Kelly's Rules of Thumb

Kelly's Rules of Thumb for Getting Published

Curtis Kelly

Getting published. Like I should know. But then again, maybe I do. The question is whether the 20 or 30 books I've worked on has led to knowledge or not (the variance depends whether you count teacher's manuals, 2nd editions, or that one single exercise I wrote for a book, etc.). I suspect not, so take these rules of thumb as speculation. Maybe what counts more are the facts that: 1) I've had some other ten or so books rejected, and 2) I've worked with a whopping number of publishers, at least ten, including all the big ones.

So, whether you choose to consider the following as sage advice, speculation, or delusion - probably all apply - here are my observations on publishing.

 - If you are thinking about publishing a textbook to make money, think again. I've only paid off one of my houses on the Riviera with this year's royalties. Well, okay, the truth is, I figure for the time put in, and with some books having zero return, I probably would have done as well working in a coffee shop. One out of a hundred writers make a lot of money; the other 99 don't. Count on getting about 50 yen per book sold to student. That means that even if 1000 students use it - and that's a lot of English classes - you'll only get 50,000 yen in royalties. Then again, you might get millions of yen worth of free dinners, draft beer, train fares, hotel accommodations, and conference fees if your publisher decides to use you to promote the book.

- You should be slightly eccentric. As you can see from the above, the kind of person that best suits textbook writing is someone who doesn't go out much on weekends and has a spouse who enjoys taking care of the kids, all the time. Around 25 years ago, Mike Rost described another characteristic of the archetypal author by telling me this one: "He's the kind of guy that sits around and writes activities all the time." Who might this primo be? It was Marc Helgesen before he published his first book, English Firsthand. Indeed. You should be the kind of person who can't help tinkering with things to make them better, and gets pure enjoyment from making things. You should be the kind of person who, even with a gorgeous partner on Ko Samui beach, finds it too boring to just lie there with your head in his or her lap, and so heads off to gather refuse to make a beach sculpture. (I used to get my poker buddies furious by tinkering with their standard games: "Five card stud; deuces wild unless the Suicide King comes up in the last round.")

 - An easy way to get in with a big publisher is to write teacher's manuals and workbooks for their other projects. They're always looking for dependable writers in that regard. Have some product to show them, published or not. Once you get one book published, even an ancillary, it is easy to get other opportunities because you've shown you have the publisher's BIG THREE: you produce, you are easy to work with, and you can write exercises that don't embarrass them.

 - It doesn't matter how good your book is. That alone does not mean it'll get discovered as such once it gets published. It might be the most brilliant work on the market (Roger Barnard and I agree all of ours were), but it is almost impossible for someone to tell how good a book is until they use it in class. If the publisher doesn't lay it out well, give it a catchy title, or go to lengths to promote it, you have little chance of being discovered. Then, even if they do, there are so many different teachers out there that what tickles one might infuriate the next (aka, The Snoop Detective School Conversation Book). Anyway, the bottom line is, try to get a publisher that just comes out with a few new books each year and works hard to promote them. Try to get a publisher that has good design in their other books. I knew one author who had a superb writing book but it was drowned by being published with margin-to-margin text without white space or illustrations.

 - In this regard, study some graphic design. Publishers say they just want text files without layout, but don't believe them. That may be the case when your final draft gets sent to the development editor, but it helps heaps to have the sample chapter in your proposal make them gasp. It is not just a matter of choosing stunning photographs and using the column function on MS Word either. Learn design. At the minimum, read Robin William's The Non-Designers Design Book.

 - The thing with co-authors is funny. It is kind of like marriage without the sex. Expect anything, and be prepared to take it. Rarely do two coauthors work perfectly together, and when they do, there is another risk: "group think." Expect disagreements over who is in charge, what is the right way to proceed , and what is the most important thing in your approach. Expect one of you to be more productive, sometimes drastically so. Expect one of you to do the lion's share of the post-draft revising. Expect one of you to do most of the promoting once published. Therefore, try to make very clear conditions on what and how much each of you is expected to do. Leave options for change in the initial agreement that you can adapt it later, but be specific too. Humor helps.

 - Getting published is mainly luck. Granted, you have to have something good to start with, which means it is more what the market wants than what it needs, but you also have to send it to the right editor: one who just finished a couple other projects and has room for yours; and the right publisher: one who just realized that their current (circle one) speaking, listening, children's, large college class, corpus-based, business English, IELTS-friendly, pocket-sized textbook is getting a little grey around the muzzle. It takes luck. A book series I was working on was taken up by Cambridge at one time, but dropped when they chose another author's work. It was taken up by Oxford ten years later, but dropped again when the editor in charge went to Cambridge. Five years later again, parts of it finally found a home with Cengage as Active Skills for Communication, when out of the blue, Chuck Sandy invited me to coauthor the series with him. By the way, the parts I used got updated and a lot better. So there, UPs (CUP and OUP)!

 - It helps to meet someone in the publishing company face-to-face when you make your proposal. - Finding a publisher and writing the book (not always in that order) is less than half the job. Count on spending at least as much time rewriting it, as writing it. (Then again, to my later embarrassment, some of my publishers just sent my first drafts off to the printers.) In one project, I had to write three completely new pages for each one that finally got into print. I have always found that rewriting is painful, and not always for the better. If either the editor, or author, really always knew best, revising would be easy, but that is never the case.

 - Low level books are hard. They have less text on the page, but that doesn't mean they are easier to write. You have to strain at every activity, every instruction line, and every single word choice, to make them leveled right, transparent, and just as fun as their bigger brothers. I always tell people that authoring Writing from Within Intro was a lot harder than writing my 600-page dissertation (they were done somewhat simultaneously), but then again, that might say something about my dissertation.

 - Finally, as actor, musician, director, Steve Martin (not the sales rep we know) once said, in every project, every single one, there comes a time when it seems that it'll all fall apart and die. Don't worry, it won't. You have to just keep on plugging away and get through that dark time. It is never as bleak as it may seem.

Well, I hope this helps, and I'd love to hear what you have to say on this interesting topic too.

Curtis Kelly (EDD), a professor at Kansai University. He coauthored Significant Scribbles (Pearson-Longman), The Snoop Detective School Conversation Book (Macmillan), Surechigai 100 (Sanseido), two chapters in an Oxford book on Japanese colleges, the Writing from Within series (Cambridge), Active Skills for Communication (Cengage), and a bunch of others.


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November 15 - 18, 2024 • Shizuoka Granship, Shizuoka, Japan