The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

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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