How to Find a Marketable Idea for Self-Publishing

This is the second part of my series on Self-Publishing Teaching Materials. In part one, I talked about how to come up with an idea for original content.

Here I’ll talk about finding a marketable idea for self-publishing. It’s nice to put your teaching materials out there, but how do you know what your potential customers want? What’s the difference between a teaching book that is marketable and one that isn’t, particularly in the education market? What types of self-published books sell the best?


Why are you self-publishing?

Many people self-publish because they want complete creative control over their project. They have a very specific vision for what their teaching materials should look like or how they want those materials delivered.

This is, of course, one of the most attractive benefits of self-publishing your teaching materials. You can write what you please, lay it out as you please, and distribute or market it as you please! If you aren’t concerned with making money, you may not care if your materials are marketable or not. Authors may want to self-publish for a variety of reasons where marketability of the idea doesn’t matter:

  • To use the materials in their own classroom or school
  • To give away to teachers, schools, students, or non-profits in need
  • To give away in order to get the idea out there
  • To add to their resume or gain prestige
  • Personal satisfaction and experience

If any of the reasons above are your main motivation for self-publishing your teaching idea, you may not think about marketability. You’re welcome to skip ahead to my next post about self-publishing resources you’ll need and where to find them.

However, regardless of your motivations, it’s good to take a minute to think about whether anyone will pick up your book free or not. Will it be useful? So it might be helpful to think less about finding a marketable idea for self-publishing, than finding a useful or beneficial idea for self-publishing, one teachers will actually use.

And there’s also no shame in wanting to make a profit, either. You have a right to try to make a living on your work!

Finding a Marketable Idea for Self-Publishing

Remember, in the last article, I suggested that in order to self-publishing, you need to start with original content that teachers want to buy. I talked about original content last time.  Now let’s talk about “what teachers want to buy” or at least use.

Here are some cool ideas I’ve had or that people have shared with me.

  • Ideas for EFL students to mingle with native speakers inside or outside the classroom.
  • A book that uses sports metaphors to teach general English.
  • A Minecraft world that teaches grammar as students adventure through the world.
  • Graded readers based on tales of extreme sports athletes like triathlons.

Which ones did you like?

Personally, I like all of them. They all sound fun and interesting.

But which ideas will appeal to a broad audience? Which ones will attract teachers or administrators to purchase and use the books? That’s what we mean by marketable.

There’s no magic formula for knowing, obviously, and publishing, like any other industry, relies to some extent on instinct. However, we can do some research and get some useful and objective indicators as to whether a self-publishing idea is marketable or not.

I like to break the issue down into 3 questions:

  1. Will other teachers use it?
  2. Can other teachers use it?
  3. Will it provide value?
Professional-looking woman smiling as she looks at a tablet, presumably because it contains helpful information.
Look how happy this teacher reading your book is because your materials are so amazing.

Will other teachers use it?

Just because an idea sounds interesting to you or me doesn’t mean it sounds interesting to everyone. You need a sense of the universal appeal of an idea before publishing it. We can look at that in a few different ways, too.

One factor to look at is what’s trending right now and what teachers are talking about. Take a look at conference themes, plenary speaker topics, what the big names are blogging about, webinar topics being put out by publishers, teacher-training institutes and other institutions. By those metrics, at the current moment, sustainability, diversity & inclusion, and social-emotional learning are big. Do your materials touch on any of those topics?

Now, I’m not saying you should write about a trending topic if you have no expertise and interest in that area. We’re looking at evaluating your existing idea or materials. If you’re still in the planning stages, and are able to write authoritatively about a hot topic, that’s great too!

Another thing to look at is what others are doing. Take a look at marketplaces where teachers produce and sell resources, such as Teachers Pay Teachers or TES. What is selling there? What’s in-demand? What are teachers showing you they need? This is another way to get indirect research on what teachers are looking for. Chances are the teacher-creators are creating materials that they themselves want or need!

Of course, if you determine there is a market with competitors, you’ll need to do something to set yourself apart. We talked about finding your niche last time. Make sure that your materials do something your competitors don’t. We’ll look more at that below when we talk about adding value.

Of course, the best way to find out what teachers want and need is to ask them. Talk to your colleagues, go to conferences and other events and pitch your idea. If you have access to a mailing list or social media group, set up a poll about your idea. You can make this a very elaborate survey on Google Forms or Survey Monkey or it could be a simple question “Would you use X resource?” or “what’s your biggest complaint about Y-type resources?”.

Can other teachers use it?

This is a distinct question because it looks less at interest and more at logistics. I would love to do a book teaching grammar through Minecraft, but I don’t know how many classroom teachers can really have their students on a Minecraft server during grammar class. On the other hand, teachers are using Minecraft in all sorts of creative ways in educational settings.

Another issue if your materials are too original is that teachers may need extensive training and expertise to use them. I worked on a textbook project that used the genre-based approach to writing. This approach is truly wonderful but very different from the traditional five-paragraph essay approach. Teachers using it need some training. Teachers or administrators looking to purchase your book might be very excited about your idea but ultimately reject it because they can’t implement it.

Other logistical issues might include syllabus requirements, class size, class length, the need for exam prep,

Will it provide value?

Finally, to make sure an idea is sellable, you have to make sure it actually teaches kids English. I like the Minecraft grammar book idea and one day, I’ll figure it out. But when I’ve actually tested my ideas, it’s turned out to be a pretty poor way to teach grammar. And kids get distracted way too fast (If you know how to do it, let me know and I’ll be happy to work with you!) And most teachers are pretty good at sniffing out what could work in the classroom and what probably won’t.

The coolness of an idea can sell a few books. It get teachers willing to try it sometimes. It might even motivate them to rework the logistics of their classroom. Ultimately, however, a gimmick can’t educate students. And that means you won’t have long-term sales.

Now we have slightly more concrete questions, how do we research our book idea and make sure it’s a marketable one.

Happy students sitting at a table working with books open and pens out.
I don’t know where our teacher got this project idea, but boy are we learning from it!

Go to the People

How do I know Social and Emotional Learning are big? I hear it used at conventions, in presentations and webinars, and when I talk to my son’s teachers. I see it used on teacher blogs, publisher sites, and social media. How do I know distance learning is big now? I see tons of posts asking about it.

I highly recommend regularly reading blogs, social media accounts, and if possible a magazine or journal, as well as going to some webinars or even conferences in the area of your book. Keep in touch with what’s current.

Also research your idea and see what’s being said about it. If you have an idea for a new kind of graded reader, try to see what the latest research is on readers as well as checking out what other publishers are doing now.

Where can you get your hands on free research, if you’re not a student or professor at a university?

  • Blogs are a great source of summaries of research and articles.
  • https://eric.ed.gov/ is a US government website that publishes a lot of free research articles in education.
  • Local libraries often have access to research databases and if you live near a college or university, you might be able to use their library for journal access.

Testing, Testing, 1,2,3

Even if your idea is brilliant and well-supported by research as well as in-demand by teachers, it’s always a good idea to test it out. Hopefully, if your materials are meant for students to use, then you’ve already used them in your own classroom and gotten student feedback.

And If you aren’t using your own to-be-published materials in your own classroom, you should be! Using your own materials not only lets you know what works and what doesn’t, it also helps you revise. And when you do publish you’ll be able to talk to people about it goes in a real-life teaching situation.

Your colleagues are another great source of information as to whether your idea is marketable idea or not. Get them to use your resources in their classes and report back. Even better, observe how they use them. Look at how they adapt them and how they supplement them. That’ll show you what your materials look like in use and what might be missing!

You can even offer a sample for free online. It’s amazing how many teachers are willing to review materials for free, although sometimes getting them to provide feedback takes some persistence. This test phase is also a great time to 1) get your name out there, 2) collect feedback to edit and revise your materials, and 3) get some testaments you can use as a blurb or to write your book descriptions when you get to marketing.

Where can you put your materials out there for free or a small fee?

  • Teachers Pay Teachers is a great place to share teaching materials especially as teachers are already going there to find resources.
  • A blog. Services like WordPress.com, Blogger, Medium or Wix let you set up a free blog pretty painlessly. Then you can share materials as posts or attached as files. What’s nice about blogs is that you can ask for comments and get feedback.
  • Email. Set up a mailing list, broadcast it on social media, and send your subscribers your materials.

Regardless of how you get your materials out there, be sure to ask for follow-up. I like to set up a survey in Google Forms and be sure to have a mix of targeted and open-ended questions. I might ask teachers to rate the materials on a scale of 1–7 on various points. Then I might ask what their favorite part of the materials was.

Be Open to Change

Don’t ask for feedback and then ignore it. Be open to adapting your materials. Sometimes that means changing the whole format from a PDF to a Google Slide or from a reading to a listening. Sometimes it means adding a whole section, like a grammar lesson or a reading. Sometimes it means getting creative with YouTube videos or websites. And sometimes it means starting over from scratch!

And even if the feedback is negative and you end up scrapping your idea, you’ll have the information you need to create something else. Maybe the book on sports metaphors failed because many teachers report they prefer cooking to sports. OK, do a book on teaching English through cooking instead!

Of course, you’ll have to evaluate feedback. Is the person giving it from your target audience? Does it seem feasible? Is it a change you really want to make? Does it conflict with other feedback you’ve gotten? Is it a one-off comment or do lots of people make the same critique? Listening to feedback doesn’t mean doing everything everyone suggests. But it’s better to get suggestions now before you devote a ton of time, energy, and money to an idea that doesn’t do well.

Let me end on a note of optimism. It might feel like this post is all about showing you your idea doesn’t have wings. In fact, my intent is the opposite. I find it really exciting to take a raw idea I have and hone it so that others will be able to appreciate and enjoy it as much as I do. Doing a little research and getting a little feedback to ensure a marketable idea for self-publishing isn’t a compromise to me!
And if sticking to your guns and your passion is really your thing, that’s fine too. You may just stumble on the next big thing.  And if that’s where you’re at, I leave with you Frank Sinatra’s “They All Laughed”.


This article is part of a series on self-publishing in ELT. In the previous article, I talked about How to find strong content for self-publishing teaching materials. In the next article, I’ll talk about where to find images and how to stay clear of copyright or legal issues.

And if you’re looking for some help self-publishing, check out my portfolio and rates and services.


Some of this content was originally posted in IATEFL’s Voices and on my Medium blog.

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