Making proposals to ELT publishers
You want to break into materials writing for ELT, but you have no contacts. One way to get your name and materials known is to send an unsolicited proposal to an ELT publisher. This can show what your ideas about teaching and learning are and what a great writer of classroom materials you are. This article aims to give some help in organizing unsolicited proposals.
First of all, most unsolicited proposals are rejected – now even more than in the past. Publishers used to wait to see what books teachers proposed and would then try to choose the most promising of these. This has changed. Now, large publishing companies work to long-term publishing plans. The problem for a budding author is that the publisher is not going to share this confidential information with anyone outside the company. As a result, the two commonest reasons for rejecting an unsolicited proposal are: (1) ‘We’re already doing something like that’, and (2) ‘We aren’t planning to do something like that’. However, unsolicited proposals can sometimes be successful.
- Sometimes you’re lucky and your proposal lands on someone’s desk when it’s just what they’re looking for. Given that ELT, like any community, has its zeitgeist, this isn’t as unlikely as you might think.
- If a publisher is impressed by your writing they may ask you to write something for another project, perhaps a workbook, a resource pack or a teacher’s book to start with.
- Plans can be changed if an idea is sufficiently powerful.
Ignore the image from fiction publishing of the huge ‘slush pile’ of unsolicited and unwanted manuscripts mouldering unread in an in-tray. In ELT, we receive surprisingly few unsolicited proposals, and we’re usually glad to get them. Ultimately it’s where a lot of our authors come from: there are very few agents who represent ELT authors.
There are many ways to organize a proposal. What follows is a system which will help the publisher to navigate your documents. It consists of breaking your proposal into four documents, each with its own clear function.
This is a document briefly setting out the aims of your proposal. The two main topics you should cover here are market and methodology.
Publishers don’t expect you to go into great detail about marketing issues. All you need do is show clearly who the book is for. This is likely to include:
- language level(s)
- age range
- type of institution where it may be used
- if it’s general English, business English, ESP, focused on an exam, etc.
- if it’s intended for one particular country or group of countries
As you would probably guess, if your target market is very small (e.g. advanced English for Albanian police officers), large publishers may be reluctant to invest. But that isn’t necessarily the end of the story. Aside from the ‘big four’ in the UK – CUP, Pearson, Macmillan, OUP – there are many local and independent publishers around the world. Pick up catalogues, and try to identify someone who publishes books for similar markets. And with the growth of online publishing, big publishers may be willing to accept specialist material to publish on their websites – onestopenglish is a good example of this.
If your heart is set on working with a larger publisher, revise your proposal to see if you can expand the size of your target market. But be careful if you do this. A book which is aimed at too many disparate markets can easily end up being of little use in any of them. Successful books have clear targets and well-defined personalities.
A proposal for a coursebook is not an academic essay but when you start to write materials, you immediately take some sort of stance on methodology (i.e. what constitutes good classroom practice). This, in turn, tends to imply beliefs about how learning takes place and how the syllabus should be organized. Make your position explicit.
Consider systems – presentation / practice, task-based learning, the lexical approach – and how your material takes account of them or why you have rejected them. Refer to your own experience (‘This works for me’) but back up your ideas by referring to other books or academic writers. Ultimately, you want to show that your book will work well for a large number of teachers, rather than being perfect for some elite group.
Unless you want to write a very specialized book, two pages is usually enough for your rationale – resist the temptation to write more. Regard it as an advertisement rather than a thesis. If you arouse interest you will get lots of opportunities in the future to explain your ideas in depth and detail.
This explains how your publication will be structured. For example, if you are proposing a coursebook, you’ll need to give an idea of how long it will take to teach a unit and how many units there will be in the whole book. Will the units follow a predetermined plan or will they vary? What language areas or topics will be covered? Authors often include a draft syllabus in this section. You may need to list what components you think are necessary, such as student's book, workbook, video, internet, etc. Two pages excluding the syllabus is usually more than enough to cover the outline of the book.
3. Sample materials
The sample materials are the heart of a good proposal. Very often, they are what the publisher will read first and, if they fail to convince, it may not matter much what is in the other documents. You should provide at least ten or twelve pages of writing, organized in a teaching unit or units.
If you are proposing a coursebook, concentrate on the student's book. Only provide workbook exercises, teacher’s notes, etc. if there is some innovative feature in these components which you need to demonstrate. If there are scripted listenings, include the transcripts.
Finally, include a one-page CV focusing on your ELT experience and qualifications. Publishers want to know that you have experience in the area you’re proposing for. It’ll arouse extra interest if you have experience of training other teachers and if you have previously published – whether books, articles or reviews.
Copyright is ‘inalienable’ under British law. That’s to say, you automatically own the copyright in your works if you created them in your own time using your own materials. You do not register your copyright with a government body.
If you are worried that the publisher will steal your ideas, then send the proposal to yourself in a registered envelope and keep it without opening it. This will show that you wrote it before a particular date.
People may tell you that writing, e.g. ‘© Jim Smith 2001’ on your document protects your rights. It doesn’t. But it does help the publisher if you put the title of the proposal and page numbers in the document footer.
A final note
Publishing companies are large organizations with offices in many countries. Any one employee knows only a small number of their colleagues. Proposals sometimes arrive addressed to ‘the editor’ or ‘the commissioner’. They can spend months circulating from desk to desk before arriving where they should.
To avoid this, ring reception at the publishing company’s main offices and get the name – and address – of the person you need. If possible, speak to them: ‘Could you put me through to someone in charge of publishing for Japanese secondary schools?’ Don’t be coy about stating your business – say you’re an author and you want to send in a proposal. You may have to be patient and you may need to make several calls. Every publishing company divides up its markets in different ways. One company may have a publisher for Japan who does secondary books, another may have a secondary publisher for all of Asia …
A few days after sending in the proposal, ring and check that the person has received it. And if your first proposal doesn’t succeed, don’t give up. Some authors peg away for years before they get their break.
This article by the late David Riley originally appeared in the ELT Gazette.