Whose project is it anyway?

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Whose project is it anyway?

Part 2


So why do publisher-led projects dominate these days?


Access to the end-user


While the author has a deep knowledge of a particular user group and of classroom pedagogy, publishers have the resources to access a wide range of potential end users. Publishing a multi-level, multi-component course is an expensive business and it’s simply too much of a financial gamble to develop a course without comprehensive market input at a number of key stages. Hence the publisher-led approach.


The review process is not without it flaws: it is necessarily selective and can be frustrating for editors and writers alike because a)it is tempting for publishers to put together a panel of like-minded experts who are unlikely to challenge the validity of materials b) reviewers often have their own agendas, informed by their favoured teaching style, which doesn’t necessarily relate to the product’s approach c)editors often select those comments which are felt to be most relevant and helpful, but this gives the author the impression that they are not getting the full story d) it’s difficult to get teacher reviewers, who have very busy work schedules, to commit to reviewing drafts of a coursebook so the number of reviewers on each draft is sometimes low.


Product review is, however, vital and, according to Keith Sands “we are seeing publishers go beyond the traditional review cycle with deeper research methods like design thinking1 and rapid prototyping2, getting at the underlying issues teachers have with time management, classroom dynamics, mixed-ability groups, and assessment. This can give some fantastic perspectives which help with course design and it can give you a clear vision about the problems you are trying to solve.” These new reviewing methods are tools in user-centred design (please see below for more on this) and theoretically, result in something better for the customer.


Whichever methods are used, assumptions need to be thoroughly tested and all parties need to be prepared to change tack where necessary.


Of course, reviewing methods are only a support for authorial creativity. As Keith points out: “[reviewing methods] won’t actually write the book for you and there is still plenty of scope for creative authors. Also, a need for anyone on a project to just follow their instincts about what works, sometimes.”


More profit for the publisher



If the publisher is answering a strong market demand, the product makes commercial sense.  What is more, having control over who writes what means that the most costly writers can be deployed to write the highest profile content and cheaper writers can be commissioned to write lower stake material.  That said, blockbuster courses with a range of components and a number of reviewer interventions tend to rack up considerable costs.


For the writer, however, profits tend to be lower. An author paid a fee will not necessarily benefit from the profits that a course will eventually make. The decline in the payment of royalties for writing services clearly makes good business sense but brings about an understandable lack of enthusiasm for the publisher-led model. There needs to be more room for discussion of what constitutes fair payment and terms in order to dispel mistrust and to ensure that the writer produces their best work rather than their minimum viable product.


Alternatives to publisher-led projects



This post hasn’t yet considered the self-publishing route; a route that positions the author as publisher and therefore expands the term ‘publisher-led’ so that it’s no longer only attached to projects initiated by publishing houses. Although this affords the author creative freedom, it does not involve the necessary friction referred to in my previous post that comes about through collaboration between publisher and writer.


Learner-centred digital products

Whilst learner needs are generally borne in mind by authors and publishers, Nick Robinson of ELTjam argues that publishing needs to go further in putting the learner at the heart of the product and ensuring that their needs drive the overall product vision:


“It’s considered best practice in digital product development these days to start with an end user and work backwards from her needs and the problems she’s trying to solve – a process known as human-centred design. In ELT publishing, there’s a tendency to put things other than the end user at the centre of the process. For example, in author-led (or author-derived) products, what tends to drive things is the author’s own teaching philosophy or their adherence to a particular methodology (for example, a strong preference for a lexical or functions-based approach over a grammar based one). In publisher-derived products, I’ve seen all of the following used to drive a product’s vision: ministry requirements, the licensing of some exclusive real-world content, the need to plug a hole in a list, the need to keep a big-name author in work, the desire to take market share from English File (this last one is particularly common). Those are all perfectly valid business reasons to create a product, but they’re not learner-centred.”


This raises a few questions in my mind:

  • How do learner-centred products differ from publisher-led products in practice?
  • Is it viable to create a general English course, targeted at a variety of users in a range of countries using the learner-centred approach?


Answers to these questions extend beyond the scope of this particular post.



Publisher-led projects involve less financial risk and are generally more profitable for the publishing house than author-led projects. They do not tend to be as economically beneficial to the writer, however, which raises questions regarding perceptions of author value, author motivation and quality of content. Through innovations in market research methods, some publishers are clearly moving towards a more learner-centred approach, which ensures that the learners’ needs, rather than a business opportunity or a teaching philosophy is the driving force behind a product.

1 “Design thinking … is a set of market research and product development strategies where cross-functional teams get together and try to design a product without pre-conceptions using all their expertises and ‘deep insights’ from customers.

It can involve things like in-depth interviews with lots of learners (e.g 2 hours or so per learner) really getting at what their underlying needs are and their “pain points” – the problem that you want your materials to resolve. Or: all day focus groups with teachers looking holistically at everything they do in their jobs and how your course might fit into that.”

 2 Rapid prototyping is the sending out of a product at several stages of its development to end users to pilot and review.


  1. I had an interesting conversation this summer with an adult English student who went for my jugular when she found out I was an OUP author. She went on a big rant about how absolutely awful the course book she was using was and then went on to tell me why. And I thought ‘yes, she’s got a point’. So I asked her why she was using it and she said that students never have any say in what kind of book they use. They are just told ‘buy this’ and when they complain (frequently by the sound of it), nobody listens to them.

    • Hi Kath, that’s really interesting. When I worked in-house, I know that publishers did hold focus groups with students. They are problematic though: language level can be an issue, as can students’ nerves at being interviewed by a publisher. Personally, I didn’t find the groups very illuminating because opinions were so diverse. There should definitely be more of schools asking students what they think about coursebooks on a regular basis.

  2. A very interesting read. Thanks.

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