Tim Lewis: Not entirely sure where on social media I met Olly the first time, but I met him in person because he’s another London-based author, and he’s been very successful in writing language books, and almost has like a little publishing company now that he runs, in terms of creating books to help people learn languages. He also speaks a considerable number of languages himself, which I’m always impressed by, being somebody who really doesn’t speak any language apart from English. In this show, I talk to him about the special challenges both of writing educational books, and also his quite long experience in self-publishing in general, and I think you’ll find it quite an interesting episode. So, now over to the show.
Tim Lewis: Hi, Olly. Welcome to the show.
Olly Richards: Hi, Tim. Good to talk to you again.
Tim Lewis: How did you first end up self-publishing foreign language teaching books?
Olly Richards: It wasn’t my first route into self-publishing. The first time I actually became aware of self-publishing was, it was actually a course I did many years ago, where it was a very kind of typical internet marketing course, really, where people were sort of saying, you know, “Come and learn how to self-publish books and make your first million,” and all of that. And I was a bit kind of swept up in the dream of that, so I did this course, and I learnt how to self-publish books on Amazon Kindle. Now, I actually found that doing that was not very fulfilling. We spoke about this last time we met, self-publishing for the sake of making money is quite a long slog. It’s not very fulfilling. You kind of end up spending your time doing things that really don’t have much to do with actually writing books.
Olly Richards: But the good thing about that was that it taught me the process. So, fast-forward a couple of years from then, two or three years, perhaps, I had started a different business. I was, and still am, teaching people how to learn languages. I speak eight languages myself, and so I kind of take the principles I learnt from that, and I teach other people how to do it. And there was a point where I was sort of thinking about what direction to take things in, and my mind kept going back to the knowledge that I had acquired learning how to self-publish books through this course that I’d done years previously.
Olly Richards: And so I thought, “Well, maybe there’s something I can do here,” and I started looking at the self-publishing market for language learning books, did a lot of research, looked into what was working, what wasn’t, and then I thought, “Well, now, what angle could I bring here? What can I bring to the marketplace? What am I good at? What could I possibly produce here?” And I decided on this very particular niche, which is short story books in foreign languages, and so I decided to pull the trigger, and the rest was history.
Tim Lewis: Okay, and did you find there were any special challenges in publishing books that weren’t in English in the sort of English market?
Olly Richards: Yes, many. I mean, the obvious problem being that while I do speak some of the languages in which I publish the books, others I don’t. So I have a book in Russian, for example, Russian short stories, and I don’t speak Russian, but I brought in co-authors for those, and obviously hired translators as well. The main problem is that when you start to move into that territory, you are not able to spot mistakes yourself, and a lot of self-published authors, they are as you know yourself, I’m sure, you kind of take care of everything, from the writing of the book, to the formatting of the manuscript, to the product description, to the proofreading, and all this stuff. You know, you’re kind of a one-man band, and I was when I first started doing all this.
Olly Richards: And so, when it came to looking at the final product in Russian, although I’d done a lot of due diligence with my translators, and I’d done everything I could, I wasn’t able to do all the quality-checking myself. And I kind of learnt that lesson the hard way; some of the translations that I first did, I think I relied too much on the expertise of the translator, and that, I’ve learnt, is a big mistake, because translation is fraught with problems. People are … I mean, the debates that go on in the world of translation, just incredibly detailed and nuanced, and they will nit-pick endlessly over every single choice of word. And so I got a bit of negative criticism at first from some of the different language versions, but I learnt my lesson, and I then put in place systems for quality assurance on the second editions and the new languages that we did. So that’s the main challenge.
Tim Lewis: So it’s ensuring that the translation are actually correct. Do you almost have an editor in the foreign language editing the books as well, once it’s completed by the translators, then?
Olly Richards: Yeah, I mean, you’ve got the same problems that you would have if you just released a book in English, which is that everything, real publishers, publishing houses will send things through four or five rounds of proofreading because they know that errors will always creep through, even if someone’s looked at it four or five times, and even then, you don’t spot everything. I mean, I’m not able to do that, for obvious reasons. There’s a huge cost implication. Whatever language you publish in, you’ve still got these quality control issues, which you have in any language, but the added difference when you’re translating into a foreign language is that you can’t necessarily account for the style of the translator, and so you have to make sure that not only is the translator good, but they’re also doing it in the style that you want, and that it’s appropriate.
Olly Richards: So, for example, my particular books are created for beginners, so, for example, if you’re learning German, then you would read one of my German short story books, and it’s in slightly simplified German. The challenge with that is that you don’t want to write in German that’s too difficult, because then it’s not for beginners anymore, but at the same time, if you oversimplify, then you kind of stray into the territory of it maybe being perceived as incorrect, or not natural. It’s a very difficult balance to get right, and so I had to … What I basically ended up doing is after the translation is done, I then take it to somebody else, who then goes through and gives it a fresh reading, and works on it, and then after … It basically has two rounds of translations, and then after that, then you have to do the proofreading and stuff like that, so it’s a long process.
Tim Lewis: Presumably, the first books you wrote, many years ago, when you were in the sort of Kindle gold rush days, they weren’t sort of, presumably, as educational as these new books, are there any challenges in terms of writing actually educational books, in terms of these short stories?
Olly Richards: You know, even when I was doing the when I was in the kind of Kindle gold rush, as you call it, which is a nice turn of phrase, because that’s exactly what it was, and even then, when that first became really popular, it was already … It very quickly became very saturated, and the … When internet marketers started first pushing their courses for that, it was already a lot of people doing it. And so, for that reason, one of the things that I remember being told when I first started learning about that stuff was that whatever you create has to be good. Yes, you can get a ghostwritten book done for a couple of hundred dollars in Romania or something, and yes, you’ll sell some copies, but very quickly, the negative reviews will pile up, it just won’t be of any good quality, there will be no word of mouth.
Olly Richards: And so, even if you are just in this from a purse marketing perspective, you still have to make sure the book is really good, and so … Basically, the time and attention you put into it equals, is proportionate to the results you get out. So in that sense, I don’t really think there’s anything particularly unique in terms of quality, because I think whether you are doing something specialist, like I am with these foreign language books, or whether you’re just in it for the gold rush, so to speak, the primary challenge, I think, is still making a good-quality book, because most people just don’t do that. Most people who are just putting books out left, right, and centre, they do not put the work in to assure the quality. And so, just by assuring the quality, that is the best way to rise to the top, and I think really, for people wanting to make a sustainable business in the education space, or even, I guess, the same thing goes for fiction, the absolute minimum standard is to write the best possible book, and so I think … And then everything else on that is kind of extra work.
Olly Richards: So the challenges that I faced with this were not particularly unique; it just comes down to really making sure the product is as good as it could possibly be. And for me, that starts at the conceptual stage, so I did a lot of research at the beginning before writing my first books, doing market research, talking to potential customers, asking them what for their ideas, having them critique them, giving them draught copies of the books to comment on, all these things. And so I went through a long process that really any good product should go through, and that’s probably what led to the relative success of the series.
Tim Lewis: Okay, so, our conversation before, in the real world, you mentioned that you’re going to be partnered with a publisher for some of your books going forward. Why did you make that decision to do that?
Olly Richards: Yeah, so this is something which I … The details I can’t talk about publicly at this stage, but yeah, a fairly important publishing house is acquiring this series of books from me, and that’s … It was something which … I mean, it’s really, really exciting, but it’s my no means a kind of no-brainer, because there are implications, and it very much affects what you … It affects a lot of things, from where the books are distributed to your royalties, and all these different things.
Olly Richards: I essentially felt it was too good an opportunity to pass up, because even though I’m fairly sure that I would actually make more money from royalties if I continued self-publishing, the particular deal doesn’t restrict me from continuing to self-publish, but having that association with the publisher, and all the things that come with that, such as contacts, exposure across different markets, media and publicity, all these things, I felt that it would … On the one hand, it would be I just have to hope that there are a lot of knock-on benefits from having that kind of exposure, but secondly, those opportunities don’t come along every day, and I was actually approached for this particular deal myself; I didn’t have to go knocking on any doors or anything, didn’t have an agent.
Olly Richards: And so I felt like if I turn this down, then when do I … What’s the … When does it happen again? When’s the next opportunity? Because most people who dream of publishing books obviously go through it in a very different route, and it’s a lot harder, a lot more time-consuming, and probably a lot more emotional in terms of the journey as well, and so I felt like I would really be looking a gift horse in the mouth if I didn’t pursue it.
Tim Lewis: Okay, so have you kind of, almost, in effect, sold the rights to your existing books, so that you can perhaps work on new ones? Is time part of the reason why you’re doing this?
Olly Richards: Not really. I mean, my system … I’ve got some pretty good systems in place in terms of actually, you know, the part of my business which does self-publishing. It would be fairly easy for me to continue. In fact, many people did recommend to me, like, “Why don’t you just keep doing it by yourself?” But part of the reason is that with this partnership, we’re now going to be able to publish books in 10, 20 more languages, and do things that I wouldn’t be able to do by myself, to a wonderful quality, as well, because these guys have got … They’re industry leaders in what they do, and it’s an opportunity to really make a dent in the world of language books, and that possibility, for me, is something very exciting.
Tim Lewis: Yeah, well, it sounds like it’s a good idea, anyway. What would you say is the biggest business lesson that you’ve learnt from self-publishing these language books?
Olly Richards: Well, the biggest one is what I probably already mentioned, which is that if what you want to create is a successful business which is self-perpetuating, that grows over time, quality has to come first. There is no way around that, and every time you skimp on quality, you’re ultimately shooting yourself in the foot long-term. But I think that mostly applies to people who might be in the so-called Kindle gold rush, but I know that a lot of self-publishers actually write books themselves, and are doing it because they want to put their own work out into the world, and for those people, the quality is kind of a given. When you write your own books, you do everything you can to make them … You know, you put your heart and soul into it.
Olly Richards: And so, for those people, I think … You know, you’ve got the quality there, and you’re writing great material. The main place where people will then fall down is not building a following of people who can then become like a publicity machine for them. Now, you hear people talk about this all the time in the self-publishing world, and it’s the kind of thing that I think people … Most people probably put off, or don’t take too seriously, because they … Because it kind of strays into the kind of dirty world of marketing and sales and things like that. But it is to build a platform and create a list, because for me now, the Kindle, the self-publishing … It’s not just Kindle, we have print-on-demand and audiobooks as well. It is a … It’s not the largest part of my business.
Olly Richards: The largest part of my business is the website and digital product, which are iwillteachyoualanguage.com, if anyone wants to check it out. And through that, one of the main things that I do is build an email list, a database of people, and it’s pretty much standard online marketing practise these days to build a list of people who want to hear more from you. You write articles, you teach, you collect email addresses, and then you follow up with those people, and you send them more useful stuff. And over time, this builds a very, very strong relationship, and because of that, what I’m able to do now when I launch a new book, which I’m doing this week, actually, is to then send an email out to my list, or probably more than one email, and say, “Hey, I’ve got this book. Come buy it.” And they will, on the whole, go and buy it, because they know, like, and trust me, they like what I do, they’ve gotten used to the standard of the stuff that I put out.
Olly Richards: And that grows over time and compounds over time, and that is a really, really unfair advantage over somebody that doesn’t have that list, because those people that I send will then go to Amazon, they will buy the book, and then that makes it much easier … Makes it much more attractive in Amazon’s eyes, so they will then rank the book higher, because they can see that there’s lots of people coming, many of which are buying. And so the fact that you can get a lot of sales from your own list means that your book gets more publicity on the Amazon ecosystem, and that, over time, is what becomes the real asset that you’ve got, and the way that you really sell books. So, that’s a very long way of saying that the biggest lesson of all, which is also probably the biggest mistake that people make, is to create an online platform and build a following of people, because those people will be the heart and soul of your business over the long term.
Tim Lewis: So, in your case, have you been doing that by basically blogging and podcasting, and then getting people who are interested in that onto your list? Is that your main way of list-building, or have you used other techniques?
Olly Richards: Yeah, essentially. I mean, there are always different kinds of techniques — you can do joint venture deals, you can do webinars, you can do paid traffic like Facebook ads — and I do all these things, but the essential part of it that anyone can start doing for free is blogging, podcasting, YouTube. I do all those, so on YouTube, I put videos of me speaking different languages, which has kind of worked quite nicely as a kind of social proof type thing, so when people see me speaking Portuguese, for example, they will then be more likely to listen to what I have to say about language learning, right?
Olly Richards: And then similarly, with the … Well, I have a podcast called the I Will Teach You a Language Podcast, and that is basically Q&A, so I answer people’s questions, which, again, kind of builds authority and all these things. And then I blog as well, so I put out regular articles on the blog, and all of these things, you can have calls to action which lead people to opt in on the website, and on the website, I’ll typically have a kind of free giveaway, or a particular offer to incentivize people to give me their email address, which could be a free PDF, or a free book, or a free mini course, or something like that. And then, once you’ve got all that in place, then all you’ve really got to do is keep going, and keep at it over time, and then that starts to grow and compound, and it becomes this nice kind of virtuous circle.
Olly Richards: But it also works the other way as well, so lots of people that … Because the Amazon ecosystem is different from my blog, what happens is that a lot of the new customers that I reach through Amazon will buy my book, and then they’ll come over to check out my blog afterwards, and so it does work both ways. But the most important from a business perspective is to have my own list of people. I also have a Facebook group, which is very active, and it’s a good way of kind of nurturing people. That’s the big asset, because then, when I do release a new book, I can send people in that direction.
Tim Lewis: Okay. Going to throw in a random question, but where do you see the future going in terms of language learning, and just in educational books in general? Do you see that there’s always going to be a market for eBooks and audiobooks, or are you looking at, like, VR sort of things in the future?
Olly Richards: Well, I think all that stuff is going to happen. It’s happening already, you know, VR, there are already companies like Memrise here in London experimenting with VR. There are more and more apps out there like Duolingo and things like that, where people are offering different ways of learning languages. I’m quite traditional and old-school in my outlook on this. I think that language learning is one of those things that is never really going to be hacked, so to speak. It’s something you do with the human brain. There’s good practise, and you can talk about that good practise, but really, to learn another language, you have to work hard at it over time, with good material.
Olly Richards: And in that respect, I don’t think things are really going to change long-term, and I see this as well … We’re all familiar with the beginning of the end, so to speak, of Kindle, in the sense that digital books, sales of digital books did overtake physical books a few years back, but now the trend is reversed, and so now people are buying more physical books than digital books. Is that trend going to continue? I don’t know, but it kind of points to the fact that you could introduce this new technology, but a book is a book, is a book, is a book, and an audiobook has been around since the beginning of … You know, since the gramophone was first invented, so our original kind of Linguaphone language courses back in the ’40s and ’50s had an LP that came with the book.
Olly Richards: What is a language, if it’s not the written word and the spoken word? That’s ultimately all it is, so I think technology will come and go, and people will get rich from riding the wave, and then they will fall by the wayside as that wave subsides, but I think that the … I can’t see any situation in which books or audiobooks will disappear. I think they will … I hope they will always be the driving force in … At least in language learning, and the place where people go to get good-quality advice and information and material to help them along the way.
Tim Lewis: Okay, so I think that just about wraps up everything I was going to ask. How can people find out about Olly Richards and the things that you do?
Olly Richards: Yes, well, if you’re listening to this as a podcast, then I guess you like podcasts, so you can head over to iTunes or Stitcher Radio and look for … Do a search for “I Will Teach You a Language.” One, two, three, four … That’s six words. “I Will Teach You a Language.” That’s the podcast.
You can get lots and lots of articles, videos, tips and tricks for learning languages on my blog, which is iwillteachyoualanguage.com, and if you’d like to take a look at my various books, and depending on what stage you’re listening to this in the future, maybe with a fancy publisher branded all over it as well — who knows — then you can go to Amazon and search for Olly Richards, and you should find my author page there somewhere, among the noise.
Tim Lewis: Okay, well, thanks very much for agreeing to appear on the show, Olly.
Olly Richards: My pleasure to talk to you, Tim.