Loyalty vs. Royalties: Author as collaborator or contractor?


In her guest contribution to eltjam, Loyalty vs. Royalties: Is There A Place For Royalties In Agile ELT Publishing?, ELT writer and blogger Nicola Prentis commented on the recent changes in the traditional relationship between authors and publishers, and specifically the growing trend for authors to be offered fee-based rather than royalty-based contracts. The article below is an extended response to Nicola’s post from eltjam reader N. M. White (Nikw211). 

As someone whose work has been affected by the issues raised in Nicola’s post, I read her article with some interest even though my own perspective is somewhat different. Personally, I have no objection to the principle of a fee-based as opposed to a royalty contract, and in some cases I even find it preferable in so far as there is a guaranteed reward for the author’s input regardless of the vicissitudes of the market place. That said, the experiences of ELT authors working on a fee-only basis to provide digital content suggests that publishers may not have fully adapted to the newer paradigm they themselves have introduced.

Under the traditional royalty contract, the author was viewed as a collaborator and therefore had a certain amount of creative control over the project. Typically, the publisher would draw up a broad outline for a course concept they had in mind, and perhaps specifying certain key features they wanted to see included, which they then presented to a prospective author. To a large extent, it was then up to the author to first interpret and then actualise the concept, outline and features and in this, the author had a fair amount of freedom. This was because he or she was seen to have pedagogical and linguistic expertise that were both superior and more up-to-date than the publisher’s knowledge in the same areas.

This system allowed more creative ELT authors to develop the concept in ways which the publishers could not possibly have predicted. However, as both the commissioner and the co-owner of the content – and more importantly with access to feedback from focus groups of students and teachers – the publisher still had plenty of scope for moulding the content, curbing any of the more complex or outlandish ideas the author might have experimented with during the draft stages.

By contrast, under a fee-based system, the author (or quote-unquote “author”) is a contractor, not a collaborator. By analogy, this means that the fee-based “author” now has a role similar to that of a painter and decorator whereas under a royalties contract his or her role would have been more akin to that of an interior designer. While the former has to work to clear direction from the client, the latter is expected to contribute their expertise to giving directions. This distinction between collaborator and contractor is an important one, though as noted it is one that does not always seem to be yet fully appreciated by all publishers (or at least all persons within all publishers); either that or the treatment by the publisher of some contract authors as if they were still working for royalties is part of a deliberate business strategy.

Working with author-as-contractors, the publisher should no longer be able to supply a general concept with a broad outline structure or expect the “author” to go on to interpret, refine and develop in new and unexpected but still desirable ways. This task should now be fully in the hands of the publisher and it is equally important for the author-as-contractor to be aware of this. For where as previously he or she was a co-owner of the content and could therefore negotiate for the inclusion of certain activities or input material, as a supplier he or she must try their best to follow whatever directions have been given. This assumes of course that the publisher’s request for content has been made in sufficient detail and with sufficient clarity that there is no doubt in the contractor’s mind as to what needs to be delivered. However … 

… on the evidence so far, it is not clear that fee-based writers are always receiving the kind of detail this type of author-publisher relationship demands. Instead, it still seems to be very much being conducted along the same lines as when the publisher was working with the author as collaborator (i.e. the publisher is still supplying broad rather than specific outlines and loose rather than tight parameters to the authors they have contracted). This situation is equivalent to a homeowner asking a painter and decorator to paint the bedroom walls of a house ‘in any colour you like, so long as it’s a really, really good one,’ only to take one look at the freshly painted lemon yellow walls and decide that, actually, what they really wanted all along was for the walls to be sky blue.

The analogy only goes so far of course: in the case of a real painter and decorator, the client would be fully expected to pay for the consequences of unclear instructions to the contractor. Only if the client had specifically asked for sky blue walls only to see them painted lemon yellow would the contractor be obliged to correct the mistake at his or her own cost. In the case of ELT authors working on a fee-based contract, it appears not be always so clear-cut as to which party should be responsible for undertaking revisions – is it the author for not producing what was expected but not necessarily made explicit, or is the publisher for making assumptions about what the author was going to produce?

It is hopefully now clear that ELT publishers ought to recognise that there is a limit to what a fee-based author can be expected to do as he or she will literally end up paying for making any revisions the publisher insists on. It does not seem reasonable to expect an extensive rewrite from an author based on any changes to the project specification that have been decided – or even just communicated – at a later date. If this were a software developer rather than an author, the publisher would be expected to pay for any errors that have arisen from vaguely worded, ambiguous or revised instructions.

I have said above that ELT publishers ought to recognise that there is a limit to what a fee-based author can be expected to do but that does not mean that they cannot or will not do so. As the recently created MaWSIG shows, there is evidently a great deal of enthusiasm and interest from ELT teachers in becoming materials writers so there is therefore an ever-growing supply of author-contractors looking for a foot-hold in writing projects. At the same time, there also seems to be a general understanding among digital publishers that as the templates in their digital platforms are generally fixed there is bound to be less need for creativity on the part of the author. Where a publisher is confident that it has a platform with an ability to deliver quality content, then the role of the author becomes relatively less significant.

Whatever the case, if the publishers are determined to continue in this direction I strongly believe that they will sooner or later need to change their current working practices vis-à-vis their authors. If the author is no longer a collaborator, then the publisher must take on that role and so in effect become the ‘master’ author to whom they subcontract the details. This would be analogous to those master painters of old who would paint the head and hands of a portrait, leaving the sitter’s clothing and the background details to be filled in by their apprentices.

In case it is not clear, I don’t say any of this with rancor. As a business model in the digital age, it makes absolute sense from a publisher’s perspective, even more so when there is an ample supply of potential writers eager to get a start. This model is not entirely dissimilar to the situation for journalists working for online news organisations, a considerable number of whom have seen their fees falling, sometimes quite precipitously, and who are either on zero-hour contracts or else working away on endless unpaid internships.

This business model – where the choice of a particular author is basically unimportant – also makes sense as an answer to this question near the end Nicola’s article:

Who’s going to promote the product better, a group of people who had no say in the content and forgot about it as soon as they met their deadline or people invested from the beginning and with a continuing interest in its success?

In my experience of ELT conferences, I have found that the person who wrote the book may not always necessarily be the best person to promote it. If the speaker lacks dynamism or any kind of engagement with the audience, it will do nothing to improve participants’ perception of the book. On the other hand, some speakers can deliver entertaining and insightful talks about how best to use and exploit the material in the classroom, regardless of whether or not they were the one to have actually written it.

In short, the publisher has little to gain by engaging the actual writer of the content if that writer is not a good presenter. This is almost certainly why, coincidentally, teachers who deliver entertaining and engaging presentations at conferences find (or used to find) themselves approached by publishers to become involved in ELT writing projects. In the age of digital platforms with multiple writers, it likely pays to keep the authors anonymous while recruiting someone else to do the actual promotion. Without royalties, the publishers are free to package out the various functions a single author-collaborator used to have.

Nicola’s piece concluded with the following:

As … digital delivery continues to drive down costs and the budget allocated to authoring content, is there more at stake in the ELT world than we thought? Does removing the royalties from the equation remove the loyalty altogether?

I think it is a mistake to believe that digital delivery drives down costs. Creating and maintaining a bug-free digital platform on the scale educational publishers are moving towards is eye-wateringly expensive not to mention extremely risky given the uncertainty of getting any kind return on that investment. Where in print the publishers could have relied on revenue from tens or hundreds of thousands of individual purchases, they are increasingly having to go all in on the hope of winning a massive multimillion euro contract on a regional, national or international level. But as only one publisher will prove to have the winning hand in that kind of game, the others might well lose their shirts on it.

It is for just this reason that – if I’ve understood them correctly – Laurie, Tim and Nick have been arguing that investing in a range of small-scale, short-term agile digital products is a much safer bet. As a strategy it requires less overall investment and less risk while at the same time still retaining the opportunity for one or more of them to deliver huge returns should one of these small scale projects suddenly find itself being taken up by large numbers of people. The strategy is equivalent to being able to place a bet on a dozen horses at the beginning of a race, then switch all your stake onto the winning horse the moment you see that it is taking the lead. However, as things stand, while agile, efficiency-driven projects may be becoming more common as Nicola suggests, they are by and large not coming out of any of the major ELT publishers (at least to the best of my knowledge that is the case).

In a digital model, an author’s loyalty to the content is irrelevant from the publishers’ perspective; it is something that only really matters to the author. If anything is currently at stake in the ELT world, it is the realisation by publishers that in the digital publishing environment what teachers think no longer really matters. The teaching authors / author-teachers used to have importance to publishers as they were seen as a champions and representatives of the wider community of ELT teachers who, in their own turn, were often perceived as the gate-keepers that determined the success or failure of a new print title. It was teachers who went to conference, were impressed by the speaker, trialled the product and then persuaded their Director of Studies to adopt the course books they liked.

In digital, the publisher does not have to appeal to the teacher in the same way, as the publishers are either targeting key decision-makers – the Ministry of Education, the board of governors of a public university – or directly to the learners. Either way, the opinions of the teacher count for far less than they did previously as the choice of which materials and content to use moves (even) further out of their control.

So if the opinions of teachers are no longer (so) important to publishers, the need for an author-teacher-collaborator to represent them also loses relevance. It seems paradoxical to me, but possibly the most radical consequence of digital media on educational publishing is its impact on  the relationship between publishers and teachers, once so close that they seemed like conjoined twins, but now about to break away from one another.

If that sounds a bit bleak, it shouldn’t do: if I am right in suggesting that publishers no longer really need teachers, then it also means that the opposite is true and that teachers no longer really need publishers.

The implications of this should be clear. Teachers now have the technological means to create content with high-quality production values for very little (i.e. actually affordable) investment and not only that but for the first time – probably ever – they will be able to widely distribute content that can gloriously stick two fingers up at the PARSNIP* principle and create relevant and engaging content that has never been commercially viable enough for any of the publishers to take on.

Lessons based on content concerning gay rights, radical feminism, libertarian free market capitalism, creationism and atheism can be produced and become available. Of course, content based on traditionally taboo topics such as those may prove to be an unmitigated disaster, but then again, maybe not. If created with care and used with mature students from an appropriate cultural background, there should be no reason why materials that actually speak to the real world of the student should not prove energising and motivating. In any event, when teachers become publishers they will at last have a chance to experiment and find out for themselves – something that is not really currently possible.

In conclusion, if fee-based contracts mean that publishers will ultimately have to become authors, authors have the opportunity to become publishers. It will be interesting to see which of these hybrids proves more successful in the digital arena.

*PARSNIP is the mnemonic reputedly used by publishers to remind them of taboo content; It stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, ‘Isms’ and Pork. It has been suggested as one of the reasons why so much ELT course content is so anodyne and vapid. While partly unfair, anyone familiar with ELT course books will recognise the eerie similarity they tend to have to in-flight magazines.

For more on the topic of royalties in ELT, check out Steve Elsworth’s post on the monetary value of material’s writers and publisher, Janet Aitchison’s response.

4 thoughts on “Loyalty vs. Royalties: Author as collaborator or contractor?”

  1. I agree with everythng you said about what publishers expect for their fee. But I am having trouble imagining what this wonder product that’s supposed to replace everything we ever wrote/published/taught with can possibly be.
    If anyone has seen the brilliant platform “mathletics” that is used all over the world, maybe it’s a good example. I saw it mostly used as homework which the teacher can monitor and as a reward in class. The kids I’ve seen using it seem to really enjoy it but it isn’t taking the place of the entire lesson and class materials. I don’t think anything could. There’s got a be a limit to how much time anyone is prepared to spend in front of a screen! And in the case of ELT, language is primarily for communication – are we really going to be happy talking to SIRI all day?
    Teachers creating their own materials and becoming indie publishers, OK, but they need to be edited to have a wide enough appeal for them to make more money doing that than teaching an extra class. And how to market them? The student isn’t going to by them direct, and other teachers aren’t paid enough to buy their own materials so that leaves institutions who are apparently going to be told what to use by the Ministry that’s agreed to all the digital content as the sole learning medium. I keep feeling like I’m missing something here but I just don’t see it. It’s like everyone is just playing musical chairs.
    Anyway, very interesting post, thanks!

  2. There is a third leg of the publishing business that you didn’t mention. How about the many specialty book stores that mainly stock ELT books. What is their choice now? Will their content dry up one day soon? Will they soon end up in competition with the same companies whose slowly aging books they stock? Are these stores now natural allies to creative authors?

    Personally I think it would be great if someone put together a directory of book stores that were willing to declare open support for authors and independent work. In the aggregate and if organized so they were working together these book stores could offer some counter weight to the loss of opportunity and status resulting from the coming system of factory publishing.

    Then too, I think it would be fantastic if small ELT web-developers would start to see themselves as digital publishers and reach out to writers insofar as they are able. Now that the bonds between the large, factory publisher and author (in the role of creator) have begun to fall apart I think teachers should look to small digital publishing houses as potential substitutes. Wouldn’t it be great if small digital publishers were at conferences talking about how teachers could partner with them in creating materials (content APIs?) Wouldn’t it be great if conferences encouraged small digital publishers to come to the conferences with the thought that many of these small publishers could find some way to collaborate with teachers?

    I wish to thank Nicola and Mr. White for their well thought out, very informative postings! I also wish to thank ELTjam for giving them a platform to write. They are commenting on a big change in a decades long social and economic system. Change is in the air!

  3. This post is an incredibly good summary of the situation. It sounds like my experience doing fee-based writing 10 years ago, so I don’t think it’s a case of publishers not adjusting to that model yet, it’s simply the most efficient way for them given how authors will need to agree to amend and amend again for free (or magically understand what the publishers want, usually even before the publishers do) in the hope of getting more writing work. I simply quit that kind of work and never tried to work for publishers again, and I think many other teacher-authors will make the same decision when there is no prospect on the horizon except for more of the same kind of work. I don’t think the publishers care, though, as long as there are other potential authors waiting. Again, that’s hardly new – the increasing trend of even books having no authors’ names on them also started around 10 years ago.


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