The first of our PCE Warm-Up webinar series, ‘Self-publishing ELT materials’, was led by Walton Burns. Based on his experience running his own indie publishing company, Walton guided the audience through the steps of self-publishing. Below are some of the questions that emerged in his presentation, and that he kindly answered for those interested in self-publishing their own materials.

Q:  If I publish materials in PDF form, how can I protect parts of the document from being copied?

The short answer is that you can’t, just as you can’t stop people from photocopying a print book. You probably don’t have to worry about sites that give away pirated materials. These websites use automated bots to download all free unprotected PDFs they can find. If you sell your PDFs online, distribute via an email list, or just password protect the download, you should be safe. I saw one of my books offered for free on a pirate site once, but it turned out to be a short freebie I’d put on my site. 

However, teachers may copy your PDFs and send them to others or put them in a teacher resource folder on a computer, just as they may photocopy a worksheet and put it in a teacher resource bin in the teachers lounge. This violates copyright law (at least in the US), but many teachers don’t know that. So when I distribute a PDF copy of my books, I do three things.

  1. Include a notice that the PDF copy comes with a licence for use by one teacher in their own classroom in perpetuity. Note that storing or distributing these materials violates copyright law.
  2. Ask them to recommend their colleagues buy their own copy.
  3. Charge a higher price for a PDF book than a print or ebook, up to two to three times more. 

Does this approach work every time? Probably not. Does it stop teachers who don’t care about copyright laws? No. Does it plant a seed of awareness that one should try to pay for materials? I think so. And that’s all I really want, or can reasonably expect, to do.

Q: Can I work with different types of editors on the same project? Or might it get confusing/might they give contradictory advice?

You absolutely can work with different types of editors.

As I said in the webinar, there are essentially three levels of editing. Content/developmental editing looks at the big picture issues such as structure, organisation, and how your idea is realised. Copy editors find typos and spelling and grammar mistakes, but also try to improve the flow, voice, cohesion, and clarity. A proofreader looks at the final formatted manuscript to find issues with formatting and layout. Since each editor looks at different things, it’s unlikely they’ll give conflicting advice. You’ll also want to finish each stage of editing before moving on to the next.

That being said, editing is to some extent a matter of opinion or style. No two editors are going to give exactly the same advice. Even small questions like whether to write twenty or 20, when to use a semicolon, and whether it’s hair-stylist, hairstylist, or hair stylist depend on what style guide you use. So if you do get conflicting advice, you’ll have to trust your own instincts and go with the suggestion you feel is right! If nothing else, ensure you are consistent throughout your book.

Q: Distributing via various platforms – how do you get the payments? Once a year, ready for tax returns, etc.? What do we have to pay attention to if selling on our own website?

Each website has its own terms; you’ll want to be familiar with when, how, and how much they pay. Generally speaking, platforms send out payments based on sales of your book(s) every month, though this month’s payment may be for sales that happened two to three months ago. 

If you’re selling on your own website, you’ll need to set up an online shop, and you’ll need a payment processor. Wix, Squarespace, and Weebly are website builders that have store functions built in. WordPress has an extension called WooCommerce that you can use to sell. If you need a separate payment processor, PayPal and Square are great options that also allow you to take payments in person if you promote your book(s) at any conventions or conferences. They do charge a percentage of each sale so that’s something to shop around for. Keep in mind that you may need to collect sales tax on any sales that you make directly in this way. However, if you are selling through bookstores, they will collect sales tax from your customers themselves (at least in the US).

Q: What Windows software do you recommend to write electronic materials?

Whichever software is comfortable for you. It’s nice to have a program with a spell-checker and the ability to make headings so you can organise your work. I use Word, which I got for a discount with my education email from my university. Google Docs is great and also free but doesn’t play well with Word so if you are working with an editor who uses Word, they might have issues. There’s also a program designed for writers called ‘Scrivener’. This lets you move chapters around and save your research and character notes.

I wouldn’t write directly in Atticus, Vellum, or InDesign as those are design programs and don’t have all the bells and whistles of a good word processor. But in the end, it’s whatever you have at hand and what works for you.

Q: If an author wanted to work with a small publisher instead of going entirely alone, at what stage should they get in touch with the publisher? Should they simply approach the publisher with an idea, or should they have ready-written samples?

A: Every publisher has their own process, so the best thing to do is contact publishers individually and find out what they want. That being said, you can contact a publisher, before you’ve written, and explain your idea. Be sure you can describe your concept in some detail including the book’s target audience, why it is needed, and how it stands out in the market.

As I mentioned in the presentation, publishers want to make sure your book will fit into their current catalogue and that it is something they can market and sell. A publisher may indicate that they want you to develop your idea in a particular direction. You then have to decide whether you want to write to their expectations or seek out a different publisher. Remember, if a publisher suggests a direction for materials, it’s because they want to create something that will sell – not because they want to stifle creativity. 

Most publishers are going to want to see the finished book before agreeing to publish it. They may also ask for samples as you work so they can see what the final product will look like. So keep that in mind as you work with a publisher.

Walton Burns is a teacher and materials writer from the US. He began teaching in the Peace Corps in Vanuatu. Since then, he’s worked all over the world and taught a diverse range of students, from Kazakh civil servants to Chinese video game champions, and from a Saudi prince to Afghani high school students. As a materials writer, he’s worked for OUP, Macmillan, Compass Publishing, and more. He’s also the Senior Editor at Alphabet Publishing, a publishing services company for educators, specialising in editing, formatting, design, and consulting.