Getting writing work from ELT publishers
Summary: Four ways of getting to the point of being paid to write for publishers of English language teaching materials, with a detailed examination of two of them.
Writing work for publishers is nowadays as likely to mean things for their websites or exercises for a CD ROM as actual books, but there are still the same four main routes into getting paid for writing for ELT publishers:
- Sending a totally unsolicited proposal/ application
- Being asked to send a proposal/ application
- Sending an application, proposal or materials to something that is advertised to everyone, e.g. Onestopenglish Lesson Share
- Having something that you have already published republished by an ELT publisher
The last one will not be specifically dealt with in this article because the picking up by a publisher involves either doing nothing or doing the other things mentioned here, and self-publishing is a whole other topic that I’ll try to deal with in another article. I also won’t deal specifically with applying to something that is open to everyone because lots of specific advice will be given for each such process (e.g. on the publisher’s website or in the PR advertising the competition), but the advice below will also be relevant.
Perhaps even more advice will be given by publishers when they write to you asking you to apply for something/ send a proposal for a project, but tips are certainly needed in order to get to the point where you will actually get that offer from publishers. The article below therefore deals with two things:
- How to send unsolicited applications/ proposals
- How to get the attention of publishers so that they ask you to apply/ send a proposal for something
There is also a kind of middle way between the two – talking to a publisher about your ideas and them saying “Sounds good, please send in…”
How to send unsolicited proposals to ELT publishers
The stages of creating and sending an unsolicited proposal
The likely stages of sending in something unsolicited are:
- Choose which publisher to send it to
- Write it
- Get help with it
- Find out exactly which person to send it to
- Send it
- Chase it up
It is also possible to reverse the first two stages – write your proposal, then work out which publisher what you have written is probably most suitable for, and finally polish it up further with that in mind. Either way it is a difficult choice, because what you want to achieve is:
- A publisher which is big enough to sell plenty of copies but small enough to actually accept your proposal (especially if it is a niche title)
- A publisher who already covers that kind of material but doesn’t actually have something too similar (now or in the pipeline – though you can usually only guess at the latter)
It is also possible to send a proposal to several publishers, although if you have tailored the proposal and/ or materials to one publisher in the way suggested above it doesn’t really work just to send the same proposal to several people. There is also the issue of whether you should tell the publishers that you are sending it to other people or not. If you don’t mention that it is going to more than one publisher and you later have to tell them “Someone else has snapped it up” you will probably never ever get work from them in the future. However, if you tell them that it isn’t only for them, then your statements about the book being especially for them will seem less than authentic.
Writing the proposal
Things to include in the proposal are:
- Sample materials
- A description of the rest of the materials (not included and probably not yet written)
- A rationale of why and how the materials have been and will be written that way
- Details about yourself
Practically speaking, that will usually consist of a single word-processed document of the materials with an attached email/ letter and CV. There are many suggestions for these below, but something that is worth bearing in mind for all of them is that their only purpose is to get the attention of the very busy publisher, with there being plenty of time to give them more details later if you achieve that. All the parts should therefore be as short as possible.
Other general tips for all of the parts of the proposal are:
- Use headers and footers (because the proposal will probably be printed and looked at in paper format at some point)
- Make the proposal like your materials will be, e.g. use headings and bullet points like a teacher’s book and avoid language that teachers reading the book might not understand even in the proposal
- Bear in mind that the most common reaction to receiving a proposal is that you get offered some different work, so write your proposal, CV etc with that in mind
- Don’t send a whole manuscript, even if you have finished it.
It is usually best to write the sample materials first, then the rationale and details about yourself, and finally the covering letter/ email. However, if you are doing the process correctly each stage should give you extra ideas for the others. For example, while writing the rationale you should almost certainly think of something that should be in the sample materials but isn’t, meaning you will need to go back and put it in.
The sample materials should consist of two or three chapters/ sections with a description of the rest of the materials which will be included, e.g. a contents page that is set out as readers will be able to see it and/ or the introduction that could go at the start of the book. If extra description is needed for the publisher to make sense of what they can see, this can go in the rationale or covering email. The sample chapters should somehow be both representative and also the best chapters of the book. You also need to show both the things which will be repeated throughout the book and the variety (of genres of text, exercise types, spoken interactions, etc) that will be in it. The rationale will then explain how the sample materials show those things and how the other chapters will keep to and vary that format.
Although publishers will probably tell you appearance isn’t important (and all your formatting will be stripped out later before it goes to the designers if it does become a book), it does need to be attractive enough for the publisher to be able to bear reading through it. A good appearance but not too fancy is therefore the rule.
A similar thing is true of illustrations – the publisher will almost certainly have their own ideas before it is published but putting some in will make it easier and more pleasant for the publisher to read. The other option is to leave a space for illustrations with descriptions in each box. As much as possible, you should try to keep the page numbers and format that you expect to use in the final book.
Three final tips for the sample materials are to make sure they are factually accurate, not to use copyrighted material that the publisher is unlikely to get permission to use, and to include the tapescripts and an extract from the teacher’s notes if what to do isn’t clear.
The rationale should be one or two A4 pages and will need to include:
- The title (and how that will help sell it and/ or how that is related to the content)
- Who it will be most suitable for and why they (or their schools or parents) will pay money for it, plus other people it will be suitable for and why they will pay money for it. The target market can be described by job, uses of English, age, studies, future plans, language level, previous language study, way they are studying, tech-savvy, or nationality.
- Its USPs (unique selling points), in other words how it does different things to other materials on the market
- Other comparisons with similar materials on the market
- The range of students/ teachers who have tested or been asked their opinions on the materials, and their reactions
- How much time and help you can get with writing the book/ How you would go about writing the whole book and how long it would you take you
- How long the whole thing will be (in terms of pages and hours of study)
- The ideas behind what you have written, e.g. what the methodology is or what assumptions it makes about student learning
- Why you chose that publisher, and how it would fit in with their mission and present range
You could also include:
- Something that you rejected in writing the book (but remembering that the publisher almost certainly has materials that don’t reject that thing)
- How it would fit into a present series of that publisher
- How it could be the start of a new series (plus maybe suggesting other titles in the same series you are able to write later – but saying that you’d also be happy for others to write them)
- How you understand that the market is niche (e.g. ESP or region-specific), but you will be able to seize a large portion of that market or even expand it
- Ideas for the guff at the back of the book/ the PR announcing it
- Popularity of your materials, e.g. online or amongst teachers in your school
- How you could promote the book
- Any automatic market you bring to the book, e.g. your school being likely to order or your Twitter followers being bound to buy some copies and spread the word
- Which parts of the book are core and which could be changed
- How you originally came up with the concepts behind the materials
- How you will test the materials/ ideas as you are writing the rest of the book
Information about yourself
The information about yourself can be written in the rationale, email and CV, and should include:
- Why you are the best person to write and market the book
- What kinds of other similar projects you would be interested in getting involved in
- Your knowledge of the industry, e.g. awareness of what sells well in different markets
- The amount of other material you have available
- A short prose summary of relevant highlights of your career strengths and career (as well as your CV)
- Experience of working on projects/ as a team
- Experience of completing projects (especially ones involving writing) under pressure
- Experience of being edited/ being on the other side of that relationship
- Experience of teacher training, especially directly related to the book proposal and to outside audiences in conference presentations etc
You will need to rewrite your CV to be relevant to writing and this proposal, but bear in mind that they might offer you different work, so don’t make yourself seem too specialised.
The cover letter/ email
Many of the things above could also be in the email/ letter accompanying your proposal if they don’t fit in elsewhere. You will also need to say when you are available to discuss the proposal further (at any time!) and how they should contact you.
You could give the criteria above to whoever you ask to check your proposal before you send it – preferably asking them to check the whole proposal rather than just the sample materials. It also worth employing a professional proof-reader, because an editor is not a proof-reader and doesn’t want to spend months or years proofreading your future offerings!
Other help/ feedback you can get includes:
- Putting the sample materials (and anything else you have) on the relevant teachers’ room shelf for people to use
- Put the sample materials on the teachers’ room notice board
- Put the sample materials on the teachers’ room computers
- Publish some of the ideas/ materials in your school newsletter
- Publish some of the ideas/ materials (or something closely related) in a TEFL magazine
- Put a couple of the ideas online and put a lot of effort into getting feedback
- Give a workshop on the ideas in your proposal
Sending the proposal
You’ll then need to find out who to send it to, preferably meaning not just a precise job title but also their name. This can be done by emailing or (preferably) phoning the publishers to find out who the best person is, or by exchanging business cards at a TEFL conference. Especially if you meet that person at such a conference, it is also possible to find out more about what they want from materials/ a proposal before you send them in, which depending on how much information they give you takes you somewhat towards the opposite way of getting to the point of sending a proposal that is dealt with below.
If your proposal does lead to writing work with a publisher, editors will probably spend at least as much time emailing and telephoning you as looking at the materials you produce, so think of all contact with the publisher as part of your application. If possible, find about before sending how long it usually takes them to consider a proposal (for example by chatting with publishers at conferences) then add around 50% and chase the proposal up after that time, making sure you seem dynamic and keen but not a pain.
Being asked to send a proposal by a publisher
It is incredibly rare nowadays for large publishers to actually publish the books that arrive on their desks as proposals. Much more common is for them to treat it is an application and offer some other kind of writing work if they are impressed by a proposal or think it shows exactly the kinds of ideas and expertise they need for another project. The next stage is usually to give the writer details of that other project and to ask them to send in a similar proposal to be given that work.
Other ways of reaching the point of being approached by publishers to send in such a proposal include:
- Sending in applications or materials to things that are open to everyone, e.g. adding your teaching resources to the Cambridge ESOL site or applying for the Macmillan Education Award for Innovative Writing
- Self-publishing or publishing with smaller publishers (big publishers don’t generally poach from each other, and anyway don’t want writers who are already thought of as connected with one of their direct competitors)
- Giving workshops at TEFL conferences and chatting to the publishers between workshops
- Being in a position at work where you have contact with publishers
- Doing pre-publication reviews of materials and proposals
- Being generally well known – by the things above, having your own blog, having lots of followers on Twitter etc
- Getting an agent (although so far there only seems to be one who specialises in ELT publishing!)
- Putting your details on the ELTTeacher2Writer writers’ database