Katherine Bilsborough was the first speaker at our first PCE, and will also be joining us in Birmingham in 2016. Here she tells us about her first experience of self-publishing. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

KathB imageMy first adventure in self-publishing: learning to garden

by Katherine Bilsborough





I first started to think about self-publishing at the MaWSIG PCE at IATEFL in 2014. For the first time, I met people face to face who were doing it. I took the opportunity to ask lots of questions.

Self-publishing was exciting: a way of cutting out the middle (wo)men, being able to write about more or less anything I wanted to without the usual restrictions – and maybe even earning myself a mint into the bargain. I left Harrogate with lists of contacts, useful software and websites, tips of things to do (and not do) and hundreds of ideas.


When I got home my bubble of excitement started to deflate as my time got eaten up with emptying inboxes and starting new projects. Real life took over, but three things boosted my enthusiasm and put some air back into that bubble. First, ELT Teacher 2 Writer asked if I’d like to write a module for them. I was delighted to join forces with such inspirational professionals.

Then I attended Dorothy Zemach’s IATEFL webinar on self-publishing. Dorothy runs her own publishing company and is very generous with her advice on all aspects of self-publishing.

Finally, I noticed much more discussion – both online and at ELT events – about self-publishing, writing ebooks, collaborating on group projects and different ways of working in general. It was during one such conversation that Phil Wade asked for volunteers to write a free PARSNIPS ebook. For those who don’t know, PARSNIPS is a term used to refer to the ‘taboo’ ELT topics of politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms and pork, which are often avoided in published materials. Each author was to contribute a lesson plan related to one of the topics. Before I knew it, I was writing a ‘narcotics’ lesson.


I was delighted to be co-writing with fellow TeachingEnglish blog associates Adam Simpson, David Petrie and Cecilia Lemos, along with Mike J C Smith, Noreen Lam and Phil. We live in all corners of the world, have different backgrounds and professional lives, but we all brought plenty of enthusiasm to the task.

On a practical level it was easy. Phil set up a Google Doc and did most of the techy stuff. He uploaded a model plan for the rest of us to follow. Simplicity was key, so we ended up with each lesson plan on a single page, featuring easy references for teachers on topic, level, timing and aims. We added our lessons to the Google Doc, read each other’s work and made suggestions in an informal chat. We suggested and then voted on a title and we spoke about where we would make the ebook available.

Although we were busy doing our day jobs, this didn’t feel like work. It was too much fun. Our online chats made me laugh out loud. We were, after all, writing about taboo subjects. You’ll forgive me if I don’t repeat any of the banter here.

We didn’t forget the importance of pruning. As the lessons filled up the Google Doc, we discussed the importance of editing and proofreading. I offered my services as an editor and proofreader and others in the group offered to proofread again after me, so the finished ebook ended up being pored over by many attentive eyes.

parsnips cover

As for design – at the beginning of the project we didn’t discuss the ebook cover. I felt it was important to have something attractive, but also spoke to potential users. We had no budget, but my daughter had studied Graphic Design and Illustration and was delighted to join in. She used Phil’s initial ideas and added a few of her own to come up with a cover that everybody loved.


We launched the ebook in August and spread the word amongst colleagues and teachers in our social media groups. It felt great to get the book out there and especially to get messages from teachers to say they are using it in class. I was touched by a message from one teacher who wanted to address the issue of homosexuality with a group of university students. She hadn’t felt confident to make her own materials, but Adam’s lesson plan was perfect for her needs.

I don’t know how many people have downloaded the book but if even just a handful of teachers are using it, I feel like we did something worthwhile.

Eight tips for a first-time self-publisher

1.    Watch Dorothy’s webinar to learn about the practicalities of self-publishing.

2.    Make your first ebook a joint venture with other, like-minded professionals. List of the people you’d like to join in and start inviting them.

3.    Use a site like Google Docs for collaborative writing. Give each member of the group access to everyone’s work so peer reviewing is easy.

4.    You need an editor and a proofreader. These can be members of the writing team but at least one new person should proofread the book when it is finished.

5.    Brainstorm titles and put them to the vote.

6.    Decide whether you want to give your ebook away free or sell it. Then decide on things like pricing, formats and where to offer it.

7.    Get a good cover design. A good designer will discuss all the elements that need to be included and make changes after feedback.

8.    Enjoy the process! It’s great fun and offers opportunities for being creative, developing new skills, and getting to know interesting people.

Continuing to grow 

We’ve spoken about making a start on PARSNIPS in ELT: Volume 2 soon. I’ve also revisited my list of ideas from Harrogate and there are several things on there that I’m determined will see the light of day. I’m convinced that self-publishing is a viable alternative for freelance authors and I think I can make money from it too – but I won’t be giving up the day job yet. Publishers are still alive and kicking and will be for a long time yet.


Katherine Bilsborough is a freelance ELT author based in Spain. She has written a wide range of print and digital materials for OUP, Macmillan, Richmond, BBC English, the British Council and others. She writes monthly lesson plans and blog posts for the British Council’s TeachingEnglish website and co-curates the Free and Fair ELT page on Facebook.

PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol. 1) is now available on Smashwords and Katherine’s module for ELT Teacher 2 Writer will be out soon. Members can view Dorothy Zemach’s webinar and read Katherine’s review of it in IATEFL Voices issue 246; both are available on the IATEFL website. Dorothy has a website and Phil Wade has a blog about self-published ELT ebooks.