A guest post by ELT publisher Janet Aitchison, in response to Steve Elsworth’s post, The monetary value of ELT authors.
I read Steve Elsworth’s post with great interest and I agree with many things that he says:- For sure, the 1980s and 90s were the Golden Age of ELT publishing – Gill Negus in particular was an inspiration to me as a junior editor; the books I used as a newly-minted, and terrified, language teacher were life-savers, particularly Streamline and the Cambridge English Course. And these courses were indeed written by maverick writers who most likely ‘dragged the publishers along’. Steve clearly has nostalgia for those days and attributes their passing to publishers’ obsession with digital “Toys for Boys” and a disregard for the talents of materials writers. I would respectfully suggest this indicates is a misunderstanding of the dynamics at play in the ELT publishing world, many of which have nothing to do with the digital revolution.
Back when the Streamlines, Strategies and Headways first appeared, the ELT publishing industry was very new. There were few course book series on offer, and publishers had the luxury of being able to release new courses book by book, level by level, allowing them to take a gamble on an author’s vision. If the first book in a series was well received, the author would be asked to write more. If not, the publisher would cancel the project and write off the relatively small amount of money they had lost. This just won’t work these days – the ELT publishing industry is mature, and very competitive. To have any hope of winning adoptions publishers have to release all components of all levels simultaneously, with a huge array of support materials and services, the majority of which are given away for free. The level of investment is huge – new courses cost millions of dollars to produce and require enormous staffs to create. Understandably publishers are cautious about gambling such huge sums of money on one person’s vision. Furthermore, it has become impossible for one author, or even an author team of 3 or 4 people, to write all the necessary materials in time to launch everything at once. A large course now requires dozens of writers, all working simultaneously on the various components in order that they can all be published at the same time. This also explains why publishers are typically commissioning writing work on a fee basis rather than a royalty basis these days. Fee-based contracts enable the publisher to divide the massive amounts of writing work up among large groups of writers, and allow the publisher to quickly convert their work to the many different permutations and formats that customers expect these days, both print and digital, without the need for complex contractual negotiations. Despite what some authors may think, this does not save publishers money – those fees are paid regardless of whether the product in question is successful or not, unlike royalties which are only paid when sales start coming in.
In citing Noddy Holder’s success with Merry Christmas Everybody, Steve perpetuates the ‘lottery’ mentality of ELT publishing, indeed of all publishing. We look at the Noddy Holders, at the J.K. Rowlings, at the Abbs and Freebairns, and we think that just given the opportunity, we too could enjoy their success, and their royalty checks. In reality, only a tiny handful of authors have hit the jackpot from ELT writing, just as very few novelists hit the best-sellers lists, and even fewer pop songs remain popular for forty years. Over the years I have seen too many authors – talented, hard-working individuals every one of them – be disappointed by their royalty earnings, despite hundreds of hours spent writing excellent, creative materials. Many stars need to line up to create a best-seller – great writing, of course, but also favorable market conditions, a design that appeals to the target customers, appropriate pricing, well-executed sales and marketing strategies, even the choice of title can make or break a course book. Despite everyone’s best efforts to understand and control all these dynamics, publishing is still a risk business, and not every product commissioned is successful. Consequently there is a lot to be said for being paid up-front fees for writing work. All too often writers do not earn enough in royalties to cover the hours they spend writing. They deserve fair payment for their hard work, not a gamble on an outcome over which they have little direct control.
Steve’s meerkat analogy resonates – publishers are nervous. They’ve seen the music industry side-swiped by iTunes, travel agents deposed by Expedia, the demise of Kodak which could not transfer its powerful brand to the world of digital photography. Will the same fate befall ELT publishing? It is indeed challenging to reinvent a publishing company as a digital start-up while simultaneously maintaining the centuries-old print publishing side of the business which, for now at least, is paying the bills. The worst thing publishers could do now is to bury their heads in the sand and hope the whole ‘digital thing’ goes away. Fortunately, few publishers are. Instead they are looking for ways to exploit the potentialities of digital media to improve language teaching products. These days there are fantastic opportunities to use data gathered from LMSs to provide better learning experiences for students. Data analytics may sound dry and dull to many of us in the ELT world, but if the information it provides allows us to personalize a students’ learning, can match content to an individual’s preferred learning style, can improve the overall language learning experience, what’s not to like? Isn’t that exactly what we all want for the world’s language leaners?
Not all publishers think there is no place for writers in the digital future. The writers’ role and the means of remuneration will be different from what it was in the heyday of ELT publishing, no doubt, but any publisher worth their salt knows that however clever the software, however many bells and whistles it has, without well-written, motivating, fun content, students will not engage and will therefore not succeed. Those digital products that enhance what teachers do best – that is, motivate and teach learners – will succeed, and all the badly-written, boring and ineffective products will, quite rightly, be consigned to the digital dustbin. The challenge facing us, publishers and writers alike, is to find the sweet spot that perfectly marries great materials writing with learner- centered digital platforms.
Janet Aitchison has worked at Pearson, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press. Her comments above are purely personal and should not be taken to represent the official views of any publishing company.