kitchen table math, the sequel: worse than you think, part I've-lost-count

Thursday, February 14, 2013

worse than you think, part I've-lost-count

(Family motto: It's always worse than you think)

Excerpt from Afraid of Your Child's Math Textbook? You Should Be.:
At one time, a writer in this industry could write a book and receive roughly 6% royalties on sales. The salesperson who sold the product, however, earned (and still does) a commission upwards of 17% on the same product. This sort of pay structure never made sense to me; without the product, there’d be nothing to sell, after all. But this disparity serves to illustrate the thinking that has been entrenched industry-wide for decades—that sales and marketing is more valuable than product.

Now, the balance between the budgets for marketing and product development is growing farther and farther apart, and exponentially so. Today, royalties are a thing of the past for most writers and work-for-hire is the norm. Sales staffs still receive their high commissions, but with today’s outsourcing, writers and editors are consistently offered less than 20% of what they used to make. As a result, the number of qualified writers and editors is diminishing, and those being contracted by developers and publishers often don’t have the necessary skills or experience to produce a text worthy of the publisher’s marketing claims.

Here’s how it works: Many publishers solicit developers, often on the Internet and from all over the world, looking for the best bid on a project. With competition this fierce, developers are forced to drastically lower their rates just to stay in business (and publishers exploit this fact). Let’s say a publisher hires a developer for a certain low-bid fee to produce seven supplemental math books for grades 3-8. The product specs call for each student book and teacher guide to have page counts of roughly 100 pages and 80 pages, respectively. The publisher wants these seven books ready for press in five weeks—over 1,400 pages. To put this in perspective, in the not too recent past at least six months would be allotted for a project of this size. But publishers customarily shrink their deadlines to get a jump on the competition, especially in today’s math market. Unreasonable turnaround times are part of the new normal, something that almost guarantees a lack of quality right out of the gate.

Of course, the developer could say no to this ridiculous timeline, but there are plenty of others who will say yes. So, the developer accepts the work and scrambles to put together a team of writers and editors who must have immediate availability, sheepishly offering them a take-it-or-leave-it rate, a mere pittance of what they could once demand. As is the case for the developer, for each writer or editor who declines, there are scores in the wings who will say yes just to survive. Those who do accept the inferior pay and grueling schedule often do so without the ability to review the product specs to know what they’re getting into. That’s because the specs are still being hashed out by the publisher and developer even as the project begins. And when product specs are “complete”, they are often vague, contradictory, and in need of extensive reworking since they were hastily put together by people juggling far too many projects already.


Copyediting, the work I generally do now, is the final stage of editing before the product goes to press, where only a check for grammar, punctuation and things of this nature should be required. Content editing is a whole other expertise, one that is done after the writing where the content editor reviews the writer’s work for accuracy, sense, and structure, and makes sure the material adheres to the product specs. When I’m hired to copyedit, the profound errors I see in content are often staggering enough that grammar and punctuation seem immaterial. Sometimes the content in the student materials is so poor—steps omitted, unclear directions, concepts introduced when they’re not developed till later in the text, distorted interpretations of math terms and applications —that it boggles the mind it got past a content editor. With so many errors rampant at this stage of editing, rewriting is hastily done and it’s only inevitable that some errors will show up in the final printed product. And with a different copyeditor on each book, there are those who don’t even think about, or have the experience to recognize, the content issues so they go unaddressed. For a rate of four dollars a page, most copyeditors will do only what they were hired to do—look for errors in grammar and punctuation and move on. There's a mortgage due after all.

When I point out critical errors in content to a developer’s project manager, there’s generally a pause at the other end of the phone. I’m ruining their day, handing them a problem they don’t want, can’t possibly address given their resources and time. Some do their best; they’ll ask me to make corrections and bump up my rate a bit. Some will ask me to make notes so that they can fix the errors and do the rewrites themselves on their own time. Others will simply sigh, “The publisher knows it’s bad. Just do the best you can.” The publisher knows it’s bad. And yet, it doesn’t seem to matter. That’s because the sales and marketing team is already at work developing videos, brochures, webinars, catalog copy, and whatever else their bloated budgets will allow in order to sell what doesn’t actually exist—a quality product.

And speaking of the printed product, there’s one more step before we get there—production. These are the people who typeset the books and get them ready for press. India is a favored venue for some publishers because workers are available on three shifts and work fast, but mostly because the price is far cheaper than in the U.S. As editors, we often have to compensate for language barriers by color coding our instructions to the production staff or using simple language that is still frequently misunderstood, resulting in further unintended errors that often make it into the final product because there’s no time left in the schedule, no money left to pay someone, to do a final and thorough review in the manner it should be, and used to be, done.


One must conclude that students and their education, if this is judged against product quality, is becoming an increasingly low priority. Not only don’t some publishers care, some have no problem expressing their lack of concern. Example: I received an email from a senior math executive of a well-established publisher responding to a concern I raised about the lack of correlations in a particular math series to the Common Core State Standards, correlations that were part of the product specs. The reason they were part of the product specs is because Common Core State Standards have been officially adopted by 43 states ( and publishers are racing to make sure their products address them. This is how the senior executive answered my query: “It doesn’t matter if there aren’t enough correlations; our marketing materials say only that we ‘expose’ students to Common Core.”

Not only did this top-level “professional” have no problem stating this, she had no problem committing it to writing. Buyer beware: Read that marketing copy very carefully.

Afraid of Your Child's Math Textbook? You Should Be.
Annie Keeghan


Anonymous said...

Sales and marketing?

The "customers" aren't buying projects for their own use or with their own money. They're agents of the state with tax money to use.

This isn't sales and marketing. It's lobbying. At best.

Auntie Ann said...

Why not bypass the publisher? Why not create an on-line store where books can be sold directly by the author? It would take some marketing to get word of the site out there, but a few print ads in selected journals and some cheap on-line marketing might do it. Although textbooks may not be purchased by large districts this way initially, if you could get into smaller markets or private schools or become popular with home schoolers, eventually bigger districts would pay attention. Why not try on-line marketing directly to parents? Singapore math was initially popular with home schoolers, but now parental pressure is forcing it into many school districts. Although you would start small, there would be a much higher percent of sales to the author, so you may end up better off in the long run, and you could start an education revolution by empowering parents to influence curriculum choices.

Catherine Johnson said...

Auntie Ann - I'm with you!

I had no idea things were this bad (assuming this account is true AND I'm inclined to think it is true...)

A have a colleague who worked in educational publishing for years. She says she left when the education world became obsessed with testing. I should ask her, next chance I get, what was going on.

This article gives me a different perspective on the Google-as-curriculum phenomenon.

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, some of the very best college-level teaching material I've found is the free stuff instructors create and post online at college Learning Centers.

I found a punctuation guideline from Pasadena City College that is brilliant.

I posted it here:

The 8 basic sentence punctuation patterns

Anonymous said...

The details here may be new, but the general point "textbooks are a mess" is very old.

See here:

And the old Ravitch classic "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn".

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

This is me drawing the *wrong* conclusion from this article, but I read this:

"For a rate of four dollars a page, most copyeditors will do only what they were hired to do—look for errors in grammar and punctuation and move on. There's a mortgage due after all."

And am thinking ... hey, that's okay for part-time piece-work! I wouldn't want to raise a family on that, but 10 hours/week after I "retire" would be fine.

-Mark Roulo

Jen said...

"And am thinking ... hey, that's okay for part-time piece-work!"

That would certainly depend on what the manuscript looked like, wouldn't it? If it took you 30 or more minutes to fully mark up a page, then you're going to be earning minimum or less, without benefits.

I do find that other people's work *always* seems easier and more lucrative than one's own, right up until the point that you actually do it!

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm laughing!

Yes, you DID draw the wrong conclusion, Mark Roulo!

(Just kidding.)

I'm still gobsmacked by this article. I've been a writer forever, which means I've been in the publishing industry forever, and I've NEVER seen anyone who was deliberately turning out cr** ----- this account is utterly foreign to every experience I've ever had.

I've got to find out what my colleague (the woman who worked in educational publishing) thinks.

Of course, the book I'm reading on the industry is quite critical (but I haven't gotten to the chapter on textbooks per se)

Jen said...

I sent this to a friend who does copy-editing for magazines and online sites. She found it very accurate and says that medical articles worry her the most, even though she clearly and forcefully states that she has no medical training and is just copy-editing. Says she worries most about the content errors she doesn't know she's missing -- at least the others she can point out and hope they'll get changed.

Anonymous said...

"That would certainly depend on what the manuscript looked like, wouldn't it? If it took you 30 or more minutes to fully mark up a page, then you're going to be earning minimum or less, without benefits.

I do find that other people's work *always* seems easier and more lucrative than one's own, right up until the point that you actually do it!"

Actually, I did do this (part-time) for 15 months. I enjoyed it because the final product was so much nicer than what I started with :-) And I got to do it *when* I wanted to in a nice computery environment.

Beats working at Wal-Mart of the local coffee shop (which I think I'd also enjoy 10 hours/week as long as I wasn't trying "make a living" doing it).

-Mark Roulo

SATVerbalTutor. said...

@ Auntie Ann

You're describing more or less what I do in terms of publishing. Although most of my selling is done through Amazon, most of my marketing has been through my and Debbie Stier's websites. When I first starting tutoring the SAT, I went to the bookstore and *horrified* at the quality of the test-prep material. All of it was so incredibly inaccurate that there was just no way I would ever use it with a student (unless we went through it as an exercise for understanding exactly what the SAT does and does not do!) Most of the commercial stuff is so incredibly awful for the exact reasons in the Keeghan piece: it's produced quickly by people who don't really know what they're done, want to do it as cheaply and possible, and ultimately don't really care how accurate it is. Unfortunately, the big commercial publishers are established names, and so people automatically tend to believe that their advice must be good. And even if they don't think that it's great, they usually have trouble believing just how awful it truly is.

SteveH said...

And I want to give an unsolicited plug for your grammar book. My son loves it. I see that it comes up at the top of the search when you put in "SAT grammar book", but that's the Amazon link. They seem to have the pull to get you up to the top, and I'll bet that works well for selling to regular people. It also gives people a certain level of comfort. I can go to Amazon, throw it in my cart and be done within a minute. I have an account.

It seems to me that it's easier and safer for schools to buy through publishers. (An old saying is that nobody got fired for buying IBM.) I'll bet that there is a lot of junk being crammed through just to meet CCSS specifications and deadlines. Publishers get access to schools and find out exactly what they need. They build one-on-one relationships. They can do that because the contracts are so large.

Another general issue about the internet is that so many people are willing to do so much work and offer it for free. A lot of it is crap, but some of it is very good. This changes life for many content developers.

I have had programs lose market share at the lower end because others have offered free versions that satisfy the limited needs of many. Also, many software developers are now offering free, cut-down versions to hook potential future customers. (In my case, one competitor's software was developed using EU government money.) A developer once made the comment that he would rather have a free customer that is tied to their program than have them go to someone else's program. I guess it's just another manifistation of supply, demand, and marketing.

The world is changing, but I think there are ways to eliminate middlemen, especially if you can get the price low enough to be within an impulse sale range. However, it's unlikely that you can win the big sales to large institutions that have face-to-face sales meetings. I find that customers are not very good at comparing complex products. If the price is high, you can have the sales people do the job - in your favor. If you try to eliminate those people and cut the price drastically, people can't believe that it's any good. This is a very common issue in the software world.

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