EdStartup 101: The Pain Test

To be honest, my real pain this week was:

  • one book deadline
  • another major deadline this week
  • the start of regular classes next week
  • I have to move to a new office soon (frakkin’ packing’!)
  • and two presentations to prepare for a fast-approaching conference.

But, I shall attempt to test the depths of the pain associated with My Idea.

Identify Your Assumptions

What causes the problem?

Basically, I think ELT publishers are very comfortable with the current coopetition they have going on (maybe especially in Japan). Why? There has been huge consolidation in the industry and the few majors can effectively share the market for graded readers in English and it is very hard for anyone else to enter. Friends who started a quite successful textbook company gave up trying to get into the graded reader segment because the barriers to entry were too high. Why? You need a huge catalogue right from the start if you want to sell paper readers through retail outlets. Sales direct to schools are a pretty narrow channel to get through.

Why else? Inertia. There is an awful lot of “We’ve always done it this way. We have a library with shelves this size. I finally got people used to it.”

Why? Publishers are scared of getting into the digital book space. They saw what happened with music and movies.

Why else? Economies of scale, worldwide distribution of paper books, and trying to market from kids to adults in one product means the readers tend to be bland and to converge. Also, there’s P.A.R.S.N.I.P.s to be reckoned with.

What are people with the problem doing to solve it?

Not that much as far as I can see. A look at self-publishing platforms like Feedbooks and Smashwords doesn’t turn up much. Kieran McGovern is one exception  Panda eBooks is another but they are really going after young kids. Nothing out there for adults. I’ve tried self-publishing some ebook readers myself. It wasn’t hard, but it didn’t change the world either.

The big players have been very slow to get into this. I just turned in the manuscript for my fourth graded reader with a major publisher which would be perfect as an ebook–it is an adaptation of a Choose Your Own Adventure game book–but it will come out in paper.

What are all of the current solutions to the problem?

Schools sometimes get around the cost problem by asking students to one to three of a large set of readers, then exchange with classmates. This gets around the cost problem, but with lots of other attendant headaches and weaknesses. It was the best available option at my previous uni. We had 2,100 students buy two readers each year. There is a lot of demand out there.

Another solution is piracy. Sheet fed scanners and OCR software are dirt cheap. Schools discourage this for obvious reasons, but it works for individuals.

Another solution are kids apps from general education. There are tons of them out there. But just because language aimed at 6-10 year olds seems easy, it isn’t appropriate for ESL/EFL learners.

Simple English Wikipedia is great, and I edit there when I can, but it is one genre only. No literature.

Why aren’t the current solutions good enough?

I think I spelled that out out in the Idea post, but in nutshell, has nothing happened in publishing for language learners since 1920? (OK. CD audio was added. )  So much is being left untapped.

How long has it been a problem?

The problems of cost, replacement, and management of paper books have been with us for a long time. But really the problem of no ebook literature for language learners is recent. It’s just in the past year or two that most of my students have started turning up with smartphones or tablets suitable for reading. Three to five years for independent, adult learners.

How easily could something happen to make the problem go away?

Pretty easily I think. Just needs the hard work of organizing and doing to make a solid start. The added features like better dictionary support, tracking, mining data for research, etc. require expertise and good design (that is hard).

Verify your understanding of the problem

How many people do I know that have the problem?

Hundreds. Thousands if you include all of the students I’ve had in language programs or classes.

Do you know any experts?

Yep. Plenty of ’em.

Do you have wide variety of sources documenting the problem?

Yes. There has been plenty published about this direct problem and related aspects by Paul Nation, Tom Cobb, others. i’ll have to come back and document this.

Start asking…

No time this week I’m afraid, but I’ve talked with teachers, writers, students, and publishers at length about this.

Monetizable pain hypothesis

Why go to all this trouble? Will someone return a cold call to sell this to them?

If I call somebody or email them and say, “Hey. I can get you some different graded readers that–aren’t exactly like all the others; are suitable for college students/adults; have added features; are more convenient; and cost less.” I think people will pay.

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2 responses to “EdStartup 101: The Pain Test

  1. It sounds very reasonable, and I see why you think people will pay. The task now is to call 20 of them and ask if they would, hypothetically. Listen to the things they say that challenge your assumptions…

    • I will have to talk with people, but it’s a madhouse this week and next getting ready for national language teachers’ conference. I’m an officer and presenting twice, so…

      There are two different groups I need to talk with:
      1. independent, adult learners (harder to reach for me)
      2. EFL teachers (I can reach many in Japan)

      The main problem with #2 is getting beyond people I know so it is really a “cold” call. I’ve already been trying to infect people around me with this idea.

      Thinking over the cold call scenario today, I predict fewer problems for group 1, but several objections from group 2. Especially, payment. In my experience, schools typically won’t pay by credit card. Students often don’t have them. So that might be a sticking point. OTOH, it is pretty trivial to buy cards like iTunes cards. Might be a solution.

      Will not know until I can actually contact some new people I don’t already know who have this problem. Calls will be difficult logistically, but an online survey might get me a quick start. Not really a substitute though. Ugh. I see many Monday afternoons in the office trying to cold-call people. Not THAT is pain!

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