A guest post by ELT publisher Janet Aitchison, in response to Steve Elsworth’s post, The monetary value of ELT authors.

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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.

 

Photo credit: Ashleigh Thompson / Foter / CC BY

57 Comments

  1. May I add a note from the commercial world just down the supply chain from the ELT publisher? Of the 25,000 + ELT products (ISBNs) currently published from the UK, less than 5% sell more than 1 copy a week or 50 copies a year (BEBC figures) . The actual titles may change with different distributors or markets but I suspect the percentage won’t alter significantly. The relevance of this statistic to this blog is to highlight the significance of the commercial blockbuster ( not least in covering all the publishers’ costs attached to the 95%) and to just downright depress any potential author.
    As a matter of personal opinion, I suspect that if the digital product is going to replace the printed book, the major providers of content (authors) are likely to be working with digital companies who understand digital and not with the current book publishers who are trying to! Maybe we should be less concerned about the current publishers’ financial arrangements with authors and let them worry about their own futures (and that of the bookseller)? I suspect the brave new world will be digital direct to student but still retaining the need for the teacher to guide, shape, and help deliver the digital dream .

  2. Despite my perhaps more positive sounding comments above, I’d agree with people’s general conclusions on the present quality of learning provided by technology-based self-study websites etc. I also think there is some usefulness in making such generalisations, in the same way as I often tell my students to avoid self-study materials produced here in Japan. However, when it comes down to it they are just generalisations, on the same level as “avoid L1” and “pairwork is good”. Therefore I think it is more useful most of the time to stay focused on learning itself on a case by case basis rather than the other things which might often (or even almost always) have an impact on learning such as, perhaps, the creativity that writers and teachers are allowed to have in how students are taught. If we keep that focus, I predict that we will have to admit not too long from now that one or two technology-based learning solutions are better for a good chunk of students than the classrooms which they are also being offered. And as far as extra help outside the classroom goes I think we are already there, because when I come to talk to students about their progress and possibilities for extra work outside the classroom, I’m about as likely to suggest something app or internet based as a book – especially if, again, that helps them avoid the locally produced materials by organisations like NHK (“the Japanese BBC”), which are I’m sure every bit as comically bad as that EF stuff.

    As stimulating as these general conversations are, isn’t what we need more critical analysis of present learning technologies in places like English Teaching Professional magazine?

  3. Interesting, Bryan, but (at the risk of becoming a bore!) I have to reiterate my comment to Janet: where is the TEACHER in all this? There seems to be an unstated assumption – not just in your comment and Janet’s post – but in much of the discourse of educational technology (and about coursebooks for that matter) – that learning is all about the delivery of content plus testing. If we could only get that right, then educational nirvana will have been achieved, and we can all retire to the farm.

    Nevertheless, all the big-number-crunching research into educational effectiveness (e.g. Visible Learning, Hattie 2009) suggests that the teacher is still the single most important variable in the equation, with such qualities as teacher clarity, teacher-student relationships, feedback provision, and problem-solving teaching all showing strong effects. (And, it should be added, distance learning and web-based learning showing only minimal effects).

    I completely understand why publishers (and writers) should be focused on materials delivery, but if they ignore the crucial role played by those who mediate the learning process (including the way that the materials are used), they not only risk alienating these key players, but their materials will not be worth the silicon they are encrypted in.

    1. Scott,

      I am with you on the Hattie assessment but the survey also reminds us that teachers as a whole can become much better at what they are doing than the present. One could argue that if the average machine produces just average learning (through perhaps mastery learning and better assessment)- it could be better than the performance of a wide swath of bottom rung (inexperienced/disinterested?) teachers.

      This is the real danger in my opinion- that average will win out over the dedicated effort to improve the profession so that we produce exceptional teachers who could learn to employ all the tools that Hattie gives us in concert with all the digital tools that are on the horizon.

      The real danger in the mechanistic approach to learning is that we will opt for the standardized learning of machines over the real possibility of human excellence in concert with machine learning. And for many years I believe that some/many/most EFL textbook writers were (wittingly?/unwittingly?) complicit in this march towards bland standardization (and cookbook teaching) which as you have pointed out has brought us to the present moment.

    2. If you’re that confident that the teacher cannot be effectively eliminated Scott, why worry? Shouldn’t you be thinking “Let the publishers bankrupt themselves trying to wean students off teachers if they like”?

      1. Good point Alex! But in the time it will take before they are bankrupted (pace the case of Cengage), teachers risk being further ‘disintermediated’ to the point that many of them will give up. If I was entering the teaching profession now and realised the extent to which learning is being reconfigured as data analytics, I would be exiting the profession.

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