post by Mike Griffin on why Korean students don’t use apps for learning English made me think about some work I’ve been doing recently that involves teachers. Without going into too much detail, I’ve been looking at the potential for ELT professional development eBooks and trying to establish why there seems to be very limited demand for digital versions of existing print titles.

Now, given the title of this post, I guess it’s worth pointing out that I’m aware that there are language teachers out there already buying professional development eBooks. However, all the evidence suggests that most aren’t, despite the proliferation of laptops, tablets and eReaders, and the ease of purchasing eBooks online. The vast majority of language teachers and ex-language teachers I know, myself included, have at least a couple of ‘classic’ ELT methodology books on their (physical) bookshelves, and the more fortunate ones will have a well-stocked resource library where they teach, giving access to both practical guides and theoretical texts.

So at a time when Amazon and many others are telling us eBook sales are booming, why is the ELT industry still so wedded to print? Here are a few of the most common responses I’ve heard from teachers:

  1. eReaders are for fiction, tablets are for apps and social media. Reference texts and methodology books don’t really suit either device. Print is best because I can quickly find what I want, and I can bookmark and annotate pages.
  2. I don’t buy books for professional development. I rely on my library or school, where the only option is print.
  3. Publishers are not giving teachers the incentives to purchase digital. Digital needs to be cheaper, maybe up to 50% cheaper, and there needs to be extra features like audio, video and interactive exercises.
  4. There are so many free online resources, including blogs, journal articles and social media communities, with content more suited to reading on mobile devices, so there’s no need to buy methodology eBooks. Or print books for that matter.
  5. I do read eBooks, but I don’t pay. I only download free PDF versions, you know, the ones you kindly make available on those Russian websites.

This is of course all anecdotal and there are counter-arguments to every one of these points. You can bookmark and annotate eBooks, there is potential for excellent search functionality, the expectation of more content and features for a considerably lower price can be challenging but if approached sensibly can be addressed, and whilst there are some fantastic, thought-provoking bloggers around, this is content that should arguably complement rather than replace cutting-edge, high quality methodology and applied linguistics publishing. Finally, if you need convincing that downloading pirate PDFs is damaging and unacceptable, take the time to read this ELTjam post.

The potential is there for digital delivery to improve the reader’s experience when it comes to methodology and reference titles (in ELT beyond), and for publishers to deliver content in more flexible ways through subscriptions, disaggregated content and library services. However, if print is what most language teachers want (and what teacher trainers and lecturers insist on putting on reading lists) how much time should publishers really spend trying to convince them to switch to digital? And is it a case of switching, or would teachers appreciate redeemable codes for free or low-cost eBooks bundled with the print books, thereby putting a single purchase on both their virtual and physical bookshelves?

I don’t think there are definitive answers to any of these questions, and ELT publishers are either going to continue scratching their heads or, as we’re already seeing (mentioning no names), abandoning professional development publishing in order to focus more energy on the blockbuster courses where there’s greater profit to be made. Whilst I’m all too aware of the importance of keeping publishing profitable, I don’t believe that should be the only driver when it comes to methodology and applied linguistics. Quality publishing in this area is what stimulates debate, brings about change and essentially underpins the professionalism in ELT. What I hope digital content will allow, perhaps combined with print, is more – not less – professional development publishing, better accessibility to ‘classic’ titles, and the ability to reach a greater audience through more flexible content delivered at a lower price. This is simple and yet incredibly complicated, so do get in touch if you have a global solution, and in the meantime, please step away from those illegal downloads.

This post originally appeared on Ian Cook’s blog on the 28th August, 2014.
Featured Photo Credit: Demonsub via Compfight cc. Text added by ELTjam.


  1. I am coming to this discussion as a former marketing and sales person, and now in my role as publisher, and I have to say that I find all of your arguments on this thread to be right on point. Personally, I don’t think there have been right or wrong beliefs and opinions expressed here, and I can see that the key issues are related to user preferences (physical vs. electronic, full ownership vs. limited ownership, full text vs. chapters, different learning styles and expertise, etc..) and customer preferences (pricey vs. less-pricey, for purchase vs. for lease, and free, borrowed, or pirated.) And so on.

    I would like to voice my own perceptions around context and motivation, and my perspective as Publisher of PDT books. For starters, we can agree that it would be highly unlikely that anyone preparing for a professional career in ELT will be intrinsically – and independently – motivated to buy anything for themselves … regardless of the format, unless a list of publications have been recommended, and/or required by those managing such professional teaching development programs.

    Over the past year at my publishing company, we have been experiencing an increased demand – and sales [happy dance!] – of our reference and professional development titles; which were only available in print format. So we are currently working on producing eBook versions of these books for several eReader platforms including Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, and B&N Nook, as a way to reach a wider audience globally, reduce our costs for printing, warehousing, and distribution, and make these publications available in print and digital formats; both with a unique set of business challenges and business models.

    As a Publisher, I believe that we need to have different offerings in order to meet specific requirements, and to provide solutions for everyone, regardless about their learning and content consumption preferences. The demand for PDT Books/eBooks will continue to evolve, and we must be prepared to access the opportunities that this process is sure to bring.

  2. Hi Ian

    I’ve tried to address some of the issues you raised in the creation of my own ebook (at present only available on iBook Store:

    I produced the book independently by raising cash on Indiegogo and did all of the production work myself. I crowd sourced the editing and reviewing process.

    The book has embedded video tutorials (26 in all)
    It has full colour high resolution images
    Loads of practical advice and materials
    It retails at under a fiver (£4.99)

    I can’t say I’m experiencing huge sales so far (especially as it’s only available for Apple devices at present) but I hope this represents a step forward for ebook publishing and shows why digital can be so much better than paper.


  3. Another interesting discussion here, and perhaps one reason for the majority of people (seemingly) preferring print PD books is:
    1. we’re more used to print books and still getting used to e-books (in the sense that e-books are still not the norm)
    2. like Walton mentioned, many of the things we do with PD books (highlight, underline, circle, dog-ear, bookmark) are not as intuitive as with print books (again, perhaps this will change with time though)
    3. density: some (though definitely not all) PD books can be quite dense in both material and number of pages. When trying to digest it all, it’s useful to be able to quickly flip between, say page 286 and back to page 44. We don’t necessarily read PD books from cover to cover, but may dip in to certain parts. For this, it’s more practical to be able to physically flip through them.
    4. Length: I have no data to back this up, but for PD books, it seems that shorter is better. As Sue Kay mentioned, I think one of the many reasons that the ELT Teacher 2 Writer books are so appealing is that they don’t run 200 pages. They’re very digestable in e-book format.

    As for the question about supplying staff rooms, we have had a few inquiries at the round with people asking how they could purchase “licenses” or some other way of putting all of our titles at the disposal of their teaching staff. Granted, when I say a few I mean 1 or 2, but you gotta start somewhere!

  4. Price is probably the most significant barrier to the purchase of TD e-books. Printed copies do offer practical advantages, as other people have mentioned, including a satisfying feeling of physical ownership. However, I think many of us would be willing to give up those benefits if e-books were more reasonably priced. Purchase risk is also a key factor. There are some great TD books out there, but also quite a few lemons and ‘nothing-new-here’ titles being churned out on a regular basis. For that reason, there’s really no substitute for a thorough skimming of the print version, as opposed to only seeing a few carefully-selected sample pages of an e-book. For the most part, I try to borrow new TD books, and then only purchase ones that merit a second or third reading, or will make good additions to my home reference collection. That said, if TD e-books were cheaper, I’d probably indulge in more impulse buying, so perhaps I should be glad they’re expensive!

    1. Hi there, Templeton.

      You may be interested in the round, an independent collective of ELT authors producing TD e-books which are very reasonably priced (about a third to a quarter of the normal price of traditional, printed TD books).

    2. That’s interesting. The reason I do buy e-books is that they generally are cheaper than print books. And I have impulse bought precisely because they are often cheaper and so easy to acquire. Click and read. This goes for both pleasure reading and PD texts. I do agree with the browsing. Perhaps if e-books allowed you a time limit instead of a page limit when browsing. Or if the Table of Contents were accessible and you got to look at X number of pages for free.

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