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Out of the box: A whinge of authors


We need coursebooks that aren’t swayed by the winds of endless focus groups

In the old days of ELT publishing, new coursebooks often used to be identified by the author’s name: Alexander, Robert O’Neill, the new Kingsbury, the latest Leo Jones. If written by (usually) a two-person author team, the book title was often used as a badge of pride by teachers.

But gradually, over the past thirty years, coursebooks have been written increasingly by multi-author teams – units written like building blocks – and the author’s voice was replaced with that of the publisher.

The argument proposed by publishers is that there isn’t time to develop a coursebook series unless they use lots of authors.

Well, no material I’ve worked on has been achieved more quickly with an extended team than with a small tightly knit group. There’s endless standardisation across the material and issues of consistency to address, which take more time than with a small team.

But for me the problem is that no one appears to ‘own’ the work. The coursebook is exclusively market-led, so an accurate brief is essential, yet it will then be swayed by the winds of endless focus groups and ‘experts’.

Now, this is not about authors and their vanity – it’s about quality. Most authors and editors are really clever, imaginative and creative people. We don’t get invited to do this work if we’re not – if we’ve only taught in one situation and cannot imagine how others will use our activities. Would it be unimaginable to give us back that missing sense of ownership, of responsibility, of identity?

Let’s rethink this trend for market-focused textbook series with large author teams, where no one can take ownership of the project and where individual creativity is suppressed in favour of a rigid and depersonalised brief. I promise we’ll get a better ‘product’, as publishers call books these days.

It’s said that the collective noun for authors is a whinge. Have I finished yet? No, I haven’t even begun.

Simon Greenall is a coursebook writer, past president of IATEFL and Trustee of International House. In 2013 he was awarded an OBE for ’services to ELT’.