The Monetary Value of ELT Authors

“So here it is Merry Christmas

Everybody’s having fun

Look to the future now

It’s only just begun…”

Recognise the lyrics? They’re probably engraved on the inside of your head. And they’re reportedly earning Noddy Holder £800,000 a year, even forty years after the song came out. It’s schmaltzy, sentimental, streetwise, and really successful.

Written by mavericks with a sense of humour, it’s now the earworm of Christmas. Here’s the question: do you think it could have been written by a team of publishers?

The answer’s easy: no.

Ask the same question in ELT, and you get a similar reply. If you look at the mould-smashing books, the Streamlines, the Strategies, the Headways, they were all produced by maverick writers who had an idea and dragged the publishers along. There were key publishers who allowed this to happen, notably Susanna Harsanyi at OUP, Gill Negus at Longman, Sue Jones at Macmillan – but the big waves in ELT have, up to now, been created by individual writers.

Publishers have always disliked this – too much money leaving the bottom line – and they instinctively want to control. Writing’s easy – we all write. Why are we paying these popinjays so much cash for a product that anyone could knock out?

The answer’s in Noddy Holder’s song:

“Does your granny always tell ya that the old songs are the best?

Then she’s up and rock ‘n’ rollin’ with the rest.”

Twelve publishers sitting round a table for fifty years wouldn’t come up with this. They haven’t got the street feel, the chutzpah, the joy for life. The Dead Hand of Publishing (DHP) would have strangled this song at birth. This is not going to be a stereotypical rant about publishers. I like publishers.

Some of my best friends are…, well, you know what I mean. They are decent people, personable, intelligent, literate, highly interested in books. But they are having a terrible time at the moment. The move from print to digital involves them being re-chipped or losing their jobs. They are being run from meeting to meeting, force-fed corporate doublespeak, and told to live the new reality, even when all their senses are telling them it’s not real at all.

ELT publishing has always been subject to fashion. I can remember grammar being banned in the classroom, the communicative approach, the arrival of functionalism, notions, the student-centred approach, task-based learning, writing courses based on concordances, CLIL. And now we have digital. ELT publishers, like meerkats, are twitchy animals: they are always watching the opposition. Each time a new fad arrives, there is a Gadarene rush, going through various stages: superficial understanding, fanatic enthusiasm, half-hearted implementation, disillusion. And then the next fad begins.

But this time, we’re told, it’s different. Digital is here and it’s here to stay. The world is changing. We don’t need writers any more, at least old-style writers. Data-inputters writing piece work will do the job just as well. We have the hardware to test students when they start at school, educate them through digital classroom management systems, test them at the end of the course and award them a grade. We don’t need writers (or, by implication, teachers. But that’s a little further down the road).

Publishing, if you’re going to pull the best out of a writer, involves empathy, understanding, sensitivity. We’re not getting a lot of that right now. What we’re hearing at the moment sounds more like Boys With Toys – “We’ve got the hardware. Get off our lawn.”

The current ELT fad is data retrieval and testing. It appears to be male-based, hardware-led, number-worshipping, mechanical. Is it really the end of the world as we know it, or just another fashion? It’s certainly true that the future, say in twenty or fifty years time, will be digital. Cutting down a tree, turning it into pulp, sending it to Hong Kong for printing and then distributing the product on palettes is an inefficient a way of distributing knowledge. Things are going to change, but when? Calling the changeover to be happening now is maybe a little over-optimistic.

The Boys With Toys are really good at Talking the Talk, but do they Walk the Walk? Not even baby footsteps yet. Next time you hear a publisher giving a talk about their digital products, mark it on a score-sheet, with “Promised Delivery” as the column on the left, and “Actual Delivery” as the column on the right. No prizes for guessing where all the crosses will be. And, as an added treat, each time the publisher says “the growth of our digital product has been exponential”, everyone in the room is allowed to shout “Bingo!”.

Where does that leave us as writers? There has been a good deal of heart-searching in the ELT Writers facebook forum, but the mood is becoming more positive. The publishers are being less hardline and are even conceding that there may be a role for writers in the digital future. Those publishers who have advanced along the digital path are looking at holes in their list and wondering how to fill them. It seems that writers have their uses after all.

And what of the digital future? Well, the Boys With Toys have been setting up their hardware and now have gleaming delivery systems all ready to deliver… what? Education is, at root, the communication of one mind with another. In a world where 1.5 billion people are studying English, there’s a lot of competition, and the most interesting products will win. The best mind will communicate with the most people.

It is certainly true that the quantifiable measurement of progress is a satisfying experience for a learner to have, but all digital products will offer this. It doesn’t matter how much the hardware can analyse and retrieve data, if the data itself is so tedious that the learner doesn’t want to spend time absorbing it. Those products that are dull will just disappear. Which explains why the publishers are now starting to sidle up to writers. “Sorry about what we said last year. We didn’t mean it. We want some of your Noddy Holder madness”.

The alternative is for the publishers to generate the product themselves, in a small stuffy room, in the eighteenth meeting of the day, with an A4 page on the wall, “How to get Fun into our product (and we mean Fun with a capital F!)” Boys With Toys meets the Dead Hand of Publishing. Sounds like a horror film. Writers have always had monetary value in ELT, and they continue to do so. It’s difficult, in conversation with publishers, to distinguish what their real concerns are. Maybe they’re worried about copyright issues (which could be fixed if they put their brains to it), or they want to change material quickly in response to the market (which will still need writers) or possibly they just want to massage down the amount of money that is being paid to writers (I wouldn’t be surprised). The writers so far, to their credit, have refused to bend the knee. It will be interesting to see who blinks first.

Finally, will there be a new best-selling smash digital ELT product? Yes, but it won’t be originated by the mainstream publishers. Encyclopaedia Britannica didn’t invent Wikipedia. Yellow Pages didn’t come up with Google. The first best-selling digital ELT smash will be produced by a Zuckerberg, not in a boardroom.

There is a small ELT mammal flexing her fingers over a keyboard somewhere in a classroom, either this year, or the next, or the one after that. She will develop something, probably along the lines of social media, that blows the traditional publishers out of the water, and revolutionizes the way we teach English.

And … guess what? It will have really interesting content.

Title and Featured Photo Credit: Affendaddy via Compfight cc. Overlay and text added by eltjam.

54 thoughts on “The Monetary Value of ELT Authors”

  1. Slade didn’t come out of the boardroom, but a few bands like One Direction probably did. The point is, it’s no way the SONGS were written by committees. A great article in support of the songwriters of ELT, Steve. Thank you!

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  2. So many mind-tingling, brilliant sentences in here. My comment should just be a load of quotes from my favourite bits, thereby underlining the clear message of this piece. Engaging content means having great, original writing. HEAR HEAR!

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  3. Excellent writing, Steve, excellent comparison with Slade too. I sat through so many inane discussions on “The next … (Streamline, Strategies, Headway)” and always repeated, “But the next big thing will not be a clone of the last big thing.” As you have said so much better with Google and Wiki.

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    • I can imagine the meetings. Publishers surprise me – for very intelligent beings, they sometimes have extraordinarily limited horizons. I think it’s because the nature of publishing keeps their noses down to their desks so they never get the chance to look up.

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  4. Excellent writing, Steve, excellent comparison with Slade too. I sat through so many inane discussions on “The next … (Streamline, Strategies, Headway)” and always repeated, “But the next big thing will not be a clone of the last big thing.” As you have said so much better with Google and Wiki.

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  5. Food for thought and highly entertaining. Thank you Steve. I think I might be quoting you at the MaWSIG event (if that’s OK with you).

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  6. Food for thought and highly entertaining. Thank you Steve. I think I might be quoting you at the MaWSIG event (if that’s OK with you).

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  7. Now that is the most encouraging thing I’ve heard all week. I’ll throw in last week, too, since it’s only Monday. I feel these days like I’m just on the edge, about to learn something that will allow me to make our own courses. Alllllmost there…. perhaps I just need to meet the right people with the right ideas.

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  8. Great piece indeed with yes, lots of quoteable bits that get the ideas across memorably. I feel these are exciting times and that there is lots of exploring, testing, and collaborating to be done in the move towards truly good digital materials and ways of working. Like with any big change, there’s of course lots to learn, we have to seriously rethink the way we create and distribute materials, and also how we monetize them. There are challenges but also opportunities, especially for, like you said, those independent innovative ELT versions of Zuckerberg.

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    • These are exciting times. My co-writer and I spent a year trying to develop an ELT game with a games company. In the end it all ground into the dust – but isn’t that what we always do as freelancers? You have to kiss a lot of frogs…

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  9. I do agree with you much of the way. Publishers are out of date from the real world and painfully conservative so we can’t expect much from them. I feel they’re stoically pretending the internet hasn’t happened and doing their best to cling on to outmoded ideas and trying to convince the rest of us that we need them.

    But as an aside, I can only think of one book written by a committee which actually works and that’s the King James Bible. Regardless of one’s beliefs it’s a pretty stupendous piece of literature

    Then again, I don’t think we can really compare that committee to the current ELT publishing houses!

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    • Actually I think publishers weren’t very aware of the internet at all five years ago. They are desperately trying to play catchup, which is why they’re making so many mistakes. As to the KJB… moving out of my area of knowledge, I’m afraid. I was brought up a Catholic. The Nicean Creed in Latin has a certain ring to it…

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  10. @Jenny, that committee was committed in a way that would be impossible to duplicate with mere worldly rewards. And of course they did not write the book.

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  11. @Steve, given what you wrote, it sounds like the publishers have shot themselves in their collective foot and then declared that they hit the bullseye.

    This has the feel of the Microsoft pivot in the face of the Internet. Microsoft learned to build even higher walls, more fiercely defend proprietary product lines, attack creative outsiders, and slowly lose their position of leadership.

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    • I agree. Good analogy. It may be that the publishers are right, and their product is going to change ELT. Personally, I don’t believe this. At a time of change like this, it’s important for all of us who don’t believe to put up our heads and say so. If we’re living in the time of the Emperor’s New Clothes, it’s essential to have some people in the crowd who shout “Oi! You’re wearing no knickers!”

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  12. These are exciting times. My co-writer and I spent a year trying to develop an ELT game with a games company. In the end it all ground into the dust – but isn’t that what we always do as freelancers? You have to kiss a lot of frogs…

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  13. I spent many hours in meetings over the last five years with games designers and others specializing in virtual environments who thought they could revolutionize ELT. Together we looked at what the big four were doing and every professional games person I spoke to said “utter crap, and 20 years out of date.” On the other hand, in spite of wild and wonderful and exciting (and expensive) ideas, none of them could get past the fact that language is interaction between human beings saying unpredictable things to each other and conversation builds from that. So in the end you need to co-ordinate person to person interaction. Thus in the end, you need a real space, you need more than one student and you need a teacher. Digital stuff, I begin increasingly to think, only deals with a mundane level, and simply interferes with the necessary process.

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      • In the conversations I’ve had with publishers, they appear to be entirely preoccupied with setting up the data systems. There is no discussion as to what kind of course it should be, where the interest lies, or what the motivational factor will be for the students. The priority in planning has moved away from content and into delivery. That’s what I meant by big data being a substitute rather than an add-on.

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  14. Similar experience to mine – the analysis, the promises, the disillusion. I do think at some stage in the future there will be proper one-to-one instruction with a digital mind, maybe with a classful of distance classroom colleagues – but a long way in the future. The logistics of education at the moment are just too big for this kind of approach. 800,000 students a year need to be educated in the UK alone: that implies classrooms, teachers, socialisation, creativity. The big data approach to this is a useful add-on, not a substitute. That’s where the big publishers are going wrong.

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  15. An excellent read Steve, thanks – lots of useful encouragement for writers starting out in this brave new world, such as myself.
    I think you hit on something really interesting here, too, ‘It doesn’t matter how much the hardware can analyse and retrieve data, if the data itself is so tedious that the learner doesn’t want to spend time absorbing it. ‘
    As with all the former trends that have come and (partially) gone, it does beg the question – has anyone asked the learners what they actually want in the future? Or is it a case of the big data companies, publishers, etc. deciding that they know what’s best for them? From what I see in the day-to-day, I suspect a lot of language learners still like old-fashioned print books.

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  16. We looked at this 20 years back with OUP, the idea being a social networking communication site, pairing students of different nationalities and Mts to interact. There were schemes for vast networks of teachers monitoring and checking. We’ve revisited this with games people since, and apparently there is now (essential) “anti-grooming” monitoring available at a subscription which automatically detects dubious words and invitations, but yes it would always be in addition to real people talking to other real people.

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  17. But digital doesn’t preclude person-to-person interaction – in fact, it has the potential to increase the opportunity for it. Isn’t it more that self-study is limited in what it can achieve, whether it’s print or digital?

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  18. Thank you very much for such an inspiring and trenchant piece, Steve: a really important contribution to the debate of the moment.

    A very wise publisher (Jeff Krum, CUP New York) reminded me recently of the following thought: ‘The music is not in the piano.’ (It’s in the minds of the composer, the musician and the listener.) Jeff is one of the good guys: he hasn’t forgotten about the music.

    Keep up the good work, Steve. Best. Des

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    • Thank you Des. I appreciate that.
      And I love the image about the music not being in the piano. Just love it. I hope you don’t mind if I use this in the future. I’ll try to attribute it properly…

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  19. I agree but I am amazed at how conservative some publishers (and administrators and even teachers) can be. Certain methods just get engraved in stone and certain topics and approaches to topics are blacklisted as being too radical. We will always need talent.

    The problem, of course, with your metaphor is that 1) the industry-created musicians make a hell of a lot more money than the independents and 2) that drives the independent singers to want to be more like the industry-created musicians. It’s amazing how many singer-songwriters we have now working in pop! I suspect the same thing happens where teachers and writers adopt the standards of the industry because that’s where the money is and generally peer-pressure and influence.

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  20. Jenny, publishers are absolutely obsessed with the internet. The problem they have is that it requires new business models, and they haven’t worked out how to deal with that. That’s made harder by the need to cling on to their existing business model, because that’s still where most of their revenues come from right now. Their conservatism is primarily directed by the market, not from within.

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  21. A most thought provoking article. I particularly liked the idea of an ELT mammal using SoMe to produce the next interesting vector to teach English.
    I work in ELT testing and I feel this is the same, mainstream publishers jealously guarding their suites of tests while some maverick with a good enough idea will one day get UKBA approval and a fun test will appeal to some of the 1.5 billion.
    One other thing occurred to me too; how many EFL textbooks written at the time of Slade are still being used? Perhaps that’s why EFL authors are valued so lightly. They have a shelf life measured in years not decades.

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  22. A most thought provoking article. I particularly liked the idea of an ELT mammal using SoMe to produce the next interesting vector to teach English.
    I work in ELT testing and I feel this is the same, mainstream publishers jealously guarding their suites of tests while some maverick with a good enough idea will one day get UKBA approval and a fun test will appeal to some of the 1.5 billion.
    One other thing occurred to me too; how many EFL textbooks written at the time of Slade are still being used? Perhaps that’s why EFL authors are valued so lightly. They have a shelf life measured in years not decades.

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    • Interesting point about ELT testing. It would be great to come up with a fun ELT test.
      The answer to your questions is, none really. Coursebooks are used by teachers, who get bored at the end of a four-year run and want something fresh. I don’t blame them for that, you have to keep creativity in the classroom.If a book is truly successful, then it’s produced in new editions four or five times. Still gives it a shelf life of only twenty years.

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  23. Thanks you! Glad it was helpful.
    We have tried asking learners and teachers in the past, with varying levels of success. And of course it is very difficult to ask someone about a technology that hasn’t been

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    • oops… sorry – invented yet. If we asked ten people before the invention of Wikipedia if they would like to use an encyclopaedia that was generated by a mass or different people round the world, moderated by 2,000 specialists, and run essentially by volunteers, their reaction would have been bemusement – but once it has arrived, and they can see how it works, then they’re enthusiastic.
      I think this is what’s driving the zealots in the publishing industry – they know that digital is the future, and they want to get there quickly. It doesn’t matter if their customers don’t like what they’re doing at the moment, they will like it when the walls of Jericho fall down. The danger that they are running is that when the walls fall down, there will just be an empty space.

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