A king’s ransom at a teacher’s pay scale | The pricing of methodology books

Teaching Unplugged Scott Thornbury

Several months ago, I was browsing through some online book stores to see if I could get a good deal for Scott Thornbury’s Beyond the Sentence. On one such site, I was shocked to discover Teaching Unplugged on sale at the magical discounted price of ₹154,010 (that’s $2566 for all you muggles). I suspect that this was probably an error but it got me thinking about the pricing of ELT methodology books. I have Teaching Unplugged and I bought it for  ₹250 ($4).  You see, in India, books across genres, are generally priced at a lower range than in the rest of the world. I usually think twice about buying a book which costs more than ₹500 ($8) and many of the books I’m interested in are priced for the Indian market such that they fall well within this limit. It’s something I was aware of and hadn’t paid much attention to – like the disclaimer on the backs of Cambridge Univ. Press books – ever so slightly beyond my peripheral vision.

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It was only when I did my Delta Module 2 in Bangkok that I in fact realized how expensive ELT books can actually be and oddly, the catalyst  was Christine Nuttall. Nuttall’s opus, Teaching Reading Skills from Macmillan was much in demand among my peers so much so that you weren’t allowed to spend more than a night with her. And it’s quite a read. One of the other students was fed up with waiting and found a book store dedicated to ELT resources from where he promptly purchased Nuttall. That weekend, I explored the back sois of Phetchaburi in a bid to find the shop, which I did after much looking. I’d never seen anything like it before – a fairly large space that catered almost exclusively to language teaching resources and specifically to ELT. Two walls filled with dictionaries. An entire atrium of course books organized by theme. And finally a large corner shelf stacked with books for teachers. I couldn’t contain my excitement at this point and began to quickly pull out titles I wanted to buy. No prices were mentioned on the books so I took my pile over to the cashier. The cheapest book in the pile was 800 baht! And the most expensive was a whopping 4800 baht! Something was wrong. I went back to the corner shelf and took out a couple of books whose Indian prices I could guesstimate. Natural Grammar for which I’d paid $2 back home was being sold at over four times that price.  Almost nothing was less than 800 baht. Not even old, old Penny Ur books with stylized illustrations from the 1980s.

Later that week, when I was having a bit of a whinge about this to my Delta peers, I discovered that everyone else seemed habituated to paying these crazy prices. One of the other teachers who’s English and lives in Japan confessed that her ELT collection was probably among the most expensive things she owned and on her way over to Bangkok from Tokyo, she kept gems from her heavy, prized collection in her hand baggage to ensure that they wouldn’t experience anything untoward.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world but even in India despite that differential pricing that OUP and CUP practise with some of their titles and efforts by Delta to bring out some books through a local publisher, the majority of books are out of reach for most English educators. CUP India prices Listening in the Language Classroom at a reasonable ₹306 ($5). But The Language of Business Meetings, a book I’ve always wanted is listed as ₹2534 ($42). Alright, so the average English teacher probably wouldn’t invest in The Language of Business Meetings. Let’s have a look at Teaching Multilevel Classes – surely that’s a book most teachers would be interested in – ₹2219 ($37).  This one too states that it’s only meant for SAARC countries which means that this is apparently a low priced edition for South Asia. But, the price seems in line with the UK. It’s a mystery how CUP determines prices for its South Asia editions. Some are truly priced within a very reasonable range and others completely out of reach. Fairly arbitrary. I have to appreciate OUP in this regard because at least with their Resource Books for Teachers series, they seem to have consistently priced titles below ₹500.  Delta offers many of its methodology titles through Viva Books in a range between ₹120 and ₹250 ($2 – $4) although they haven’t brought out anything new through Viva since The Developing Teacher. Macmillan does not publish any of its methodology books locally and for example Amazon India lists Uncovering Grammar as an import at ₹2342 ($39).

English teachers in India who work with institutions in urban areas earn on average ₹25,000 ($417) per month before taxes. In rural areas, it’s probably around ₹15,000 or less.  A book like Uncovering Grammar works out to be 10% of the monthly income of the average English teacher in urban India. I can’t claim to know why books are priced the way they are. I do wonder how much actually ends up going to the author but I suspect it’s not that much. So, the question that’s been bugging me is … who are all of these methodology books written for? The core audience couldn’t possibly be English teachers because the vast majority of them live in the developing world where just one of these books could cost between 10 – 20% of their monthly salaries – an unreasonable demand on a person who’s chronically underpaid and must prioritize all sorts of other essential needs before accumulating intellectual wealth in activities and approaches. Which leads me to infer that these books are in fact intended for institutions, well-off private language schools, expatriate teachers and teaching professionals in the West. And yet skimming the prefaces of these books reveals that some of these authors operate under the delusion they are somehow making the world a better place by improving the professional practices of ALL teachers and making life easier for them by distilling research into implementable little chunks and techniques.

I wish that were the case. Methodology books are clearly written and priced for what is referred to in Indian English as the creamy layer. If you can’t afford to buy it, then you and your learners don’t get to profit from the insights it contains. This line of reasoning is all to familiar to me as an Indian. My ancestors used it as a guiding philosophy to run a closed system for over three thousand years, denying access to books to all but a select few. Everyone else (if you were lucky) had to be content listening to second hand sermons gleaned from libraries.

The strictures imposed by the ELT ‘Brahmins’ prop up an enormously inequitable system, one that many authors themselves are uncomfortable with. Some seem to think the answer lies with initiatives like The Round and others are taking matters into their own hands, much to the chagrin of authors.

Scott Thornbury piracy

This is my ELT bookshelf. While it’s not huge, I count my blessings that I’m fortunate enough to have the financial ability to access far more books than most teachers in my country. I hope the day is not far when fair access to knowledge at a reasonable cost makes the seminal books of our profession available to all.

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5 thoughts on “A king’s ransom at a teacher’s pay scale | The pricing of methodology books

  1. You raise a really good point. Here in the UK, I can’t afford to do an MA (it costs thousands of £s, which few EFL teachers can afford to set aside), so to keep intellectually stimulated I like to try to do some further reading off my own bat, as it were. Apart from risking the (justified) annoyance of people like Scott Thornbury and going on Scribd I am reduced to searching the Amazon.co.uk used books sections in the hopes that someone is selling at a massive mark-down.

    What’s the solution? More hugely extensively detailed book reviews on blogs?

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  2. Thank you for sharing the UK perspective on this. It looks like we’re all in the same over-priced boat. At my last organization, we had a subscription to a site called GetAbstract (http://www.getabstract.com/) which had abstracts of often very expensive business/management books. The interface was quite nifty and you could download abstracts on to your phone, as a PDF or as a podcast. But, I really can’t say I got any insights from those abstracts – only a hankering to buy some outrageously expensive books.

    There’s another site called Books 24×7 (http://help.books24x7.com/bkb/) which could potentially offer a solution. Once you pay for a subscription – you get access to an online library and like Google Books, you can’t download the books although they allow limited chapter downloads for reference. Subscriptions come in tiers so you could opt for a plan that gives you access to just a restricted number of books in a year a lower price. They currently don’t have any ELT books and I wonder if the ELT publishing greats would ever acquiesce to that sort of an arrangement.

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  3. interesting that Nuttal is still so popular. Doesn’t she devote huge chunks of the book to skimming scanning guessing etc? Clearly Paran’s 1996 article had no effect on the TEFL world.

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  4. Pingback: Text mapping | An alternative approach to designing listening tests | Immersivities

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