HI all,

A member sent this blog post to me. It’s totally relevant!

Dumbing Down; Or, Get What You Pay For

I’ve enabled discussion/comments for this one.

But, I give you fair warning, there is likely to be spam. I will try to monitor as closely as possible. I’m doing this because I think the piece merits group discussion.



About the Author: malamu


  1. malamu

    Adding, too, that contributing to this challenge is the notion that a SME can also write…which drives me a bit nuts.It’s possible, but usually not the case. Another way to cut costs…and quality.

  2. Julie Coffin

    I have observed the same events and trends, Diane, and I agree with everything you say. During my twenty-year freelance career, I saw all those things, too. What I observe, further, is that with the amalgamation of the big publishing companies and the trends in technology (and the resulting change in the end product), the people who are calling the shots are more likely to be marketers, bean-counters, and/or technology folks who have never been close to children in classrooms (or at least have not been for a very long time). Now, as an Executive Editor for a development house, I have to agree that the scenario you describe is sometimes true. Though sometimes we enjoy true “partnerships” with our clients, the publishers have us by the tail as often as not. But I will say, too, that my colleagues and I certainly do still value writers such as you–quality writers with knowledge and experience and savvy. Writers who actually understand grammar and can name the parts of speech. Who provide an intro, a body, and a conclusion instinctively. Thank you for being out there.

  3. Diane Engel

    I remember when DZ posted this piece. It was true in 2014; it’s even more so (if that’s possible) now. I can look at my invoices from 20 years ago and see better rates than generally are offered now, and I work harder than ever to stay afloat. One difference is that “packagers” (a step down from “development houses”) are now referred to as “vendors” (a further insult—as if we’re out there selling hot dogs). Still, I hang in there and do my best, thankful for the work I have and hoping that I still can help make a project the best it can be.

  4. Xina Uhl

    I’ve experienced working with crappy development houses like this – there’s always a mad dash to get the work done and no one seems to really know what they are doing. And the worst thing to a working writer is that you don’t get paid until 45-90 days – or more – after the project is over. I did this for a few years and then got sick of it. I decided that I needed a change and quit my cruddy clients and floundered around broke for a while. Luckily my husband kept us afloat as he has had to more than once over the years with my on/off employment history and with the unpredictability of freelancing. Last year I got focused and decided to switch to work for hire nonfiction books. I rejected clients who would not pay within 30 days, which went against my grain at first, but over time I gathered much better ones, and now I am making about 30K a year doing a combination of editing and writing.

    Being a freelancer is not easy. It’s owning our own business and we have a choice about what we will and won’t accept. I’ve found that the more we reject low pay and miserable conditions, the more we can attract better clients. It’s bit woo-woo, I know, but it works for me.

  5. Judy Johnson

    I began in educational publishing in 1997, at a development house, which was a real education into the sloppy way textbooks get put together–like sausage, only not as tasty at the end. I left to freelance—better money, and the house (which has since crashed and burned spectacularly) wouldn’t hire in-house writers. For me, 2008 was the pivotal year, and the year after which I stopped turning down jobs while waiting for delayed projects to begin. It was also the last year I managed to make a living by writing; I gone back to libraries for part-time work, and am grateful for that, even as I miss the luxury of being at home. Not only is the money not as good, but the time lag for getting paid has stretched, ostensibly because the publishers aren’t paying the development houses promptly, either. Waiting two months for a check is obscene. Being told by members of boards of education in conservative states what can or can’t be said is ludicrous. It’s no wonder kids graduate knowing little of American or world history! Diane’s last line is a good summary, though. My goal is to keep doing this work as long as my mind and my fingers hold out!

  6. Melissa White

    i too started in a development house in 1997–at the bottom as an editorial assistant. I stayed there for 9 years, working my way up to supervising editor. After years of working about 70 hrs a week for a salary, I finally threw in the towel and went freelance. My first couple of years were insanely profitable. However, like many things, that crashed in 2008. K-12 publishers merged into giant rock formations leaving us with only 3 basal companies. Invoice terms expanded from 30-45 days to 60-75 days. I moved from Austin to the San Francisco Bay area. Not only did I take on a higher cost of living but rates continued to slide. I diversified my offerings and worked more within encyclopedias and instructional design for higher education (far more lucrative). This did require working with SMEs and academics (many of whom cannot write). However, this too waned, and I had an illness and family tragedies that stopped me in my tracks for about a year.
    This past year, I actively looked for a “real job.” However, when you have been “out of the office” for 10 years, it is difficult to make that return. After much hand wringing, I did find myself working as an active freelancer again. This time, I am much more selective (a brush with death, changes your perspective). I am working with an amazing client, and I have a couple of other projects that are of the “traditional” type (60-day payment terms). Yet, both are paying a living wage of about $30-$50/hr, and I am working in my preferred content areas of natural and social science. I have noticed an uptick in pay rates within the last year.
    My best advice:
    1. Be ready to think outside of the box. You must adapt, we no longer markup pages. Tearsheets are pdfs with squiggly marks, stamps, and electronic sticky notes. You will most likely write/edit content delivered to students online through various GUIs (interfaces) and electronic devices. Embrace Google docs/spreadsheets (even though they can be frustrating).
    2. Examine your skills, and think about the type of projects you would truly like to do. Writing TE can be quite rewarding, it allows you to share strategies and ideas with other teachers. Assessment can provide an outlet for literary writing in the form of passages. I personally love writing informational text for science, and I have found outlets for this through encyclopedias and ELA components for science and history programs (Common Core has amped this up).
    3. Network. We are a tiny community. I run across people all the time with which I have worked with in the past, either as a freelancer or from when I was “in-house” for a vendor.
    3. Regardless of the pay and the need to keep the lights on, remember why you are in this industry. We want to educate, and do our best.
    Finally, if anyone ever says, “WOW, you work in publishing, how glamorous!” Just smile and nod your head. Hopefully, they will never see you, in your flannel pjs and hair in disarray, as you tap furiously on your coffee-stained laptop at 2 in the morning.

  7. malamu

    Melissa…thank you…yes, think outside the box…the type of writing we do is very malleable…I have been tapping into other types of writing that demand the same level of skill and savvy. And are very interesting. Good tips…

  8. Krista

    Looks like my career was just getting going before the crash–I started in 2007. I have been lucky to find a few wonderful clients that keep me working pretty steadily. However, I can totally relate to the experience with “packagers.” I have dealt with the changing expectations, the condensed timelines, the rates that may sound decent at the outset and then…aren’t, the constant panic to meet insane deadlines (how can EVERY project be an emergency?). Being on the editing side of things is often just as bad! I avoid working for them whenever I can. If they were my only option not sure I would have stuck with this work, although I do love it. I make a decent wage, but I doubt I’ll ever get wealthy doing this.

  9. Anonymous

    We can be our worst enemies; we absolutely must value our own skills and worth.

    This fall an overseas company had 32 ancillary books for grades K-5 that had NOT been developed for CCSS. The company asked me to go through the books and create a CCSS correlation chart. Each book was between 80-96 pages. Guess what they wanted to pay me? $5,000 USD. The deadline was insanely fast, too. Like a fool, I agreed . . . .until I saw the contract. They were withholding $1,000 for their own government’s “taxes,” AND I was responsible for any legal fees incurred if the Board of Governors (CCSS) sued because they didn’t like my correlation charts.

    It took a slap in the face that shocking to make me say, “I have other, more profitable things to do” to the company.

    Thanks, Michele (and Laura Coulter before her) for the many year of the WEM site. Keep our email addresses, and if you ever want to reestablish it as a subscription site, I think you will be pleased by the response.

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