Fee-based ELT materials writing: risky business?

Risk tournament
Image by Flickr user derekGavey. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The debate over whether royalties for ELT authors are on the way out is raging on the conference circuit and in various corners of the Web. It’s clear that some kind of change is afoot within the industry, but it’s unclear yet just how extensive that change will be, especially for established authors. Here at eltjam, we thought now would be a good time to look at a couple of important issues related to fee-based ELT materials writing, especially on digital projects.

One very persuasive argument in favour of royalties is that royalty-earning authors tend to invest considerably more time in getting the quality of the content as high they can; after all, it’s in everybody’s interest to make the thing as good as possible so that it sells as much as possible. The obvious risk for publishers in switching to fees is that even the most conscientious writer working for a fixed fee is inevitably going to be thinking about return on investment, measured simply as time spent versus cash received. The worry is that the writer will try to do the work as quickly as possible, rather than as well as possible. That’s not intended to do the writer a disservice; it’s human nature to want to be fairly rewarded for our labour. And let’s not forget that the publisher is also paying up front for content that might not sell at all, therefore potentially lowering its own ROI; royalties are a way of sharing some of that risk with the author (a large advance notwithstanding).

But fee-based writing can present serious risks to the author, too. Unless the author brief is absolutely set in stone at the start of the project, and articulated in such a way that the completion of the writing job can be clearly measured, then writers run the risk of being asked to redraft work continuously as the result of changing requirements; and with each redraft, the writer’s ROI gets worse and worse. This problem is particularly common on digital projects, where content requirements often change to accommodate new or reduced functionality in whatever platform the material is to be delivered in. The reality is, if the software development being done on the platform is happening in tandem with the production of content, it’s the content that’s going to be reshaped to fit the platform, not the other way round. If you saw what software developers earned per hour compared to ELT writers, you’d understand why.

So what can writers do to protect themselves?

  1. Find out whether the platform being used for the course is still in development and whether that development is going to continue alongside the content creation.
  2. If the answer to question 1 is yes, it’s very important that the contract you sign — and the author brief attached to it — represent the final scope of what you’re being asked to produce. If it doesn’t, don’t sign it. 
  3. If it’s clear that the content requirements are likely to change, try to negotiate a separate fee for this experimentation phase. Explain that you understand that some extensive rewriting of content might be required at the start of the project, but that this needs to be reflected in the fee offered.
  4. Try to ensure that your brief provides some way of measuring when your work is complete. The real risk is an open-ended brief that simply requires the writer to keep redrafting endlessly for the same fixed fee. This is sadly very common in digital materials writing. You might try to have a certain number of drafts specified in the brief. Alternatively, you could ask for the brief to make a distinction between redrafting required because you didn’t follow the brief or delivered poor quality material (which you should be responsible for financially) and changes to the scope of the project (which they should).
  5. Finally, as we mentioned recently, don’t be afraid to ask how the fee for the job has been calculated. Is it a time-based estimate? If so, how has that been calculated and what happens if it takes more time? Is the fee based on a similar, comparable project? If so, how much time did those authors actually take to complete the project?

If the publisher and the writer both start the negotiations with an understanding that the best desirable outcome is the production of great content for which the writer feels fairly remunerated, then it is possible to end up with a deal that makes everyone happy. And don’t forget that fair remuneration is actually in the publisher’s interest, assuming that you’re a good writer who they want to use on a regular basis. However, in the fast-paced, sometimes chaotic early stages of large digital projects, these important discussions can get missed, the need to start working on the content right now taking priority over everything else. In order to protect themselves, both writers and publishers need to make sure that doesn’t happen.

24 thoughts on “Fee-based ELT materials writing: risky business?”

  1. Great advice, Nick. I’d add something I learnt on a project last year: keep a careful record of the hours you spend, including planning and admin. If you find you’ve gone way over the initial expected workload, keep the editor informed. A couple of times I’ve had a fee increased (doubled!) after presenting firm and credible records of hours. After all, editors are only guessing how long it’ll take you – they’re just trying to find a fair price, not rip you off. If you can show them accurate figures (and if they have reason to trust you), they’ll be grateful.

    As for your stories of cruel editors asking poor writers for endless rewrites, it reminds me of a book I once worked on with you …



    • Excellent comment, Jeremy! Thanks for posting.

      And funnily enough, I don’t remember the rewrites on our book being too onerous at all. Perhaps I’ve wiped them from my memory … 🙂

      • You’re right – it wasn’t too bad at all (compared to other books I’ve worked on). But I know as an editor I tend to put authors through the wringer a bit, in pursuit of perfection. There was one unit (not your book) that I remember went through 10 re-drafts before we were all happy. Hard at the time for all involved but worth it, I think.

  2. Very clearly set out Nick – If only publisher briefs for digital were so! Maybe the best way to get publishers to understand how long material takes to write is to get writers into their offices to clock in and out like factory workers! As draconian and crazy as that might sound, it would actually offer some protection to authors as at least it would ensure they were paid for all the hours they work! At present the writing process is largely invisible to the outside publishing world – they see the completed work (in chunks) not the sweat and blood it took to get it done. That toil is acceptable if you’re paid royalties and you judge the publisher and their marketing and distribution team the right partners to get your fabulous material the success it deserves, but if it’s fees they have got to pay you for your time as you flag up loud and clear.

    • Cheers for the comment, Martin.

      Your idea’s not a bad one at all. One thing I learned from working alongside software developers is that they track their time down to the minute. It’s partly for billing purposes, but it’s also a great resource for project managers; you get a very detailed view of how long things actually take. Presenting that kind of information to a publisher could certainly work in your favour, as Jeremy’s pointed out earlier in this thread.

  3. Yes, very well timed. With the shift to digital (and mobile) delivery happening right now, and the general cut to author’s royalties rates (talk about the race to zero!) I’d be surprised if publishers have any projects to offer an author at all.

  4. I published my first book in 1989 and received an advance of 1400 Deutschmarks, which I think was about £500 at the time. Last year I published a book and shared an advance of £500 with my co-author. I wonder who will be the first ELT writer to write a successful online coursebook. Any suggestions? Or do people think it will never happen?

  5. I experienced this with the regional arm of one of the big ELT publishers. I was told the materials I’d submitted probably wouldn’t need much further work, then at the time when I was told the project would finish the person who was actually employed to edit the stuff looked at the materials for the first time! I promptly quit and got back down to enjoying Japan, where I’d just moved. To their credit, they were very understanding, found another teacher to finish the materials off (though making far fewer changes than had been suggested to me), and still put my name first on the book and paid almost all of the originally agreed fee. That was the end of the my publishing career though…

  6. Thank you for sharing these savvy tips and crucial questions. As somebody who has been on both sides of this fence in a small way, I appreciate hearing the experiences of other English teachers/writers with both large and small ELT publishers.

    One advantage of the fee structure, it seems to me, remains clarity and simplicity. Living in Los Angeles where film studios are notorious for claiming that unusual accounting procedures that shortchange writers paid partly on box office receipts, I have a certain scepticism about the accuracy and transparency of sales records. Perhaps that is just a false fear, but given the complexities of a global marketplace some scepticism seems legitimate.

    Yet the fee structure must also be fair. Point #5 seems quite apt. “Finally, as we mentioned recently, don’t be afraid to ask how the fee for the job has been calculated. Is it a time-based estimate? If so, how has that been calculated and what happens if it takes more time? Is the fee based on a similar, comparable project? If so, how much time did those authors actually take to complete the project?”

    Perhaps I’m spoiled, but I was rather stunned at the palty compensation offered years ago by a major ELT publisher to write material for a teacher’s guide. I calculated the hourly rate to roughly $10-12 per hour. Granted this was back in 2005, but the experience nudged me to look for alternatives. Writers have often short-changed themselves, and I’d prefer to avoid that common “good mistake”. We have specialized knowledge, our work has value, and we should be fairly compensated.

    Or so it seems to me.

    • Great comment, Eric.

      It’s interesting that you raise the question of the accuracy of sales records. I don’t think for one second that any of the major ELT publishers would ever attempt to mis-report sales figures, but I know of several documented cases where accounting errors or contract misunderstandings have led to serious mistakes on royalty statements. In my own experience, I once had an entire ISBN left off by mistake.

      The second point you make comes back to this classic ROI discussion. What’s a fair recompense for the time spent carrying out a piece of work, especially when that work is fairly specialised? The only answer is ‘there is no answer’. Often it comes down to the individual negotiating skills of the the author involved. $10-$12 per hour seems crazy to me, but I know many authors whose ultimate hourly rate on a project has ended up at around that. Sad but true.


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