Whose project is it anyway?

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Whose project is it anyway?

Part 1

 

The term ‘publisher-led’ has cropped up quite frequently in conversations I’ve had at conferences and in social media discussions. This post is an attempt to outline definitions of the term and to investigate some of the criticisms sometimes levelled at publisher-led projects. My thanks go to the authors, editors and publishers (named and unnamed) who have kindly contributed their views to this post.

 

Definitions

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According to one editor, a ‘publisher-led’ project is one that is “conceived and created primarily by a publisher in response to a specific market opportunity; this is often used in contrast to an ‘author-led project’ where an author / author team come up with the idea and then approach a publisher to collaborate.”  Historically, the ‘author-led’ project came first and underwent some changes before the ‘publisher-led’ project gained ascendancy. Jim Scrivener described the ‘old way’ of author-initiated publishing: “Potential writers sent off proposals to publishers who read through them and picked out ones they liked the sound of. They would then bash them around and shape them to what they thought might be a viable book. The final product – if it got to that – was often very different from the initial proposal, but would still bear a good deal of the individual and distinctive author voice and creative ideas.” This approach has since morphed into the author “second-guessing” ideas that publishers already have in their publishing plans. Talented authors whose ideas most clearly correspond with a publisher’s vision tended to be chosen to write the books.

 

Nowadays though, the consensus is that the ‘author-led’ project is a rarity in mainstream ELT publishing. Coursebook authors now almost exclusively work in teams as ‘content providers’, collaborating with editors to fulfil a brief.  The scope this leaves for author creativity and influence seems to vary. At one end of the spectrum, publishers work together with lead authors to shape the initial concept for a coursebook series and then appoint a wider team of writers to work within the concept.  At the other, the features of a course, its USPs and even the format of each lesson spread are already defined when the author team is commissioned. Equally, the way editorial teams are formed varies. In some teams, there is a strong publisher with a clear vision who leads a team of editors, all of whom have a comprehensive idea of the product they’re aiming to create. In other teams, ideas tend to evolve more throughout the course of the product’s development.  Decisions are made by a number of people and the team can be in flux as editors switch between projects.

 

Clearly then, not all publisher-led projects are managed in the same way. This inevitably results in a range of impressions and opinions about publisher-led projects, which I’ve endeavoured to represent in the answers to the questions below.

 

Does publisher-led = lack of originality and ‘bland’ ‘cookie-cutter’ content?

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The short answer to this is ‘to an extent, yes’.

 

Whilst publisher-led projects allow publishers to broker deals with media partners in order to offer video and digital resources that, far from appearing bland, could be very attractive to the student, the core content of each course released into the market tends to have a great deal in common.

 

As publishing plans are now driven by market demand, products aren’t generally completely different from one another or ‘revolutionary’ in approach. As Jim Scrivener observes, “teachers want better versions of the same thing they are using. They rarely request significant innovation.”

 

The functional constraints that digital products place on activities also often results in a tighter brief being necessary and therefore in less variety of product. What is more, according to Keith Sands, Publisher (Consumer) at Cambridge University Press,  the ‘arms race’ of add-on components (multi-media and the like) means that the publisher takes a large financial risk “which creates the need to validate the project at every stage against market feedback”, which in turn places another set of constraints on the author.

 

The perceived ‘blandification’ of core content perhaps comes down in part to the attempt on some publishers’ part to dictate the shape of each coursebook spread and to ‘granularize content’: to break it up into parts and to apportion parts of each unit to different writers. There appears to be a general feeling amongst writers that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ and that this approach does not necessarily result in a successful product. As one successful author observes:

 

“ Writing a coursebook spread involves so many concurrent thought processes that many of them are subconscious. The spread gradually takes shape like a vase on a potter’s wheel. You have a lump of clay and an idea about what it might look like, but it may well develop differently as you go along, or you might need to scrunch the clay back into a ball a few times before you’re happy with it. So I think any attempt to dictate the exact shape as if you’re pouring the clay into a mould just won’t work in the same way … I think it’s a real shame when the quality of the work is affected negatively by a need to always have exactly the same lesson shape. It’s putting the cart before the horse.”

 

What is more, granularized content is likely to give learners the sense that learning a language is just a matter of “learning all the bits in order.” (Jim Scrivener)

 

Is there still room for author originality?


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In mainstream, general English publishing, author originality seems to be limited, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that author opinion needs to be stifled. Publishers and authors alike recognise the value of ‘creative friction’. Although carefully put together author teams share common views on successful pedagogy with the publisher, some tension and frustration is generally felt during the course of bringing a product to fruition. Although thick skins are often required, writers I’ve spoken to feel that this tension is necessary and often brings about their best work.

 

Author originality, it is suggested, is easier to accommodate in ESP products or smaller scale, niche publishing based on an author’s deep knowledge of the target audience.

 

Conclusions

There seems to be no going back from the market driven, publisher-led approach. Indeed, to do so would not make commercial sense. Publishing houses are businesses after all. However, questions need to be asked to ensure that the best product possible is produced. For example:

 

  • Are all of the planned add-on components really necessary?
  • Can the structure of each spread and unit have some flexibility built in?
  • Does the brief need to be prescriptive?
  • Can we involve the author team from the very beginning of the project, at concept stage?
  • Can we ensure stability of author and editor team?

 

In part 2 of this blog post, I’ll be looking at reasons why the majority of projects are publisher-led, and at some alternatives to the publisher-led approach.

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