How to use your TEFL skills to get into coursebook writing

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

Have you been teaching a while? Have you built up a bank of ideas and/or materials you think you can turn into a coursebook? Have you got a talent for writing engaging materials? We’ve interviewed John Harrop, and hopefully his words of wisdom will give you some tips and advice on how to do just that.

I suppose you were a budding JK Rowlings when you were younger?

Quite the opposite, I didn’t have any ambitions to write  – at school my English teacher had nothing but scorn for anything I wrote. I remember one time when our homework was to write about a sports event. Since I’d never been to one in my life, except the school’s sports day (which didn’t count) I wrote about The Grand National, a horse race I’d never been to, but I’d seen on the TV. “That’s a load of shite” he said when he handed it back, sarcastically going on to deconstruct the piece in front of 30 sniggering classmates. I was so disillusioned that I never wrote anything again for 20 years. I was never taught how to craft anything, and things that are commonplace today (such as brainstorming and using mind-maps) were all Greek to me.

So what changed?

English teachers might find it hard to make students stay focused during their class
Bored Teens

As part of my teaching job for teens, I used to organise the summer programme activities and one day, due to a freak summer storm, the beach volleyball I’d planned had been hastily changed to a trip to Brighton Museum. My students reacted as if I’d organised a trip to the morgue. And it was a total washout – some students were so apathetic that they didn’t even bother going up to the first floor and just sat sprawled on the stairs, while others just stared into space (this was pre-mobile phone days). On returning to school a colleague asked how the visit had gone. “I’d rather teach the difference between defining and non-defining relative clauses” (my pet-hate of teaching) I replied. On explaining how lacklustre the students had been, she commented that it was probably due to a lack of focus. The next time I was passing the museum I popped in to see what they had for foreign students. “We’ve got this” said the helpful woman on the information desk, handing me something that you’d give to a little kid: dot-to-dots, label the picture and a word search. I then I had one of those light bulb moments – in fact I think it was the only one I’ve ever had in my life. That was it, all they needed was some sort of task or worksheet, something to do while they were there! I ran home and bashed out a letter to Brighton museum pointing out how they could enhance students’ visits by providing interesting (and age-appropriate!) materials.

So it was just like the X-factor – your hidden talent was discovered?

John Harrop writes coursebooks on how to teach English
Move on aka Blood, Sweat and Tears, by John Harrop

Not exactly … but at least Brighton Museum was convinced and commissioned me write some worksheets. Flushed with success, I wrote to museums and attractions around the country, but the vast majority of replies were rejections. Then one day, success came calling – Madame Tussauds was interested!  This had a domino effect; suddenly London Dungeon, The Sea Life Centre, the BBC and the EFL trade paper the ELT Gazette all commissioned me. I then went onto write test and supplementary materials, culminating in co-writing a coursebook for Oxford University Press.

So you were freed from the grind of teaching teens who didn’t want to be taught?

No, I was teaching at the same time and the money I earned was a modest top-up to my teaching wage.

You haven’t put me off yet, so how do you go about getting a foot in the door?

Even before writing materials, I trialed I supplementary materials with my classes (you get paid for this) and took part in focus groups for publishing companies. The publisher sends you materials, you try them with your students, and then sit around chatting to other teachers and the author about how they went. If you’re interested in this then ask the local sales rep next time she/he is at your school as they’re often looking for teachers to do this. Failing that, write to the local office of the publishers, clearly stating that you’re interested in becoming a reviewer – remember to tell them where you’re based and what areas you’re most interested in (preschoolers, private language schools, business English etc). Your feedback demonstrates to publishers that you’re interested in the subject and can put your ideas across. Then if you’re lucky, you might be asked to write ‘add-on’ materials to coursebooks, end-of-unit tests, worksheets, workbooks, photocopiable materials and updates to course books, before (ideally) being asked to write a course book yourself.

How can I get out there to meet the ‘movers and the shakers’ of the ELT world?

Another way to ‘get yourself out there’ is to present sessions at teaching conferences such as TESOL and IATEFL. At these conferences, you’ll find stands with sales representatives of the major and the smaller players of the publishing world. It’s a great opportunity to get some ‘inside’ information, find out which books are selling well and why teachers like them. If you’re thinking of taking it to the next level, it’s also the perfect opportunity to get hold of the names of the editors (who are the ones responsible for commissioning material). It’s also a good way to meet other authors and writers too. You can always use Linkedin to build up a pool of contacts of the people you meet.

I’ve got an idea already – should I hand in my notice??

Realistically, the chances of publishers commissioning you are very slim. This is because they have long-term plans and they usually decide many years in advance what they’re going to publish. But hey, if you don’t try, you’ll never know! Your first task is to make sure that your unsolicited proposal gets to the right person – large publishing houses tend to list their staff on their web pages. Commissioning editors are busy people who are often working to tight deadlines, so they don’t have the luxury of being able to peruse pages and pages of your proposal. It needs to be short and to the point, and it should contain the following ;

1) Target-group of students – be specific. As you can imagine, if your target-group is small, e.g. English for Tunisian taxi drivers, publishers will be reluctant to invest.

2) Your rationale and reasons why teachers/students would use your book – what makes it different/better than anything else on the market.

3) Something about you, a condensed CV (they’re not interested in the fact that you were in the school play) – they want to know why they should take a chance on publishing a book written by you.

4) A list of contents, how many units and how long will each unit take.

5) A sample chapter – this is the deal-breaker, so make sure it’s slick!!

Experienced teacher John Harrop shared the ways aspiring authors can get into education publishing
Have your own shelf

I’m sure they’ll go for it, so what happens next??

If the publishers do like your pitch, they’ll probably ask you flesh out the contents and request more examples of your work. Then they’ll send you a contract setting out terms and conditions. I’d strongly recommend getting a professional publishing author to look at the wording of the contract. In the USA there is the American Society of Journalists and Authors and in the UK – The Society of Authors.

If it all goes to plan, will I be able to swap teaching my Early Years class, retire and live on my own boat?

Probably not … though this will depend on how well your book sells and what competition there is from other publishers. The publishers will either offer you a fixed amount or royalties and there are pros and cons to both. With the fixed fee you are guaranteed that amount whether the books sells of not. The amount you get from royalties will depend on how the book sells. On average you’ll get between 6 -10% of the cost price, i.e. the price at which the book is sold to the bookshop, not the final price that a student will pay. For example, a student might buy the book for $30, but if the bookseller bought it for $10, you’ll receive 60c to $1 per book (minus tax – which varies from country to country). And if you’ve been paid anything in advance, you won’t see any royalties until this has been paid off.

Mmm … they take a huge cut – what about self-publishing?

The world of publishing is in a state of flux and self-publishing is a possibility – the biggest hurdle is that you’d have to work really hard to market and promote it. Also, books produced by the main publishing houses are slick – they pay professional graphic designers a packet so that the ‘flick test’ works – teachers get seduced by the layout and design just by flicking through the pages, without even looking too closely at the content. On the plus side, you’d have complete editorial control – and believe me, having editors and a team of reviewers pulling apart everything that you write can be pretty disheartening.

You can try dipping your toe in the water by trying out sites like like Teachers pay Teachers, where you can sell things like worksheets and handouts.

Or another place is to start is here: “Hey, Teaching House, I’ve got a great story for your readers …!”


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The American Society of Journalists and Authors

The Society of Authors

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