The latest feature in our ELT Entrepreneur series is ELT Teacher 2 Writer – a team of three. Karen Spiller is a freelance publisher with 28 years’ experience in ELT publishing and it was Karen who had the idea for ELT Teacher 2 Writer back in 2012. Sue Kay is a bestselling ELT author (Inside Out, Reward Resource Packs, Focus), and Karen White is a freelance ELT editor and project manager who’s worked for Macmillan Education and Richmond ELT, among others. They all have ‘day jobs’ and ELT T2W is mostly done in the evenings and on weekends and the team get together for a day about once a month. We asked the team to tell us their story.
What is ELT Teacher 2 Writer?
ELT Teacher 2 Writer is two things – firstly it’s a database of writers, ranging from already widely-published authors to enthusiastic teachers who write for their own teaching situations and want to find a wider audience. Any of the publishers whose logos are on our home page have free access to the database, enabling them to search for writers who fulfil the criteria of the projects they’re looking to resource. For example, a publisher can search for people with experience of teaching secondary classes in Spain and Poland, and who have had materials published. Another search could be done for people who have IELTS experience and who are willing to give feedback to a publisher on the materials they’re currently using in the class. This kind of information would typically take a publisher weeks to gather, but using our database it can be done by sending a batch email and is collected literally overnight.
Secondly, ELT T2W publishes training modules such as eBooks (currently via Amazon and Smashwords, which distributes to iBooks, Barnes and Noble, etc, but soon to become available directly from our website) that train teachers in the craft and skill of ELT writing. We’ve published 13 modules since January 2013 and more will be available later this year. We thought ‘there are training courses for writers of fiction and poetry, so why not ELT materials?’.
What gave you the idea?
The three of us were often being asked ‘do you know anyone who could write some tests/a workbook/some photocopiable worksheets?’ and that seemed to coincide with a lot of publishers’ move away from one or two writers on a project, to more agile, larger writing teams, which required numbers of writers who could hit the ground running and produce material within tight budgets and time frames. At the same time a lot of the big publishers were downsizing, meaning there were very few commissioning editors with time to train and develop new authors, so there was a gap there that needed filling. Our eBooks are all written by experienced writers (Philip Kerr, Lindsay Clandfield, Roy Norris, for example) who have been in the industry for a long time and have plenty of experience, tips and advice to share. Who better to learn from?
Do you think of yourselves as entrepreneurs?
If we consider entrepreneurs to be people who create a venture to benefit from an opportunity, then yes. If we’re defining entrepreneurs as those who take financial risks with the expectation or hope of huge profits, then no. We enjoy what we’re doing and if we can pay our authors a small royalty each year and pay our website developer, we’re happy. We’re not going to be retiring early on the proceeds but we do enjoy the stimulation and challenge of a project outside our regular work that allows us to contribute something to an industry that we all care about and to work with people who we respect.
During the process were there times when you completely changed the original idea, i.e. ‘pivoted’?
At the outset we had planned to make the training modules as videos. Sue spent a summer filming hers on Using Authentic Materials and we created slides, musical stings and got really excited about it all. But then we looked at the time it had taken to create, the equipment needed to do it and the number of outtakes (if we hear the line ‘Hi! I’m Sue Kay …’ one more time …) and realised that approach wasn’t going to be sustainable, so we switched to the eBook format which has been much more straightforward – although still fairly time-consuming. We also had plans to provide a feedback service to authors, drawing on our editorial skills but without committing much more unpaid time to that. We realised that this wasn’t feasible and that we couldn’t pursue this particular direction either. We’ve never lost heart and, in fact, are constantly reassured that we’re going in the right direction when we get compliments from publishers on having found them a good selection of potential authors, or when we read a review of one of our eBooks and find that a new writer has found it useful.
Did you need a team to add to the skills you had yourself?
We needed a designer to create our logo and were lucky to have contacts who helped us with that. We used a company to develop our website after we realised that we didn’t have the skills to create a database ourselves, despite Karen S’s best intentions! We’ve just switched to a new developer for the relaunch of the site and are really happy with the results of that move. Other than that we’ve been fairly self-sufficient. We all contribute to the content development stage of the eBooks; Karen S deals with the website side of things; Sue is our key contact with our eBook authors and Karen W does the social media/publicity side of things, and handles the bulk of the copy editing and liaison with Amazon and Smashwords. The one thing we do miss is the power of a dedicated marketing department, but self-publishers the world over are dealing with that issue and finding their own ways to publicise their work.
What have you learned along the way?
- That we couldn’t have done it without our eBook authors, who have been incredibly generous with their time and experience. We’re hugely grateful to them all.
- That it’s important to work with people you like, respect and can have fun with.
- That being the boss is very satisfying – if we like an idea, we act on it there and then. We don’t have to ask permission, whether there’s budget available or if there’s time in the schedule – we just do it. Having all worked with large international publishers, that is a very refreshing way to work.
What three pieces of advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?
- Don’t rush. Be realistic about the time you have available, particularly as you’re fitting this project around others that actually pay the bills.
- Don’t try to do too much in that available time. Scale back your plans or stagger them if necessary.
- Choose your suppliers carefully. Don’t make hasty decisions based on recommendations that you haven’t checked out fully before embarking on work.
What are your hopes for the project now?
We’ve just relaunched our website. We’ve done a lot of work on the design and the database search facility and we’re really excited about it. The next phase of work on the site will be to make our eBooks available directly from there. We’ll continue to publish more eBooks until our syllabus is complete, and we have some ideas to publish them in a single print volume. Possible next steps include providing a blended writer training course and also working with chains of private language schools or other educational institutions to help them develop their own English courses.
If you’d like to be featured in the ELT Entrepreneurs series, get in touch at blogeditor at eltjam dot com.