It’s crunch time for ELT publishers. There are a few more years left for the traditional ELT publishing business to stagger on, possibly even quite profitably for some. But we all know it’s on the way out, as evidenced by the attempts – with varying degrees of conviction – of the existing players to turn their businesses into ones capable of surviving and thriving in a world populated by rapidly changing student expectations and super-ambitious and rapacious EdTech start-ups who will very happily destroy the cosy world of ELT.

We’ve seen bold moves from Pearson, and turbulence elsewhere. And we haven’t yet seen the market taken over by the EdTech guys, so there might still be time. It’s a common trope that ELT is a conservative and slow-moving business, which may be true – but change now is required in order to be relevant in a few years time. The conservative end of the market has your backlist to keep them happy for a while yet. So there’s no need to kill off existing businesses – but failing to build the new one is surely suicide. So, what to do?

1. Bring in digital skills

Photo credit: x-ray delta one / / CC BY-SA

How is it remotely conceivable that you can build and run a successful digital business with a team whose experience and core skill lies in commissioning, developing, manufacturing and selling books? Really, what’s that got to do with creating amazing apps or online learning learning experiences? Not a lot. There’s still plenty of need for a lot of the things ELT publishers are good at – ELT content expertise, market knowledge, contacts, project management. But how can you seriously expect to build a digital business without people who’ve got experience of doing that?

So, if you want to succeed in digital, make sure your team – up to the most senior levels – includes those who have actually had success in digital. That probably means people from outside ELT.

2. Make content free (or at least, much cheaper)

Content is becoming a commodity. There’s a lot of it about, and it’s increasingly not the key factor in decisions about which course to buy. Uncomfortable news, and those who create and sell content will rail against the dying of the light – but that won’t change anything. This has happened in every industry that’s felt the full force of the digital revolution – think music, newspapers, ebooks from trade publishers. These things sell for money, but not the £20+ that ELT books go for. As ELT publishers rush towards ebooks and apps (because that’s what the markets say they want), and try to sell direct to students, they’re hitting the uncomfortable truth that charging £20 for an app or access to an online resource is hard work. Yet the same quantity and quality of content is demanded, as well as expensive-to-create functionality.

The commoditisation of content doesn’t mean content owners have nothing to sell, though. And this is a gradual thing, so content will still sell for a while longer. But look to build revenue from other things, like testing, teacher training, programme design, platforms, provision of teachers.

Imagine the disruptive impact on the ELT market if a publisher was to make a high quality course available for free. Why would anyone use any other course? The challenge is how to make that a profitable enterprise. Everyone working on how to crack this one? No? Get moving!

3. Find or buy a decent technology partner

It seems like all of the really exciting technology in education is coming from hi-tech startups, not from publishers, schools or established LMS providers. Publishers are building their own platforms or partnering with companies like Blackboard or Desire2Learn. OK, fine, but how’s that going to shake things up? Technology continues to be a major weakness for all ELT publishers. That leaves them wide open to attack from people who have world-class technology. Work with these people – or buy them – before it’s too late. Have you ever seen an online ELT product that looked so amazing you’d want to invest your own money in it? Or that would make Apple or Google jealous?

4. Sell direct to teachers and students

In some cases, distributors are still useful – in closed markets, or where they add real value. In the majority of cases, though, they’re just the middle-man scooping off half of the revenue and making it impossible to charge the lower prices that consumers expect for digital content. Unless a distributor has an essential digital platform with huge market reach (like Apple), then they’re not worth 30% or more of your money. Selling direct, of course, isn’t something you have much experience of doing if you’re an ELT publisher. And it’s not an easy thing to start doing. Get in some people who have been there and done it, maybe in other industries.

5. Be agile

To paraphrase the mythical Darwin quote, it’s not the strongest that survive, but the most adaptable. Things are changing fast. Everything you know may be wrong. Everything I’ve just written may be wrong – I’m sure at least some if it is. This is not the kind of environment that supports 3 or 5 year publishing plans. Or organisational structures that prevent close-knit project teams appearing as needed. Or processes that mean it takes years to develop products.

6. Set up a new digital-only business

What if all of the above doesn’t work? Well, hopefully, you’ll have hedged your bets by setting up an entirely separate digital-only business where the first 5 points don’t even need to be said. How feasible is it really to add digital experience throughout the organisation, experiment with new business models which can turn the commoditisation of content into an opportunity, find or buy top class tech, radically change distribution models and implement new agile processes and an agile mentality? Seems a bit like trying to change the engine and tyres on your car at 80mph.


Photo credit: minifig / / CC BY-NC-SA


  1. Hi! This is really about putting things in place now in order to have a chance of being relevant in a few years time. Obviously, there’s huge variation in the pace of change between different countries, institution types, age groups etc – and print will be around for a long time yet. But digital is growing very fast as a proportion of the ELT publishing business (from basically nothing only 5 years ago or so). All ELT publishers would say that digital is their future (whether or not you think they’re correct to think that) – and that being the case, they need to change how they operate in order to have any hope of succeeding against companies which have only ever done digital. If you try to run a digital content business like a print book business, I don’t think you’re likely to succeed.

    Very good point about the diversity of ELT (and yes it is easy from within a publishing company to think of ‘ELT’ as a single entity) – I’ve said before here that one of the really promising things about EdTech and the possible fragmentation of the ELT publishing industry is that it could bring an end to the era of Headway and English File clones posing as something new.

  2. Laurie,

    Süper post – hits all the key soft spots in the publishing world. It really is time for publishers to wake up and smell….the 3D printing ink 😉

    The one other (fundamental) call I would make – perhaps before all the wonderful points you have noted is:

    – Put student LEARNing and success at the heart of your decision-making!

    The vast majority of publishers (despite what they say in their glossy brochures and on their websites) are still all about TEACHing & Content DELIVERY.

    LEARNing can not be “delivered” – ever! Even when we build in “digital skills”, engage with decent technology partners and get more “agile” in out thunking 😉

    Keep up the great work!


    1. Cheers Tony. Excellent point! Publishers are teacher and school focussed because they mostly sell to schools and teachers and not to learners. And, yes, the idea of learning being ‘delivered’… Check out the very nice video on Pearson ELT’s new home page. Very nice apart from the bit that says “We believe in learning. All kinds of learning. For all kinds of people. Delivered in a personal style.”

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