14 March 2006

The War of the Worlds - "School owners vs Publishers"

A few years ago, when I took my first publishing course back in Oxford, I came across possibly the biggest revelation of all in my ELT career. Creating books had always been, to my knowledge, a long process that required lots of research. Being a salesperson, then a consultant and later a commissioning editor and publishing manager, I realized that there’s far more than commercial criteria to be met through exhausting research when creating a book. The biggest pedagogical weight of a book is not only whether it meets learning targets, corresponds to word banks, exam requirements and grammatical structures and functions. Most of all, it is about whether it contributes to the educational, cultural and psychological needs of the learner, especially the young learner, through appropriacy, consistency and a vision to convey messages that will create healthy language users and citizens. That gave me a clear definition of the role of a good commissioning editor that most high quality publishers have on board.

It was, thus, a great surprise when I recently came across a couple of books in the Greek market, addressed to young learners, including or even making use of some hilarious elements. Without being puritanical, now that I have become a parent, I felt rather uncomfortable flicking through books with nudity or voyeuristic implications, references to drinking problems, wild youth, etc. Emotions of jealousy and intrigue between teenagers described or illustrated take us back to the times of “the bold and the beautiful” and other similar soap operas.

Taking a closer look it was not difficult to notice that the lack of knowledge of the art of fair and scientific publishing went even deeper, to educational issues. Consistency is non existent in many books, overlooking the widely accepted consolidation processes, while in some others, dryness and restriction to narrow frameworks of lists required by exams deprive students of any possibility to functionally and creatively perform.

Looking back at the books of several years ago, it is easy for the average educator to notice the deterioration of quality, spirit, creativity, novelty, but also appropriacy in terms of standard publishing and educational rules. Besides, most publishers today agree that there is nothing new in the market, everything is reproduced and books become sellers or best sellers only through effective marketing. Why is that? What has changed over the years, apart from the overall consumer attitudes and lifestyle?

The answer, one would think, lies in competition beyond any measure. The truth is that back in 1989, unlike today, there were a handful of publishers in the Greek market. When OUP, Longman or (the then) Heinemann for example counted a 10 to 25% market share each in the early ‘90s, nowadays market shares are narrow pieces of a big pie for everybody. Most publishing marketing plans focus more on freebies, free seminars, even business training nowadays, recognizing a rising need in the market that I’ve been dealing with for the past three years, and are exhausted through thousands of sample copies, many times never to be looked at.

All this is a very expensive investment. It creates more cash flow needs, which means more viability stress for the publishing company or branch, and of course more aggressive competition.
Most of all, it creates a need to more rapidly make publishing moves and launches into the market, which always weighs against quality. The average three years of research and development of a good book series was forced by, mainly Greek publishers’, specific practices and now you hear from 1 year of publishing preparation and production, down to three months from certain publishers. Research and development or production specialists disappear, and instead, well qualified teachers write, edit, proofread and sometimes even design, for little money and of course no copyright on their work.

At the same time, international publishers try to ensure more investment from mother companies abroad, based on unrealistic sales forecasts, deliberately designed so that they can excuse a decent investment in advance. Of course when actual sales figures pop up, the big drawback comes along, and incredibly capable people follow the “HR rearrangement trends” (HR = Human Resources).

I honestly believe that the crisis that is knocking on the door of the publishing world is not only due to the global economic pressures, but also to the lack of flexibility and alternative plans. For example, instead of basing investment on forecasts, one could base profit plans on existing resource controls and perform what the financial world calls “mainstream resources and profit maintenance” at times of risk. Thus, one could silently plan the big boom for after the times of crisis, invest in know-how and high specialization of HR, and most of all avoid quality sacrifices that might need to be overcome with lots of difficulty in the future, as the market seems to remember longer than we hope.

However, I truly need to point out that publishing companies are not the only ones to blame for the current situation. As independent, competitive companies, they follow restricting trends in order to survive. And I have realized that most of the time their market has reflected their own bad habits and practices onto them, thus disorientating them from good publishing.

A year ago I called together a group of school owners and directors of studies to a research focus group on behalf of a (then anonymous) publisher. We very simply asked for the elements they would require for a book at a specific level. We recorded all the feedback and created a brief to be seen by the focus group. To our simple question “would you adopt this book?” the unanimous answer we received was “no”. Although the brief was totally and seriously based on their own feedback.

It is no secret, at the same time, that school owners play with publishers, they trigger competition through gossip, information flow, asking for innumerable sample copies, asking to be bribed rather indiscreetly, and all other sorts of such favours.

I understand that this is the price of bad or superficial client management and training from the publishers’ side over the last ten years. I understand that this is a power show from the school owners’ side as well. Publishers have trained their clientele badly over the last years, and their clients, teachers and school owners, have learnt to depend too much on the book for syllabus design and teaching. Bad market and financial practices have led everybody not to be able to afford good publishing or independent teaching. Lack of money causes time constraints, lack of investment and finally a vicious circle of all the above. What nobody seems to understand is that quality is mainly defined by duration and that the viability of the Greek ELT depends on fair co-operation, fair feedback, and most of all on the fact that every small or big educational business in order to survive, develop and succeed, has to sell something. In fact, I’m not sure that most of them do any more.

I believe that quality has to be seen from a much wider perspective in the Greek ELT.