Paper is the Enemy of Word — or why you should publish digitally

If you’re an author and wondering how to publish your ESL, English or exam prep material, I urge you to stay away from the traditional publishing industry.  Why? Because they’ll limit the size of your book, affect your vision and eventually block your material from reaching the hands of the very students you want to help — all of which limits the amount that you make per sale.  And let’s face it, no matter how good a person you are, you still have bills that have to be paid.

“So, there’s this guy, right? Victorian era. James Murray, first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary… He’s really responsible for a lot of what we consider modern in dictionaries today. When a guy who looks like that, in that hat, is the face of modernity, you have a problem.”Erin McKean
A brief segue…  Erin McKean gave a TED talk in 2007 and I’m watching it as part of the recommended viewing for DELTA, Module 1.  Her talk encompasses the future of publishing, but if you don’t have 15 minutes to watch it by clicking here, I’ll give you a quick synopsis. Erin’s main point is that dictionaries are the 8-track version of language. The paper book version of a dictionary is an outmoded, Victorian-era contraption that, by virtue of being made of paper, essentially limits what makes it into the dictionary.  She calls for a revolution of sorts in the way that technology should be married with English. Erin claims that paper is the enemy of words (in that at some point, it’s too expensive to print another page or too heavy to be lugged around — a reality which ESL writers face if they go to a publisher). It’s painful for those of us who cherish paper, but she has a point.

I’d argue that her point really extends to the whole of the publishing industry — particularly for ESL.

ESL publishing companies are stuck in the past.

And if you’re an author of ESL material, that means you’re stuck there with them. There’s been a tiny trend towards packaging CD’s and giving access to websites that have interactive games, but when we look at exam prep materials, the only publisher that has even bothered to make an e-book version of exam prep material specifically for TOEFL iBT is ETS itself (but it is hardly innovative or taking advantage of things).  As Erin says, when most traditional publishers go digital, it is simply “paper thrown up on a screen.”

Amazon and dozens of publishers have jumped on the e-book bandwagon in the last 5-6 years. The vast majority of ESL publishers are dragging their feet, unwilling to face reality.

I’ve sold thousands of copies of my self-published programs for TOEFL iBT directly to students since 2011.  So yes, it is possible to download PDF versions of many ESL books on illegal “torrent” websites.  And yes, some people risk getting viruses and bearing the bad karma.  But, most people are inherently good and there is a market for online ESL programs.

David Attenborough voice-over:  “The dinosaur that is ESL publishing croaks alone in a field.  Unless this publishing industry can evolve, it will face extinction.  Authors who associate themselves with this species also face an uncertain future.”

Seriously though — as an author, you really shoot yourself in the foot by joining up with companies who aren’t already digitizing their work.  Change is hard.  As my own team has expanded, it now takes us weeks to do new projects that I used to do alone in a couple days.  The larger the ship, the slower it can change direction.  But are the ESL publishers changing course fast enough?

Lord knows how many times I emailed a particular publishing company, encouraging them to go digital.  If it’s on their to do list, they aren’t doing much to tell interested people about it.

(Once, I even tracked down the author himself to find out if we could work out a joint venture e-book arrangement. I love the author’s book so much that I want to arrange a bundle and sell it to students who are already buying one of my programs.  However, 18 months later, there’s still no progress.  The teacher’s book is brilliant.  It gets results. Students love it. And it’s regularly out of stock on Amazon.)

How many students aren’t being helped because the knowledge is trapped on paper?  Lots…

The vast majority of people who need your book are actually overseas.

It is beyond absurd to limit the access of information for the very students that the book was intended to help.

Of course we are all supposed to be against piracy (and I am!) and we’re supposed to promote responsible consumption of books (and I do!) — but what is a student going to do when he or she lives in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from a major cosmopolitan hub where she might purchase TOEFL text books? With her exam coming soon, is she really going to pay Amazon’s international shipping fees and wait a week or two while the shipment gets hung up at customs? Tick tock goes the clock.

Even if she is in a major urban hub, she might not be able to find the TOEFL book that she wants.

Can we expect that student (who is desperate to have a competitive advantage of her classmates so that her future has more opportunities) to declare, “I’ll sacrifice my education so that [insert publishing company or author’s name here] makes the money they deserve”?

Let’s not be naive.

Even if she’s a good girl, she’ll probably ask her friends on social networks if anyone has a file and then download it. Off she goes, studying because she her passion to learn is so strong that she’ll figure out how to do it, even in the face of a paper resource scarcity.

Stay relevant tomorrow.

If you’re an author and want to publish books for any niche of ESL — exam prep or EAP (English for Academic Purpose) — I hope that you’ll consider publishing your work in a digital format.  By blending PDF with video or regular webinars or Q&A sessions with the author, you can create incentives for students to buy your original version.  As a result, students around the world actually have access to your work, you actually get paid.

Isn’t that the whole point you write a book? You can be damn sure I didn’t spend months of my life and put my social life into a tail spin just to have The Advanced Speaking Guide for Scores of 26+, the 24+ Writing Tutorial or Right Notes collect dust. I made them to help people. I continue to update them to help people. There is no other reason.

The rampant piracy of TOEFL and ESL books shows that students (and teachers) will choose having access to information over being ethical.

So. Back to Erin. Paper is the enemy of words. In this case, I totally agree. As a part of the ESL publishing industry, you have two choices: adapt or become obsolete.

I hope that one day major ESL publishing companies will embrace creative ways to outsmart rampant piracy so that students can actually benefit from their work.

But if they never do, it’d be smart for you to cover yourself.