Loyalty vs. Royalties: Is There A Place For Royalties In Agile ELT Publishing?

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The long-standing royalty agreement between author and publisher is continuing to be challenged by developments in digital content creation. ELT writer and prolific blogger, Nicola Prentis, takes a look at the implications of this shift. Over to you, Nicola …

ELT’s newest buzzword is not in fact ‘digital’ or ‘agile’, it’s ‘restructuring’. Pearson, as everyone knows by now, is leading the way with a huge restructuring that has had writers floundering, projects awaiting commission (or not) for a year and editors reapplying for their own jobs. The switch to digital is not Pearson’s only move, they’re adopting more agile ways of working and will be focusing on providing education services and viewing everything through the lens off ‘efficacy’.

At the recent MaWSIG conference I was surprised to learn that, contrary to ideas that publishers are raking it in, both they and the author’s percentage of profits from a course book is in single figures. Evidently this is not enough for either party but only one side has the power to rectify it. A massive 47%, goes on production costs so, if the point of agile is to be more efficient and get a product out quicker, money will be saved there. Good news.

Even more good news, digital products don’t require storage, printing or transport costs so will drive savings that could benefit both publishers and authors. In traditional publishing, we’re seeing ebook contracts with much higher shares of the profits going to authors and cheaper products for customers. For example I have an ebook contract with a division of Harper Collins for 25% of the net, rising to 50% if it sells over 10,000 copies, significantly more than I would get on print books.

However, in ELT author royalties are the first thing to go. From digital startups to Pearson, there’s an increasing trend towards paying authors flat fees and cutting writers out of any future earnings, especially if a product is low profit for the company. Writers are understandably unhappy about this so companies will get what they pay for: writers who are willing only to do a specified number of rewrites whose investment in a product’s success ends at deadline.

But are writers’ attitudes to royalties realistic? Or have they simply got used to a system that is actually very strange?

Magazine and newspaper journalists don’t get a share of sales. If you write for Reuters and your article is syndicated to a newspaper, you don’t even get a by-line, let alone any money. Contributing presenter/writers at the BBC are not usually paid for documentaries and certainly have no possibility for future earnings, no matter where that programme ends up.

Screenwriters fare no better with the terms of net proceeds deals defined in such a way that their cut is usually 0%. Even E.L. James got screwed over when she was forced to give up ebook rights in order to sign with a major publisher.

If you want to make a fair share of the pot, start writing songs. The music business has a very different approach to remunerating its content creators. You’ll get a 50/50 split with the publisher plus an endless stream of cash flowing into your pocket from performance royalties, money if it’s used in a film, and money if it’s on a digital subscription service.  Don’t write those songs for ELT publishers though, otherwise Charlie Buys An Ice-cream will only earn you a one off fee for writing it.

But, there’s one critical thing ELT publishers are overlooking.

Songwriters, journalists and documentary writers don’t typically need to go out and sell their product. Music lovers buy for the artist, films and TV are sold on the cast and director and when was the last time you went to a magazine signing? In regular publishing, authors are expected to become the biggest promoter of their own books. And I’m not just talking about celebrity authors. People are fascinated to meet the person behind a book, whoever they are. And once they’ve engaged with the writer, they often buy the book.

I doubt we’re about to see the end of things that resemble course books, they’ll just be available in digital form and have more interactive elements. They’ll still have listening and reading texts, activities and games with language content that needs to be engaging.  In the case of a digital product, however, why would that author not be just as likely to drive on the spot downloads after a session at a school or university?

Obviously Cutting Edge and Candy Crush sell without their creators but I’d bet that any time those creators speak or give training sessions, there are more sales. 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? An invested author could be a walking Qwerty icon.

Although ‘agile’ is agitating a lot of people in ELT, it’s just a strategy for organising projects and doesn’t impact on the greater concern of royalties vs. fees. As agile, efficiency-driven projects become increasingly commonplace, and 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?

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 out in 2014. 

 

Laurie Harrison wrote a follow up to the above article here. 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.

23 thoughts on “Loyalty vs. Royalties: Is There A Place For Royalties In Agile ELT Publishing?”

  1. Good points. The ELT market doesn’t trust stuff that hasn’t got a renowned professional behind it, so you could say that sales have a lot to do with the author, and therefore royalties are in order. There are so many flashy new apps and sites that entertain and distract without really teaching, and sales in education are all about trust, so I believe the trend will continue in digital.

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    • Thanks for commenting! I’m not sure the author needs to be renowned, course books sell on the brand of the course more than the author in my opinion, but just having an author who will speak for the book they’ve created is the key factor.

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      • I agree. I never remember any names of course book authors because they all look like the same recycled dribble with different design (sometimes), but I remember that when new books came out or there were conferences to attend, my boss and most of the staff always knew who was who and what books they’d written, and to them that was important .

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  2. Nicola,
    Thank you for this post, which I read with some interest, though my own perspective is a little different. Personally, I have no objection to the idea of a fee-based as opposed to a royalty contract and in some cases even find it preferable in that your labour is rewarded even if the title you work on proves unsuccessful. That said, experiences with the newer fee-based model to date suggest that publishers still may not have quite adapted to the paradigm that (ironically) they themselves have introduced …

    [COMMENT FROM eltjam]: this is a bit unorthodox, but we’ve decided that Nikw211’s comment was so substantial and well argued that we asked its author if he’d be happy for us to promote it to be a post in its own right. So, all 2,000+ words of it will be appearing as a post very soon.

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  3. Thanks for the post, Nicola. Regarding your points about promotion, great content writers aren’t necessarily great presenters or salespeople (although some are both, of course). I think publishers and education companies are increasingly using different people for these functions anyway. And companies that are still willing to pay royalties would, I suspect, prefer to pay them to a charismatic or well-known presenter who goes out on the road to promote their product, than to the person who actually wrote the content. It’s possible we’ll see a shift to a model in which the minority who still earn royalties from ELT course sales do so for endorsement and promotion of a course rather than for writing the content.

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    • I keep meeting ELT authors and they’re hilarious, charismatic, interesting. I think there are plenty of people quietly going around doing inhouse training for example who are great teachers and that translates into training people about their products which ends up as sales. True sales and marketing jobs are something slightly different. I also think it depends as Nik said (but I need a day to read and respond to his comments) how much the author is the one involved in conceiving the idea (which is an agile friendly method anyway) as opposed to some of the things I have done which I would call copywriting.

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  4. A key reason why royalties are disappearing is that the basis on which they were calculated – the per-copy basis – is disappearing. Digital content isn’t distributed in the same way as books are (lack of clear distribution infrastructure is a serious reason why digital content will take time to catch on). This in turn means the sales process is quite different, content almost certainly customised, and provided online to the institution (the big global ones that do have the infrastructure, IT staff etc). How then do you have a basis for paying a royalty? And yes, why aren’t writers and writing teams approaching big institutions directly?
    One other thing – in my experience, it isn’t production or pre-press costs that have gone up – the biggest overhead on any book’s p&l is the sales and marketing cost. Why is this? It’s chicken and egg – because the cost of marketing a new product is so high, no-one dares take risks. Thus we have too many over-similar titles chasing the same market. Thus the sales proposition isn’t about the uniqueness of the product, it’s about price, add-ons, and the cost of all these – but prices are inelastic, so you can’t put the price up to cover these additional costs.

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    • Thanks Sue, I was hoping people with a lot more insight than me would comment as I was mostly posing a question. One thing I don’t understand though – why is per copy harder to calculate? Number of downloads is not information that can be collected? That seems strange so you must mean something different from what I’ve understood…

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  5. Nikw211

    Well said. Top notch analysis in my humble opinion. You dive right to the core of the situation. Maybe these big companies, after releasing the lines that tied them to teachers, have imagined they can do all the creative work necessary to sustain a series. Maybe it is also true that mere teachers don’t know enough to do the ground breaking work and for that researchers, not teachers are needed.

    One question: are all subjects treated the same? Do physics professors still get royalties for their work or is ELT just a special case?

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    • Per copy isn’t harder to calculate – royalties are based on this. The point is (sorry I wasn’t very clear) that per-copy digital downloads probably won’t be the main type of sale – not in the way Amazon, for example, sells kindle titles on a per-copy basis, just like books. Digital content is more likely to be customised, atomised, mashed-up in different ways – even as it maintains the coherence, progression and integrity of the original. So the traditional basis for author remuneration has just gone away.
      The way I see publishing in the future is that writers will be writing within a digital template, tag their own work (for level, topic, skill etc) submit it to an online editor somewhere, and at the press of a key it’s published to a large CMS or LMS. Outside the narrow world of the ELT publishers we know about, this is already happening (and within many of them as well).
      I believe that quality writing will regain its central position – good news for writers and authors.

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  6. Thanks Sue, I was hoping people with a lot more insight than me would comment as I was mostly posing a question. One thing I don’t understand though – why is per copy harder to calculate? Number of downloads is not information that can be collected? That seems strange so you must mean something different from what I’ve understood…

    Reply
  7. Per copy isn’t harder to calculate – royalties are based on this. The point is (sorry I wasn’t very clear) that per-copy digital downloads probably won’t be the main type of sale – not in the way Amazon, for example, sells kindle titles on a per-copy basis, just like books. Digital content is more likely to be customised, atomised, mashed-up in different ways – even as it maintains the coherence, progression and integrity of the original. So the traditional basis for author remuneration has just gone away.
    The way I see publishing in the future is that writers will be writing within a digital template, tag their own work (for level, topic, skill etc) submit it to an online editor somewhere, and at the press of a key it’s published to a large CMS or LMS. Outside the narrow world of the ELT publishers we know about, this is already happening (and within many of them as well).
    I believe that quality writing will regain its central position – good news for writers and authors.

    Reply
  8. Royalties bite for music creators!
    Streaming radio royalties are: usually under .oo1 per play , that is 1 cent per 1.000 hits. We play for free, companies don’t pay u whenit comes time to collect our royalties, we are exploited by the public and our music is easily pirated off of internet streaming music platforms. One wonders why we even bother. If you want to join in the conversation, I would love some feedback, I’m blogging on this subject at http://www.lesleyyoung.com/blog.html

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  9. Some interesting conversation here… thanks for initiating it. As a dabbling author I was wondering if someone could point me in the direction of a set of guidelines for setfees to charge for ELT writing. Since we mostly seem to work in quiet isolation, how does everyone know what is appropriate to ask for, whan approached by a publishing company? Anyone have any pointers, for instance, for graded readers?

    Reply

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