In our second post of three reporting on sessions at the ELT Freelancers’ Awayday conference held in Oxford in January, David Baker and Fiona MacKenzie share some insights from a survey they recently conducted. The theme of the conference was ‘Raising our Game’, and David and Fiona look at three ways in which freelance editors and materials writers can raise their game in the changing world of ELT publishing. They will be presenting the results of their research in a new talk at the MaWSIG showcase day on Saturday, 18 April at IATEFL 2020 in Manchester.
In our talk, we presented research we carried out recently into the role of the ELT editor and how it has evolved in the wake of major changes in the publishing industry over the last 20 years. We interviewed a small but representative group of a dozen senior editors and publishers and collected about 25 hours’ worth of material from our conversations.
The theme of this year’s Freelancers’ Awayday was ‘Raising our Game’ and, in the last part of our talk, we addressed this theme, drawing both on comments made by our interviewees and on our own experience as freelancers, authors and publishers. We focused on freelance editors, but subsequent conversations we had with people attending our talk showed us that what we said was largely relevant for other freelancers, including materials writers.
We covered three specific areas: negotiation, self-marketing, and networking.
One of the points that emerged clearly is that not all negotiation should be about fees. When deciding whether to take on a project, we also need to take account of other factors, such as timings, our current workload and the track record of the companies and individuals involved.
There is a link between the increasing need to negotiate timings and the growing lack of experience of in-house editors. As one interviewee commented:
‘The inexperience of in-house editors may lead to their underestimating the length of a job. Freelancers now ask about increasing the number of billable hours for a job in a way they never used to.’
One positive suggestion is that when taking on a new project – especially a big one – freelancers should try to negotiate for a ‘review stage’ to be built in early on in the project to allow for the adjustment of the timing and/or fee. Publishers should be willing to discuss this, even if they are operating in a tight budgetary environment. The alternative – pushing on with an unrealistic brief or schedule – simply creates problems that are more expensive and more difficult to deal with further down the line.
Freelancers also need to be aware of the dangers posed by an ‘undeliverable brief’ which asks for content that we know to be inappropriate or unworkable, or which imposes a schedule that our experience tells us is unachievable. Should we ever agree to take on such projects? Can we mitigate some of the consequences through prior negotiation?
Our interviews revealed that a lot of decisions on who to hire are based on assessment of personal qualities such as reliability, punctuality, flexibility and attention to detail. Consequently – as in most other fields of work – building and maintaining a good track record is essential.
One aspect of self-marketing that received a lot of attention throughout the day was the importance of developing and selling our specialist knowledge. Our interviews revealed that publishers are putting less of a premium on specialist knowledge among their in-house staff than they did in the past. Whereas there used to be editors who focused more or less exclusively on specific areas, such as primary, exams and grammar, this has changed in recent years. Now, some publishers are even operating a kind of ‘taxi rank’ system for assigning projects to in-house editors that pays little or no attention to their specific areas of expertise.
There was a consensus that specialist knowledge is still an essential requirement for many kinds of work; if there is less of it in-house than previously, then it is of even greater importance that materials writers and freelance editors have it. As one specialist commissioning editor encouragingly commented:
The [specialist] editors will say what their hourly rate is, and we go with it. And if they raise their rates, we accept it. There aren’t huge numbers of specialists.
Various ideas were discussed, including sharing and pooling work, recommending colleagues with relevant skills when we are unable to take on projects ourselves, and offering mentoring support to less experienced colleagues.
An issue that came up frequently during our research was the growing problem of stress as schedules shorten, budgets tighten and the scale of projects expands. We shared some of our own stress-busting techniques, including sending each other articles, GIFs or YouTube clips on a Friday afternoon that sum up (or send up) the frustrations of the week. We’ll end with one example: it’s a favourite GIF which came as a reminder that you can enjoy yourself however inundated you are if you choose a positive approach. We hope it raises a smile from you, too!’
David Baker worked as an in-company language trainer and university teacher in Paris before returning to the UK to complete a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics. He worked for the ELT division of Oxford University Press for 14 years, ending up as Publishing Manager for Grammar and Reference. He has also worked extensively on exams, business English and ESP materials. For the past 14 years he has been working as a freelance ELT author, editor, and publishing and educational consultant.
Fiona MacKenzie is a consultant, editor and author. She taught English and ESL in UK schools, then worked as an in-house editor for more than 20 years on print and digital materials, and finally as a publishing director. As a freelancer, she has worked on numerous print and digital publishing projects.
David and Fiona are currently co-authoring a secondary English course for German schools.