Monday, May 31, 2010

Third guest post - Sean Banville, author of 1,000 Ideas and Activities for Language Teachers

The author of this week's guest blog post may already be familiar to some of you ELT blogoholics. Karenne Sylvester of Kalinago English referred to him as "an unsung hero of ELT", which I hope changes soon (the unsung part, not the hero of ELT part)...

He's the man behind the Breaking News English website, as well as 4 other sites full of free ESL/EFL teaching materials, ESL Discussions, ESL Holiday Lessons, Famous People, and Listen a Minute, not to mention his informative blog. Somehow with all this activity he still has the time to teach full time at a university in the United Arab Emirates. And he's got an e-book which is the subject of this post. Unlike the books mentioned in the two previous posts, Banville's book is an e-book published without the help of a self-publishing company. Here's Sean to tell you the story of his e-book, 1,000 Ideas and Activities for Language Teachers:

I started writing my one and only e-book in late 2004. I had just uploaded my very first website and I thought selling an e-book on it would get the millions rolling in. No need to read to the end to see if the book made me rich - it didn't. But, I'm glad I wrote it. I have got back in financial terms the time I invested in writing it. In fact, the literary adventure got me going on a second e-book, which suddenly became a website at the last minute - more on that later.

I have a huge collection of ESL ideas and resource books. I bought anything and everything that came out. One day, it struck me how little was in them - so few ideas for so much $35, $40, $49.99… One glossy book I bought, written by a well-known ESL author, had 23 ideas in it. "Hang on a minute," I thought. "I can do better than this," I thought… "I'll write a book with 1,000 ideas in it," I thought.

And so with all that thinking, that's what I did. I decided to write a book that would complement my breaking news website. I never doubted for a second that I would be able to come up with 1,000 ideas. I had a brainwave and came up with a sharp and snappy title: "1,000 Ideas and Activities for Language Teachers".

I had never written a book before. I didn't want to waste time reading about how to write books, or what's involved in creating a successful e-book. So I just spent a few hours each day writing down the ideas I came up with. Slowly, it began to look like they might fit into different categories, which would become the chapters. Once I had the chapters, it made it easier to come up with more ideas. Then came sections within the chapters and more ideas for those. The result was a mixture of 1,000 ideas and photocopiable resources.

I can't remember how long it took to write - not too long. I was very pleased with the result… until it came to proofreading the whole thing several times. That wasn't much fun.

With the proof-reading over, I made a cover page for it and uploaded it onto my site. I thought a price of $9.99 seemed fair. The research I did on similar books meant mine was at least half the price of "the competition" and up to $40 cheaper than the ones with the glossy cover and 23 ideas you can buy in bookstores.

I made the book available for sale on my 41st birthday - thought that would be a good omen. I eagerly waited next to my e-mail InBook for the flood of orders to come. I wasn't exactly deluged that first day. I got five orders, which made it my most successful day ever. That was nearly five years ago. I was really pleased with that first day. The fact that I've never matched those heady sales figures since has never really worried me. Each sale every other day or every other few days makes me really happy. So too do the e-mails I get from people who buy my book to tell me they really like it.

In those early days I was approached by several ESL websites with an online shop on their site. These sites wanted permission to sell my book on their site, giving me a share of the sales. One site wanted to sell it for $29.95. I said no to all these sites, thinking it could create some ill will if someone bought the book only to find it $20 cheaper on my site.

Soon after I put my book for sale, I started my second book. I liked the idea of 1,000 things on this and that, so I had a brainwave and came up with the sharp and snappy title: "1,000 Discussions for Language Teachers". Not sure how far through writing this I got when I decided to abandon the book idea and turn it into a website. It became ESL - an abridged collection of just 600 discussions. I thought I might make more money from Google ads if the materials were in the form of a website instead of a book. I'm not sure which would have been more successful financially, but I'm happy with it being a website.

My adventure with writing an e-book has been pretty much that. I never got too excited about the thought of possible riches, and have never been disappointed with the trickle of sales I eventually got and am currently getting. I think it's a pretty cool thing to have on my sites. That thought and the e-mails I receive from satisfied customers are reward enough. I would happily write another book and put it up for sale on my sites, if ever I had another idea.

I never really spent too much time on how to market my e-book or sell it. I've always been too busy making teaching materials for my seven websites and blog. All I have done to 'market' it is create a dedicated page ( advertising its wares, with a sample 6-page PDF download. I often wonder whether 6 pages of free samples might be too much - people could be happy with those and not buy the book. Who knows?

I guess were I to venture into marketing it more, the way to go would be to set up a separate website for the book - "1,000 Ideas for Language" or something just as snappy. A fellow webmaster did the same and he seems to think (in a tweet or two) that a separate, dedicated site is worthwhile.

My parting advice would be to write that e-book if you really want to write something. Once it's written, there are many ways to get it out there, although I'm not the expert on this. I'm just happy I wrote mine.

* Sean Banville
* Free ESL lessons based on current news stories.


Ken Wilson said...

Thanks for that informative and entertaining post, Sean. One part made me laugh so loud, my wife Dede heard it downstairs and asked me to share what I'd heard. When I've finished writing this, I will do just that.

The part that made me laugh was this:
"I got five orders, which made it my most successful day ever. That was nearly five years ago. I was really pleased with that first day. The fact that I've never matched those heady sales figures since has never really worried me."

The fact is, you're probably selling more copies than 'the glossy book containing only 23 activities'. It's an open secret that, with a number of high-profile exceptions, resource materials in book form are not big sellers. From the publishers' point of view, they add gravitas to their lists, and from the author's point of view, there's a certain satisfaction in seeing one's life's work in printed form.

There was a heady moment about ten years ago when photo-copiables became very popular, at even higher prices that you talk about. Sales of the books of ETT sketches quickly re-vamped by Macmillan took off like a rocket. Like the firework variety, they fell to earth just as quickly.

As for high sales of resource material nowadays, forget it. A certain high-profile UK publisher recognised this last year when they announced the end of their resource book series.

What you've actually hit on as well is the fact that teachers can find so many resources online for free (yours as a golden example) that they maybe don't feel the need to buy such material in book form. This is the first sign that online is replacing books, something that will presumably increase.

But again, thanks for the warmth and good humour of this story.

Sean Banville said...

Thank you Ken for this insight. I now feel a more accomplished e-author. Indeed, if ever I broke my sales record, might have to start practicing my autograph:-)

What you said is interesting. I often wondered how (un)lucrative it was to write resource books. After all, I don't know too many writers who have retired early from the proceeds. Now I know why.

It's also true, and perhaps a little sad that free online materials are replacing books. I suppose in part, I have myself to blame for that.

There are a lot of people out there who refuse to buy ELT materials. I spoke to a colleague just last week on the matter of charging for my sites. He said he would never pay even $5 a year - not because he didn't like the sites, but it was against his principles. Oh well.

Thankfully, there are a good number of people who do like to buy books and materials. I spent about $10,000 on them (went a bit mad) when doing my Master's - worth every penny. I still like holding, smelling, leafing through a new book.

self publishing said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alex Case said...

Great piece. Occasionally think about putting my rejected book ideas into e-book form, and the fact that I've never got round to it seems to show that the publishers were right not to entrust me with a big project!

The last comment seems to be spam, just cut and pasted part of Ken's, which is a common trick (you can delete this part of my comment when the spam has gone if you like)

self publishing a book said...

Great piece. Occasionally think about putting my rejected book ideas into e-book form, and the fact that I've never got round to it seems to show that the publishers were right not to entrust me with a big project!