IH Journal of Education and Development

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Becoming an ELT Writer: Ask the Publishers Q&A - with Kirsten Holt, Macmillan Education

  1. When a publisher looks to recruit a writer, what kind of profile are they looking for?

It depends on the publisher and what type of writer somewhat but generally, I’d say it would be someone who is an experienced EFL teacher – ideally with a deep understanding of methodology and trends, i.e. Diploma-qualified or equivalent, and who has experience in assessing level and objectives and can demonstrate knowledge of and skills in using materials in different mediums.

The person should have begun to build up an outward-facing ELT profile (see below for details) and has experience in creating classroom resources.

  1. For someone looking to become an ELT writer, what is the best way to get started?

See our blog post here.

  1. Do you have to write a full coursebook before submitting a proposal?

 No, a sample unit along with a draft scope and sequence is all you need. Before submitting, or indeed compiling your proposal, it is worth making contacts within publishing (see above for ideas) so you have a specific name to send it to and do your background research – Is there space in the ELT market for something like this and do you think people will buy it? Does the publisher already have similar products? How well does it stand up to the competition, if there is any?

Without meaning to put you off, according to the late, great David Riley* ‘most unsolicited proposals are rejected – now even more than in the past. Publishers used to wait to see what books teachers proposed and would then try to choose the most promising of these. This has changed. Now, large publishing companies work to long-term publishing plans. The problem for a budding author is that the publisher is not going to share this confidential information with anyone outside the company. As a result, the two commonest reasons for rejecting an unsolicited proposal are: (1) ‘We’re already doing something like that’, and (2) ‘We aren’t planning to do something like that’.

[But] Sometimes you’re lucky and your proposal lands on someone’s desk when it’s just what they’re looking for. Given that ELT, like any community, has its zeitgeist, this isn’t as unlikely as you might think. If a publisher is impressed by your writing they may ask you to write something for another project, perhaps a workbook, a resource pack or a teacher’s book to start with.

Plans can be changed if an idea is sufficiently powerful. Ignore the image from fiction publishing of the huge ‘slush pile’ of unsolicited and unwanted manuscripts mouldering unread in an in-tray. In ELT, we receive surprisingly few unsolicited proposals, and we’re usually glad to get them.

In other words, never say never so read on!

*http://www.onestopenglish.com/community/jobs/your-career/publishing-for-teachers/making-proposals-to-elt-publishers/145002.article

  1. Is there a particular form a proposal should take and how many words should it be?

There is no set number of words for a proposal but it is worth being concise – at most, two pages is usually enough for your rationale, with a maximum of three – resist the temptation to write more (unless you want to write a very specialized book). The most important thing is to remember to include the following:

  • a cover letter
  • a rationale document (target customer (including if it’s intended for one particular country or group of countries), language level(s), age range, type of institution where it may be used, what type of English it is (general, business, ESP, focused on an exam, etc.), the need (Is there room in the market for this and why?), the methodology (How does the learning take place and how the syllabus should be organised?)
  • an outline, including a draft scope and sequence (i.e. detailing how your publication will be structured)
  • a sample unit (usually about ten or twelve pages of writing, showing clear progression of learning, demonstrating how you see the methodology working in practice. If the material includes scripted audio or video, then don’t forget to include the transcripts. NB If you are proposing a student’s book, concentrate on the student’s book content (including the answers) – there’s no need to provide the additional supplementary material like the workbook material or teacher’s notes unless there are some innovative feature in these components which you need to demonstrate.)
  • your CV and credentials (publishers want to know that you have experience in the area you’re proposing for, including what levels and type of English you’ve taught recently along with the profile of the school you’ve most recently worked in. It’ll raise further interest if you have experience of training other teachers and/or if you have previously written material which has been published – whether it be books, articles or reviews.)
  1. Everyone knows about coursebooks, but what other kinds of writing work do publishers commission?

As mentioned above, there is plenty of other writing work that publishers commission in addition to coursebooks  – namely, supplementary materials like workbooks (online), audio or video content (and related worksheets), teacher’s books, test books or online tests, digital content for apps, LMS, IWBs and occasionally DVD-ROMs (the latter less common these days)and website materials.

It can be extremely beneficial to get involved in this type of work because there’s a lower level of commitment (so you can see if you’re really suited to the work and whether you actually enjoy it), it is often considered to be part of a ‘writer’s apprenticeship’ and it tends to be fee-based so the money is up front (as opposed to waiting for the royalties to come in). In addition, supplementary writers are important to publishers because the component being written may need specific expertise (e.g. tests, digital) and because they are short-term projects works in well with other commitments.

That being said, I think it is always worth asking yourself the following questions before committing to the work:

  • Do you realistically have the time? Supplementary materials often have quite tight deadlines to fit in with the publishing plan. There’s also no point in taking on the work if it’s going to make you so exhausted you can’t do your ‘real’ job!
  • How confident are you in using the technology? You may have to write into the platform or publisher-specific Microsoft Word templates – check you know how to use it before beginning or that support is available if you run into difficulties.
  • Having read the brief, do you agree with the pedagogy? There’s no point agreeing to work if you don’t agree with the general principles of the project.
  1. What particular skills does a new writer need? Do you need to know about online platforms?

A new writer definitely needs to have experience in using basic Word and Excel programs and good time management. Each publisher tends to use a slightly different platform so whilst it is useful to develop an understanding of these, and maybe develop familiarity of the different systems, it is likely that a new writer would be given training of the relevant system before starting the commissioned work.

As writing work increasingly requires authors to collaborate and/or to work in a team across multiple locations, I’d recommend developing a working knowledge of the following tools: Dropbox, Google docs, Skype (including sharing screens), Google hangouts, Slack (a brainstorm tool that works on an app, and allows the user to set up different channels in order to work in different projects simultaneously) and Trello.

  1. How are writers usually paid, i.e. by the word, by the hour, by the book, etc.?

Again, it depends on the project and the publisher. Generally, I’d say supplementary material (and/or publisher-led material) is fee-based and is often a lump sum paid on the satisfactory completion of the work. If it is a meaty component and can be delivered in batches, then the work will be paid per batch completed – this is will be specified in the contract/letter of agreement.

  1. A question I would still like to ask after writing materials for approximately five years is: how do writers find out about job openings? There are freelance writing sites, which tend to offer uninteresting or underpaid work, or submitting a coursebook proposal to a major publisher, but how do I find content writing work in between those two extremes?

As mentioned previously, it is worth joining organisations like ELT Teachers 2 Writers, ELT writers connect and IATEFL MaWSIG which tend to advertise writing work between these extremes, or certainly, someone can point you in the right direction. The best tip though I can give you is to be patient, build up your profile and keep up with the market trends – that way you will be ready when the opportunity presents itself.

  1. Do you have to be based in the UK to work for a publisher?

No, not necessarily as long as you can be reached via email, Skype or Google hangouts. Nor do you need to be a native-English speaker if you have a native-level ability in English-language usage, spelling and grammar.

  1. Do publishers provide support and guidance for new writers working on their first projects?

Yes, within reason. The brief tends to provide clear guidance of what’s expected. Generally, once you’ve written a sample which has met the publishing standards, you are considered good to go, providing the material you write meets the brief. Your material may go through a couple of drafts, depending on the component, so it is important not to take criticism personally – if you are being asked to change something, it is for the benefit of the course. If you don’t understand, ask about the reasons behind the suggested change (albeit politely) so you can learn more through that process.

  1. Can a writer work for many publishers or does it have to be just one?

This is an interesting question, because it depends very much on what your contract says and what work is available with each publisher.

It is normally advisable to avoid competing with yourself so I wouldn’t recommend writing similar products within the same segment for different publishers! Also it is worth considering, if you are going through a successful ‘writer’s apprenticeship’ whether it is worth going elsewhere – I would suggest checking with the publisher before proceeding. There may be additional work coming up with the publisher that you are unaware of before asking.

Author’s Bio:
Kirsten Holt is Publisher of Teacher Professional Development at Macmillan Education, having worked in the publishing sector for just over ten years. Before the move into publishing, she worked in education for a similar length of time, first as a teacher/materials writer, then as a teacher trainer, before becoming a Director of Studies and trainer of teacher trainers. Kirsten is also the Deputy Events Coordinator for IATEFL Materials Writing Special Interest Group. She is passionate about supporting teachers, authors and editors alike in their professional development as well as investigating ways to respond to the evolving world of ELT.

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