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Saving the World with Free Textbooks?

Bookwitty By Bookwitty Published on November 4, 2015

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Jessika Chamoun found this witty
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An occupational hazard of being involved in language education is the encounters one has at dinner parties. Recently, a heart surgeon confided that when he retires, he too is thinking about teaching English overseas. “What a coincidence,” I exclaimed. “When I retire, I’m thinking about taking up heart surgery!”

He was first confused and then annoyed, but my point was that too many people assume that teaching a language requires no training beyond being a native speaker. It’s in part because we all learn the basics of our first language in a natural way, without the intervention of a formal teacher. It’s also in part the fault of the eclectic qualifications of those currently teaching of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).

The training involved in TESOL can range between a master’s degree to a one-week crash course–or even less; everyone seems to have a niece or nephew who has traveled to Asia and spent a week or so teaching Wheels on the Bus to impoverished, bewildered children. This is particularly the case for many gap year students who take a year off after high school to travel the world. These students sometimes pay to get a few weeks of volunteer teaching experience to bolster their university applications. A new business model has arisen in which gap year students are charged an ‘administrative fee’ to work at a rural school or orphanage in order to add a line to their résumés.

Like those who think they can teach a language, many people who have read a book assume that they can write one. Certainly a diverse range of people has written books but, before the Internet age, there were relatively few opportunities to get such books into the hands of readers. Even if a prospective author paid a vanity press to self-publish a book, most of the initial print run of several hundred copies would likely end up in a dusty closet because of the enormous and expensive challenges of marketing and distribution. However, publishing online now provides access to a growing audience of a billion or more. Writers can hope that social media and key word searches will drive traffic to their efforts. If delivery is similarly online (e.g., a digital ebook), then a few keystrokes and a credit card can move the file to a user’s tablet or laptop.

This new digital reality inspires ever more potential writers, and there are already a lot of them. In a 2002 New York Times article, Northwestern University professor Joseph Epstein cites a survey that claims 81 percent of Americans “feel they have a book in them and that they should write it”. Epstein’s article begs them not to do so, explaining that of the books that are published each year, “most are not needed, not wanted, not in any way remotely necessary”.

Swimming in this pool of potential writers are a number of teachers with aspirations to write textbooks. I’m often approached by them at conferences and always encourage those who have identified interesting needs not met by other books or resources on the market. But, last week, a Senior Lecturer at a British university wrote me an email in which he said,

My current plans include writing a range of free and low cost ebooks for teachers of English. These include tips on how to be a better teacher, how to teach CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), and also how to design practical student-centered activities. I am also designing a series of ebooks for students, including how advanced level learners can sound more natural and more fluent in English, and how to get a good result in IELTS (a test of language).

Well, hooray for him! In my reply, I asked, as politely as possible, what made him think he would be able to undertake these ambitious adventures in textbook writing? Like him, I’m a academic but, unlike him, I have a PhD in curriculum development and have written more than 100 textbooks over the past 20 years for the world’s largest publishers: Cengage, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oxford University Press, Penguin and Pearson in Asia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

As part of that journey, I’ve become acutely aware of the collaborative nature of textbook writing and see myself precariously balanced on the supportive talents of a great many publishing professionals and consultants. How many people? For one of my recent books for Pearson Canada, my editor mentioned that there were initially 27 key individuals involved.

What do these people supporting an author do? The work begins with a publisher and several marketing staff who undertake a needs analysis and debate the feasibility of committing considerable financial resources to a new project. Decisions are based on identifying gaps in the market between existing products and what teachers and learners require. A new idea also has to be referenced against government educational policies and curricular standards. In my case, part of the research routinely involves dozens of teachers across Canada and around the world. They are interviewed and asked to complete surveys, review drafts, teach sample chapters, and provide extensive feedback.

A commissioning editor puts together a team, starting with the writer. One or two other editors are contracted to obsess over the large and small details that need to be perfect before a book goes to press. Designers and illustrators are usually involved from the start and, if there is an audio component, then a producer, a sound engineer, and various voice actors are required. Modern textbooks invariably feature complementary online resources, so programmers help to make that happen. On the team are one or more permissions editors.

A permissions editor works with the author, editors, and designers to negotiate the rights to published texts, photos, illustrations, audio and video clips and other content used in a book. It’s expensive and even the typefaces may have to be purchased. All these costs are a part of the budget that, in the end, is a big gamble; some books sell and some books don’t. If the publisher has misjudged the market demand, it can all be time and money thrown to the wind.

Money is a curious aspect of my email correspondent’s claims. He says he plans to give away his books for free or at a low cost. Presumably, he will write all his own text, edit it himself, take all his own photos, do all his own illustrations, voice, record, and produce all his own audio and video clips, and add additional online resources such as a test bank. Or, more likely, he is thinking in terms of plain text and nothing more. Hopefully he will not violate copyright, cutting and pasting from the web; even quotes of a paragraph in length can fall outside of the principles of fair use and publishers routinely sue if selections of their work are used in other published materials, free or not. If he uses photographs of his own students without proper permissions, his own university might sue him.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood says, “Anyone who writes a book is an optimist. No matter what the content”. I believe that. Can we blame all the optimists and the passionaries out there–those individuals with a cause who are eager to support it by helping out in some way? Is it wrong that they should want to feel good about themselves by giving away free textbooks?

No, it’s not. But I’d argue that donating a bit of money to give away professional textbooks would be a better way to save the world.


Posts on this profile were created by members of the Bookwitty team. Here, we discuss books, authors, publishers and other literary-related topics. You’ll find our writers based between our ... Show More

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