ELT publishing: Can the UK learn from the Canadian example?

This is the first of a series of blog posts in which ELT materials writers around the world share their thoughts on writing in specific countries. Here, Tania Pattison describes her experiences writing for a major publisher in Canada.

The MaWSIG blog has recently featured two posts that expressed concern about the state of ELT publishing in the UK, where the writers are based. In this post, Ken Wilson describes the changes he has seen in ELT publishing since the 1970s, calling some of it ‘alarming’, notably the prescriptive nature of coursebook production and the demise of royalties in favour of fee-based projects. And here, Jill Florent looks back on her long career in ELT publishing, showing how the author−publisher relationship has changed, and not always for the better. Ken and Jill are not alone in their opinions: I have heard similar sentiments expressed by numerous ELT writers over the last few years.

I have a suggestion for anyone lamenting the state of ELT publishing in the UK: come to Canada! No, seriously. I am about to start work on my second coursebook for Pearson’s Canadian branch, and the situation could not be more different from the UK. The Canadian ELT publishing world is what I imagine publishing in the UK looked like two or three decades ago – and I mean that in a good way.

The ELT publishing industry in Canada is small. The key players are Pearson and OUP, both of which publish a fairly limited number of adult ESL books for the international market. Smaller publishers focus on materials for French-speaking students in Quebec. There are also opportunities for writing work with other clients. I have written EAP and teacher training materials for colleges, universities and other organisations, and I am currently writing a coursebook that is funded by the government of British Columbia.

There are far fewer ELT writers in Canada than in the UK. This means that for writers interested in working with publishers, it’s easier to make contacts, and it’s easier to have an unsolicited proposal taken seriously. Ken Wilson says, ‘the chance of pitching a coursebook idea, an “unsolicited manuscript”, to a major UK publisher and getting it published these days is zero.’ My first coursebook for Pearson Canada came about in exactly this way. I couldn’t find a suitable book for the course I was teaching, so I started to write a lot of material myself. I mentioned the possibility of a book to the sales rep, who encouraged me to write up a proposal and gave me the name of someone to send it to. The result was Critical Reading, published in 2015. This is not to say that Canadian publishers do not have long-term plans – they do, but in my experience, there is enough flexibility to accommodate a new idea that comes from a teacher or novice writer.

As a writer in Canada, I didn’t have to start at the bottom of the ladder writing supplementary materials and trying to prove myself as an author. I went straight to having my name on the front of my own coursebook. That’s all very nice, but what really makes a difference is the way I am treated as an author. Today in the UK, Jill Florent says, authors are ‘downgraded to “content providers”, [and] are no longer asked to develop their vision for a course.’ Authors are ‘not encouraged to invest creativity in the project, merely to produce material.’ Since the concept for Critical Reading came from me, I had a lot of say in how the book developed. I came up with the Scope and Sequence, and I selected the topics and readings. While some of my suggested readings were vetoed as being too Canadian (the Pearson team saw sales opportunities outside Canada – and they were right), no one has ever called me a ‘content provider’.

Jill laments the old days, when authors visiting the publisher ‘were VIPs, given tea in china cups and taken out to lunch’. Canada is not really a china teacup kind of place, but when Critical Reading was in production, I was invited to lunch at Pearson’s office in Montreal, where I presented my concept to the sales team. I was given a lavish book launch at Toronto’s grand old Royal York hotel, followed by another one two weeks later in Vancouver. I was funded to go to conferences to promote my book.

I can’t divulge too much information about my current project, but I can say that it originated in the same way as Critical Reading – with a proposal. Of course, there was a review process, teacher feedback and a lot of discussion, and the final concept is somewhat different from what I originally had in mind, but – and this is the difference – the Pearson team were willing to listen to me. They looked at my proposal, we talked about it at length, they suggested a slightly different approach based on potential sales, we talked some more, I did some rewriting of my sample unit, and eventually we hit on a plan that we all think is going to work. Of course, business is the top consideration and they would not publish a book if they didn’t think it would sell, but the author is still treated as a key player in the process. They know what the market needs; I know how to write. It’s teamwork at its very best.

Is ELT writing in Canada a perfect situation? Well, no. There are drawbacks to writing outside the UK, the main one being that I don’t have a community of writers here; there just aren’t that many of us, and my writing community is largely on the other side of the Atlantic. This is why membership of MaWSIG is so important to me; it allows me to connect with other writers in a way that I can’t easily do in Canada.

However, it does seem that lessons can be learned from the Canadian example:

  • Listen to teachers. They know what they need, what works, what doesn’t. If someone comes forward with an idea, look at it carefully.
  • Listen to authors. Don’t be overly prescriptive. Authors combine professionalism with creativity to develop material that will engage students for years. Trust them.
  • And – here I add my voice to many others – pay authors appropriately, whether that means royalties or a decent fee.

The Canadian model is characterised by teamwork, shared expertise, a willingness to listen to those who have been at the chalkface, and respect for authors. This can only lead to a better experience for the writer in the long run.

Tania Pattison is a freelance writer and editor whose clients include publishers and other organisations in Canada and around the world. As a writer, she specialises in EAP and academic upgrading; as an editor, she enjoys a variety of projects. She is joint coordinator of MaWSIG and is editor of IATEFL Conference Selections. Her website is www.taniapattisonelt.com.

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One response to ELT publishing: Can the UK learn from the Canadian example?

  1. Dorothy 22 January 2018 at 10:55 am #

    Does Pearson Canada pay 10% royalties (or more)?

    Totally with you on “let the author write”!

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