Big Publishing, Kiss Your Ass Goodbye (Part 2)

June 29, 2014

Big publishing is on the way out.

Or at least I hope so.

Something I see in English language teaching all the time…

It’s one of the mighty, sphinx-like paradoxes of the modern expat’s existence – if all my students are complaining about how learning English is so expensive, why are all my co-workers complaining about being broke? Where does all the money go?

I’d like to propose a hypothesis as to why this is the case – almost everybody is broke because 99% of people suck at business.

I’m using “suck,” of course, in its technical sense: they way I learned it doing my $120,000-a-year Stanford MBA.

(Just kidding. I’d never do something as stupid as an MBA.)

In any case, this week I learned that sucking at business isn’t limited to us teachers down here in the trenches.

The same thing, apparently, happens with the authors of textbooks and teaching materials.

Raymond Murphy, a tool of big publishing?

It’s easy, from here in my unglamourous language-school life in Madrid, to imagine Raymond Murphy as a larger-than-life character like Sosa in Scarface.

Lording it over a huge estate in the tropics, with his minions (in this case Cambridge grad students) writing hundreds of examples of the present perfect every hour for distribution to all the European capitals.

Sitting poolside with a cigar in his mouth and his feet propped up on fat stacks of cash: that’s the Raymond Murphy I imagine.

I’ve never thought twice about photocopying a few pages of old Ray.

And roughly three quarters of my students for the last few years have found PDFs of New Headway online, which they print out (supposedly at the office when the boss is looking the other way) and bring to class.

Sorry, Oxford University Press (and RIP to Johnny Soars, who’s like the Al Capone in this racket –where would we be without him?).

Anyway, I’ve also sold a ton of copies of English Grammar in Use through recommending it to my students. So I guess he might forgive me, if he should one day find himself slumming it with real teachers in Madrid.

In any case…

Think before you Xerox that textbook

Recently I’ve been thinking…

Perhaps we should think before we Xerox. Because it turns out that some textbook authors are just as broke as a backpacker at International House.

See, for example, this article from ELT Jam, which I found on twitter.

(I follow all sorts of apparently high-level EFL teachers on twitter. They use a lot of acronyms, go to “conferences,” have ELT chats, and are apparently adopting some sort of “professionally boring” persona, at least online. Could anybody really be as boring as these people appear? I doubt it!)

In the article, a textbook writer talks about a colleague’s experience confronting a “pirate” whose blog linked to pdfs of his books.

Interestingly, the author says that the book was selling pretty well, but that he only earned 100 pounds last year in royalties.

Sounds like piracy is the least of his problems. He claims to have worked on the book for three years, but then, apparently, he signed away his copyright for almost nothing.

Assuming that it’s true, I find it shocking to think that the big British universities are only paying the authors of their course materials a few cents per copy. For a textbook that costs 40 euros (which a lot of them do) where does the rest of the money go?

Dawg, where’s my cash at?

I suppose in the case of Oxbridge, it goes to polishing the marble floors in some Harry-Potteresque library. It’s hard to imagine the Dean of Oxford spending all that New Headway money on binge-drinking, hookers and blow like some Spanish language school owners apparently do.

In any case what exactly does “it sells pretty well” mean?

Does he sell 1000 copies a year and earn 10 cents each? 2000 copies at 5 cents each?

Writing EFL materials is not exactly the most glamourous or profitable job in the world, but please. That’s ridiculous.

As I explained in part 1 of this article, if you’re an author these days and you’re slaving away for some giant soulless corporation in exchange for a 0.45% royalty, it’s because you want to. Not because you have to.

The author of the ELT Jam article eventually says the following: “Many authors aren’t earning enough from their work, especially given the amount of time, blood, sweat and tears that went into producing it. As an industry, publishers can’t seriously expect to survive long-term on authors performing labours of love.”

What is his personal labor of love? Cambridge English for Marketing, available for just a bit more than 28 euros on Amazon.es.

You spent years on what?

I guess there are a lot of things I don’t understand about these serious, preachy, constantly outraged teachers. Because to me, slaving for years to write a textbook sounds pretty damn boring. I would have hoped that at least these authors were well-paid.

Anyway, after reading the article, I went to class, where my unemployed and underemployed students were talking about how all the summer courses they’ve been looking at are so expensive. More than a thousand euros a week for an intensive in Brighton or god knows what.

When people talk about how expensive learning languages is, I’m a bit puzzled. Because from the other side of the battlefield I see how English teachers live.

Short version of the story: mostly, we’re broke. A lot of my friends spend the summer eating beans with rice and bumming cigarettes.

So if there’s all this money in English teaching, where does it go? I guess it’s gobbled up by the sucking-at-business tax, or more likely, consumed as gin and tonics by drunken directors of studies.

big publishing, kiss your ass goodbye
From the movie Scarface. I recommend it if you’ve never seen it.

Anyway, if Raymond Murphy is Sosa, I’ll be Tony Montana. The new guy in town with the “fuck everything” attitude. I’m cutting out the middleman, and you can buy my books for less than 10 bucks.

Self-publishing is the way of the future – if you are semi-competent at marketing, that is.

In the words of the glorious Wu Tang Clan…

Marketing Rules Everything Around Me

Because marketing is the key to everything. These other guys sign away 98% of the profits on their book, I guess, to avoid doing the dirty work of actually selling the damn thing.

Well, enjoy, guys and gals in serious TEFL course development! I’ll be here, cashing my royalty checks and watching the CCTV screens.

Now let’s see if big publishing – in the form of the Oxbridge textbook mafia sends their goon squad to come shoot me full of holes.

Yours,

Mr Daniel.

P.S. For more, check out my article about making a living as an English teacher in Madrid. Short version: It’s tough. But doable. Also, here’s how to publish a book on Amazon. Maybe that’ll be a bit more profitable for you. Then you might want to know about how to start a blog, just so you can promote it somehow. Or maybe how to make money online. And finally, how to retire young. Hope that’s all useful for you. Enjoy!

Related Posts

February 27, 2024

I recently spent six days walking around Catalonia. Maybe if I see Read More

February 15, 2024

You know the feeling? You’re enjoying another beautiful spring here in Spain, Read More

February 7, 2024

Ah, Barcelona. That Mediterranean paradise, where fabulous architecture, beautiful people, and world-class Read More

About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Interesting that you think self publishing is the answer to everything. A lot of people seem to think it’s the magic wand but it’s not just a case of being good at marketing. The first problem is, as you say, teachers have no money so no point targeting them. And anyway teachers don’t buy course books. Either language schools do or students do. Students are hard to market directly to since they are anyone learning English – even if you limit your “anyone” to just those in a certain country. Where are you going to find them when they’re looking for books? Probably at their language school being told which one they need.

    So maybe language schools are your customer…but they’re not looking online for new course books or resource books or workbooks or lesson materials (teachers do but they want free stuff). Language schools buy from publishers. In huge volumes. So, you need a plan for marketing to them. That likely means having sales reps knock on doors and set up meetings. Then you’d need to deliver them in large volumes – if that’s print that means POD or being able to front up the cash. The books need to be accompanied by audio at the very least and I am pretty sure (but could be wrong) that POD can’t bundle audio. You could be looking to deliver digital content but that’s going to need to some pretty hefty interactive components to compete with the publishers while they’re ahead of you in every sense with distribution channels.

    Writers are only in this position because they want to be? I think it’s actually because no-one (yet?) has found a way to make the self publishing model work for education or at least ELT. Like you I think or though this million dollar industry has to have a way for someone else to make money but I am pretty sure it’s not self publishing. I’d love to be wrong about this! I have suggested to other authors that the problem lies in signing away copyright. i wonder if a limited time period with first publication rights might be something authors could fight for. But there’s always going to be someone else who’ll undercut you hoping to be the next Murphy. Those days are definitely coming to an end but self publishing books isn’t the future, it’s something completely different which even the publishers can’t quite work out what it is.

  2. Interesting that you think self publishing is the answer to everything. A lot of people seem to think it’s the magic wand but it’s not just a case of being good at marketing. The first problem is, as you say, teachers have no money so no point targeting them. And anyway teachers don’t buy course books. Either language schools do or students do. Students are hard to market directly to since they are anyone learning English – even if you limit your “anyone” to just those in a certain country. Where are you going to find them when they’re looking for books? Probably at their language school being told which one they need.

    So maybe language schools are your customer…but they’re not looking online for new course books or resource books or workbooks or lesson materials (teachers do but they want free stuff). Language schools buy from publishers. In huge volumes. So, you need a plan for marketing to them. That likely means having sales reps knock on doors and set up meetings. Then you’d need to deliver them in large volumes – if that’s print that means POD or being able to front up the cash. The books need to be accompanied by audio at the very least and I am pretty sure (but could be wrong) that POD can’t bundle audio. You could be looking to deliver digital content but that’s going to need to some pretty hefty interactive components to compete with the publishers while they’re ahead of you in every sense with distribution channels.

    Writers are only in this position because they want to be? I think it’s actually because no-one (yet?) has found a way to make the self publishing model work for education or at least ELT. Like you I think or though this million dollar industry has to have a way for someone else to make money but I am pretty sure it’s not self publishing. I’d love to be wrong about this! I have suggested to other authors that the problem lies in signing away copyright. i wonder if a limited time period with first publication rights might be something authors could fight for. But there’s always going to be someone else who’ll undercut you hoping to be the next Murphy. Those days are definitely coming to an end but self publishing books isn’t the future, it’s something completely different which even the publishers can’t quite work out what it is.

  3. Hi Daniel, love your blog. I’m one of those guys with a boring online persona you reference, though I’m nowhere near as dull in real life (shit, I hope not). I’m actually part of the Oxbridge mafia, though I stopped doing kneecaps a while back.

    I checked out your Amazon page and I was impressed. I expected to find a single book, maybe two, but you’ve got quite a few there. I’d even go so far as to use the word ‘prolific’. You’re right about marketing, but (in part response to Nicola’s point) I’d also suggest that volume is important – you’ve actually built a ‘list’ which develops your presence and profile. Good work! It’s great to see someone getting out there and doing it, rather than just talking about it.

    A question or two, if I may? I notice that your Kindle versions are sometimes more expensive – why is that? Also, do you set the prices, and what cut does Amazon get?

    1. Hey Brendan,

      It’s great to get feedback from an actual Oxbridge textbook thug 🙂 Do you sit by a fireplace in the evenings smoking a pipe and reading Chaucer in the original Middle English?

      To answer your questions, the cut that Amazon takes depends on the country, and it does have certain drawbacks–for example, I set the price, but then they discount it. In any case, I’m making at least a dollar or two per book.

      When you say “your kindle versions are sometimes more expensive” I’m not sure what you mean. More expensive than what?

      Thanks for commenting!
      Daniel.

  4. Hi Daniel, love your blog. I’m one of those guys with a boring online persona you reference, though I’m nowhere near as dull in real life (shit, I hope not). I’m actually part of the Oxbridge mafia, though I stopped doing kneecaps a while back.

    I checked out your Amazon page and I was impressed. I expected to find a single book, maybe two, but you’ve got quite a few there. I’d even go so far as to use the word ‘prolific’. You’re right about marketing, but (in part response to Nicola’s point) I’d also suggest that volume is important – you’ve actually built a ‘list’ which develops your presence and profile. Good work! It’s great to see someone getting out there and doing it, rather than just talking about it.

    A question or two, if I may? I notice that your Kindle versions are sometimes more expensive – why is that? Also, do you set the prices, and what cut does Amazon get?

    1. Hey Brendan,

      It’s great to get feedback from an actual Oxbridge textbook thug 🙂 Do you sit by a fireplace in the evenings smoking a pipe and reading Chaucer in the original Middle English?

      To answer your questions, the cut that Amazon takes depends on the country, and it does have certain drawbacks–for example, I set the price, but then they discount it. In any case, I’m making at least a dollar or two per book.

      When you say “your kindle versions are sometimes more expensive” I’m not sure what you mean. More expensive than what?

      Thanks for commenting!
      Daniel.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}