On Being An EFL Textbook Author

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Typewriter © MyImages-Micha @ Shuttertock.com

On Being An EFL Textbook Author

Making it as a writer is hard. Making it pay even more so. I know. I’m a published EFL textbook author. I’ve wedded my love of teaching EFL with my love of writing, and learned much along the way. The battlefield is littered with lessons. Here are a salient few for those hoping to break into the market.


Learn How to Pitch Your Book’s USP

Once you’ve written a book, the next step is to sell it to a publisher. Doing so is called pitching. What you’re pitching is the reason why your book is unique. When you query a publisher—be it in writing or verbally—you’re arguing that your book is so unique the publisher should take a look at it. That argument is called a unique selling proposition or USP.

Ideally, your USP should be three sentences. Why only three? Let me explain. Imagine you’re standing in the coffee line at a TESOL conference. You chat up the person next to you and learn that she’s the acquisitions editor for Mega EFL Books. You tell her you’ve just written a book. She smiles and says, “What’s it about?” Translated, she means: “Pitch me your USP.” If you ramble on, she will lose interest. (If you don’t know what you’re selling, how can she sell it?) However, if you pitch your USP in three sentences, then you stand a good chance of grabbing her attention and, better yet, being invited to submit your manuscript for review. This is how it works.

Setting:                   Seven a.m. Coffee line at The BIG TESOL Conference.

Author:          Hi. Are you an instructor?

Editor:          I work in publishing, actually.

Author.          Great. Where?

Editor:          Mega EFL Books. I’m the acquisitions editor.

Author:          Really? I’m an instructor. I‘ve just written a book. It’s called Perfect Prepositions.

Editor:          Congratulations. What’s it about?

Author:          1) As you know, prepositions are a challenge for EFL students.

Editor:          Absolutely.

Author:         2) Perfect Prepositions solves that problem once and for all.

3) My user-friendly classification system takes the guesswork out of using prepositions while giving students at all levels the confidence they need to use them proficiently.

Would you be interested in reviewing the manuscript?

Editor:         Sounds intriguing. Here’s my card.


A query email serves the same purpose, and should be as succinct as your verbal pitch.

Dear Ms. Davis,

My name is Bruce Stirling. I am an EFL professor at the University of America. I am submitting for your consideration and possible publication my EFL textbook Perfect Prepositions.

As you know, prepositions are a challenge for EFL students. Perfect Prepositions solves that problem once and for all. My user-friendly classification system takes the guesswork out of using prepositions while giving students at all levels the confidence they need to use them proficiently.

Attached, please find sample chapters. If you would like to review the manuscript…

If you want to grab a publisher’s attention, learn how to pitch your book’s USP. Remember: You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.


The New Paradigm           

I was chatting with a music producer the other day. He told me how his Grammy-nominated CD was being pirated all over the world. I told him that my text books were being pirated too. I railed with outrage at being ripped off. The producer laughed and said, “Welcome to the new paradigm.” I saw no humor in his assertion. He then explained: “We should be thankful we’re being ripped off. That means we’re popular. People like our stuff. When people stop ripping us off, that is when we need to worry.”

“That,” he said, “is the new paradigm.”

The new paradigm. Translated, it means, “If you’ve created a marketable piece of intellectual property, you will be ripped off—and there will be nothing you can do about it.” That EFL book you’re pouring your heart into, the book you hope will supplement your income? The nano-second it hits the market, it will be turned into a PDF file, uploaded to a billion bit-torrent sites, and when you see it free on the web, you will agree with Michael Eisner, the former CEO of Disney, when he said, “the PC is a license to steal.”

And believe me, if Hollywood can’t stop piracy, nobody can. Just be thankful you’re part of the new paradigm—and keep your day job.


There Is No Greater Reward

When I first published, I knew that pirating was a problem. It wasn’t until I googled my titles that I realized the true extent of the problem. The real jaw-dropper came when I learned that in countries beyond the reach of American law, publishers are knocking off my titles with a quality that rivals my publisher’s. On my desk here is a pirated copy from just such a country. It’s gorgeous, a work of art with an old-school, hard-bound cover. Am I flattered? You wanna believe it. Shocked? D’uh. Am I getting any royalties? LOL. Can I do anything about it? Yes. Screaming does help.

You might ask, if pirating is so pernicious, why bother even picking up a pen? Why spend years writing and testing material if only to have it ripped from your hands while having no legal recourse? The answer is simple: because I love writing. A cliché, I know, but I’m not in it for the money. If you are, you won’t last as a writer.

As a teacher, there is no greater reward than writing about what you teach, and using your book in your classroom. Just remember: There be pirates out there.


Less is More           

More often than not, getting published is a matter of right time, right place. You have the book a publisher is looking for, a contract is offered and the dream finally comes true. That happened to me once. I spent months polishing my prospectus and pitch. Man, did I nail it. Yet the publisher didn’t read a word. They wanted the book. It was exactly what they were looking for. Right time, right place. End of story with another hard lesson learned: Don’t pad queries or pitches with excess verbiage. Less is more. Remember: You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

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  • Katherine Bilsborough says:

    This is interesting but a totally different experience to my own. Since I first started writing coursebooks and other materials, I’ve simply been invited by a commissioning editor to write a sample unit that followed a very specific brief. Publishers I’ve worked with have almost always had a very clear idea of what they want before I’ve got involved. I have enjoyed having some input with concept ideas, etc. but I’ve never had to ‘pitch’. Recently, I’ve had a few ideas for self-published books and I’ve just started working seriously on one of those ideas. But again, I don’t think I’ll be pitching the idea to any publishers.

  • Nina Weinstein says:

    This is an excellent discussion of what motivates writers and the intrinsic rewards, however, I couldn’t disagree with you more about accepting that Internet piracy is a compliment. It’s the biggest insult there is to a professional materials developer.

    I’ve written several textbooks, including “Whaddaya Say”, which is pirated widely, as you’ve described. For the second edition, I wrote full-time daily for over a year, produced another year of university research, tons of anecdotal research and years of teaching experience to complete this book. You’re saying that I should be happy it’s being pirated by people who believe they should make money off of my efforts, but that I shouldn’t?

    Professionals deserve to get paid for their work, and we’ll all suffer if we don’t support that because we’ll lose the fine books that result when professional writers spend the hundreds of hours it takes to create high quality, well-thought-out materials and programs. Do teachers really want to have to write all of their classroom materials?

    I realize my opinion on this may be polarizing, but I feel strongly that professionals should get paid for their efforts unless they voluntarily write for free. In any event, the people who steal their work and/or the websites where the work resides are the beneficiaries of monies received for every download; not the authors who created the work.

    There’s an obvious and simple beginning to a solution. We all know that nothing on the Internet is free. Money is always changing hands. Differentiate with your children, students and others between downloading something that is truly free (because, for example, a developer wants you to try a sample, and hopefully, buy a more robust version in the future) or if it’s an illegal website offering materials that violate copyright law (and which could easily have viruses — Should we really trust criminals to protect us?) There will always be ways to break the law, but if people begin to lessen their participation, this will at least open the door for writers to continue creating the books that you love.

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