Have ELT brands become more important than ELT authors?

“Their DNA is different”

Image by Flickr user alvy. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Image by Flickr user alvy. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

In case you missed it, last week the UK publishing industry was jolted out of its early-summer slumber when the news broke that Charlie Redmayne was to replace Victoria Barnsley as CEO of Harper Collins UK. In a piece last Friday for The Guardian, entitled Bad week for women in publishing as two giants step down, which also covered the news that Gail Rebuck would be replaced as chief executive of Random House UK (now Penguin Random House, of course) by Penguin’s Tom Weldon, the following caught my eye (my emphasis):

Though both Barnsley, who is 59, and Rebuck, 61, could be as tough as anyone when required, they have been author-centred. “What they’ve done is to enable editors. It’s not that they necessarily are those editors. Authors feel the most enormous respect for them and faith in them,” said the source.

In contrast, Charlie Redmayne and Tom Weldon both came up largely through a passion for brand and franchise, with Weldon running Penguin’s commercial division – responsible for authors such as Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Clarkson – and Redmayne moving from the digital side of the industry. “Their DNA is different,” the source said.

So, two changes of guard and two possible changes of direction (or DNA, in fact): from author-led publishing to brand-/franchise-led publishing. Which got me thinking: Are we undergoing a similar shift in ELT, too?

Brand 101

Image by Flickr user Curtis Gregory Perry. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Image by Flickr user Curtis Gregory Perry. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

First, a little basic marketing terminology, and only because I happen to have written the book on it :-). On one level, a brand is “a name, design feature or symbol used to identify a seller’s goods”. On another, it’s a term used to refer to a specific product that an organisation produces, or even the organisation itself. So Coca-Cola and Pepsi are both brands, but so are Oxfam and Unicef. Importantly, a brand has to encapsulate something; it carries meaning for the consumer. That’s why Coca-Cola is considered a household brand, but that no-name cola-flavoured-beverage you can buy from you local corner shop isn’t. Coca-Cola have spent a lot of time and money making sure that Coca-Cola means something.

The Age of ELT Brands

So what (or who) are the big ELT publishing brands? Well, the publishers themselves, of course; say any publisher’s name, and we’ll have associations with their brand. What else? Cambridge University Press’s in Use brand, without a doubt; Headway from Oxford University Press; Cutting Edge and Market Leader from Pearson; Global or onestopenglish from Macmillan; the list could go on and on. These are all individual courses, products or series, but they’re also all Big Brands. And, in most cases, they have individual authors, or teams of authors, behind them, who are often brands in themselves (as many successful authors are). But here’s the question: from a purely commercial perspective: what matters to customers more, the brand or the author(s) behind it?

The most obvious answer, of course, is that you can’t separate the two; that the author and the brand are completely intertwined. And that’s true. Or at least it has been up until now. But there’s a growing sense amongst the ELT writing community that there’s some change afoot in how the big publishers and authors are going to be working together from now on. Is that because we’ve moved away from author-led publishing towards brand-led publishing? And, if we have, what’s the difference?

Brand-led publishing

Image by Flickr user Mariusz Bartosik. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Image by Flickr user Mariusz Bartosik. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A few years ago, I worked for a major ELT publisher in the role of Brand Manager. The brand I was responsible for managing was a major, six-level adult coursebook series, and a very good one at that. It sounds like a marketing job, but it was actually 100% editorial. And it was a relatively new position for this particular publisher at the time. Until then, most editorial staff had worked on ‘lists’ (Adult English, Business English, Secondary, etc.); this would be a job that was about looking after a particular coursebook brand rather than the list that it sat on. And strategically, it made a lot of sense; this is a valuable brand for the publisher, and a key rule of good brand management is that you protect the brand at all costs. That’s the first thing I think we’re seeing: the circling of the wagons around financially successful, tried-and-tested brands whose maintenance is low-risk and high-return. So expect lots more new editions of the brands we know and love; expect those brands to be stretched into multiple formats (online versions, ebook versions, apps, games, etc.); and don’t expect any of those brands to be vanishing anytime soon.

At the same time, publishers will be wanting to take tentative, low-risk steps towards creating the next generation of big ELT brands. And the key term here is low risk. Given the tumultuous state the world of publishing is in at the moment, very few people are taking big risks with new, unknown brands. The most successful, big-ticket brand launches I personally think we’ve seen recently were Global from Macmillan in 2010 and Speakout from Pearson in 2011. We’re now half-way to 2014. Money is much scarcer than it once was in publishing, so ideas are going to have to stand up to intense financial scrutiny before they’re approved; that, sadly, is likely to choke innovation, especially author-led innovation. Quite simply, it’s harder these days to get the people holding the cash to bet the house on an author’s vision.

So how are we feeling?

I, for one, feel a little sad about the way things have worked out, while at the same time completely understanding why it’s happened. The fact is, it’s harder to develop author-led materials: it’s often messy, it’s sometimes combative; it’s usually more expensive. It’s easier to take a more methodical, brand-focused path: you do your research, you study the trends, you extrapolate from the market data, you manage your risks. But a focus group has never written an amazing coursebook. Not yet, at least.

So, teachers: do you care about brands? Do the big coursebook brands mean anything to you? In fact, do author names mean anything to you?

And authors: how do you feel about this shift? Is it the end-of-days or simply a new paradigm to adjust to? Do you consider yourselves brands? And do you consider yourselves the ‘owners’ of the brands you’ve helped create?

Finally, publishers: do you think it’s a fair assessment that we’ve moved out of the Age of Authors into the Age of Brands? If so, how does that affect relationships with authors going forward?

Let’s hear your thoughts.

36 thoughts on “Have ELT brands become more important than ELT authors?”

  1. Interesting article thanks! I think brands are a hand holder for those who don’t know what they are buying. You see a higher number of less experienced Ts clutching Murphy than experienced Ts. Once experience and knowledge increases, Ts are more happy to evaluate and experiment with less well known material.

    The same principle can be said of students, the vast majority of whom do not have the experience or knowledge to evaluate learning material. Our best sellers in our school shop are the In Use series, while arguably better resources are left collecting dust.

    Why do foreign students make a beeline for Starbucks rather than go to the lovely independent coffee shop 2 mins closer?

    It will be interesting to see whether the disaggregation of content and move to more digital resources will impact on these established brands and lead a further rise of authors as brands.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Rich.

      You wrote: “Why do foreign students make a beeline for Starbucks rather than go to the lovely independent coffee shop 2 mins closer?”

      That’s the power of brands, encapsulated right there: they trust the brand.

      It’s interesting that you used the word ‘Murphy’ to describe ‘in Use’. It’s actually a brand with an ‘unofficial’ brand attached to it: everyone seems to call it Murphy except CUP!

  2. Nick Robinson wrote: “That’s the first thing I think we’re seeing: the circling of the wagons around financially successful, tried-and-tested brands whose maintenance is low-risk and high-return.”

    Just a thought: I was struck by the similarities between this description and the major criticisms forever levelled among the gaming community at EA, (subject to another, excellent post by Tim Gifford on this site (sorry, can’t hyperlink in comment boxes!)).

    EA have spent most of the last 30 years managing their big brands: what Christmas would be complete without the queasy sensation of sitting bloated in an armchair whilst being bombarded by adverts for Madden, FIFA, NBA, NHL etc, or the latest instalments of Need For Speed, The Sims, Sim City, Command and Conquer and Battlefield? It’s the same in cinemas: how many ‘reboots’ of Superman, Batman, Wolverine, Star Wars, Star Trek – even Rocky! – can we have?

    Lots more, is probably the answer. But this low-risk, low-innovation supply of material – games, films, books, music arguably – inevitably leads to a backlash. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-22801311 for an interesting effort on the part of EA to get away from this, by the way. Maybe the wheel is turning towards brand-led publishing in ELT, but in other areas of the entertainment industry, folks may already be turning away from it…

  3. Maybe we will see fewer names of authors on covers of books as brands become more important. That could then lead to cheeper writets being used or crowdsourcing where lots of freelancers work on separate parts.

  4. Textbooks do sell almost exclusively as ELT brands,…but then again a couple of incidental or moonlighting partners/authors, however excellent, will rarely have that x factor that makes coursebook – a unique “product”, in its entirety of idea, standing out from the masses, transmitting a clear message to learners and teachers.

    • What if the ideas come not from the ‘author’ but from the editor or an unknown self-publishing author. John Gray in The Construction of English – Culture, Consumerism and Promotion in the ELT Global Coursebook claims that editors increasingly provide authors with instructions that render the author an “agent writing to an agenda determined by the publisher”. OUP have an intellectual property lawyer inviting content creators to meetings to discuss business collaboration, whilst at the same time the lawyer’s LinkedIn profile describes them as an “expert content curator”.

      • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jason. And thanks for the heads up on John Gray’s book; I haven’t read it unfortunately, but I’ve just ordered it. The whole topic of the role of the editor these days is ripe for a post of its own I think!

  5. I’m a teacher. Author names mean something to me when it comes to teacher development titles; but when it comes to coursebooks, I’m not ‘shopping for brands’, on purpose that is.
    Talking about general English titles: Authors as brands may still attract some teachers, but not likely the students. And of course we have moved away from the Age of Authors into the Age of Brands: (Most of) our students no longer need/want just a textbook + a workbook, which was manageable by a pair of authors and a small team of assistants: such a product could not compete with the internet as a resource today 🙁 They need a quality ELT brand that encompasses a whole range of products and services, updated regularly, and which can be tailored to both students’ and teachers’ needs. Would it be fair to pick a few names of the whole teams as the authors of such titles?
    With niche markets such as some ESP courses: We teachers often need to rely on smaller publishers, such that do not need to go through a 1-2 year development cycle before finally producing a book or other ELT product; and such that are happy to publish a book in just 500 copies. (Long live e-publishing for ESP!)
    Big publishers as brands: Mergers and acquisitions in the publishing world may lead to a somewhat forsaken status of quality titles.
    However, all ELT branding efforts may lose the race to teachers’ inertia when it comes to choosing a new ELT title.

  6. I wrote a blog post with this exact idea, that ELT books appeal to the buyer as a brand not an author. But I used it as an argument for publishers to give newer writers a chance. I don’t see why an author can’t come up with a brand and be the brains behind it even if the publishers and editors need to then hone it for the market and some of the writing gets fielded out to other writers. That last part reflects the way some of the great Renaissance artists worked and we still seem to know their names and works!

    • Excellent post Nick. In brief response to Nicola, lots of the big brands DID in fact come from an author. Peter Moor and Sarah Cunningham were the brains behind Cutting Edge, which Pearson “honed for the market”. Paul Seligson was definitely the brains behind the first edition of English File. Sue Kay and Vaughan Jones were behind Inside Out, and (modestly speaking) I was very much behind Global. It’s simply wrong to suggest otherwise. Now whether or not people know this is a different story and that’s true. It’s also true as Nick points out that once the publisher hones the brand and invests so much into it the author will get the squeeze. I’m feeling it right now 🙂

  7. Very inspiring questions.
    The most successful publishers will become platforms for teachers/independant schools.
    Each teacher/independant school will promote his/her/its own brand using contents created by anonymous authors managed by the platforms.
    New Plateforms are not necessary coming from traditional publishers.
    The future brand for traditional Publishers is no branded content.

  8. I long to see that day that the normal practice becomes one that teachers and students together take a look at a bunch of books and decide together which one, or ones, they will adopt. Then do the same thing again when they reach the next level or something. (no matter how good a series is, following the same format from elementary to upper-intermediate is deadly boring)

    We used to choose books with students in a school I worked in Sao Paulo for many years. There first two or three lessons would be given using different coursebooks, the teacher and the students would go over the contents page, see if they liked the topics, the images, the feel of the material, if it would provide the right levels of challenge and motivation, etc. Then the DOS would also call the students, get some feedback, ask them which one they preferred and a course plan would be laid out.
    Sounds great, though it was bloody difficult to manage.
    The main constraint though was that since we depended on publishers’ courtesy copies to give to teachers, sometimes we wanted to adopt a series but couldn’t because one or the other publisher wouldn’t give us free copies. And that is because, of course, we had a democratic way to select materials which meant we didn’t sell heaps of one single title – because, of course, we were not ‘forcing’ students to buy them.

    While my account has not much to do with this blog post, apologies for that, it does show that it is important to really see who the buyer is, who makes the decisions, and who influences them. In most situations students are certainly not the ones making the decisions. In fact, if they could really choose, I suspect the market would have a different configuration.

    Most students I’ve had in ten years could barely tell you on spot, without looking, the name of the coursebooks they were using. Most teachers I know have no idea who authored the coursebooks they use.

    • More important than authors and publishers, Jason? It would make sense that that would eventually end up being the case, especially if you consider that ‘2.o’ is defined as being bottom-up and more democratically generated than the top-down, imposed model that existed before.

  9. Thank you for sharing your insider perspective on the power of brands, the tension between a brand-focus and author-centric publishing house, and the status of ELT publishing.

    As a self-published author who went that route after being rejected by two of the largest ELT publishers, I’m clearly biased against the ethos of brand publishing where it takes years to develop a concept and create a series. 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. Like Jason, I anticipate more and more ELT products to be the extension – sometimes financially quite positive – of ELT classroom contexts and niches overlooked by larger, more general global trends in ELT that appeal to global publishing brands. It’s just so easy to put materials online, and sell ELT lessons and books across borders.

    ELT brands will continue to dominate large institutional orders – especially from national, state, or local governments – and course series will continue to be their most profitable lines. Yet we live in an era of autotelic learners and teachers where the internet allows individuals and professionals to search for materials that best meet their needs. The bland, let’s not offend anyone and sell everywhere ethos of the giant ELT publishers will continue to overlook the authentic educational desires of millions of English language learners. Teachers as content providers will fill that rather large void.

    Or so it seems to me.

    • Wonderful comment, Eric; it’s great to get some insight from an author who’s working outside of the traditional publisher paradigm. I’m interested to know: in your self-published projects, how do you compensate for the lack of editorial resource and oversight that a publisher provides (and the sales, marketing and distribution support, for that matter)?

  10. The obvious answer is yes. The marketers in the publishing houses recognise that, globally, we are all now brand junkies to a greater or lesser degree. A mass market has produced a standardised product – packaged and branded to give it an appearance of originality and authenticity.

    We can rightly be nostalgic about the work produced by humanists and story-tellers like Alan Maley, Mario Rinvolucri and Robert O’Neill in the 1980’s. It’s great stuff but it was possible because the market was young and more experimental.

    I see three things happening now. a) Publishers taking exsiting brands with high quality content and exploiting them for ELT use (I recently worked on a project to do this with National Geographic content) b) teachers bypassing or heavily supplementing published materials with their own (often internet sourced) content c) more authors self-publishing and self-promoting. This last group will work for specific groups and interests, but occassionally one will break through to a much wider market – as a talented author of fiction or musician does from time to time.

    • Many thanks for the great comment, Paul.

      I do worry that we’ll not see the likes of Maley, Rinvolucri and O’Neill coming through in the current climate, which would be a shame, I think. But I think it’s more likely that they’ll start to go down the self-publishing route. In fact, I can feel another post topic coming on … More anon.

  11. ELT Brands are powerful, and necessary. Some teachers and schools need them, and students respond to them. Like coursebooks, they can also stifle creativity.

    The challenge for the brands you mention is how to translate well their offerings into the digital realm. The ‘In Use’ iPhone apps are an example of simply porting a book to an app. They don’t build the ‘In Use’ brand; they take from it. (Why do you think I paid for them?)

    The broader challenge (for all of us) is how to manage the proliferation of web 2.0 tools etc and maintain quality (and that’s where a brand could lead the way). As Phil said, crowd-sourced content forms some part of this future: not just from authors, but from students too.

    So in this area, I’d agree: ELT brands are more important.*

    * The caveat would be in the area of pedagogy where I’m inclined to buy on a combination of author and brand.

    • Great stuff, Lindsay.

      A few words jumped out at me: “powerful, and necessary”. Very well put, I think, and correct for all of the reasons you state.

      I also like your assessment of the effect that the in Use app may have had on the brand. That’s the risk inherent in any kind of ‘brand extension’, and one which the publishers are going to have to manage carefully.

      And finally, I’m glad that you mentioned the ‘Q’ word. Quality control is going to become one of the biggest issues facing the ELT content creation business as go forward.

  12. A very interesting article. I think one point that is being missed is that those hugely successful brand titles that you refer to were written by authors of unusual calibre. Publishers may indeed be trying to downplay the role of authors these days, and appear to be aiming to get large amounts of content on an increasingly ‘sweatshop’ basis. That might work in some areas of ELT publishing, but over the longer run, teachers will always recognise material that is particularly well-written, and certainly recognise material that isn’t.

    Writing good ELT material for use in a wide range of settings, not just for your own students, is a lot harder than it looks. Publishers can try to sell on the basis of brand recognition, but significant success over a longer term will always depend on quality materials that have had proper time spent on planning, writing, editing and producing them (and therefore proper reward for the author’s time and skill). High quality material does tend to be more author-driven, but I don’t think that has to involve coming up with new concepts and approaches, as the notion of what most hard-pressed teachers expect from an ELT course seems to have become fairly settled by now. Within that framework, material can still be planned and written to a higher or lower standard.

    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.

    • Great comment, Paul.

      I loved this line: “Writing good ELT material for use in a wide range of settings, not just for your own students, is a lot harder than it looks. ” I say that exact same thing to the authors who apply for representation to my author agency. For me, it’s one of the keys to the whole thing.

      I was interested, too, in what you said about content written by authors of ‘unusual calibre’. I wonder what it was about that particular era in ELT that led to the emergence of authors of that kind of calibre. Is that missing now? If so, how do we get it back?

  13. Hey Nick,

    Nice article and interesting comments that followed. I´ve come to the conversation somewhat late. But, this is where I begin.

    If I buy content, I must be able to brand the content to the school. That is my first rule, and I believe it should be the rule of any school. The brand on the book, ebook, course or material must reflect the integrity and brand the school represents. That´s how one might create a franchise for example – everything branded and integrated. Otherwise one is simply supporting the publishers brand – and what use is that?

    I think schools are to blame. They should be creating their own material or at a minimum demanding the publishers permit them to white label material. Let´s see what happens – but that is where I think there may be some interesting developments.


    • Very interesting points, Robert; thanks for commenting.

      I wonder how much publishers are aware of how important individual schools’ brands are to their owners. After all, a paying student chooses a language school, not a book.


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