Interview with a publisher Pt. 2/3

In the previous instalment of our interview with former Deputy MD of Cambridge University Press John Tuttle, we talked about how the ELT publishing industry has evolved and some of the factors that have contributed to that evolution. In this post, our conversation turns to the role of the author in ELT publishing and how that might change over time …

ELTjam: We’ve seen comments on the blog addressing the fact that publishers are moving away from royalties with authors and are sourcing content from fee-based writers. What’s your take on the role of the author? Is there still a place for them in ELT?

John Tuttle

JT: I think so. I don’t think the author is dead, but what we’re seeing is that the drive towards personalization (combined with the enabling power of new technologies) is causing publishers to think about the potential of having a database of learning options and being able to exploit those with a greater degree of commercial freedom than the current model and in a more agile way. To do that there’s a move towards having fee-based writing.

I think it is certainly possible for publishers to conceptualise that type of product. In fact, I was involved in an exercise twenty five years ago in mathematics looking at that very thing; creating a database of learning objects. Also, I don’t underestimate the creative input of editors, who themselves often have a teaching background and great expertise and therefore have the ability to help with curriculum design.

Essentially, I think that the royalty model and way of engaging authors will probably become more flexible, but there is still a role for the creative input of experienced authors who have deep knowledge of classroom practice. Often, they’ve got a global perspective on what’s happening. They tend to be up to date with research. They’ve got experience of constructing materials and they can bring a creative voice or a creative methodology to the product. The best of them have the ability to inspire teachers and to stimulate learners. I can’t see that role disappearing.

ELTjam: It sounds like what you’re describing is the reinvention of courses. Do you think that an author is going to be expected to think and write differently?

JT: I think you’ll probably see three models. There are the in-house-created products (commissioning writers to produce elements) but the overall architecture and vision for the product is controlled by the publisher. There’s the other end where a lot of that vision and drive is coming from the author and there’s a partnership between the author and the publisher where the publisher is interpreting the author’s vision for the product and working with the author to create that.

And then there’s something in the middle. That middle area could see a utilisation of the author with an emphasis more on the overall shape of the concept supportedby writers perhaps, so it would be a different arrangement.

ELTjam: How important do you think an author’s name is to the success of a product? When you were commissioning a course how much consideration was given to who should write it?

JT: Well, again you’ve got maybe two ways at looking at it: there are established authors who are a brand in their own right and they’ve got a following amongst teachers. They are respected by teachers globally. They can be respected for a number of reasons; it can be a particular expertise (grammar, for instance) or a track record of producing courses, or being able to apply new aspects of psychology to learning, that type of thing.

On the other hand there is a need to take new authors into the industry and to benefit from the insight of existing classroom professionals, particularly those that are familiar with new technologies. I think that new generation is beginning to take on influential positions within publishing and I can see a collaboration between the two; between the mature ‘gurus’ and the highly-networked younger generation.

Another driver in all of this is the speed with which a product needs to be brought to the market. This varies by age level. If we’re looking at the K12 area then that will often be driven by curriculum change. Invariably education reforms tend to take longer than anyone anticipates and when they are actually finally decided upon the implementation is so fast that there’s pressure on publishers to produce materials quickly. The database model is based on the thinking “Well, if we had those learning objects worked up, we could put this product out quickly”.

That remains to be proven because it’s going to involve publishers creating content that is perhaps initially not targeted, and against that you’ve got the benefit of experienced authors who can move quickly. It’s sort of a natural thing that we’ll see teams; a lead author in combination with other authors as well.

I think the other point is that if we look back a bit the initial steps were very much an Anglo-middle class creation. We need to have a much more diverse author base.

ELTjam: Do you think there will be a move towards sourcing the work of, for example, China-based writers for the Chinese market?

JT: Well, I think so because there are the different Englishes and also, again particularly for K12 bracket, the curriculum will drive cultural expectations. So, for instance, Brazil talks about having products that are tropicalized. If we see CLIL impacting more then that again will centre it more in a particular culture. So having that input is important.

There’s another factor here from a sort of global ELT publishing perspective and that is what my Saudi friends refer to as “business tourism”. It’s important that publishers are not perceived as business tourists in that they drop in to a particular country with a short-term approach, produce some product and move on. There is an expectation that the publishers are more embedded in a particular society, that they are working with the Ministry, that they are long term.

ELTjam: So it’s kind of a social duty of care, really.

Well yes, and to participate in the development of society because that’s really what it’s about in many respects. And, of course, indigenous publishers can compete and do compete, but there’s another trend that I think is a distinguishing factor that perhaps favours the large global publishers and that is the growing requirement to demonstrate achievement and to measure progress.

That demand can be to do with local competition amongst schools or it can be to do with Ministry requirements, or it can be to do with parent pressure, but that’s actually making assessment a more integral part of the teaching process. To be able to validate that assessment and provide assurances around the quality of assessment against international standards is a distinguishing competitive factor favouring the larger publishers.

In our final instalment of the interview John shares his thoughts on adaptive learning and the emerging trends in ELT. 

Featured Photo Credit: ali wade via Compfight cc. Text added by ELTjam.

20 thoughts on “Interview with a publisher Pt. 2/3”

  1. Thanks for this, Tim.

    Firstly, I’m surprised that John says that teachers would purchase course books (or recommend students by the books) based on the name of the author. I would say that most of the ‘gurus’ (e.g. Harmer, Thornbury, Wilson and Clandfield etc) are better known for their methodology books than for their course book writing. I would have thought that book brands (e.g. Headway, Let’s Go) are far stronger than author brands.

    Secondly, a question for John, if I may? Three different models of product creation are mentioned, which one(s) do you think will be predominate in the future? Course book writer friends tell me that the model where the publisher follows the author’s vision is very much on the way out.

    • Just a thought about your first point – CUP’s two best-selling products ever have always benefited massively from the author brands behind them: Murphy’s English Grammar in Use and Jack Richards’ Interchange.

    • Hi, Thomas,

      Here’s John’s answer to your question:

      I believe the middle option that combines expertise and resources is likely to prove popular. Here the author may lead on the concept work and selection of material with contributions from fee based writers and the utilisation of assets already developed by the publisher. The creative dialogue between the author and publisher has tended to be a key factor in producing successful resources. Undermining that formula is risky. I also have a hunch that teachers prefer to identify with the person of an author even though the material will have many sources of contribution.

  2. Fair enough, Tim.

    But I wonder how many teachers would ask their school or their students to buy a course book because it was written by Jack Richards.

    As a teacher, I almost always choose methodology books based on the name of the author, but almost never course books.

    • Hi Thomas,

      Many thanks for your comment. It’s really interesting to hear people’s opinions on this. When I was a teacher I don’t think I knew the names of any of the authors on our classroom materials.

      Do you mind if I ask why you don’t choose the same way for course books?



      • Tim,

        When I choose methodology or teacher resource books, I almost always go for author names because I know that the authors of these kinds of books retain a great deal of control over the content. I will also probably know a bit about the author’s area of expertise (e.g. Nicky Hockley – technology, Barry Tomalin – culture, etc) so I know what to expect.

        I dont think I am not the only person who thinks this way, the big names in methodology and teacher resources have a fan-base of teachers who buy the books and go to the plenary sessions based on that name (they don’t make a fortune, but that’s not the point).

        With course books, the author generally has far less control over the content and is subject to external demands and expectations (e.g. Ministry of Education requirements). For example, I would say that the grammar syllabus is now discredited among many ELT practioners, but is still very much a part of almost all contemporary course books, not because authors believe in the grammar syllabus but because that is what is expected from them. A lot of course books books seem the same to me and I don’t think many big name course book authors have a particular, recognizable style because the external demands on them are so great.

        Therefore, when choosing course books I will consider factors like age and cultural appropriacy, genre, availability and style before the author’s name.

        Lastly, I would say that course book brands are much stronger and more numerous than methodology/resource book brands. I can only think of the round and the Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers whereas there are inumerable course book brands out there (Cutting Edge, Headway, Inside Out, Market Leader, etc etc). You could argue I am not comparing like for like, I suppose, but if Scott Thornbury has a new book out, I’m probably going to be interested in buying it no matter which umbrella it is published under.

        I am not a publishing insider, so I will have to defer to Brendan’s superior knowledge about the selling power of big name course book authors, but that is just my two cents.

        Does that help at all, Tim?

        P.S. Sorry about the name confusion there, Laurie 😉

    • Hi Thomas,

      Like you, I was genuinely surprised at the sales-power of an author name when I first entered publishing. But I can attest to it being true. It works in many different ways. It may be that the book gets the attention of the school because of the author, it could be because the author is a fantastic presenter that regularly draws large crowds at conferences (i.e. great for marketing), and sometimes there is genuine faith in a given author. There are, of course, many factors that influence a decision to adopt a coursebook, but the author is sometimes (not always, certainly) a real determiner.

  3. It would be interesting at some point to have a discussion of the authors who are moving away from the publishers, and going directly to distributors and stores. This may also be the time when following a publisher’s vision is on the way out–perhaps not for the mega coursebooks (yet…), but certainly for more specialized offerings. I wouldn’t say publishers are dead, but it’s a time when authors can move to market more quickly (by months and years) and have far greater control over content, all the while lowering the price to the buyer and increasing the return to the author per copy.

    • Hi Dorothy,

      One of the most interesting points made by the eltjam mob at IATEFL was the fact that authors can now find different publishing channels for their work. This is both exciting and fascinating, and I also look forward to seeing how this moves forward. If you haven’t had a look at The Round, please do: I’m a huge admirer of their vision and achievements.

      Regarding your comment about following a ‘publisher’s vision’, this is already on its way out, and its a point made by John: decisions about content and curriculum are now being driven by ministries and big institutions. In a way, the big idea is to respond to the visions presented by customers/clients. In this sense, both authors and publishers are becoming subservient to a market-driven agenda, at least as far as courses are concerned.

      Moving to market quickly will work for materials that have a format parallel with trade publishing – i.e mostly text. But, for major courses with multiple components, media and levels, this is less likely, simply because of the massive scale of work that is required and the number of collaborators that must necessarily be involved. Unless there is a move towards a different model (for example, a huge bank of electronic objects that can be aggregated in different ways very quickly), there is no way to avoid the resource, cost and time commitments that large courses require.

      • Oh, yeah, quite familiar with The Round, and I’ve bought some of their excellent books!

        As I said, we (small publishers and indie authors) aren’t quite ready to do coursebooks yet–I’m still looking for an easy way to bundle audio, and to bring down the costs of color POD printing. But for books that are more straight text, we sure are faster, and pay a higher royalty (both in percentage and in actual amount) to the author. Last winter we got a supplementary text ready for an online course in a week. Granted, that meant the editor (me) and the author had to stay up till midnight every night that week, but we got the book out in time.

        Interestingly, I make more money per copy sold (more than double, in some cases) off a .99 title I upload to Amazon directly than I do off several of my full student books published by major ELT publishers. Publishers have wider distribution channels … so far. But where customers are price-sensitive and authors want more control over content, I think we have some advantages.

        We ( pay 50% royalties on ebooks, and 40% on paperbacks. Are larger publishers matching those rates yet?

  4. I am curious what Mr. Tuttle thinks about Multimedia textbooks both at present and for the future. Have publishers considered this as an option beyond graded readers?

    • Hi, Mike. Below is John’s response forwarded through to us.

      Yes indeed. The main publishers are already offering interactive text books both in ELT and K-12 publishing. The quality and range of interactivity varies. On the whole the design tends to start with the print version and adheres to the printed page format. However, we are beginning to see titles that have been conceived for interactivity and are optimised for use across different devices. It’s interesting that users are moving beyond the linear consumption of text towards an expectation that they can hyperlink and explore related areas. This is already evident at the primary level where children can be at ease with touch screen interaction. This offers publishers and authors an environment to create a truly absorbing learning experience for ‘readers’.

      • Tim,

        Thanks, actually I have a follow-up question to this but I can understand if it might be too late coming.

        I want to ask Mr. Tuttle if, all things being equal, would publishers be more receptive to book proposals today that are conceived in print form of conceived in Multi-media E-book form? Also based on what I have been reading at Eltjam I tend to believe that external book proposals are now running a far second to internally generated titles… so my question above would be understood in this light.

        • Hi, Mike,

          Thanks for the question. I passed it on to John. His response is below. Best, T.

          Publishers typically develop three year publishing plans that take account of their strategic market objectives, areas of expansion and competitive position. They tend to commission titles and courses based on these plans and that leaves little room for publishing based on external speculative proposals. Within their plans they will have determined which areas require multi- media treatment and which print only. This decision is likely to be based on an assumption as to what the end user will pay. For example, professional development titles may be in print only whilst courses have a range of digital formats. My advice to prospective authors would be to contact a publisher with a synopsis of the proposed work to see if it might fit the publishers strategic plan. There are examples of successful titles now in fourth or more editions that started life as an external proposal. Being able to show how a work will be appealing because of its digital format is likely to catch the interest of today’s commissioning editors.

  5. Dear All,

    Many thanks for the very interesting discussion here as well as the article. My very open question is: in the light of the unavoidable Napsterization or atomization of content, and since some of the large publishers have already moved into the realm of big data-based repositories of learning objects, don’t you think that the role of teachers and authors (this line will probably get more and more blurred thanks to new tech) will be more and more significant (provided they are willing to launch into this new lurking business model and adopt a more entrepreneurial approach to the content they create)?


    • Michael I was tempted to answer your question and then I reconsidering after realizing that your question was 88 words long. If is possible you could shortened it if only for simple minded folks like me?

      • Hi Mike,

        Indeed, my question was way too convoluted, I realised that after posting it:). So, provided that publishers arrive at a sensible business model allowing them to sell the already atomised content and decide to open it up for teachers/authors to build on it,don’t you think that teachers/authors may actually benefit from it financially, more than it is the case today? I am thinking about the English360 for example as a facilitator.

        • @Michael

          So from 88 to about 50. Let me give it a stab.

          I like the English360 business model and I think it does benefit authors while giving users a great deal of flexibility. It would be interesting to delve into even more.

          Could it serve as a model for existing large publishers? ….hmmm…I doubt it. Would publishers be willing to give up their ability to price material and create entire courses?…I doubt it.

          Would they be willing to depend solely on outsourced material? I doubt it. Would they give up creating their own material in house?…I doubt it.

          I think part of what sets 360 apart is that so far everyone producing materials for the platform seems to be on a fairly level playing field (right?). I doubt publishers would want to make this promise.

          • Hi Michael,

            Interesting comments. I think I’d like to point out that many publishers provide content for E360, which can be disaggregated and mashed up with that of various material writers, including teachers who are creating their own lessons.

            Additionally, Cambridge was a major investor in E360 for a number of years, and John Tuttle was actually the guy who brought E360 into the fold: he was a huge supporter of the vision. I personally spent many hours in meetings with their design and programming team. I was a fan of E360 then, and remain so today.

            I am convinced that publishers will go down any path that generates revenue, and each publisher is looking for new ways to do this. The problem all publishers face is how to monetise these ideas. The final say is actually with the customer.

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