The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, March 25, 2019

The end of the affair

In my last post, I wrote about some of the challenges of getting started on a writing project, but endings can be tricky too.

When do you know you've finished?
On some projects, there's a really detailed scheduled with numbered drafts and handover dates, and when your final draft has been received, you get an acknowledgement - and maybe even a thank you - and you're encouraged to send your invoice. However, that's not always the case. All too often, you send in what you hope is the last piece in the puzzle and wait for confirmation, but nothing comes. You might get a short 'thanks' from the (often freelance) editor, but nothing to say you've actually finished. And so you have to compose that slightly awkward email asking if everything's okay and whether you can invoice yet.

How do you know it's been published?
If you're the lead author on a book, perhaps working for a royalty, you'll probably follow it through proof stages and with luck, will be told when it's published and receive copies. But if you're writing for a fee, as part of a team, even when you've written a fairly substantial chunk of the book, you often hear nothing at all. I've lost count of the number of times that the first I've seen of a book I've worked on is when I'm browsing through it on a stand at a conference … and flick to the back to find my name buried among the photo credits.

Sometimes that's a good excuse to email the editor (if they haven't already moved on) and ask if they could send you a copy. Sometimes they do, sometimes they’re more reluctant. To be honest, I really don’t mind the lack of credit, but how difficult can it be to keep a list of the people who’ve contributed to a book and at least drop them an email when it comes out?

How do you know how a book's doing?
I've worked on a handful of books for royalties and I get royalty statements every six months. I have to admit, I don’t really have a benchmark for what equates to good sales, but I do, at least, know which ones seem to do better than others. For fee-paying projects though, that last draft, and maybe a copy in the post if I'm lucky, is generally the last I hear. The only feedback I ever get is from chatting to sales reps at events who might mention that a book is 'doing well' ... although it's difficult to tell whether they're just being polite.

Can I help with promotion?
Authors of big coursebook series seem to be forever going around the world giving talks, but in my world of smaller, more niche titles, things don't quite work that way. For some books, I've been asked to do a couple of talks when they were first published, for others I've pushed to do the odd talk, for many I'm told that there's no budget, and for most I'm not involved at all and wouldn't even know who to contact if I wanted to be (see above re. not knowing when a book's been published/contacts moving on).

All of which can prove a bit dispiriting at times. As a writer, I feel that I should have those occasional moments of excitement when copies of my latest book arrive and I pop open some bubbly … but those are actually very few and far between. It mostly feels like my work just disappears off unceremoniously into a void.

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Monday, March 18, 2019

Getting going: the economics of short jobs

Getting started on any new project, it takes time to get up and running. Recently, I've worked on a number of short jobs where the start-up time ate into the hours I could allocate to the whole job (based on the fee) to the point where the whole thing turned out to be hardly worth it financially. It's made me reconsider whether short writing jobs are always viable from a financial perspective.

At the start of a new writing project, there are lots of things to get your head around and no matter how experienced you are, that takes time. I've been writing ELT materials for 20 years now, so I generally know what to expect and can more-or-less 'hit the ground running', but even so, I still have to read through the brief and accompanying documents (of which there might be anything up to a dozen) to check:

- which market the materials are aimed at 
- the level (not just A2, B1 etc. but how it's actually pitched)
- the overall format of the book/components (even if I'm only writing a small part)
- the general style and approach
- any restrictions on topics, artwork or permissions for authentic texts
- any relevant exam guidelines or exercise types
- the format I need to use - templates, file naming conventions, combined/separate answer keys, etc.
- any requirements for artwork briefs or audio scripts
- the extent
- the styleguide (if there is one)
- all the other random bits I can't think of right now!

Then there's all the admin - emailing to and fro about dates and schedules and contracts and who to send stuff to, and downloading all the briefing docs.

On short jobs, you're typically writing a small part to fit in with other material (review units or tests or worksheets), so then when you start actually writing, not only are you flicking back and forth to check all the stuff above, you're also referring to the already-written material to check which language points you're covering, what's already been done, the approach the other writers have taken and topics they've covered. So the first unit (or spread or page) can take much longer than you'd normally expect for the actual amount of text you end up with on the page.

On longer projects, you can generally absorb that start-up time within the overall fee and hope to speed up and make up the time later. You might even find that time's been allowed in the schedule (and budget) to send in a first unit for feedback, and to go back and forth a bit to get the style and format established. On short jobs though, it seems there's little or no allowance for any of this. The commissioning editor looks at the number of pages/spreads/units and calculates a fee by simply multiplying how long they think each one will take to write. When those fees are already pretty low, absorbing that start-up time and still making more than a minimal hourly rate can prove tricky. Especially if you miss something in the brief in your rush to get started - or something wasn't actually mentioned or made clear - and so you send in your whole batch of work only to get it back with loads of requests for revisions. Now your hourly rate's ticking down even further.

Don't get me wrong, it's convenient to do short jobs now and again. Sometimes, they just fill a gap in your schedule and it can also be nice to do something simple where you don't get sucked into a big long complicated project. And sometimes they work out fine - occasionally, they can even take less time than you expect - hooray! In my experience though, that's getting increasingly rare. With publishers producing multiple levels and components of courses simultaneously and dividing up the writing between a whole slew of different writers, they also seem to just divide up the time and budget without taking into account that each of those writers has to factor in some start-up time.

That's not to say I'm going to stop taking on shorter jobs - like I said, they can make a nice change - but I'll certainly be considering that start-up time as a more prominent factor when I'm assessing fees and considering whether to take work on in future.

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