Anyone who friends me on Facebook or follows me on Twitter soon realises that my social media updates are split roughly 50/50 between ELT/publishing related stuff and food/drink related stuff. When I’m not working, I’m generally eating and drinking. And I’m quite lucky that, because cookbook publishing exists, my two interests occasionally intersect. In fact, it was a visit to a cookbook conference in New York in 2012 that led me to set up my ELT author representation agency.
The parallels between what’s going on in cookbook publishing and ELT publishing are greater than you’d expect. But that’s a topic for another post. (If you want a sneak preview, check out my write-up of the aforementioned cookbook conference over at my food blog, The Editor’s Kitchen.) And one of the main parallels is the enduring value and attachment to print books. I consider myself an early adopter when it comes to most tech, yet I own close to 100 cookbooks, all of them print. I’ve never bought an ebook edition of a cookbook or a cookery app. And I never visit recipe websites. So what’s that all about?
Why print cookbooks still matter
Print cookbooks tend to be properly tested, meaning that they’re more accurate than a lot of recipe websites. (I kind of agree with this point, but it was actually print cookbook inaccuracies which led me to set up The Editor’s Kitchen.)
People like to gift cookbooks, and receiving the book itself is nicer than getting an email with a redemption code (this is the value of what marketers call ‘physical presence’).
As texts, cookbooks function as a kind of cultural history, offering an insight into a particular time and place. A great example of this is the original, blue, River Cafe cookbook. First published in 1996, it seems to capture a particular moment in Britain’s history — the transition away from years of Conservative rule towards the (then) optimism of the Blair era, an era when food became a major cultural force in Britain.
Design. Put simply, many cookbooks are gorgeous to look at.
And finally, voice — the idea that a cook or author’s voice comes through from the pages of a print cookbook in a way that it doesn’t from a recipe app or website.
Why print coursebooks might still matter
In the world of ELT, the love of print also endures. Some established ELT authors have voiced dissatisfaction with the move away from print towards digital, especially by Pearson. But the real proof is at grassroots level, where the use of print coursebooks in class is still completely dominant. So why do print coursebooks still matter? Here are five possible reasons.
Much like print cookbooks, there’s still a justifiable sense that print materials from major ELT publishers are going to be high-quality and accurate. Working in the industry, I can attest to the fact that the editorial process for major-publisher ELT materials tends to be highly exacting. Publishers may be doing less in-class piloting than they did in the past, but the fact remains that by the time that coursebook ends up in your hands, it’s been fed into by a huge number of very knowledgable people. The simple fact is the same can’t be said for most free ELT content available on the Web.
In Book Finds, author Ian C. Ellis calls ‘the book’ the most perfect piece of technology ever devised. That might be stretching it, but the fact is that print coursebooks fit the mechanics of the classroom very well (or, at least, over the centuries, teachers have learned how to make them fit very well). Open/close, work in pairs or on your own, write your answers and check in the key. You can do all of these things with ebooks and other digital content, too, and often with greater ease, but I wonder if a lot of teachers and students are quite attached to (or at least very familiar and comfortable with) those dynamics around a print book. It’s also worth remembering that most ELT teachers still train how to teach using a print book. There might not be much difference between that and teaching a class where everyone has a tablet or a laptop, but there is some; and it doesn’t take much for that gap in knowledge and experience to multiply preparation time, mess with the classroom dynamic and potentially frighten a teacher off. When you’ve learned to do something well, it can take a lot of convincing to do it differently.
Outside of certain parts of the private university sector, how widespread is tech penetration in schools generally, and especially in places where EFL is taught? How many EFL teachers can absolutely guarantee that every student in their class will have the correct device with the correct content on it, fully charged or plugged in, ready to go at the start of class? One issue here is simply money. If schools can’t provide devices for everybody, can we really ask our students to make a hardware investment in order to attend our course? A print coursebook is expensive, but it’s not computer hardware expensive.
Is author voice important in print coursebooks? Maybe not to the level of some cookbooks, but there’s often a personality in a print coursebook that you don’t find as easily in purely digital materials. Some of this is undoubtedly to do with design and layout. But I expect that it also relates to the author teams behind the big coursebook brands. When an author puts their heart and soul into a coursebook series, when they spend 5 or 6 years working on it, only to be asked to spend another 5 or 6 on the next edition, you do feel it on the page; there’s a commitment and a passion there that I think you just don’t see as much in purely online materials, some of which feel fairly anonymous.
Many teachers simply don’t have a choice. If their school administration decides that they’re going to use a print coursebook, then that’s what they’re going to use. I’m still surprised at how often a teacher tells me they have no control over the material they’re allowed to use in class.
So those are five reasons from me. What about you? If you’re still attached to using print books in class, why?