A decent proposal




Man writing by candlelightWant to be an ELT author? Don’t know how to get started? Neil Wood, Managing Editor for Business English, ESP and EAP titles at OUP offers some advice.

If you have aspirations to be an ELT author, it pays to know what you’re letting yourself in for. Be under no illusions – the work is demanding and the rewards, at least in financial terms, are by no means guaranteed. So how do you get started?

There are a number of ways, but it usually starts with a proposal. There are basically two kinds: those which arrive unexpectedly on an editor’s desk, or in their inbox, and those written in response to a request from the publisher.

What the publisher is looking for will obviously vary, but in responding to any proposal there are usually three basic questions that need to be addressed.

1. Is it of publishable quality (or does it have the potential to become so)?
2. Is it commercially viable in its present form?
3. Does it fit in with our current publishing plans?

The first two are self-evident, but question 3 is often crucial, especially for speculative proposals. ELT publishers normally have a publishing plan stretching several years into the future and developed in response to quite specific market requirements. Sending in an unsolicited proposal is therefore largely a matter of luck – unless it arrives on the editor’s desk at exactly the time they are looking for something similar, it may not be accepted.

That said, there are famous examples of unsolicited proposals that went on to become blockbusters – the Streamline series was an early OUP success which arrived unannounced and proved enduringly popular. Then there’s ‘the one that got away’ – at least one major publisher failed to see the potential of Raymond Murphy’s idea for a student grammar before it was snapped up by CUP. In that case, the rest, as they say, is history.

So what does submitting a proposal actually mean? Whether you have an original idea that you’re convinced has the potential to become the next Headway or Market Leader, or a publisher has approached you to put together a proposal for a specific piece of writing, there are basically three steps.

Step 1: Test your idea


Before you begin, ask yourself a few preliminary questions. What is new or different about your idea? Why is it likely to sell, and where are its primary markets? Who is it actually for? And is it suitable for teaching situations all over the world?

Do a little research. Find out about the competition – which books are similar to what you’re proposing, and how is yours better? If your proposal is unique, try to establish whether you’ve really found a gap in the market, or whether this is a book that has no market.

Get some early feedback from people you trust. Ask colleagues to comment, or talk to visiting sales staff or editors from a publishing house about your ideas.


Step 2: Prepare your proposal

First, consider emailing a short description of your ideas to a publisher, then talk to them on the phone to find out if there is genuine interest in the kind of project you’re considering. If they then ask for a detailed proposal, it should include the following.

1. An introductory letter and your CV. Be prepared to sell yourself – publishers need to feel confident that you have the appropriate knowledge and experience.

2. A concise outline of your ideas. This should include:

  • a brief description (what it is, what levels it covers, length, number of components, etc.)
  • a more detailed rationale (underlying principles and pedagogy, original features and strengths, why it’s better than the competition)
  • a market analysis (who it’s for and where it will sell).

3. Some sample material – a complete syllabus, at least one sample unit, including audio scripts, teacher’s notes, any reference material and, if necessary, descriptions of any artwork.

Step 3: What next?

Basically, you wait. Normally several editors and /or expert readers will comment on your proposal before a decision can be made, and this takes time. If the publisher is interested in taking the process a step further, you’ll probably be contacted to arrange a meeting. If your proposal is not accepted, you should receive a letter explaining why, and your proposal will be returned.

So how do you decide who to send your proposal to?

OUP is one of the largest ELT publishers in Britain, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s right for your idea. It pays to look at the lists of various publishers to see how your proposal might fit. If you can, find the name of the editor you think might be interested in your proposal, and address it to them personally. And if you decide to send your proposal to more than one publisher at a time, let them know this.

Although many ELT books are commissioned from established authors, most publishers are on the lookout for new authors, who are usually experienced teachers. The qualities they are looking for will vary, but creativity, flexibility, application, and an ability to stick to deadlines are at the top of the list. As an author, you’ll find yourself working closely with an editor and perhaps a co-author, so it’s important that you can respond to other people’s ideas as well as producing your own. Equally, it’s important to be aware that the writing process is evolutionary – material usually undergoes many revisions before it’s regarded as complete and publishable. Authors therefore need to be able to respond well to constructive feedback from their editor, from market research, or as a result of trialling materials in classrooms.

And what of the rewards? A very small number of ELT authors get rich; most don’t. But quite a few make a decent living and many more find that income from their writing – whether in the form of fees or royalties – provides a welcome supplement to their teaching income.

Perhaps one final question to ask yourself is, do you have the dedication and energy to write an ELT book? Because if your proposal is accepted, and you sign a contract, the only guarantee is that you’ll be committing yourself to months, probably years, of hard, unrelenting work. Most of it will be enjoyable, though there may be times when you’ll wonder why you started.

But it’s hard to beat the feeling of satisfaction when a pristine new book arrives on your desk, hot off the press, with your name on the front cover. Before you know it, you’ll be thinking about the next one. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

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  1. Some really good advice here. I would agree that the “rewards, at least in financial terms, are by no means guaranteed”. But having your name on a book is also a very useful marketing tool, particularly for freelance trainers. Books open doors which might otherwise remain shut.

  2. A very well-written explanation here, with several veins of gold for would-be ELT writers to mine…

    I think, however, that it is worth elaborating a little more on some of the aspects mentioned – bearing in mind that my own take on these matters is only really representative of one ELT writer who has worked with one major ELT publisher (in addition to having a range of, erm, interesting experiences while negotiating potential projects with several others).

    Beginning at the start, so to speak, I think this is where something really needs to be mentioned:

    “There are a number of ways, but it usually starts with a proposal. There are basically two kinds: those which arrive unexpectedly on an editor’s desk, or in their inbox, and those written in response to a request from the publisher.”

    Of the two kinds mentioned, the first is a sort of 1 in 10 chance it will even be glanced at, and then about a 1 in 100 chance it will be seriously considered and followed up on. I wouldn’t put it too far into the realm of exaggeration to say the off the cuff unexpected submission from a relative unknown has about a 1 in 1000 chance of going beyond a few polite emails (if that).

    The second is by far and away the most common. That is, the publisher already has a project in mind (and this supports several of the very accurate and well explained points that follow in the article) and then looks about a kind of posse of pre-existing contacts and asks them to put in proposals, or – again, more likely – asks them to start doing up samples for a proposal the publisher has pretty much already decided will happen.

    Becoming part of that selective group is the first thing prospective ELT writers need to focus on. Writing ability is only one of the things you need to have. You need to have a good name in the industry (and I hate using that term ‘industry’, but it really is the only one that accurately describes it), with good relevant qualifications and experience, and – probably most importantly – the ability to market and sell through presentations and workshops at major ELT conferences. Even your geographical location, and availability, can have a really major impact on whether you will be approached by the publisher. They may, for instance, even contact you to be a co-writer for a series because you’re based in Japan, have a great reputation on the presentation circuit, and having a North East Asia-based writer on the cover (and in marketing presentations) will be considered important for the overall success of the series.

    What you know is of course important. Who you know and who you specialise in charming (in terms of ‘markets’) is just as important.

    I really like the advice offered beyond that point in the article above, as it is refreshingly frank.

    Personally, the advice I would give to prospective ELT authors is this:

    1. Start writing material of your own and distribute it for free on a blog.

    2. Join your local TESOL/TEFL association, get involved, and take on a position of some sort with a SIG or some other aspect of the organisation. You need to be able to demonstrate validity.

    3. Do regular presentations at all the major ELT conferences you can get to. Target more mainstream topics or a particular area of expertise (but note that very experimental stuff will usually ward off ELT publisher talent scouts like handouts rinsed in garlic and distributed at a vampire convention). Bascially, start making yourself visible. very visible. Even marketable. And make sure you attend the ELT publishers’ presentations and contribute to them in a positive way.

    4. Make friends with the ELT publishers at these ELT events, and accept and try to exceed expectations when they inevitably (if it appears you’re made of the right stuff) ask you to present some feedback or do some review work for them. If they don’t actually ask you to review some of their stuff, go ahead and do it anyway on your own blog (being careful, of course, to focus on reviewing stuff in a positive light).

    5. Continue with all of 1-4 above for as long as you can manage. A writing offer has gone from 1 in 1000 to about 1 in somewhere between 10 and 100.

    From there, if an offer of some sort does come about, I would say:

    – Don’t overestimate your importance to the publisher. They say they’re always on the lookout for new writers, and you know what that means, don’t you? You’re always potentially replaceable.

    – Don’t be disappointed if you don’t really end up writing what you thought you wanted to write.

    – Make sure you keep attending and presenting at events (your worth as a writer, generally speaking, is only as good as your availability and talent when it comes to presentations and workshops).

    – Don’t expect to be able to do it all the publisher’s way the first time around and then think they’ll be more amenable to trying out another new idea you might have later (it might happen, but chances are you basically just become a more viable option for the next pre-planned project they already have in one of many pipelines).

    – Bear in mind that the corporatisation of ELT publishing is pretty much well and truly complete. You are working for a company with strict sales and profit margin targets. The people you work with are often under extreme pressure and/or are very ambitious and want to go up in the company ranks. It’s nothing at all like the environment you’re used to in a school staffroom. I’m not saying this to knock ELT publishers – I’m saying it because it is true, and for the hard-core educator hoping to walk into the publishing field and make a huge difference to education, he or she is most likely in for some shocks and disappointments (and often a sense of disillusionment).

    – Be prepared for a very slow ride at times. The major ELT publishers are getting bigger and more cumbersome, with gulfs between regional centres, and tricky internal politics. Some are mired in procedures that are conservative and don’t change easily with time, while others are just so big and all over the place now that the left hand often doesn’t know where the right hand is anymore (much less what exactly it is doing). Times have changed and sped and teched up, but most publishers haven’t – and won’t for some time to come.

    As I mentioned at the start, this is only one perspective (even if it is an experienced one), and no matter what you read or what you’ve been warned about, it’s hard not to walk into ELT writing with your eyes wide shut.

    If you do go there, try to treat it like an adventure. You’ll win some and lose some, and be better off for the experience of it overall.

    And never, ever put yourself in a position where you rely on it as your main source of income.

  3. Just to add a quick (hopefully relevant) note here, considering the name of the publisher responsible for this blog…

    I did in fact submit what could be termed a more “experimental” or even slightly radical proposal for a series of readers to Oxford University Press a few years ago. Being already published and something of a realist, I knew from the outset the concept was a long shot. The proposal was, unfortunately, eventually turned down – but I was genuinely impressed with the interest and consideration shown for the idea, and the real courtesy and professionalism with which everything was handled. That was a credit to OUP (and as you can tell from the previous comments, I’m no shrinking violet afraid to ‘tell it as [I think] it is’!).

  4. Following on from Neil’s advice above I’d also say that one of the most important things would-be ELT writers should do is get experience of working with editors and learning how to incorporate their comments. The fact is that your proposal will get chopped and changed and if you aren’t willing to make the changes – the whole thing might not happen.

    Years ago, I sent off book proposals but in actua fact the way I got into writing was by:
    1 Sending articles off to publications like English Teaching Professional. This meant I experienced an editor asking me to change certain things and learning how to make the material work for all teachers – not just me. It also meant that publishers read my articles and contacted me as a result.
    2 Publishers often ask for book reports – so when they publish new material they want teachers to use and comment on it. As a result of writing book reports, a publisher approached me about writing teacher’s books.
    3 Writing a teacher’s book trains you to understand how books are produced and the importance of deadlines. You are also forced to write material that may not normally reflect your own style – which is a very useful skill to develop.

    Just as a final thought – I once sent a book proposal to Jimmy Hill of Language Teaching Publications. He sent a rejection letter but instead of the standard response he sent me a detailed critique. One comment stuck in my mind: “A good idea is not always a book”
    In other words, something that works well in class can’t always work in book form (for “book” also read CD, online course etc.)

  5. I’ve published over 50 books and the vast majority were the result of meeting an editor personally. I’ve been to Frankfurt (take your rhino-skin coat with you)and to lots of conferences and presentations by publishers. It is over drinks after a presentation that ideas can be kicked around and sometimes can result in a contract.

  6. Hello,

    Thank you for the very informative post and comments. I was wondering if someone here might possibly answer a question for me?

    I am considering making some PDF guides that I’ve written for EFL students available to buy on my website. If I ever wanted to make these (or an idea based on them) part of a book proposal in the future, would their having been published before be a problem? I notice the Potato Pals books had already been privately published (and this presumably was not an issue).

    I’d be very grateful for any advice or suggestions,


    • Hi Seonaid,

      Thanks for your question.

      Once the book proposal was accepted by a publisher, the author would be required to assign the copyright to the publisher and would not be allowed to sell the PDF guides independently without the publisher’s permission. The fact that they were previously sold would not cause a problem. This is what happened with Potato Pals and often happens with book proposals formed on the basis of existing material.

      Hope that helps.

      OUP ELT Global Blog Team

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