My friend’s dad gave her some advice once that I took to heart.

What your job is called matters more than what your job is.

I always agreed so what I’m about to say seems like a contradiction.

I don’t see the problem with being called, or hired as, a Content Creator if that’s what the job requires.

In a post on ELT buzzwords, I included Content Creator as it was one I sensed was causing resentment among materials writers. It passed without much kerfuffle until someone suggested Content Creators shouldn’t expect royalties because they don’t originate the ideas behind course books anymore. In fact, it mostly echoes what Scott Thornbury wrote in his post about the myth of creativity in course book writing which seemed, at least in part, to have sprung from a post I wrote about the importance of royalties.

I’ve since changed my mind about royalties.

I think they’re a privilege-in-disguise blip that allowed publishers to strip writers of the thing they actually should care about – their copyright. In return for a small percentage of the income generated from sales, you give up all rights to that work.

Ever.

If the publisher fails to make a success of marketing that work, or shelves it completely, or decides to give it away for free or at discounted prices, that carrot dangling in front of you shrinks to nothing. You’ll be lucky to earn out your advance in even the best of cases, so it in effect becomes a fee – one that is too low for the work and hours you put in.

Royalties are like lottery tickets. Out of the hope it could be YOU who gets to live off one huge selling work, or many moderately selling works, you give up all rational perspective on the odds of that happening and all future ability to make money off it in other ways.

What a skilful sleight of hand. Look over there while I make your money disappear over here. The publishers must be thrilled so much energy is being directed by writers into fighting for a system that enslaves them. Not only that, they can get you out on the road promoting for free for them and doing their social media for them because it’s a royalties package. I can’t believe I fell for it!

Typically short form fiction or journalistic pieces (with bylines) have contracts with varying degrees of rights signed over. Perhaps you give away first publication rights only, or the rights to a certain regional market, or exclusive rights forever and so on. Different publications have different rules and reselling work – whether by repurposing the material or selling it elsewhere – is how many writers manage to make a living off their work.

I see fiction and journalism as very clearly Writing. I ask myself, in my relatively short career as a writer, how much of my work has been what I would term Content Creation?

It turns out to be most of it.

I started off as a Content Creator in ELT writing quizzes for the BBC Learning English site. They didn’t have my name on and I’d struggle even now to pick out the ones that were mine even though it took no small amount of skill to come up with topics and create meaningful questions. I felt I was paid a fair amount for the work involved and I never thought about them again.

I started off as a Writer with Time Out Istanbul doing restaurant reviews and articles, mainly but not exclusviely, about food. Apart from two articles that were info gathering and one review that was for a paying advertiser in the magazine and which I had to fake because the food had been so bad, those pieces ring loud and clear with my voice.

Continuing in the Content Creating vein, I’ve done a digital YL thing, some reading texts for course books, study questions in my own Graded Readers and Study Skills book, some Social Science workbook material and a mostly info gathering piece for EL Gazette.

As a Writer, I’ve written two Graded Readers (and a third that has been shelved but I hope sees light one day), the themes and dialogues for the Study Skills book, a novel and a couple of articles for online magazines outside ELT. My biggest outlet for Writing is probably blogs, this one and two others.

Forgetting about how those are paid as they have been a mix of royalties and fees, fair and unfair, the contrast in the nature of the work is obvious.

Writing is freedom, imagination, creative flow, work that “belongs” to me and no-one else could have come up with; the finished product is something I want on display in my house and I’d be upset if someone went and rewrote it without my knowledge. If I have to do rewrites, it’s because the material isn’t living up to the promise of the original concept or idea and I’ll want them doing as much as any editor will and not expect to be paid more for the work.

Content Creation is more of a (creative) problem solving exercise. Briefs are tight, or annoyingly loose, but still parameters are set by someone else or by the requirements of the project itself which may dictate the type of material, and even the idea itself. Editors can do whatever they like to it after I submit it, it probably won’t carry my name and I wouldn’t lay claim to it anywhere other than Linked In. If I have to do rewrites it is because I didn’t meet the brief or the requirements and, where that was not foreseeable, I expect to be paid more for the extra work.

In those jobs above – which ones demanded more actual skills and training?

The Content Creation assignments without a doubt. It’s not even about enjoyment – I am hating writing my second novel but quite enjoyed the quizzes and workbook – nor is it about how difficult the work is.

I think materials writers who don’t want to use the term Content Creator are doing themselves a disservice. In ELT a lot of materials writing is more like copywriting than anything else. Now that’s a skill and has its own qualification. I wonder how well it’s paid. If it’s better than ELT writing, maybe it’s time to start demanding the same rate.

True creative writing is an innate ability. You get it through luck and, though you might work hard to polish and perfect, you can’t learn or train it. The skills needed to create effective content are varied and honed over years and, as such, need to be paid at  a rate that reflects the hours put in and the expertise needed.

Demand that rate and don’t be sucked into taking a gamble on a product you didn’t have the idea for. Let the publisher, whose idea it was, take the fall in the likely event that it doesn’t succeed. When the creative flow and the idea is yours, then consider taking a gamble on it but fight over the copyright.

It matters what you call your job.

Content Creators should be proud to call it Content Creating.

Nicola Prentis has a BA in Philosophy, a lifelong pedantry over the English language, an MA in ELT and a CV that spans about ten different countries. She writes Graded Readers for Language Learners (The Tomorrow Mirror, 2013 & As Others See Us coming in 2014). She has written texts for course books but has her own Self Study book – Speaking Skills with Harper Collins that was published in 2014. She blogs regularly on her site Simply English

Photo Credit: streetwrk.com via Compfight cc.Text added by ELTjam.

33 Comments

  1. What’s in a name? Well, that really depends on how you see what you do. I’d certainly say that most of the time I’m a writer, although there have been a few times when I’ve simply supplied ‘content.’ Of course, different types of writing require differing skills – but that doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer. Having recently completed a Creative Writing course, written lots of different materials for ELT and currently writing a series of mainstream picture books they are all very different – but all required creativity and the ability to ‘put myself into the shoes of the reader / user.’

  2. Just as a note on personal feelings on the matter. When I tell non-writer, non-teacher friends that my textbook is out or that I’m writing a textbook, they tend to assume that the textbook is my own personal idea and creation and there’s always that bit of a letdown on their part when I explain the actual situation. I’ve taken to saying, “It was a commissioned book” or “I ‘m on the author team of this series of books.” And hey, would I rather be producing my own little baby book that came out of my own head? Yes, but there’s nothing wrong with being on an author team or helping someone else’s vision come to light. I was lucky enough to have been very well-compensated and to be working on a book with an exciting new approach, which helped.

  3. Very interesting question here, and from my (limited) experience, here’s my 2 cents: “writer” and “content creator” are both valid job titles, even if my interpretation of them differ slightly. “Writer” for me involves more personal initiative in terms of ideas, flow, word choice, turn of phrase, etc. When I pen articles for the language-learning magazines I write for, I consider myself a writer. The specs I get often include the subject, the word count, the magazine department it goes in and the level. After that, it’s up to me to decide what goes in, how I word it, and how I pull the article together.

    As for the bit of materials writing I’ve done (again, very limited, especially compared to the experience of most of you here), I feel it’s more “content creation.” The specs are a lot more specific, the task is laid out and I’m paid to complete it. While of course there is a degree of creativity involved in the work as well, it doesn’t feel the same.

    As for the fee vs royalty debate, like I said, my experience in this is limited (for now ;-), and I prefer to read and learn from you guys on that subject!

  4. Hi Nicola, this is something I’ve thought a lot about recently as I’ve seen the nature of my work change radically. I’ll write something more fitting when my brain is in gear – but thanks for getting the discussion going because it affects us all. There is a place for Royalties and a place for fees. I think that an ideal situation for me to be in as a writer would be a 50/50 ‘work-type’ situation with publishers paying good fees for content and with the other half of the work/income coming from very high royalties on self-published books (in the absence of virtually any royalties from publishers these days). Of course, this implies a lot of hard work and self promotion – but with more and more collaborative efforts and like-minded people getting together to share skills and work on joint projects … even that part is getting a bit more manageable. And on the point of fees for content writing – stuff like your beautifully-coined ‘Assimilation Time’ should also be paid for.

  5. I think the royalties angle is not really where I meant the focus of this article to be so a note on where I was going with it.
    Last night I met a copywriter for a major clothing brand at my Creative Writing group. She gave as her reason for coming to our group this “I’m a bilingual copywriter so I don’t get to do any creative writing.”
    I asked her later just to make sure she really meant what I thought she meant and she explained that since it was marketing and very tightly controlled contentwise, she didn’t see it as creative. She wasn’t complaining and she likes her job.
    I asked her if it was well paid in the UK where she had been prior to Spain and she said yes. She also gets a 50% discount on the designer brand she works for. That’s why she’s not hung up on the creativity aspect. She’s paid fairly, her qualifications and knowledge are rewarded and there is respect for what she does.
    Educational copywriting is what many of us are doing on some projects. I don’t know why we don’t claim that term and seek fair compensation on the same terms as copywriters. It would make for a better deal than either royalties (in most cases) or a low fee.

    1. I think your comparison is interesting and provokes some good head-scratching.

      My concern is that devising new labels for certain types of writing (as per the importance of job titles) might actually make it easier for publishers to pay more writers even less money. For example, they might tell you that ‘educational copy-writers’ will be paid less than ‘content-creators’, who earn less than ‘materials-writers’, who earn less than ‘Writers’.

      I wonder if inventing a new ‘lower-rung’ would lead to more tasks being arbitrarily labelled ‘educational copy-writing’ to justify a lower fee. If that were the case, the new title would acquire negative connotations, and most likely be avoided on CVs.

      I also think the debate about ‘creativity’ (meaning innovation and inventiveness) may be something of a red herring. Is it really the sine qua non of any and all good ELT materials?

      To use a metaphor, one of my favourite restaurants is a trattoria that serves traditional Italian food. There is nothing innovative about the menu – just delicious, familiar favourites prepared by experienced cooks following traditional recipes.

      The restaurant has been successful for years, not because its food is ‘creative’ in the sense of ‘innovative’ or ‘inventive’. Instead, their strengths are a mix of tradition, experience, skill, and a long-standing reputation for great food. They’ve also outlived many more creative (e.g. innovative/trendy) restaurants that have come and gone over the years, so they must be doing something right.

      1. Maybe. But then copywriter is the fairest term and I can’t see why any of the others would be needed for work with tight briefs, no personal creative input etc etc. Since copywriters are paid well, problem solved. Is there a union for them or a payscale? Even better! Have not looked into this.

        Also, we agree here I think since I am not saying all ELT materials need creativity in my meaning of the word. I am saying claiming they all involve that is a misperception. Those workbooks I enjoyed so much (to my utter mystification but there you go – I even liked writing the tests) didn’t need the creativity I apply to other stuff at all and I wouldn’t dream of saying they did. In that way your restaurant analogy is apt but then, I suppose the sous chef/veg prep person would describe himself and his job differently than the one who cooks the dishes?

        1. This is a tricky issue, but I don’t think we disagree that much. I think what makes me squirm is the idea of labelling people (e.g., as copywriters or content-creators) rather than the work they do on a particular project (e.g., copywriting or content-creating). I suppose some people might want to specialise and try to make that clear with a specific title, but I wouldn’t.

          Personally, I like writing a variety of things, even drills and tests, so you’re not alone! The projects that are more ‘open-ended’ (I don’t like the term ‘creative’) can be quite tiring, so I alternate them with more ‘bounded’ tasks like made-to-order worksheets, which are also tiring, but in a different way, like doing advanced-level crossword puzzles. It’s like I’m giving the right side of my brain a rest, and letting the more analytical left side take over for a while.

          Maybe that’s the issue for me. I think I can value my day-dreaming, inventive, ‘off-the-wall’ right hemisphere, as well as the cool, analytical ‘puzzle-solving’ left side that helps me to sort through an insanely tight brief and find the way to write something I’m proud to submit.

          The ideal project would let me use both sides of my noggin in equal measure, of course. But for those tasks that are more analytical or bounded, should I really expect to be paid less? Is pure, unbridled creativity the be-all and the end-all when it comes to writing good materials for the classroom? I don’t really think so … but maybe I’m alone on that issue.

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