As the amount of content on the site grew - look, there are now 600+ free printable worksheets already! - so the home page menu had to develop. I added a search box, which seemed like a good idea, and stuck with the same people in the pictures, who had done such a sterling job (although the chap in the top right-hand corner had to make way for a featured link). There are still no ads on the home page and I still think that the yellow and salmon pink go quite well together. It must be early 2004, because there's still a Christmas message on the home page...
April: I set up an account with Google Adsense and their distinctive text ads appeared on the site for the first time. It was just an experiment, really, and at first I wasn't making more than around £75 per month from the ads, but it was enough to pay for the hosting and a few small outlays, and marked the beginning of the monetisation of the site.
I first contacted Avanti Books in the first half of 2004, having found their number on the internet. They were helpful from the outset, saying that they would take a copy of the Big Grammar Book, have a look at it with a view to stocking it, and give me some feedback. They liked it and ordered several copies. Since then Avanti Books have been the main stockist for English Banana.com books and CD-ROMs. It was encouraging because it made the Big Grammar Book feel like a 'proper' book. It certainly spurred me on to get moving and bring out a follow up - as well as the CD-ROM that would bring together in one collection all of the worksheets that I had produced to date.
During 2004 I sold books and CD-ROMs via the English Banana.com online store, which stayed online for more than three years. I never sold a lot of stock, although some months I was processing orders for around 30-40 items, which made it feel busy. I shopped around for a payment provider and thought about online merchant solutions, e.g. from my bank, but chose PayPal because of their efficiency and - crucially - low fees. I don't know whether I would have sold more stock had I used a proper merchant solution that was able to process debit and credit cards, rather than PayPal (which at the time required you to be a PayPal member and log in to pay), but I do know that I would have had to pay a lot more - around £30 a month, and I wasn't prepared to take the risk in finding out, having no funding for the site, apart from a small ad revenue, profits from the online store, and my own monthly salary.
August: English Banana.com was added to the Yahoo! Directory of handpicked sites - the biggest and best-known web directory. This gave the site a significant boost, as well as lots of new traffic - and no doubt helped to increase its rank in Google too.
August: The First 500 Worksheets (CD-ROM) (ISBN: 0954698517) was published. By the end of 2003 I had worn my fingers to stumps writing worksheets (OK - it's a bit of an exaggeration!), and I wanted to gather them all together in one place - on one disc. It was the same impulse that made me develop the ELT Resource Bank , which superseded the First 500 Worksheets CD, putting it out of print in March 2007; and the same impulse that is today making me put all English Banana.com materials together on this - massively updated and totally comprehensive - Version 3.0 of the ELT Resource Bank. It wasn't too hard to sell the CD-ROM and it was a pleasure to send out, being much lighter to post than the Big Grammar Book - around 60g compared to the BGB's 800g!
16th October: I bought this domain for around £400. I had been angling to get it all this year, because it had already been registered and was owned by a private individual, who wasn't really using it for anything. I figured it would be valuable in protecting my "trade mark", and have hung onto it ever since. Although it has merely forwarded visitors to the main site at englishbanana.com, I believe it's worth having, since it is a British site - and also so that nobody else can use it! Over the years individuals unconnected with English Banana.com have set up their own websites using various misspellings of "englishbanana.com", and covered them with links to shopping sites and obscure search engines. I guess that it has garnered them some wayward traffic - and income - as clumsy typists have tried, and failed, to reach www.englishbanana.com. I've taken this mostly as a tribute to the success of my site, although perhaps the owners of "misspelled" sites should try to think more originally...
October: the Big Grammar Book (.pdf version) (ISBN: 0954698533) was published. I was thinking of new ways to get my books to people - and make money from them at the same time. Putting the actual .pdf file on the site for free download - the most direct way - was absolutely out of the question and off the radar at this point. I didn't have to make many of these CD versions of the books, because I didn't sell very many copies. The Big Activity Book and Big Resource Book were also sold on CD, but they were all made out of print in September 2006 - purely due to lack of interest from customers. Plus, by then the wind was blowing more in the direction of giving site visitors what they really wanted - all of the books online, and free to download.
October: English Banana.com books go on sale on Amazon. I held an Amazon Advantage seller's membership for around four years. It felt great seeing my books available for sale on Amazon, getting reviews and gaining sales ranks. I felt just like a real author, and it gave the site a boost, lending a certain credibility to the material. One of the reasons for the steep price hikes for the books - from the original £8.95 for a Big Grammar Book, to the current price of £29.95 - was the fact that I had to give Amazon a big discount for them to sell the books. They passed on some of the discount to the customers, and I got regular orders for one or two books at a time. I left this scheme in 2008 because it was no longer cost-effective for me to send single orders to Amazon.
November: The Big Activity Book (ISBN: 0954698525) was published. As the follow up to the Big Grammar Book, it was aimed at higher-level students (Intermediate instead of Elementary level) and was an amalgamation of material from the first two books (see above), along with the best new worksheets from 2004, that hadn't gone into the Big Grammar Book. I felt encouraged by my experiences with the Big Grammar Book and the new CD-ROM collection of worksheets, and I wanted to extend my range of items to sell online. This new book included all of the descriptions of ESL games that had existed on the site since the beginning, and also a special section using research that I'd been doing on the vowel sounds of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).
It was split into subject areas (Grammar, Vocabulary, Spelling, Reading, Speaking & Listening, and Research Skills), which made it much more varied than the Big Grammar Book. It was also more playful, with quizzes in the Research section on topics such as "Design a Board Game" and "An A-Z of English Slang Terms". The worksheets always reflected the work that I was doing with my students in my classes when I wrote them, so you can be sure that my former students will remember stuff like "The Joy of Abstract Nouns" and "Reading Comprehension 6 - How Much Money Do They Have?" - along with lots of other material from the Big Activity Book (and the other books too).
November: The Big Activity Book (.pdf Version) (ISBN: 0954698541) was published. It was made out of print in September 2006.
This section of the site came about because I wanted to increase the volume of content on the site, and - being a budding amateur photographer - I had a growing number of photos of places that I'd visited just lying around doing nothing. I felt it was better to share them with people online, rather than have no one see them. I got the inspiration for adding this section when out for a walk one day with my camera in Kedleston Park, Derbyshire, near my then home of Belper. It was very nice to be able to make an online archive of some of my favourite pictures, and it's great to be able to add all of the pictures - plus some unseen ones - to this Version 3.0 of the ELT Resource Bank. The free photos section was marketed on the site as "Exclusive, high-quality, royalty-free! Perfect for home and school projects!" and featured the first ever instance of an English Banana.com licence. The licence underneath each photo read:
"The photo on this page is © copyright English Banana.com 2004. All rights reserved. It is permitted to copy and use the photo for personal use or non-commercial use only. Please credit the photo to www.englishbanana.com. If you wish to obtain a licence to use this photo for commercial purposes, please do get in touch. To read our copyright policy, please click here... [link to FAQs page]"
The aim was to allow private individuals - e.g. students and teachers - and not-for-profit organisations to copy, print, and use the images, but not commercial businesses. I have had a couple of enquiries from businesses wanting to use the images, but they backed off when I wanted to charge them for using an image - one company wouldn't pay £50 for commercial use of one of the pictures. I don't know whether anybody has used the pictures in school and home projects, because I haven't had any feedback to that effect, but I assume that they must have done!
There are some unseen photos from this collection, as well as visitor feedback, and more images that I've used on the site over the years, in this folder.
November 21st: The site was awarded the Mackey Web Design - Gold Award.
The judges commented: "We have found that your site is well thought out, very pleasant to look at, and serves a definite purpose. It is compelling to its viewers, has informative content, originality, excellent design, and leaves in its visitors' mind the image of a quality site."
English Banana.com was (self-) nominated for the New Statesman - New Media Awards 2004.
31st December: in a burst of mild paranoia - and because I wanted to have them - I bought and registered eleven "englishbanana" domains in one (fun-filled...) evening: www.englishbanana.biz, www.englishbanana.org.uk, www.englishbanana.net, www.englishbanana.info, www.englishbanana.tv, www.englishbanana.eu.com, www.englishbanana.me.uk, www.englishbanana.us, www.englishbanana.org, www.english-banana.co.uk, and www.english-banana.com. That was a busy couple of hours! I did it all before going out to a New Year's Eve party. I arrived late, but not too late to hear the chimes of Big Ben on TV! Having chased and bought the domain englishbanana.co.uk earlier in the year, I was becoming more aware of "English Banana" as a brand, and wanted to prevent other people from setting up rival sites that could potentially damage that brand. Of course, nobody did, and I let almost all of these domains expire after two years without renewing them. These days I'm happy to have the main domain: englishbanana.com, and two other important variants: englishbanana.co.uk, and english-banana.com.
Again, as the number of features on the site grew, the site needed a bigger - and better - menu on the home page. I feel that this was really the classic home page layout and design for the English Banana.com home page. It's neat, looks nice and does the job well. I maintained the theme of smiling faces - bringing back some of our old friends from 2003, and adding a new face, plus some people walking away into the sunset (why?) - and added the "What's New?" link, which linked to the English Banana.com blog (version #1) that kept readers up to date with site news and additions. I also wanted to show how long the site had been online. "4th YEAR ONLINE!" seemed like a big achievement back then. In reality, by January 2005 the site had been online for just over three years, but "4th YEAR ONLINE!" sounded somewhat better I felt! Still no ads on the home page...
December 2004 - February 2005: I had a writing competition with a friend where we both had to write a comedy sketch every week on an agreed theme. We did six before we ran out of interest, or time - or both! Click here to read my six. Although they are fairly unrelated to English Banana.com, they can perhaps give you an idea of what my writing was like when I wasn't busy writing worksheets.
April: English Banana.com was voted "Website of the Week" by the British Council.
This was a really nice tribute to get, firstly because the British Council are an august body with influence in many countries around the world, and secondly because they know their onions when it comes to teaching English. It meant a lot. They commented:
"This is a useful site with lots of free resources for teaching. There are games, quizzes, worksheets and even drama scripts all designed for English language learners."
Since then English Banana.com has also been featured in various British Council newsletters, which have helped to bring lots of new visitors to the site.
April: The site was (self-) nominated for the New Statesman - New Media Awards 2005.
April: I began paying for press adverts for the website and books, in the Times Educational Supplement newspaper and Big Issue magazine. I really wanted to invest in the site in 2005, and get it better known, because I believed it had a great offer for teachers and students. At that time I felt that print marketing was the way forward, but I remember thinking what a lot of money it was for such a small area of page. Plus, there was no way of telling how many people visited the site as a result of seeing the ads in print.
2nd April: At the same time as writing worksheets and planning new books, I was itching to do some creative writing, along the lines of Channel Z. I wanted to be able to write in short installments, and felt that a fake blog would be the best way to go. Blogs were all the rage, and I set up a blog using the name of my hero, the rather unpleasant 50 year-old early-retiree and amateur film critic Gordon Barrett. I even took the - somewhat premature - step of registering two domain names for the project: www.gordonbarrett.co.uk and www.gordonbarrett.com. I posted on the blog (as Gordon) between March 19th and April 3rd. It seems I lost interest after two weeks. I just couldn't focus on the writing for long enough. It was good fun at the time, though.
The idea behind the blog was that the misanthropic Gordon would provide some rather amateurish and ill-informed reviews of contemporary films, books, and TV shows, as a self-appointed web critic. The contemporary nature of what he was reviewing would ensure interest from the search engines (which it did). At the same time, readers would gain insights into his (rather sad) life, and that of his wife Marion and his wan teenage art-student son Hugh. Of course, the character was meant to be satirical, although at least one person took the site too seriously when Gordon wrote in praise of the Conservative Party (I received an item of hate mail from a Labour supporter!). Here are some extracts from the blog:
"Review of 'Hitch', starring Will Smith [blogged on 19th March 2005]:
"This evening Hugh and I went to see 'Hitch' which is a film starring Will Smith. Hugh persuaded me to accompany him because I wasn't going to go out tonight, I had a lot to do in my shed. But off we went and I must say I was pleasantly surprised ... One of the most surprising scenes was when Will Smith's already large ears grew to the size of plates and his face became hideously deformed. We certainly hadn't seen this coming ... The leading lady was very pleasant, but one couldn't help comparing her unfavourably to Elizabeth Taylor. One feels that she (or Doris Day) would have made a better job of the comedy in the script than Eva Mendes. I had not been aware of her works prior to this film, but Hugh informed me in the car on the way home that she is some sort of supermodel. One highlight had to be the presence of Bond himself - Pierce Bronson ... The evening was marred when Hugh unexpectedly lost his wallet in the car park as we arrived and it was left for me to pay for both of us ..."
"Review of 'Thank You For The ABBA' - Long Norton Children's Amateur Saturday Drama Club (LNCASDC) [blogged on 28th March 2005]:
"Marion and I spent the weekend staying with my brother Derek and his wife Madge. They live in the small Norfolk village of Long Norton, which is in the middle of nowhere, to put it bluntly. It took us five hours to get there on Friday, since we spent most of the journey behind a royal blue tractor. When he finally pulled over into a beet field we hit roadworks near Little Snittering, at which point I turned off Classic FM and put on one of my wife's relaxation technique tapes ... On Saturday night we accompanied Derek and Madge to the village hut to see a large-scale cabaret performance of 'Thank You For The ABBA' by Long Norton Children's Amateur Saturday Drama Club (hereafter known as 'LNCASDC'). There must have been over 80 children involved and they had come from many neighbouring hamlets to take part. I can't fault the scale of the producers' ambition.
"The show ran for well over 3 hours with two intervals, during which raffles were taken and refreshments were provided. I myself won a small bottle of Scotch, while Marion won a 'Bee Gees' album. She is not a fan, but will pass it on to Hugh, who may have some pleasure from it ... I was glad I went, although the tickets at £3 (£2 concessions) were on the slightly pricey side, and I had to undertake some discussion in order to get my concession ticket. I pointed out that I was a retiree and the charming forty-something lady on the door (pudgy, with glasses, but refreshingly womanly in appearance) said 'I can't believe it. You look too young.' At which of course I was charmed. My delight turned to perspicacity when I realised that she was using this argument to potentially force me to pay the full whack price of the ticket. She pointed out that all proceeds 'Are going to the Tsunami.' I take it she meant the appeal. I reluctantly paid all ... Overall a charming production, which was marred by poor singing from one youth (Nathaniel Robinson-Brown), who had several long numbers on his own and in duets. When he began singing (badly) numbers from the 'Super Trouper' album I started a slow hand-clap, but it didn't take ..."
July: Still looking for the best way to get my content to people - whilst ensuring that they paid for it - I put the Big Grammar Book, Big Activity Book, and The First 500 Worksheets CD-ROM online for paid download, with payments managed via PayPal. The idea was that after people had paid there would be a period of time when they would wait (until I manually picked up their email), before receiving a link to a page where they could download the file. Around this time I also experimented with some relatively expensive bespoke software, that I had made by a local company and paid for, which would allow shoppers to receive the download link automatically after completing their payment. I sold several downloads in this way, although the automatic system didn't last many months, due to an absence of customers.
August: Again, I was looking around for content that I could add to the site and found an old play that I had written whilst at university in Aberystwyth. I had directed it in early 1997 as a student production in the upstairs room of a small pub in the town called "The Cooper's Arms". I re-typed the script and spruced it up a bit so that I could add it as another English Banana.com product for paid download. For the back cover blurb I described it as: "an engaging and original coming-of-age drama which explores the themes of friendship, forgiveness, escaping ghosts of the past, and learning how to give away your most precious possession - your heart - to the one you love." It sold exactly zero copies, but I included it on the original ELT Resource Bank, and it can also be found on this Version 3.0. Under the English Banana.com Free Copying Licence anybody can put on a performance of this play, without charge, but I've yet to hear of anybody doing so. It featured some nice songs and a variety of performance styles, and was an enjoyable production - although as a wholly extra-curricular activity it rather distracted me from my second-year university coursework! The picture of the girl on the cover (from a stock photos CD-ROM) represents the main character, Dee.
September: The Picture Dictionary grew out of a desire to make use of a stock photos CD-ROM that I had, and also the wish to make something interactive for my students to use at work. I developed the concept of an image without labels merging with an image with labels using the 'ImgOver' HTML tag. I think that the concept works well, and the Picture Dictionary could be expanded, but I ran out of steam after the initial couple of batches of words due to: a) the novelty wearing off, b) other, bigger projects waiting in the wings (e.g. the Big Resource Book about to be published), and c) lack of time in general. The .pdf Picture Dictionary quizzes were good fun to print out and use with small groups of students, and although the Picture Dictionary was (and still is) far from comprehensive, it represented a new free feature to advertise on the site, and more quality content for the site visitors.
October: The Big Resource Book (ISBN: 095469855X) was published. I had been working on this follow-up to the two previous books throughout the second half of 2005. It took the same format as the Big Activity Book - Intermediate level worksheets covering a range of skills. It contains some really fun activities - like "Calculator Code Words", "The Amazing Maze Game", and the "Spotlight on the United Kingdom" series of quizzes. It was full of material that I had been doing with my adult learners during this year. By now I was feeling confident enough in my experience as a teacher to be able to prescribe information-based worksheets such as "15 Common Grammar Mistakes in Written and Oral Work" and "Tips for Better Written and Oral English Work".
I had been getting a lot of feedback from teachers who were working in many different teaching situations, telling me that they really enjoyed using the worksheets with their students. This was good to hear, and accordingly I tried to make the appeal of the worksheets as broad as possible. I understood the need for different acronyms in professional environments, but I was determined to write material for learning "English" rather than specifically for any different strand of teaching. I wrote in the introduction:
"Judging from the many emails we receive, you're finding our materials helpful in lots of different learning environments, including schools, colleges, prisons, and home schooling groups. The worksheets are designed to be flexible, so feel free to adapt them to suit your needs, whether you're teaching Basic Skills Literacy, ESOL, EFL, ESL, EAL, TESL, TEFL, TESOL, or even just simply English! It's all about helping learners to improve their English skills – reading, writing, speaking and listening – and that's what the aim of English Banana.com has always been."
This was the first English Banana.com book to have a dedication: to my seven month old nephews Liam and Daniel, and babies belonging to my old school friend Sarah - little Tommy - and my friend from university, Rachael - little Sarah.
October: The Big Resource Book (.pdf Version) (ISBN: 0954698568) is published. It was made out of print in September 2006.
Now we are three! Or five, if you include the earlier two books. Three heavy manuals of worksheets in the online store (and with offline distributors) somehow seemed like enough. I didn't consciously decide that the Big Resource Book would be the last big book of assorted worksheets, but having three "solid" products (plus the CD-ROM) gave me a kind of licence to think about something different for the next book... and different it was!
Oct '05 - Mar '06: With income coming in from ads and sales of books and CD-ROMs, plus a site that was growing in popularity and in people's affections (judging from the many positive emails that I received), I wanted to give something back, so I set up a scheme whereby books and CD-ROMs were sent out to site visitors who requested them. The catch was that they had to show in writing that they were teaching "in difficult circumstances". Of course, this was encouraging people to send in, in effect, begging letters, but I couldn't think of a better way to separate those who were able to buy the books and CD-ROM, from those who weren't able to. Furthermore, I calculated, rather crudely, that by sending free books and CD-ROMs to people who couldn't afford to buy them anyway, my sales wouldn't be affected, so I had nothing to lose.
Over this approximately five month period I sent out eleven free books (heavy books!) and 28 free CD-ROMs, paying the costs and postage from my business account. I was bowled over by the - relatively - high number of requests that I got for free products. Some days I got as many as eight requests by email, which was a lot for a relatively unknown website. It made me think differently about English Banana.com materials, and reminded me that there was a world out there who either wouldn't - or just couldn't - log into a website like PayPal and pay $60 plus postage for a book of worksheets. But how to separate out those who could pay from those who couldn't?
November: Looking at lots of different ways to sell the books and CD-ROM, I opened an online store on eBay, and advertised it for some months using banner ads on English Banana.com. By now the books were relatively expensive - the high price being justified (I believed) by the fact that they contained photocopiable material - and eBay browsers were (and maybe still are) almost wholly bargain hunters. They wouldn't even consider the meagre price of £10 for a Big Grammar Book or Big Activity Book. I realised that eBay was a buyer's market, and decided to stick with my own online store, whilst also approaching specialist ELT retailers in the UK to see if they would stock my products. I did find a few more stockists, to add to Avanti Books and Amazon, for example Cambridge International Book Centre in the UK.
23rd November: This was a curious experiment. Without any prior warning for regular visitors, I put a notice (above) on the home page telling people that they could download the Big Grammar Book (.pdf version) for one penny via PayPal - just for one day! I had intended the download to be free, but the mechanics of the PayPal payment system meant that I had to charge a minimum amount. I didn't simply put the file online for free because I wanted to track how many people took part in the experiment. About fourteen people took advantage of Penny Download Day, which was fourteen more than would have paid £10 or more to download the file on the same day... More food for thought. Demand for the books was there, but how to get paid?
December: I was using a paid service from Bravenet.com which allowed visitors to my site to choose and customise a postcard for an occasion - e.g. to wish somebody a "Happy Birthday" - and mail it to their friends automatically, thus resulting in their friend getting their greeting and English Banana.com getting free viral marketing. This was a successful feature of the site for over a year, and resulted in lots of new visitors - although I wouldn't say thousands, but perhaps hundreds! This graphic shows a choice of four Christmas-themed postcards that visitors could send. Click here to see some more. Over the years the amount of Christmas-related material has varied. I have always been aware that the site is used by people from all over the world, from many different cultures and religions - not just from Western, Christian traditions - and have tried not to go overboard on different holidays, in a bid to make the site as inclusive as possible.
22nd December: In the midst of running the "Free Books and CD-ROMs Programme", and after "Penny Download Day", I developed a scheme where hand-picked users could access a password-protected folder on English Banana.com, and download all three English Banana books (.pdf versions of the Big Grammar Book, Big Activity Book, and Big Resource Book), plus 512 printable worksheets for free. The people selected were initially those who were contacting me about the free products, but I hoped that I would be able to expand this group into a kind of mailing list, keeping the existence of the download area relatively secret. I named the project "Rosalind" after the heroine in my favourite Shakespeare play "As You Like It". You can see the original Rosalind home page and download area by clicking here.
I sent out emails to people with the username and password, and watched the stats for this page with keen interest. After several weeks though it became apparent that fewer people than I had hoped were accessing the files, and I was still getting requests daily for hard copies of books and the CD-ROM. Maybe it was too complicated for people to access the page - with the instructions in English. Maybe the people who wanted the hard copies didn't have access to a printer, or even reliable internet access. I don't know exactly, but like many things that I have tried on English Banana.com over the past six years this idea fell by the wayside. However, this project was another step on the road towards making all of the books and materials available free online, which I would start to do within twelve months of "Rosalind".
30th December: I registered another (rather ungainly - and utterly unnecessary) domain name: www.englishbanana.uk.com. What was it about the end of the year and the impulse to register unwieldy domain names?