In my day, things were different! An old buffer* writes …

Our latest blog post is by Ken Wilson, who shares his thoughts on how the ELT materials writing world has changed over the last few decades. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

I’ve been involved in English language teaching since 1968, when I left university and went to teach for a year at the Instituto Británico in Seville, Spain, and I’ve been a published ELT author since 1971, when Longman, as Pearson was then called, released a vinyl album of songs I had written for my students at International House, London.

To this day, I have no idea how anyone was supposed to use a vinyl album in the classroom but it sold a lot of copies and propelled me into the whole business of materials production.

Since then, I’ve written and published about thirty ELT titles. To begin with, there were more collections of songs, a couple of readers and some drama-related material, including sketches that I wrote for the English Teaching Theatre.**

Eventually, in about 1990, I got my first chance to join a team which had been assembled to write a series of course books. It was to be the first of more than a dozen series that I co-authored or wrote by myself.

I’ve stopped writing new course material now. My main reasons being (a) the whole process involves a skill-set and awareness of digital and online possibilities which I’m not really equipped to deal with; and (b) I don’t think someone as old as me has the first idea about discourse between young people who are struggling to add speaking English to their list of life skills. And whatever else the course material contains, it really needs authentic speaking exchanges between people of the age that the book is aimed at.

So what I have to say about ELT publishing comes from my partly obsolete experience and, if you like, from a position of impartial overview. Some of what I can see from this faux-lofty position is very fresh and exciting. Other things alarm me greatly.

Let me start with the alarming stuff.

The first thing that bothers me is how prescriptive the major UK publishers of ELT materials are. If you are lucky enough to be asked to write course material, you will almost certainly be given a great swathe of data about the content the publisher expects, based on market research which may or may not be that accurate. Market research that consists of ticking boxes in an online survey is never that accurate.

With one project I worked on a few years ago, we were even given the titles of the modules we had to write. When I asked if we could change the titles to make them … well, frankly more interesting, the answer was ‘no’.

Secondly, the chances of pitching a course book idea, an ‘unsolicited manuscript’, to a major UK publisher and getting it published these days is zero.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Headway, the most successful English language teaching course of all time, was an unsolicited manuscript. Authors Liz and John Soars wrote just an Intermediate level and offered it to a number of different publishers before Oxford University Press took a punt on it and asked them to produce an Upper Intermediate level as well. The two books were published at the same time in 1986.

The partial release of a course like this would never happen these days. New courses may be four or five levels, but they must all appear at the same time. This usually means that there will be a team of authors working on different levels simultaneously. There will be no chance to release one or two levels to see how teachers and students react to them, and possibly incorporate feedback into later levels.

And another alarming thing: in my day (cue violin music), course books generated royalties for the authors. There was no question about that. It seemed only right and proper that the publisher and the author (or team) would have a mutual investment in the successful outcome of the project.

Nowadays, writers might expect to be offered a fee to write one book in a series. Given that a successful course book will make a significant amount of money for the publishers, the end of royalties in favour of fees too often represents a move backwards in the publisher−author relationship.

I don’t want to leave on such a pessimistic note, so let’s consider the nicer question. What appears to be ‘fresh and exciting’ about the world of ELT publishing?

I will let someone else write about the great opportunities provided by technology in materials production, which I find both fascinating and just a little scary.

Having dissed major publishers in my earlier remarks, I will simply sing the praises of the various smaller publishers who are operating in ELT today. If you go to the book exhibition at a big ELT conference like IATEFL, you will see the smaller operators at their modest booths, surrounded by the books they have produced. If you really want to get into writing materials AND have some control over what you write, these are the people you should contact. The proprietors are often people who worked for the main ELT publishers and left because they had a bunch of good ideas about books to produce which the big operators weren’t interested in.

Writing for the small publishers will not make you rich, but it should give you more control over what you can produce.

Finally, a nod towards two unusual organisations who are trying to help writers get published. First of all, the round (they prefer all lower case for the title), which is ‘an independent collective of creative individuals in English language teaching’. Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings are the brains behind the round. Check out their raison d’être here. And finally, check out Dorothy Zemach at Wayzgoose Press for more innovative ideas about getting published.

The big publishers aren’t all bad, of course, so let me finish by asking this question: what advantages are there to a publisher-led prescriptive system to generate new course material?

* buffer
BRITISH INFORMAL: a man, especially an old man, who you think is slightly stupid but not unpleasant. A harmless old buffer
Synonyms and related words
Informal and slightly pejorative words for old people: biddy, buffer, codger

** The English Teaching Theatre was a company that toured the world doing stage shows for learners of English. You can find out more here.

Ken Wilson is a writer and has trained teachers in forty countries. He has written more than thirty ELT titles, including a dozen series of course books. His most recent courses are Smart Choice Third Edition (Oxford University Press), and Achievers (Richmond). He has also written ELT radio and TV programmes, sketches, songs and drama resources. Ken is currently editor-in-chief of an ELT primary course for Vietnam, a joint production between Macmillan Hong Kong and VEPH Hanoi. In 2016, he completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College. He blogs at


11 thoughts on “In my day, things were different! An old buffer* writes …

  1. It’s a less brave, yet more scary world we live in, Ken. The publishers hold all the cards, and us ELT writers often don’t even get our name on the cover, apart from being dubiously referred to as ‘experts’. Nowadays, when we accept our fee, we also sign away all our rights while they take the credit and most of the profit. Thanks for drawing attention to the injustice. I really enjoyed hearing about how things used to be and learning about the smaller publishers that exist.

    1. Thanks, Sarah…

      looking back at what I have written, I feel a bit bad about criticising the major publishers. The people I have worked with at OUP and Macmillan have been wonderful, and it isn’t their fault that the powers that be have instigated the fee policy for course material. But I think it’s a terrible development, and if I can do anything to help the new generation of writers reverse it, I will!

  2. I think it has to depend on the fee, doesn’t it? The problem is that a decent fee is quite an upfront financial commitment by the publisher, and in some ways, more of a risk to them than the old royalty system. In my opinion, this is a pivotal moment. Some publishers are paying good fees, which represent a fair payment for 10-15 months work by someone with a lot of experience, others are offering what amounts to about minimum wage. It isn’t possible for someone to keep to publisher’s schedules these days and have a day job, so I’m hopeful that publishers will find/are finding that they do need to pay a decent amount to get a good writer who can do the job in the time required.

    1. Good, well-balanced argument, Rachael! ? My worry is that the publishers have new authors, who are probably not members of the Society of Authors, by the S&C. A new author will feel isolated when being offered a fee, and publishers could make it a take it or leave it now this minute offer.

      1. Yes, absolutely. I would always advise membership of the Society of Authors, they’re so helpful- but you have to have published something to join.

  3. Writing a major course book for a big UK publisher may be the holy grail of ELT writing, but there is also a lot to be said for writing elsewhere. Here in Canada, we haven’t quite caught up with the UK – and I mean that in a good way. My first EAP book with Pearson Canada came about because I sent them a proposal – something that you say there is zero chance of happening in the UK. The entire process was very collaborative – I certainly had loads of input into it, as the concept came from me, not from them. We’re now talking about another title, which also originated with an idea from me, and there is a lot of discussion going on. I’m sure Canada is not the only place where this can still happen. Certainly no one is ever going to get rich and famous by publishing in places like this, but it seems that the big UK publishers could look at smaller markets and see what they are doing, and if something can be learned from them.

    1. Hi Tania,

      to hear about collaborative work between publishers and authors anywhere in any context is fabulous news. It reminds me of the circumstances of a couple of courses I started writing in the 1990s. Editors and authors sat around a table in the UK to talk about content, then we went off to observe classes in the markets and sat round different tables with focus groups of local teachers, often the ones we had already seen teaching. It produced a clear vision of the classrooms themselves, the students, the way local teachers operate and the conditions they work in (something that gets lost in a lot of market research). Happy days!

  4. Well said, Ken. ‘Touchstone’ and ‘Viewpoint’ (CUP) were also ‘unsolicited manuscripts’ (AKA products of blue-sky thinking) which became best-sellers. They are both corpus-informed, an idea the authors put to a (at that time – 1997) visionary, innovative and receptive publisher. If, in 1997, market researchers had asked teachers or learners what they wanted in a course book, my bet is that hardly anyone would have said “corpus-informed content”. Vision, innovation, risk-taking, all seem to be words that have dropped out of the major publishers’ lexicon.
    As for royalties, I believe, though I may be wrong, that, historically, it was the author who got 90% and the publisher who got 10, which, by neat sleight of hand, has done a 180 degree flip over the centuries.
    The problem with fees, however generous (and they rarely are) is that the motivation (a) to write beyond the minimum required by the contract, and (b) to flog oneself round the world promoting the work and creating a buzz about it are considerably dampened. A classic recipe for mediocrity. Once the money is in the bank, on to the next project.
    I do recall the grand old days of you and your gang in the ETT, but I beat you as a living antique in the profession by two years. Thanks from buffer to buffer.

  5. Hi Ken, This is a different topic …
    We here at Melta (Munich) would like to contact you about the possiblitiy of doing a workshop / seminar for us. Your last one was a highly successful and very popular.
    Best wishes, Joan Walsh

  6. Mike McCarthy is right. There is a fundamental difference between being paid a fee and receiving a royalty, a difference which publishers do not appreciate or, possibly, just don’t care about. When an author is paid a fee, the publisher can do whatever they want with the work. They own it in its entirety, and all the profits from it. That sounds like a winning formula from the publisher’s point of view. But is it really? An author receiving a royalty gets more than just financial benefits, he or she also gains a sense of ‘ownership’ of the work and its final form.

    Publishers do not seem to realise that if the author is not fully invested in the process then where is the incentive to go beyond the minimum of what is required by their contract? Why not just give them what they want? There is no motivation for the author to innovate, try out new ideas, stretch the boundaries of pedagogy. And why go to the trouble of entering a possibly lengthy dialogue with the publisher to produce the best work possible? To be honest, though, are publishers actually that interested? They’ve done the market research. They obviously think they know best what the market needs. My impression is that originality is very much secondary to the fast buck.

    The fact is there will never be another Kernel Lessons, nor a Strategies, nor a Streamline, nor a Headway. At least, not until publishers wake up to the fact that writing teaching materials is a creative activity. Authors need to feel that their expertise, creativity and imagination is respected, credited and justly rewarded. Publishers need to realise that if a work is successful, it will be as much to do with the author as with the publisher – and that they should therefore be prepared to share the financial rewards of such success with the author.

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