Dream Writers: Authoring Fiction and ELT materials

The English teaching profession is full of would-be James Joyces and JK Rowlings. Lots of us are closet writers, working quietly on our masterpiece after a day of teaching and grading papers. Many teachers are also interested in publishing ELT materials. They may already write these for their students, and wish to unleash their creativity on a larger audience. Here’s a brief comparison of the processes involved in both types of writing.


Publishing plans: research and guesswork


ELT publishers plan years ahead to release a course. They need a constant flow of new products to sell to schools and universities, and they do lots of market research prior to commissioning the work. They speak to Directors of Studies, teachers and students, in an attempt to find the magic USP (Unique Selling Point) that will make the product stand out. The great enemy is uncertainty. Publishers spend years in the commissioning/writing/editing process. With all the add-ons – videos, apps, Teacher’s Books, photocopiable worksheets, dedicated websites – to produce a six-level course can cost well over a million pounds.



In fiction, publishing plans are different. The decision of whether to publish a novel or not is largely based on a Commissioning Editor’s experience and/or a blind hunch. Predicting the next bestseller is a guessing game. Reading fads arrive in the same way as fashion and food fads: suddenly and without warning. And they sometimes disappear as quickly. Twenty years ago, misery memoirs were huge (Angela’s Ashes, A Child Called It). Shortly after that, chick-lit took off (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Waiting to Exhale). Now Young Adult fantasy is having a moment. Next year … who knows? This means fiction publishing is fraught with unknowns and insecurity. And that’s before we factor in the rise of other types of entertainment to compete with reading, and ebooks, which drive down book pricing.


Commissioning: author and publisher (a love story)


In the (good?) old days, ELT publishers would put the word out that they were looking for authors. Ambitious teachers and teacher trainers would send a sample, meet with the publisher over a plate of dry sandwiches or a gourmet lunch (depending on how much the publisher loves you), and then get commissioned to write a book. For this, the author would receive a royalty of somewhere between 7 and 10 percent. These authors were possibly already known to the publisher through writing Teachers’ Books, Workbooks, or reports on materials-in-progress. The model has changed in the last couple of years. More likely now is that writers are asked to write parts of a course for a fee instead of royalties.



The process for fiction is far more daunting. You write on spec, maybe spending years honing your work. You then send the first couple of chapters along with a letter either to an agent or directly to a publisher. Unless you are already famous, your submission will go into a “slush pile”. This is the pile of manuscripts a junior editor will read on the train back home from the office. Or, rather, will NOT read. Editors are inundated by manuscripts – dozens every day. They look for any excuse to reject them. A single typo or a misspelled name on the covering letter can get your manuscript binned.


If, by some miracle, the editor likes it, they will recommend it to a committee which consists of personnel from Publicity and Marketing, Sales, Rights, and a Senior Commissioning Editor. Together, they decide whether to publish your masterpiece or cast it into Outer Darkness.


The biggest change in this traditional model is the self-publishing industry, which has grown rapidly over the last decade. With it, there are now many companies that assist authors in the process. You take your manuscript to them, pay a fee, and they turn it into a book – cover, design, back cover copy, ISBN number, the works. It’s a quick way to get published, but the chances of your book selling to anyone beyond family and friends are minuscule. Why? Because most self-publishing companies won’t help you market the book. Without professional marketing, your book is one of tens of thousands published every year. Also, for self-published authors it’s almost impossible to get reviewed in any of the big media outlets or placed on the shelves of a bookstore.


The Writing Process: templates, teams and typos


ELT publishers often provide a template for the author. For example, each lesson is two pages long, has one grammar point and one vocabulary section; texts are, say, 400-500 words, etc. The author follows this template religiously and turns in the work according to a tight schedule. Lack of inspiration or a terrible bout of writer’s block is no use. You make your deadline or you get another job.


Once the work is turned in, it gets edited, piloted and critiqued by teachers, rewritten (draft 2), re-edited, and then rewritten again (draft 3). After that it goes into production. Designers, copy-editors, sound engineers, producers, actors, permissions researchers and others become involved.



Literary fiction has no templates. You tell the story as it needs to be told. If you’re serious about your work, you’ll get a professional editor or some highly literate and trusted friends/acquaintances to read the work with a critical eye. You’ll write several drafts and re-read repeatedly, looking for holes in the plot, implausible occurrences, factual errors, stylistic infelicities, wooden dialogue, clichés, typos, and anything that can be cut. Other elements of the process – rights, cover images, etc. – are inconsequential at this stage for the writer, although word count matters. Around 80,000 words is normal for a novel, although some genres – fantasy and multi-generational sagas, for example – may run over 100,000.


The Launch: champagne and backslapping


ELT book launches used to be grand affairs: a stylish venue; champagne; good food; VIPs; music; short speeches; more champagne. Tight budgets have largely curtailed fancy launches. A mini-party for those involved in the book’s production – basically an in-house backslapping session – is now more likely, although some ELT publishers still do it in style.



For fiction, a launch is important for creating some razzle-dazzle, a vital publicity-generator. Local media outlets, the literati, and assorted bigwigs are all invited to bring some glitz. The fact is, dozens of novels are published every day. The launch is the moment when your novel is news.


After publication: getting the word out


To promote an ELT book, the publisher may send the author on speaking tours and to conferences. Authors may also be asked to take part in short promotional videos, blog writing, webinars, and other activities.



The promotion of fiction bears some similarities. The author will probably go to book festivals and deliver readings at bookshops, libraries and other venues. Big names will also feature on TV and radio programmes, while lesser-known writers simply take every promotional opportunity going. The main difference between ELT and fiction promotion is that the budget for author travel is tiny for fiction writers unless they are already famous. Many debut novelists, short story writers, and poets have to pay their own way, and speaking fees tend to be tiny or non-existent. Fiction writers are expected to have a website and an active blog. These are part of their “author platform” – how they reach their audience and how the public knows them.


The last word and the bottom line

It has never been easier to become a published author, and it has never been more difficult to make a living from it. Few fiction writers manage it. Most teach, shuttle from one residency to another, or wait tables. Gazillionaire authors like James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer are an extremely rare exception. Even well-established, award-winning novelists struggle to make ends meet. But they do have the satisfaction of stirring the imagination of thousands of readers, of living reasonably flexible lives, and of the possibility of their work outlasting them.


Like fiction writers, not many ELT writers can make a living from the job. The number of bestselling course books is small, and no one gets rich writing supplementary materials like Workbooks or Teachers’ Books. While there are other ways to earn income as an ELT author (e.g., giving talks), anyone that wants to write ELT books for the money is deluding themselves. They may as well play the lottery. But as with fiction writers, materials and methodology writers know their work may be influential around the world. While the shelf life of most course books is short (a few years), very successful books go into second (and third and fourth) editions and can create a legacy.


The common denominator between ELT and fiction writing as a profession is that the author needs to be passionate about the work. She will read prolifically and hone her craft in obscurity, probably for years without reward. When the book comes out, there are no guarantees except the satisfaction of having produced something valuable that may help people to live a better, fuller life.


And finally, of course, JK Rowling and James Joyce were themselves once teachers of English as a Foreign Language. They didn’t do too badly trying their hand at fiction. Now it’s your turn.



(Editor’s note: The author of this blog post has written over twenty ELT books and has recently published his first novel, Damnificados.)

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