Instant Ideas for Busy Teachers...
by Barbara Gruber and Sue Gruber
Secrets of Success---Writing for Educational Publishers
Have other teachers asked to use ideas you've created? Have you thought about submitting some of your original ideas to publishers in the hopes of selling them? If you are a teacher who generates a lot of original ideas, we'd like to help you better understand how you can turn those ideas into submissions for publication. We encourage you to engage in making submissions to publishers. This article is not about self-publishing. This is about writing as a business for profit. In this article, our focus is on creating original products to sell to educational publishers.
We are not experts on freelance writing or publishing. We are simply sharing ideas that worked for us. We have successfully developed and sold over one hundred fifty products to publishers in the past two decades. Over time, we've learned some "secrets of success" that work for us. Currently, we have approximately forty curriculum products and teacher resource books being sold worldwide by four publishers. Our current projects are eight teacher resource books to be released this spring by Practice and LearnRight (www.learnright.net). Also, we are developing additional professional development courses for Barbara Gruber Online Courses for Teachers (www.bgrubercourses.com).
If you have ever considered selling your original ideas to publishers, this information should help. Freelance writing is not for sensitive souls or the faint-of-heart. You must establish emotional distance from the process or it can be incredibly painful. Rejection is not easy to accept---you will receive rejections. Barbara received over fifty rejections before finally making a sale. The more proposals you submit, the greater your chances of having one click! We encourage you to try freelance writing in the field of education. We found success in freelance writing without "inside connections" in the publishing industry. Beyond profits, it is satisfying knowing your ideas help teachers teach and help children learn.
- What is the essence of writing and product development?
Writing is a market-driven business. The writer, or product developer, must understand who their customers are, what they need, and what they will buy. The product developer must understand how the product will be used by the customer. They need to ascertain that the product is something the customer wants, needs and is willing to pay for. Product development starts with the end user. Customers needs drive the market.
- What do publishers do?
It is the publisher's job to produce, advertise, market, and sell products. In other words, publishers front the money for producing, advertising and marketing the product. Writing for publishers is about creating products that publishers can sell profitably. Publishers sell their products in a variety of ways. They may mail out direct mail catalogs and have websites through which they sell directly to customers. They may also sell products wholesale to distributors who resell products in stores and catalogs. Writers do not pay publishers to publish their work.
- How can you figure out what kinds of products are selling best?
Go into a book store and study the bookshelves. If the store has five shelves dedicated to cook books and one shelf dedicated to parenting books, you can safely assume they are selling five times as many cookbooks as parenting books. In other words, the books that are getting the most "real estate" on the shelves are the products that sell well. Go into a school supply store and look at the space they have allocated to reading, math, and science. Let's assume they are managing their inventory well and they know what is and is not selling. If most of their K-3 materials are about reading that must be the subject they sell most to K-3 teachers.
Look through publishers' catalogs. If a publisher has allocated most the catalog space to products about science, it is safe to assume that they specialize in science materials and they sell best for that publisher.
The reason you want to understand the types of products that sell best is that publishers are going to be looking for proposals for these kinds of products. You want to target your submissions to publishers whose customers will also buy your product.
- What should you do if you already have a product idea?
Start a file folder and label it with your product idea. If you have three product ideas, start separate folders for each idea. Whenever you have an ideas, questions, or random thoughts about your products, jot them down and stash papers in the appropriate file folders.
Start out by analyzing your idea. Ask yourself:
Who needs this?
Can I build a product out of this, or is it a quick tip or vague concept?
Why would they buy it?
How would it be used?
Do teachers everywhere need it or just teachers in your area?
Is your product trendy or will it stand the test of time?
Is your product activity cards, a game, reproducible worksheets, or a book?
How is it similar to existing products on the market?
Does it compete directly with products publishers have or does it complement or extend their product lines?
How is your product fresh, new and different from existing products?
Will your product help teachers teach skills and/or manage their classrooms?
Does your product have "legs" so it can be part of a group of products?
- If you don't have a product idea, how can you come up with one?
Start a file folder labeled "Ideas!" When you think of something you wish you had, or think of a different way to do something jot it down and stash your ideas in the folder. The key is to come up with a fresh idea, or fresh approach, that will help teachers teach skills and/or manage their classrooms. You need to find a need and come up with a way to fill it with an innovative product.
- If you know what you want to develop, what do you do next?
Let's say you have a goldmine of fresh, original ideas for kindergarten teachers. Therefore, you want to write a resource book for kindergarten teachers. Go to several school supply stores and survey the market. Look at the books that are already available. These books will compete with the product you want to write. How many pages are they? Who published the books? It's a good idea to submit a product for kindergarten teachers to publishers who already are selling to kindergarten teachers. They have customers who are kindergarten teachers; therefore, they will want more products to sell to those existing customers. Copy mailing addresses from products or go to publishers' websites to get contact information.
- It's time to put black on white!
It's time to put words on paper---black ink on white paper! Write the first few pages and start developing a table of contents. Rough out these pages---you'll have plenty of time to revise and edit later. Jot down all the ideas that come into your head. You can always discard them later. If you are hoping to write and sell a 48-page resource book for kindergarten teachers, you need to develop enough pages so an editor can get "a feel" for the whole book, even though it is not yet written. If the book is going to be divided into four sections or topics, we would write the first three pages for each section. We would also write an introduction and develop a table of contents. Now we have a fourteen-page proposal for our product submission. Do not develop and submit the complete product.
Look at the pages in your proposal. Pretend you are a customer who just picked up that product in a store. Is it something you would buy? If not, you need to rethink and rework to make it more innovative, appealing and needed by the customer. We have a box labeled "Back Burner," it is filled with folders containing ideas that lack sales appeal. Occasionally, we go through the Back Burner Box and ideas hit us on how to tweak something into a wonderful product proposal. Many of those ideas will never see the light of day because they do not have what it takes to be viable products.
As you write, present ideas so they can work in virtually every classroom. Since teachers have unique teaching styles, different classroom setups, and different groups of children your idea must be adaptable. It has to work in varied situations with different teaching styles. Make it specific enough so teacher know what to do, but generic enough so it works for everyone.
- What about artwork? What about page design?
We are not illustrators, so we draw stick figures or bubbles indicating space for art. We can write in the bubble "art: show two children reading together." If you are an illustrator, you may want to add illustrations to your proposal. Do not hire an illustrator to illustrate your proposal.
- Develop a "sell sheet" for busy editors.
When the editor opens your proposal, they are asking themselves, "What is this?" and "Will it sell." We use a "sell sheet" instead of a letter to the editor. We call this one-page capsule a "sell sheet" because it is a selling tool for our product. Editors say they appreciate our "sell sheets" because they can quickly grasp what the idea is and the market for which it is intended. At the top of the page, we have our contact information and one sentence:
"Please review this product submission for publication."
Target Market: Kindergarten Teachers
Type of Product: Resource Book
Working Title(s): Create a temporary title or two. Titles should specifically describe products.
Product Overview: Write six to eight sentences to sell editors on your proposal. Remember, editors are looking for products that are fresh, timely and will sell well. You must convince them that your ideas are what teachers want, need and are willing to buy at this time.
Who are you? Tell about your expertise and experience that qualifies you to develop this product.
Three other items we add to "sell sheets":
- We are flexible and willing to change concepts in the proposal.
- If we do not receive a response within thirty days, please consider the proposal to be withdrawn.
- If you are not interested, kindly return our manuscript. Please let us know the kinds of proposals you are looking for at this time.
- What about copyrights? Will your idea be stolen?
We believe if you have fresh, original ideas that publishers know are going to sell well, they will be thrilled to have you write for them. Remember, you have not sent them the entire manuscript---they need you to write the rest of it. Keep in mind, publishers get hundreds of submissions; many are very similar even though they may come opposite sides of the USA. Also, your proposal may be similar to something the publisher already has "in the works." Or, it may be similar to something they have considered in product development meetings and postponed for the future. We've had the good fortune, with one disappointing exception, of dealing with publishers who were ethical and trustworthy. However, there is an element of risk here. Yes, you can copyright whatever you send in but you have no way of knowing what the ideas are that publishers are already working on. The holder of the copyright must defend the copyright. How could you possibly prove they took your idea and didn't already have that idea in the works?
- Submit your proposal in a 9" x 12" envelope to the editor.
Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) so it can be returned to you. We submit proposals to one publisher at a time. Try to get the name of the editor from the publisher's website. Keep track of where your proposals are and when they were sent. Give the publisher a four to six week deadline by which they must respond to you or you will submit the material elsewhere.
- You must establish emotional distance from your work.
Prepare to be disappointed. Unless you are incredibly fortunate, and come up with a truly hot idea that clicks immediately, you will get rejections. It is part of the business of freelance writing. After dozens of rejections, Barbara still remembers almost every word of a phone call in l975. It was from the editor at The Mailbox saying they wanted to publish her product. Once Barbara sold a product for payment, she was a professional writer. Thereafter, on all her submissions, she wrote "Submitted by a published writer" on the outside of the envelopes. She wanted her submissions on the top of the pile on the editor's desk. To succeed, freelance writing requires writers to be resilient, resourceful and persistent.
- Don't quit your day job!
If a publisher wants to buy your work, you will enter into a contract with them. Make sure you fully understand what you are signing. Authors are paid a flat fee or a royalty on each product that is sold. It is our understanding that most publishers pay a flat fee and buy works outright. In her early days as a writer, Barbara was paid a flat fee for a kit containing twenty-four reproducible math books for a "big name" publisher. As it turned out that worked in her favor---the kit was poorly advertised, they stopped publishing K-6 materials, and the product "died on the vine." If she had been paid royalties, she would have earned far less. If you succeed in developing a "name for yourself" and a following of customers, then you can negotiate better payments from publishers.
As you can tell, we approach writing as a no-nonsense business. It's not about seeing our names in print. It's about creating products that sell well to teachers. We love working with teachers and developing products. Product development is challenging, creative and exciting. We have pulled "all nighters" to meet deadlines and spent weekends consuming popcorn and yogurt while writing nonstop. We have sat and stared at blank computer screens thinking we will never come up with another marketable idea. And, we've been in the grocery store and had great ideas hit us in the produce department.
Let's look at two kinds of product development experiences. One involves a truly original idea and the other does not. You can market your original ideas or new ways to present existing concepts. But, you can't market someone else's copyrighted or licensed works.
Reproducible Worksheets: As a second grade teacher, Barbara came up with an original technique to help children write paragraphs. She was able to tweak this idea and make it work on reproducible worksheets, even though in her classroom it was not a worksheet activity. Learning to Write Paragraphs-Grade 2 and another version for Grades 3-5 was sold to Frank Schaffer Publications and has had a long market life and still sells well.
Word Walls: Word walls are not a new idea---we used them before they were called "word walls." We knew word walls were about to become very popular and they were not available in ready-to-use form. Teachers can take time to make word walls---they certainly don't have to buy them. However, teachers value their time and will purchase products educationally-sound materials.
Publishers like groups of products rather than products that stand alone. We prepared a proposal and submitted it to a publisher whose product line was "a fit" for word walls. The publisher came up with a clever way of packaging the word wall cards into a book so teachers can see what they are buying. We've all had the experience of buying something in a sealed baggie only to be disappointed at what is inside! We are primary teachers and reading specialists; therefore, we were fussy about almost everything. The cards had to be large enough and the letters had to be big and bold. The spacing between the letters had to be even and the letters had to be correctly formed. Creating word walls is more than printing words on cards. It requires an understanding of curriculum requirements, skills sequencing and teaching word skills. Our word wall products are sold by Practice and LearnRight (www.learnright.net). There are also resource books and word charts related to the word wall products.
This group of products includes eight Instant Word Walls:
- Easy High-Frequency Words K-3
- High Frequency Words K-3
- Word Families/Rimes K-3
- Frequently Misspelled Words K-3
- Root Words, Prefixes and Suffixes 1-6
- Plurals and Word Endings
There are twenty-four charts and two teacher idea books in this group of products.
- Lists & Lessons -- Essential Word Lists and Word Skills Lessons
- How to Use Word Walls
This group of 8 word walls and 26 related products will stand the test of time because teachers will always need to teach basic word skills. It is not based on an original idea; however, it saves teachers time and work and it helps teach important skills.
Have we encouraged to "go for it?" Are you ready to get some of your original ideas on their way to publishers? We hope we've stimulated your creative juices and provided an understanding of the product development and submissions processes. Perhaps this information is exactly what you needed to start submitting your original ideas---we certainly hope so!
We enjoy our involvement in the creative endeavor of product development and writing. And, we love working with children and teachers.
We wish you the best!
Barbara Gruber, M.A. & Sue Gruber, M.A.
Copyright 2002: Barbara Gruber Online Courses for Teachers