing is something I have become very interested in recently, as I am writing a series of short texts (around 8,000 words) for a niche area of ELT, and this might be the way to go. I have given myself a crash course in self-publishing, mostly though a lot of non-ELT sites and blogs, but I still have questions about what format to use, whether I should go the Amazon route or distribute through my website, how to market… that sort of thing. In addition to a dedicated marketplace, the other thing I would love to see is a forum for people interested in self-publishing – I know there is the LinkedIn ELT Writers and Publishers group, but I don’t know how much traffic it gets, and much of what’s on there seems to be unrelated advertising. Maybe an open Facebook group? I think since this is all new to many of us, it would be helpful to have somewhere that we can get and give advice, share experiences, etc. I would also like to be able to share services (I am an editor, but I don’t know the first thing about design), and perhaps connect with potential co-authors. Maybe something like this already exists and I haven’t come across it yet. Anyway, it’s something that excites me, and I’m looking forward to Part 2!

    • Thanks for the comment, Tania. I think a Facebook group would be a great idea. And I think you might just have volunteered to start it … 🙂

      Part 2 of this post coming up tomorrow.

    • Sign me up for any kind of group or network! I think there’s a lot of interest in finding people to work with, lending moral support, getting critiques and feedback and answers to those specific questions like, What format is best or Has anyone used X site?

      Facebook would be a wonderful place to start or a forum on Proboards. And I’m happy to lend my limited tech skills such as they are to setting anything up or promoting anything.

      One place to start soliciting members is the recent EVO on Creating the Perfect eBook (

  7. Nick – Great article! This survey of self-publishing in ELT – and ESL and EFL – hints at the possibilities and alludes to potential pitfalls. The suggestion for a one-stop site for self-published ELT materials should find an audience – and could tap into the energy of many current and future self-published ELT publishers. I also appreciate you quoting me and citing Chimayo Press, my micro-niche publishing company of conversation textbooks.

    Of course, I’m biased because I have already gone down this route back in 2006 when both Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press rejected – with many kind words – my original conversation book for advanced English language learners. An editor noted that the company would have to sell 10,000 copies, and he doubted the book’s appeal. He also indicated that he would take 20% of the material, add considerable space for students to write, more white space, and create an entire series from the single book. While I now recognize the logic behind his candid suggestions, I was stunned at the time. How could he doubt the ability to sell 10,000 copies with their catalogs and sales representatives around the world? Partly out of spite and partly out of curiosity, I decided to self-publish. Six years later, I consider that decision one of the best professional moves in my teaching career.

    While the book projects are more of a profitable hobby than business since I devote the vast majority of my time to teaching graduate students, self-publishing has consistently provided me new opportunities and provided some more financial stability. I always encourage experienced English teachers to consider writing textbooks – and not to be afraid of self-publishing if you collect a few friendly rejection letters. The key, it seems to me, remains finding an unmet student and/or teacher need. Distribution remains the huge challenge, and we often learn by doing and blundering. Still, despite all my “good mistakes”, count me as a strong advocate for teacher-created materials for autotelic students.

  8. Great post. I wonder how, given the broad acceptance of ELT brand importance, self-publishers are to compete? Content is one way – write needed content that isn’t already being published.
    Form is the other: can self-publishers produce content that is inherently dynamic/interactive and links with student devices or school LMS? I feel it’s form that is the less-explored part of this, and therefore the greater opportunity.


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