The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Powering back up

I arrived back from Marrakesh just after midnight last night after a 10-day holiday in Morocco and washed the thick coating of dust off my feet before climbing contently back into my own bed for a good, long sleep. Today I've been very glad of being freelance and enjoying the luxury of getting back up to speed slowly! It's always tough to switch your brain back into work mode after a break, but I think it takes just that bit longer the further you've been away from the norm. Going from haggling in the souks and avoiding being run over by donkey carts in the narrow alleyways of the Marrakesh medina yesterday afternoon to tackling a bulging inbox and getting my head back around grammar codes and run-ons today has been a rather surreal leap!

In fact, somewhere around lunchtime, I gave up on the idea of doing anything terribly productive today - my brain just isn't ready! So I've been doing a bit of mindless admin, putting on a few loads of washing and just generally settling myself back in. I've managed to deal with most of my inbox, although I've got three offers of new work - all of which look really interesting, but none of which I think I can fit in - that I've rather lamely put off replying to until tomorrow. Why does the good stuff always come along altogether in a flurry?!

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Monday, May 10, 2010

The Future of Publishing - the future of writers?

On Saturday, I went to a Society of Authors' Educational Writers' Group seminar in London. I've been a member of the society for a few years and go to their meetings and events on and off. They often throw up new ideas, new contacts or just things to think about and Saturday's event was no exception. There were three speakers from publishers who each gave a presentation on the topic of "the future of publishing", followed by a Q&A. There was, unsurprisingly, quite a bit of talk about new media; its pros and cons, in which areas and markets it had potential (and where it didn't), when to embrace and when to reject it.

What I found more interesting though was the thorny issue of how we can actually make money from 'more than just books'. I've raised questions before about all the extra components that seem to go to make up many ELT materials nowadays, many of them e-components - CD-ROMs, e-workbooks, online resources, blogs etc. In my post about the Global launch, I pondered whether all the different parts we'd put so much effort into producing would actually get used. So it was very interesting to hear Sue Jones, Managing Editor of ELT Publishing at Macmillan (who publish Global) admitting that they know that much of this extra material isn't really used and certainly doesn't make any money, but because it's come to be expected, publishers have to produce it just to keep up with the competition. And of course, all this extra material has to be written by someone. And if it isn't making the publishers any extra money, then how can they afford to pay us writers to produce it? Sue explained that they've had to give up on the idea of royalties for many products because it's too difficult to tease out who contributed what when you've got such a team of people working together on different components and also because, apart from the actual student's book, much of it is bundled or given away free. Fair enough, I suppose, but it was her next comment that she's often happy to agree a double fee rather than get caught up in royalties that caused a rather sharp intake of breath from many in the audience!

From my experience, and talking to other writers at the meeting, theirs too, fee-based writing tends to be incredibly mixed in terms of rewards, especially when it comes to 'new' media. I started writing material for CD-ROMs almost 15 years ago for a little software outfit in Prague. Back then, it was all very new and we were very much feeling our way. We didn't know quite what we could do, how much work it would involve or how much money the final product might go on to make. Inevitably, it turned out to involve a huge amount of work for relatively little reward - although I can't really complain because my modest fee for the work went towards the fees for the first part of my MA and kick-started my move from teaching to publishing! What surprises me though is that publishers still haven't worked out how much work is involved in many of these products and so what an appropriate fee might be. This combines with the fact that most work in publishing happens in such a rush and a panic that there's rarely time to get fees or contracts established before you actually get started on a piece of work. Thus the rates of pay - when you come to divide up your fee by the hours you ended up working - can vary wildly. Very occasionally an editor overestimates and it works out quite well, but more often than not, an everchanging brief drags the work out and the hours pile on and you see your hourly rate drop and drop. So that on one recent major project (that I won't name!) I found by the end that I'd earned all of £10 an hour for all my efforts!

And what's the effect of all this? Well, for me, it means I'm more cautious about taking on this type of writing work that's interesting, but potentially not economically viable (and always involves more work than you originally agree to!). I'm erring towards jobs that offer a clear hourly rate rather than a fee - which leads me back to lexicography, corpus research and editing rather than writing. And if other writers follow suit, who will take on these jobs - new and inexperienced writers, who are lured by the glamour but then equally move on when they discover they can't afford to keep giving their time away so cheaply? Increased turnover of writers may mean fresh ideas, but what about consistency, quality or continuity on big projects?

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Thursday, May 06, 2010


I'm feeling a certain glow of civic pride after going to vote this morning - all the more so because it's a grim, wet day here in Bristol to be trogging off to a polling station:

A grey, murky view across North Bristol on my way back from voting

I'm generally quite a political animal and I feel quite strongly about all sorts of issues - and I'm not usually shy about expressing my views. I think voting's really important and I've tried to take an interest in the election build-up. I've mostly found the whole thing really frustrating though because everyone seems to talk in such vague generalities that they say almost nothing of any substance. I realise that in a "general" election politicians have no choice but to talk to a "general" audience about "general" issues, but none of them seem to have mentioned anything that I'm really bothered about. As someone who's not part of a "hard-working family" (unmarried, no kids, work part-time self-employed), I can't help but feel rather left out.

Having said that, I still find it quite exciting to be part of the whole democratic process. Apparently, the ward I live in has the highest percentage of voters with doctorates in the country, so as I came up to the polling station, I couldn't help sizing up the collection of old ladies and students who'd turned up at the same time as me and wondering about their academic calibre! As someone who works from home and is out and about during the day, I suppose I've got used to being lumped in with old folk and students! One comment in a group of first-time voters I followed out made me smile - a girl in her late teens or early twenties remarked that the whole experience had been rather like a multi-choice exam. Now we just have the same nervous wait for the results ...

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Tuesday, May 04, 2010


This morning, I received my annual royalties statement for a couple of little books I wrote for CUP a few years ago (Common Mistakes at Proficiency & Common Mistakes at IELTS Advanced). Neither were particularly huge bits of work (in fact, I think I spent much longer doing corpus research for the rest of the books in the series than I did on writing these two), so I find it rather strange and miraculous that they still provide one of my best sources of income. It feels rather like free money!

When my statement arrives, I usually have a quick browse through then file it away. But as it's now been five years since the first was published (3 years since the second), I thought I'd add up how many copies have been sold altogether. I was quite surprised and, in some little way thrilled, to find that there are more than 85,000 copies of books with my name on the front floating around the world somewhere. I've no idea if that's good or not, but it sounds quite impressive to me!

On the downside though, it does make me rather sad that more of my work doesn't involve royalties. It seems a bit odd that the amount I earn for the work I do doesn't seem to bear any relation to the amount of work, effort, time or creative input it involves. I've worked on more than 50 publications since I went freelance some 10 years ago - either writing, editing or researching - and for all of the rest of them, I've got no more than a rather basic hourly rate. Obviously for most of them, including the dictionaries, I've been no more than part of a team effort, but there have been a few bits of solo writing too. Over recent years, I've been pondering how to move from being a mere ELT writer to being a proper ELT author (with its accompanying rewards!). Asking around though, it seems that you either have to be lucky and in the right place at the right time (as I was with the two Common Mistakes books) or just incredibly pushy and prepared to put an awful lot of effort into potential projects that may or may not ever come to fruition. Much as I'd like to embark on the latter plan, I just can't afford to - it takes all my time (and energy) to plough on with the work that I'm offered. So I guess, for the moment at least, I'll just have to be content with my hourly rate and the tag of ELT writer.

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