How to Self-Publish Teaching Materials: Original Content

As a publishing consultant and editor, I am constantly asked how to self-publish teaching materials. How do you self-publish? What content should I self-publish? Self-publishing in English Language Teaching has been around for a surprisingly long time and is still going strong. For that reason, I’m going to publish this series of articles on self-publishing materials for teachers and educators, starting with what kinds of teaching materials work well for self-publishing.

A moody but attractive looking young writer holding a pen and paper and looking soulful.
What I think I look like when I’m working

There are a lot of things to think about and it can be quite daunting. But it can also be a fun and exciting journey! I recommend every first-time authors get some help, whether it be paid professionals, joining an authors group, and/or reading as many books and blog posts as you can on how to self-publish teaching materials, starting with this one, perhaps!

If you find this article is helpful, check out all my posts on self-publishing, covering everything from editing to formatting to finding a distributor and more!


What to Self-Publish?

So let’s talk about what kind of content works well for self-publishing. And it’s actually simple to articulate:

You need original content that teachers want to buy.

That is, you need something no one else is doing, something that has a unique appeal, and it has to be something that other people are going to use. Even if your main motivation isn’t money, there’s no point publishing something that is not useful or helpful to others.

In this article, we’re going to look at the first part of that statement.

Original Content

Hopefully, this is where you’ve started your journey toward self-publishing: You have an original idea. I get a lot of teachers approaching me saying, “I’ve always wanted a book that did this, and I got tired of looking so I just wrote my own.”

Find Your Niche

A confused-looking man staring at a computer screen with one eyebrow raised as if he cannot believe what he is seeing.
What I actually look like when I’m writing

Or perhaps your materials fit into a niche. As the large publishing companies, for a variety of reasons, try to create materials that appeal to a global audience, opportunities for specialized niche materials have arisen. There are a number of ways your materials might be specialized including:

  • Audience: grad students, oil workers, Polish speakers, adult spouses of expats, new teachers, etc.
  • Approach: TPRS, Task-Based Learning, dogme, a method you thought of, etc.
  • Focus: activities for the last day of class, a new type of reading circles, teaching Physics in English, teaching teachers to write assessments, etc.
  • Features: Completely modular, has readings and listenings on the same topic, uses mobile phones, promotes student autonomy, etc.

Often what makes our classrooms and thus our books unique is a combination of these things. Maybe you’ve been teaching Polish oil workers business writing using a dogme-influenced approach. Or like a gentleman I met a few years ago at TESOL, you’ve been teaching assessment writing to MA education students for 20 years and found there’s literally no textbook. Now you want to publish your materials. That’s going to be a great idea because there’s probably other teachers out there with the same need as you, and there’s no competition. Plus because you are a teacher in the classroom, you know what teachers need and want in the book!

Write What You Know

Confident looking teacher sitting at desk with pencil and paper.
Are you as confident as her?

Of course, it’s important to write for a niche that you are a credible authority for. It should be an area you’ve taught in. I know there’s constant demand in the US for graded non-fiction on current events, but I haven’t taught a lot of school-age children so I probably wouldn’t write to that niche. I don’t know what teachers want or expect from those materials and I don’t really know how graded readers are used in a school classroom, so I can’t tailor my materials to that. Be sure to find a niche where you know all the nuances of what’s needed and what isn’t, a niche that few people are writing for. That’s the power of self-publishing teaching materials, content that

It also needs to be clear how your materials are targeting a niche. It isn’t enough to say your book is designed for a special audience. It has to actually target that audience.

I taught Business English for oil company executives in Kazakhstan for a long time, but 90% of my course looked like any other general business class. It turns out there’s a lot of overlap between English for a specific industry and general business English, at least at the corporate level. If I did self-publish the few materials I created for that class, there would be little that was targeted to oil and gas. And nothing unique to Kazakhstan. So I’d be competing with all the business books out there. Any customers who did buy my book would be sorely disappointed and probably not come back for more.

Original Content Means No Copying

A student taking a test and turning his head to look at his neighbor's paper, presumably to copy the answers.
You don’t let your students plagiarize, so you shouldn’t either

I hope that it goes without saying that you should not be copying ideas from others. There are a few reasons for this:

    1. It may be illegal. Anything that has been written down can be copyrighted and that means textbooks, newspaper articles, and even websites are probably off-limits. Some teachers use materials in the classroom citing fair use. However, if you plan to publish and distribute materials widely, and particularly if you plan to profit from them, fair use will likely not apply. In fact, I once asked The New York Times for permission to use a paragraph from an article. They wanted thousands of dollars for the right to reprint it (If that seems unfair, consider that some day an education company might pay you thousands of dollars for your work!)
    2. It’s always a good idea to consult with a lawyer, but being sued for plagiarism can be costly and time-consuming.
    3. Copying other people’s ideas or even reusing well-known ideas without varying them won’t sell well. If your ideas come from an another book, it’s hard to convince buyers not to just buy that other book. If you use a well-known activity, without adding original material, people won’t be interested in buying your book at all. If you are going to borrow an idea from another person, show how you’ve made it original, with a new take or an accompany activitiy!
    4. Copying without varying and particularly without acknowledging the source creates bad will. Even if you find ways to legally restate other people’s ideas, the source of your idea will probably not be pleased to hear you are profiting from them. It takes a community to sell a book. Don’t create bad will. Create good will instead and see how much further you get. When teachers, whether they are influential names or not, like your books, they help spread the word. And that’s a very good thing.

    What about Companions to Textbooks?

    It’s fairly common for teachers to create a companion guide to a textbook they use in class. I used to have a manila folder full of supplemental activities to use with our course book. Sometimes teachers wish to self-publish these, but run into the problem of copyright and originality.

    First, you probably can’t use the name of the coursebook in the title of your book if you wish to sell your book. Second, you certainly can’t use the cover image. And you also can’t copy the exercises, activities, readings, directions, or art from the inside of the book.

    The best thing you can do with this sort of material is write to the publisher. Some publishers have companion websites and they might put your materials on it. They might possibly pay you for it, but even if they don’t, it gets your name out there. It also brings you to the attention of the publisher who might hire you to write materials in the future!

    I hope this has been helpful. In the next article, I’ll talk about finding a self-publishing idea that sells. And if you’re looking for some help self-publishing, check out my portfolio and rates and services.

    Some of this content was originally posted in IATEFL’s Voices and on my Medium blog.

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