Teacher>Author>Publisher>Teacher? From Ideas to Reality
Originally trained to teach Drama in UK schools, Susan Holden has a long and varied experience as a teacher, teacher trainer, magazine editor (MET), author and publisher for both international and regional markets. She is currently based in Scotland, where she runs a small publishing and materials development company, Swan Communication. Recent and current titles include (as publisher) ’The Non-Native Teacher’, Peter Medgyes 2017 and (as author with Vinicius Nobre) ‘Teaching English Today: Contexts and Objectives’ 2019. firstname.lastname@example.org
Every teacher or student who is using a textbook, or readers, or digital material, is using an ‘end product’. Whether it is in print or online, the material you are using is the product of a series of stages of thought, experimentation and development. It will have had input from a number of different people, often involving debate, argument, compromise and frustration, as well as inspiration. In other words, the production of material is not so very different from classroom activity: a series of connected stages which, hopefully, will ultimately lead to a successful outcome.
Where does a writing project begin?
The answer is – in many places! And it then progresses in many directions, not always in a straight line. For example, with educational materials, a teacher might have an exciting idea, or feel that the present materials do not provide exactly what is needed for a particular teaching situation or group of students.
Many teachers enjoy developing extra activities to supplement the coursebook, probably initially for themselves, or for their colleagues. If these are successful, they may begin to think ‘Why don’t I try to write a reader, or some digital material?’. In this case, the idea begins with the potential author – who may also be the ultimate end-user.
Often, however, the idea begins at the opposite end of the chain: with the potential users. This is influenced by the fact-finding which a publishing company has been doing into the needs of as particular group, ie with ‘the market’.
The sales representatives employed by publishing companies are in a unique position for fact-finding. They visit schools and talk to teachers at conferences and exhibitions. They know what materials are being used and hear about both their positive and negative aspects from their users. They also know how often a school or individual teacher is likely to change the materials, how many copies they will use, the range of components needed, and the kind of price that is affordable.
A good rep will also know how to ask informative questions about the way in which material might be used in large classes, or in small groups, and whether an activity-based approach is favoured, or something more controlled. Is digital material used largely in class, or at home – or not at all? What exam requirements might influence both level, structure and content? And so on.
Reps also develop a wider overview of present and future materials through their contacts with the distributors who, in their own sector, are also an invaluable source of expertise and information.
Finally, a good rep will be able to feed this information back to the publishing company, either through the sales and marketing departments, or direct to the editors. If this fits with the ideas already expressed by a potential writer, then possibly a concrete project might emerge.
This information, plus more informal personal opinions and perceptions, will be discussed with, and within, the editorial department. Most editors in educational publishing companies have been teachers themselves. The good ones keep up their contacts with the classroom realities by observing lessons in a representative range of contexts. They also talk to teachers at conferences and exhibitions, thus getting their own personal feedback, and providing an opportunity for the aspiring author to make contact and discuss their potential writing project.
If these factors – the creative ideas and the market needs – match to any large extent, then there is the potential for a concrete project to emerge. However, even if it does, many other people will be involved as it progresses through its various stages of development.
At the initial stage, people from the sales and marketing departments will ask questions. How many copies will be sold? What is the competition? How can it be promoted? How many components and levels are needed? What is the likely life of the material? What are the price constrictions? And, most importantly, how much will the material cost to produce, and when will that investment be recouped? Because the key driver in much decision-making is the company’s finance department. Editors need to get their support before saying ‘yes’ to the potential author.
Presuming that the answers to these questions are mostly positive, there will be editorial questions to discuss and answer. Does the project need a number of different authors whose skills will complement each other? Does it need a ‘big name’, or someone in an influential position locally, to appear on the cover? What timescale is practical? What is the ideal publication date? What design style do we need? And so on.
On the more personal side, the author might be asked to accept a fixed fee for writing the material, instead of a percentage royalty based on the income the publishing company will receive from the copies sold. This is a complex area, with strong feelings on both sides. On the whole, accountants liked the fixed fees: a known factor which can be paid and then written off. For some authors, this security is reassuring and the money ‘up front’ may well be needed to compensate for the time spent on writing.
However, for others, the feeling of being part of a project together, of taking the risk as partners and thus facing the lack of income if it is not a success, but also enjoying the financial reward if it sells well, is more attractive. The ‘old’ normal percentage rate was 10% of the publisher’s net receipts, ie of the money they received after supplying the material to a distributor at a discount off the catalogue price. Today, however, many companies, even if they do pay royalties, are offering a lower percentage, claiming ever-rising production costs as the justification.
Does this sound confusing? It is! The best advice is, talk to colleagues and get a range of advice.
Moving further ahead
Presuming that the contract is agreed, the schedule is set, any co-authors have become involved, the design style is emerging, what next? Well, just the obvious step of turning those initial ideas into a usable reality – at last!
However, one of the unexpected things confronting the first-time author will be ‘feedback’. In almost any publishing project, the company will check at various stages that the emerging material really does fit the initial market needs and expectations. A range of consultants will normally be asked to comment on the content, the activities, the skills balance, ie on the key aspects of this particular project. The results will be fed back to the author(s) and changes may be required. This can often be difficult for the less-experienced writer. Comments from colleagues are one thing; comments from unknown and, usually, unnamed sources are much tougher to accept. Of course, much of it will be positive, and the negative comments are designed to be objective, not personal, and to help the material to reach its potential.
Once these questions have been resolved, the material will go to a designer. Proofs will be circulated for checking and revision – usually within tight deadlines. Step by step, the project is moving towards its emergence as a concrete reality.
The material is produced and printed. The distributor has physical copies. The promotion begins – through catalogues, ads, magazine articles, webinars, conference appearances … and so on. For the author(s), that moment of seeing the published reality never ceases to be exciting – and also somewhat nerve-wracking. Are there any mistakes? Will people like it? Do the activities really work?
So finally, that initial idea has become a reality: its progression has moved in a circle and is back in the classroom, for other teachers and students to use, learn from, supplement and comment on.
And somewhere, a teacher will be thinking ‘Why don’t I try to write something better than this?’.
NOTE: An earlier version of this article was published by SBS Brazil in October 2018.
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