Self-publishing in ELT (Part 2)

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

In Part 1 of this post, we had a quick look at the current state of the ELT self-publishing market. If that didn’t scare you off — and I hope it didn’t — here are five tips to help make sure your own self-publishing venture is a success.

1. Write something that people will want to buy

This seems so obvious it’s barely worth saying, but I’d argue that it’s actually one of the main reasons that self-published projects fail. Put simply, it doesn’t matter how good your idea is, or how well you execute it, if there’s no market for what you’ve written, then no-one will buy it. One of the reasons this is such a problem for self-published authors is that the self-publishing option is often (but by no means always) decided upon after rejection from mainstream publishers. And one of the most common reasons that publishers reject a proposal is because they don’t think there’s a big enough market for it. Another is that they think the target market isn’t accessible, which brings us to …

2. Make sure you can reach your target audience

Let’s imagine that you decide there’s a gap in the market for, say, a course in English for the Fashion Industry. You can’t get a major publisher interested, so you decide to go down the self-publishing route. Your very basic market research shows that over 4 million people work in the fashion industry. Some further, very dubious research shows that 5.5% of those 4 million people are likely to be native English speakers, which still means that there’s a total potential market of 3,820,000 people for your book. Imagine if only 1% of those people bought your book at, say, £5.00 a pop. You’d make £191,000! But how many people would need to find out about your book in order for 1% to buy it? Let’s argue that for every 100 people that hear about it, 1 person buys it. That means you need to make sure all 3,820,000 people hear about it.

Furthermore, is your target audience teachers or students? If you write a self-study English for Fashion Indsustry book, then it’s students; if it’s intended for classroom use, then it’s teachers. So where do all of the people who teach English for the Fashion Industry hang out? Do they have a Facebook or Linkedin group? Which countries are they based in? Do they work for schools or are they freelance? How are you going to reach these people? How are they going to find out about what you’ve written?

Well, surely they’ll be able to find my book on Amazon or the iBookstore? Wrong …

Image by Flickr user ...-Wink-.... Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Image by Flickr user …-Wink-…. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

3. Remember that Amazon and the iBookstore aren’t bookshops; they’re book warehouses with search engines

The above quote I cribbed from a speaker at a Byte The Book event a few months ago, and I sadly can’t remember who it was. It’s still true, though. Publishers and self-published authors often make the mistake of thinking that Amazon and the iBookstore are marketing channels for their books. They’re not; they’re distribution channels, and those two things are very different. A marketing channel is a way for people to find out about your product; a distribution channel is a way for them to buy it. You can’t assume that having your book for sale via one of those two channels is in any way helping your marketing effort; all it’s doing is giving people a way to purchase it once they’ve already heard about it. And in order to have people hear about your book, you going to have to …

4. Spend some money

Self-publishing isn’t free.

Correction: successful self-publishing is unlikely to be free. Which isn’t the same as saying that self-publishing can’t be profitable. There are three areas that you might want to spend money on, and which might get you a decent return on your investment:

  1. Get your work edited. Go to the trouble of paying an editor to improve what you’ve done. Self-publishing has a quality problem; the reality is that a lot of the stuff out there just isn’t as good as the stuff the major publishers put out, and that’s because publishers pay for an editorial process that increases the overall quality. If you’ve got the money available, then a development editor can work with you on your content to make it as good as it can possibly be. The next best option is to get a copy-editor to work on your prose to make sure it’s reading as well as it can be and that it’s consistent in terms of style and tone. A copy-editor is unlikely to make too many substantial edits to your actual content, but they’ll still have a huge amount to offer. At the very least, hire a proofreader to make sure your manuscript is free from errors. Hourly rates are likely to be between £23 and £30. A good place to start looking is the White Ink Facebook page.
  2. Get a proper cover designed. It sounds silly, considering that you’ll probably be publishing an ebook, but a good cover can make a difference to sales (for proof, check out this thread). Elance can be a good place to find designers. Or if you want someone who knows ELT, check out Mark Bain Design, who designs covers for The Round.
  3. Spend some money on advertising. For more on that ….

5. Test your assumptions

Think you’re onto a sure-fire winner with your self-publishing idea? Ready to dedicate months to writing it? Ready to spend money getting it edited? Ready to invest in some proper marketing? What if, after all that, you’re not onto a sure-fire winner at all. Why not take some advice from the world of Agile product development and properly test some of your assumptions. Try this:

  1. Write some sample content, not necessarily a huge amount, but enough to give people a good idea of what your idea is and how good your stuff is. Get that sample edited properly and professionally produced. You want this sample to be an accurate representation of what the finished product would be like.
  2. Find a way to distribute that sample content. It’ll probably be a PDF, so it could be via email, via Dropbox, downloaded directly from your website or blog, anything really.
  3. Find a way to tell people about what you’ve written. Hopefully by now you’ll have built a nice author platform. So use it. Use Twitter. Use your Facebook page. Use LinkedIn. Go and speak at a conference or two. Run a webinar. Spend a bit of money on marketing, even a token amount like £50. Run a few Facebook ads. See how far your budget will go with Google adwords. At every opportunity, point people towards where they can download your sample.
  4. Give your sample away for free. Don’t charge a penny.
  5. Over a period of time (say, a month), track how many people download your sample. Is it 100s? 1000s? 10,000s? If so, then you might just have proved to yourself that a) there’s an audience for your idea and b) that you can reach them. If only a handful of people find out about your content and download it, even when it’s free, then the chances of it being a financial success are slim.
  6. Use what you’ve learned to launch the complete book properly. Which promotional channel worked best for you? Which were a waste of time? Did that £50 you spent on advertising turn into 1,000 downloads? If so, what would £500 in advertising achieve? Monitor the figures and tweak your approach until it’s as optimised as you can get it.
  7. Despite 1–6 above, don’t assume that just because people downloaded your free sample content, they’ll be willing to pay actual money for the whole thing. The reality is that only a fraction will. That’s why your total reachable audience needs to be so large.

So those are five tips from me. What would you add?

12 thoughts on “Self-publishing in ELT (Part 2)”

  1. I am a writer and a self published author. i must confess that i dived in before making the thorough assesment i ought to have made. I appreciate the channels that you’ve pointed out through which a self published book can be sold, and what an author should do. Sometimes we think we will jist walk into a room and everyone we find there, will buy a book. great advice. I liked the first part as well, although I can relate more with the second part.

  2. I wish I could write more on this and several of the other excellent posts on this blog but I rarely get the time. I just wanted to say that you’re so right about several of these points. Speaking as one of the founders of the round I can tell you that we and the other authors self-publishing have been discovering several of these points are painfully true. Especially about reaching an audience and marketing, something we will be looking at working on more in the future (and that any self-published author needs to think about if they want to get the word out about their book – they need to do it!)

  3. This post is very timely for me. I’ve read through both posts and it is great to see this information about what I’m currently involved in.

    I have been making really good progress on my guide for teachers who want to teach English online. I’ve sent out some draft chapters out to those who are interested in doing this, and so far it has got some really positive feedback. I’m looking to launch the book this October/November (the imminent birth of my first child might slow things down a little!)

    I’ve decided against publishing on Amazon and self-publishing for a few reasons. The main one is that I want to be able to connect with those who buy my guide, and if you sell through a third-party, then you know nothing about your customers. Another reason is that I want to include other media, such as videos, as part of my package. Thirdly, third-party platforms are set up so that authors charge less than $10 for their work.

    I’m really enjoying putting my ideas out there and helping teachers get their start online. It has done wonderful things for me, both in terms of my teaching journey and my income.

  4. From my experience of ebook publishing, I’d endorse your comments. especially the one about the importance of professional editing.
    A couple of additional points that may be helpful:
    1) Choose a search-engine-friendly title. In the digital age, ensuring ‘passive discoverability’ is at least as important as actively promoting your book. That means including in the title those key words that potential buyers are likely to type into the Google or Amazon search box when they’re looking for a book like yours.
    2) If your ebook is aimed directly at learners rather than teachers, there is the question of how to reach potential buyers who probably don’t search in English. German speakers and other northern Europeans seem happy to search in English and they buy large numbers of ebooks, but other markets may be radically different. As an example, my recent ebook has reached no 1 in Amazon Germany’s ‘English as a foreign language’ ebook sales a few times, but just across the border in France, only three people have bought it – ever!

  5. Hi Nick,
    Hoping this thread is still alive! Thank you for your helpful tips on self-publishing. If I could plug my upcoming ebook and get some comments on samples that’d be great! I have posted some on my blog for the ebook coming out in August. The samples are called Let’s Talk About…for anyone that would like to download and try. Please feel free to comment. There’s one on Sleep Deprevation, Florence Nightingale, How Dancing Can Make You Smarter and the History of Mother’s Day – they are ideal for multi-level classes and one on one classes too. Find them all at I had been working with Oxford for two years (proposal and review stage done) on a similar project until they pulled the plug – the ELT department changed plans. However I do believe it was for the best given the current direction for the big publishers out there!

  6. Thank you for writing these two evergreen posts on ELT self-publishing years ago. I decided to revisit the posts in preparation for an upcoming CATESOL OC professional development conference. I will be recommending ESL teachers interested in writing textbooks read both posts and join your mailing list. It’s clear – at least in Southern California – that part of the appeal of writing textbooks remains sharing classroom materials designed to fill gaps in ESL curriculum. Although a few of us have made more than few nickels with our books, I also want to disspell the illusion that a global marketplace somehow guarantees teacher- authors will automatically make money without discouraging creative work. Setting realistic expectations seems crucial to creating positive experiences in independent publishing – as in so many other areas of our professional and personal lives.


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