In the first of a series of summer blogposts on the MaWSIG website, teachers Lucy Holmes and Sharlene Matharu describe how they identified and filled a gap in the market.

Who are you?

Sharlene: We’re both teachers at the Lake School of English in Oxford. I’ve worked there for about seven years.
Lucy: And I’ve been there for 11 years. We also both do freelance work, which includes writing materials for various publishers and home-schooling companies, and providing in-company tuition.

So, what is ‘Talking Images: Idioms’?

Lucy: It’s a 12-unit book for teaching idioms through images. It’s been created by teachers for teachers and is a photocopiable pick-up-and-use resource that we’ve self-published in print form.

Why did you decide to write the book?

Sharlene: Like many good ideas, it came about in the pub. We were talking about what we couldn’t find in terms of ELT resources, and we realised there was a gap in the market that we thought we might be able to fill.
Lucy: We realised that there wasn’t a resource book that provided a set of ready-to-use lessons with images. We also wanted to encourage students to actually use the idioms, so the book provides lots of opportunities for production, and there’s also a focus on accuracy, which is important with this type of lexis.

Who is the book for?

Lucy: Well, we wrote the book for busy teachers like us. We think the fact that it’s written by teachers really shows in terms of layout and ease of use. It’s something you can just pick up and use.
Sharlene: We also think it’s a resource that’s accessible to everyone, especially new teachers. There are teacher’s notes, task answers and follow-up or homework ideas, plus student worksheets and, of course, images to introduce and revise the idioms.

Why did you group the units according to theme?

Sharlene: This was one of the first decisions we made. Many of the existing resources we looked at grouped idioms according to the lexis within them. For example, if you looked at a unit entitled ‘Colour Idioms’, you’d see things like ‘see red’ or ‘have green fingers’, but in terms of meaning, they’re not related and don’t really share a context, so they may not really fit into a lesson that well.
Lucy: The units in our book can slot easily into a topic-based programme of study. If your topic of the week is money, a lesson containing 12 idioms connected with money seems a logical addition. Because it fits into your topic, it makes it easier to create meaningful and memorable production opportunities.

What kind of class is the book suitable for?

Sharlene: We trialled every unit at least once in a General English classroom, but it was also effective with exam preparation classes and teacher refresher courses. In terms of level, we think it works best with B1 or intermediate and upwards.
Lucy: But actually, we also trialled some units with lower-level students – obviously they needed a lot more support.

Why did you decide to self-publish?

Lucy: Good question. To be honest, I was more sceptical and was worried about not having the backing of a publisher. I thought we’d be left with hundreds of books we wouldn’t be able to shift. And remember, I had written for publishers for years so it was a kind of leap of faith. It was Sharlene who encouraged me to self-publish and I’m glad she did.
Sharlene: Yes, I’m feeling the pressure! Actually, we’ve only been selling the book for a couple of months and have already started to make a profit, which is quite a relief. People might think that self-publishing involves a massive investment in production costs, but we started with a print run of 100 and that kept things manageable for us financially.
Lucy: Self-publishing gives you ultimate control and complete freedom. There isn’t anything we weren’t allowed to do while creating the book. And now that we’re selling it, we can choose which outlets we want to use. There’s no one telling us what we can and can’t do. It’s very liberating.
Sharlene: Also, being in control of all the marketing and distribution means we get direct feedback from our customers; so far the feedback we’ve had from teachers has been fantastic. We knew we had a product that worked, but it’s great to get that confirmation from fellow teachers around the world.

What advice would you give anyone wanting to self-publish?

Lucy: I would say it’s a good idea to share the load – find yourself someone who you can work with who wants to go on this journey with you. Then you can celebrate the good times and keep each other going when you come across problems along the way.
Sharlene: Definitely. I couldn’t have done this without Lucy. Also, it is a learning experience so don’t put yourself under too much pressure. There’s no time limit without publishers setting deadlines. It’s important to do little and often. We often scheduled meetings around food, so it was a social thing as well.
Lucy: Yes, there were always snacks involved, and the odd beer.
Sharlene: One thing we found was that people were really keen to give us advice and get involved. Sometimes this was helpful but sometimes it made things confusing. What we learnt from this was:

  • You must listen to each other, first and foremost – this is your project.
  • Listen to the input of the experts around you.
  • Filter through the various bits of advice from these people and decide what’s relevant and useful to you.
  • Make use of the practical skills within your network of experts. 

Lucy: We certainly did that, and the support we’ve had from friends, family and colleagues has helped us out so much along the way.

What are the stages?

Sharlene: Firstly, make sure you have a good product – something that fills a gap in the market; that’s key. Then get to work. Decide who’s doing what and create your book or resource. In our case, I did the images and Lucy wrote the text. We put it all together and looked at what worked and what didn’t. The next stage is to trial it extensively and proofread until you can’t bear to look at it any more.
Lucy: And when you’re really sick of it, get someone else to proofread it one last time. Next, find yourself a good cover designer. I think our book jumps off the shelf and looks different from other publications. Then, look at your production costs and do a little research on pricing. If it is too expensive, it isn’t going to appeal to anyone. Finally, buy yourself an ISBN and find a good printing company. ISBNs can be bought for under £100 online. If you think you have more books in you, it’s worth noting that they are cheaper if you buy more than one. As for printers, we just went for a reasonably priced printing company that was efficient and reliable.
Sharlene: That’s all the self-publishing stages. The next bit is marketing and, to be honest, that’s something we’re learning as we go. We set up a website just before we went to print, and then started to identify our target market. Neither of us is very social-media-savvy but we’re trying to spread the word as best we can. The Facebook page is going really well and we’re starting to get the hang of Twitter (@Talking_Images).
Lucy: Then there’s distribution. We started off with just our website, but soon realised we needed to think bigger. It’s currently on the shelf at our local Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford and we’re starting to think about getting it into other shops. Most recently a distributor has taken it to IATEFL, which we’re so happy about as it’s not something we thought would be possible so soon after going to print.

Lucy Holmes has written for Macmillan and OUP and is a teacher trainer specialising in secondary and adult courses. As well as working in education, she has also worked as a researcher for the Guinness Book of Records and as a production assistant at a subtitling company. She has lived in Japan and Italy and continues to study Japanese. When not at school, Lucy is frantically running around after her dog and three children.

Sharlene Matharu has written materials for Macmillan and created an IGCSE preparation course for home schooling. She is also a teacher trainer and has a special interest in teaching CLIL and students with SpLDs. As well as teaching, she has worked in public relations and as a freelance writer. She has lived in France and Spain and is currently learning Mandarin. Outside the classroom, Sharlene enjoys baking experimental cakes and is always, always, still working on her novel.

Lucy and Sharlene’s book is available to buy at and online bookstores. There’s also a free sample unit you can download now.