Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

December 2022

P is for packager

P is for packager

WTF is a packager? (Excuse the French)

When I started writing this blog post a few months ago, I realised that while I had first hand experience of working with packagers, I’d need to reach out and do some crowd sourcing if I was to present a more comprehensive and balanced view of what packagers are all about. So I asked my freelance writer and editor friends and colleagues to chip in and share their stories with me.

On LinkedIn, I asked:

1. Do some packagers prefer to call themselves something else, because the term ‘packager’ is tainted?
2. Do some packagers put in a low bid for a contract, knowing that they’ll have to find inexperienced freelancers who will accept lower fees?
3. Do publishers know that sometimes the editors and writers who have been working for them for years, are now being offered substantially lower rates?
4. What positive packager experiences have you had?
5. What negative packager stories have you had?

Then I said:

If you’d like to answer any of these questions or have anything else to say on the subject, please comment.
If you’d prefer to remain anonymous, please feel free to send me a message.
If you know a packager, please tag them.
If you know a freelancer who has might have something to say, please tag them.
If you know a publisher who uses packagers, please tag them.
Let’s try and hear from ALL sides!

So … WTF is a packager?

This is a real question I got asked by a few teachers and surprisingly, by a few writers. I realised the term wasn’t widely-known and it made me think about the answer. In the end I said something like:

Sometimes, instead of contracting a freelance writing team to produce a course book series, a publisher contracts a ‘packager’ to do everything. So they put the project up for tender, different ‘packagers’ put in a bid for the work, and then the publisher chooses the one they want to go with. Then the packager finds writers, editors, etc. Like a sub-contractor, I suppose.

Then I realised that most packagers (or even ‘all’) don’t actually call themselves packagers, and freelancers are probably working for them but know them by another name. Some variations I’ve heard are:

  • Product provider
  • Vendor
  • Trusted partner
  • Educational provider
  • Publishing services company
  • Service partner
  • Publishing supplier
  • Publishing provider

I also learnt that there are ‘offshore packagers’ (or offshore product providers, vendors, trusted partners, etc.) but I haven’t been able to pin down what is different about these, except that they don’t operate from within the UK. I suspect the term ‘offshore’ might sound a bit dodgier than it actually is but for UK based freelancers the information might be of value for tax purposes.

My own experience of packagers is mixed and on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 ‘being beyond shockingly bad’ and 10 being ‘excellent’, I’ve had scores of 0, 10, and several in between. Comparing this with my experience of working directly with publishers, the points are probably similar but with publishers they start at around 2.

Here are four things I’ve learnt about working for packagers

1 No two packagers are the same so we can’t really make sweeping statements. However, some packagers do have a terrible reputation and unless they buck up, they should be avoided. One way of knowing which ones to avoid is to speak to other freelance writers and editors in confidence. Most are happy to share their experiences. We do look after each other as a general rule. Another way is to look up the company on a site like Glassdoor or Trustpilot (Google them). I didn’t even know this existed until recently. You’ll find stories to make your hair curl. But as with all review sites, it’s probably worth double checking everything.

2 Sometimes you only learn that you’ve been working for a packager in retrospect. This has happened to me twice. I’d assumed the company that had contacted me was a publisher I hadn’t heard of. But in actual fact the materials I wrote were for a very well known publisher who I’d written for before. I don’t know if this is good or bad but not telling me seems a bit unnecessary and makes me a bit suspicious.

3 Some packagers allow you to have contact with your co-workers and some don’t. This means that you might find yourself working in an author-editor partnership with a go-between in the middle. On the one occasion this has happened to me, as might be expected, it slowed everything down no end and added an unnecessary (in my opinion) cog in an already complicated process. The only reason I can think of for this practice is to prevent two freelancers from ‘talking’. I’ll invite you to reach your own conclusions as to why this might be the case.

4 The most common complaints about packagers is the low pay. I’ve heard hundreds of stories of writers and editors being offered a tiny fraction of their usual fees, even when the end product is for a publisher they’ve been working for for decades. Several reasons have been put forward for this, with the most common one being that the packager has been successful in the bid for a project because of their low price, so they inevitably have to save money where they can. It might be worth mentioning here that on a personal note, the lowest fee I’ve ever been offered for writing work was from a national group of a large well-known international publisher, not a packager. I suppose it’s all relative and the important thing is to know what your work is worth when you enter into negotiations.

Here are three bad experiences from freelance writers I have permission to share

1 I worked for a year on a project and I never got paid. I’m owed more than 10,000 US dollars and I’m still undecided about whether or not to take the company to court. The experience has taken its toll on my mental health and made me consider a change of career. I found out later that the same thing had happened to two other writers working on the same project. One is suing and the other just walked away.

2 I turned down a medium-sized project to work on a big one for a packager. In the end I wish I hadn’t. I did get paid eventually but 16 months late and with lots of problems. I’d been buying a house at the time and needed the first payment from the packager to pay part of the deposit. When it didn’t arrive, the sale fell through and everything was a nightmare.

3 The project was disastrous from beginning to end. It was obvious they were trying to cut corners by having no project manager and it was a BIG project. Lots of people started, then left. The turnover was ridiculous. We had conflicting information in briefs, my co-author was inexperienced so needed support (which wasn’t forthcoming), we ended up doing about 6 or 7 drafts, so a lot more work than we’d expected and the worse thing was the bad feeling and negativity we all experienced. In the end the publisher took the project off the packager and gave it to another packager. That’s when I jumped ship. Oh, and I was paid 50% of my fee, which was pretty bad to start with.

Here are three positive experiences from freelance writers, just to balance things out

1 The packager was very organised and my brief was clear. I was given plenty of opportunities to ask questions and ask for support. My editor (also freelance) was great and we did the work in the expected timeframe and got paid promptly after invoicing. When I finished the project I got a message from the company thanking me for all of our hard work and saying they’d get in touch again when they needed a writer for this kind of work.

2 I regularly work for one of the new packagers. They take great measures to make sure we have everything we need to do the work, that we have enough time and that we are OK with the fee. The people behind this packager were freelancers themselves so I think they have a good idea of how to keep us happy.

3 One of my favourite client is a packager. They don’t pay as much as some publishers pay but they are low maintenance. I’ve noticed that some of the big publishers are getting more and more bureaucratic and getting paid sometimes involves all kinds of form-filling, digital uploads, talking to bots and then not having access to a real person when things go wrong or a payment is late.

Let’s keep on talking!

It’s good to be talking about packagers because this is how things are going to be now. Whatever we might call them, they are here to stay. Hopefully the bad ones will improve their work practices or disappear and the good ones will flourish as freelancer testimonials reach the eyes of the publishers who are outsourcing their projects. From what I can see this is most ELT publishers these days and might soon be ‘all’ as it is significantly cheaper to write materials in this way.

10 tips for anyone about to sign a contract with a packager

  1. Negotiate a fair fee in the same way as you would do so directly with a publisher.
  2. Ask about the work flow practices. Will you have direct contact with your author/editor?
  3. Ask other freelancers about their experience working with this company. People sign non-disclosure clauses but you could ask how an experience scores on a grid from 1 to 10.
  4. Check the company on the employer review sites mentioned in the post above.
  5. Read your contract carefully and if you are a member of the Society of Authors, ask them to check it for you.
  6. Pay attention to any red flags. Sometimes we need to trust our instincts. If you aren’t 100% sure about a project, you could try signing up for one part of the work first, see how it goes and then, if you’re happy, go ahead with the rest.
  7. Ask if you will be told who the materials are for. I always like to know who the publisher is. If everything is above board, there should be no harm in knowing.
  8. If anything goes wrong, don’t let things drag on for too long. Tell your commissioning editor straight away. Be polite and respectful, of course. It might just be an easily resolvable ‘blip’. If it isn’t, seek advice.
  9. If it’s a big project, ask to be paid your fee in instalments, and not all at the end. This might seem obvious but it’s my understanding that while editors often invoice monthly, writers send in one invoice at the end of a project.
  10. Don’t be afraid of working for a packager! It’s my guess that most of them are run by very decent people who want to run a fair, professional and successful company. Many are run by people who used to work in-house for reputable publishers or have been freelancers themselves … and want to do things better.

If anyone reading this was hoping for a list of packagers to avoid and another list of packagers to trust, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I did consider this but then I saw that different people had different experiences with the same companies so it didn’t seem fair. I will, however, happily tell anyone about my own experience (if I have one) with any particular packager. Just send me an email: info@creatingeltmaterials.com

How can you possibly write materials if you don’t teach?

4 people asking questions

Do materials writers need to teach? Can they write good materials if they don’t? How can they know what’s going on? How can they keep up to date?

These are questions I get asked all the time. So I decided to write a short blog post with my thoughts.

First of all, a couple of facts.

Teachers who write materials for their learners are in an ideal place because they know their contexts better than anyone. They can tailor a worksheet to engage the whole class because they know what the class will find motivating. And they can make multiple versions of a worksheet to meet the needs of individuals within a group. If the materials are well-designed then these learners are very lucky indeed.

A lot of very good ELT materials are written by people who haven’t been teaching for years, in some cases for decades.

So how do these writers know what to write? How do they know what kind of things the learners will find engaging, or which tasks they’ll find motivating?

I recently asked a group of such writers these questions and other similar ones. I’ve collated their answers and added them to my own experience. Basically, it’s all about ‘keeping in touch’: in touch with the classroom, in touch with the target learners, in touch with the teachers, in touch with latest research and trends …

So, here are seven ways we can keep in touch. Can you think of any more?

Do some teaching! Get in touch with a school or a teacher and ask whether you can give a lesson or a part of a lesson. This can be face to face or online. I know several writers who do this regularly, sometimes as a paid job and sometimes as a volunteer. I’ve done this successfully myself. The last time was with a primary class in Brazil where I zoomed in and was interviewed by a group of nine-year-olds. It was terrifying! Only joking. It was great fun – hopefully for them too.

Mingle with teachers, especially those who work in the context of the target users of the materials you are writing. This might be a geographical area, an age group, or perhaps teachers focusing on a specific exam like IELTS. These days most mingling happens in social media groups. If the perfect group doesn’t exist, set one up yourself. When you have access to these teachers, you can crowd source information, ask questions, start discussions, share surveys … create a shared learning space.

Read, read, read! There has never been such an abundance of material with a focus on education from every angle imaginable. I like to read about general trends and news in education, and also more specialized focuses, depending on the materials I’m writing at any given moment. Recently I’ve been reading about the rise and rise of AI in education. It’s fascinating. But I’ve also been reading about changes to the Cambridge IGCSE ESL exam and the new SEL (social and emotional learning) competences that have been added to the Spanish curriculum – not nearly as exciting but probably more immediately useful for the work I’ve been doing. Find journals, articles and blog posts on topics of interest. If you don’t know where to look, ask! If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Write an article or blog post. If you don’t have your own blog, approach someone who does, and offer to write a guest post. Lots of Teacher Associations, special interest groups and institutions are actively looking for contributors. Get in touch with me if you’d like more tailored advice on this. I might be able to help or to put you in touch with someone else who can offer some guidance. When we agree to write about a topic, we inevitably have to spend time researching and checking things. It’s a great way to force ourselves to be on top of things.

Be active in the ELT community. This is the best way to meet people, hear about what’s going on, share ideas, advice, recommendations. There are lots of ways to be active. Volunteering for a Teachers’ Association suits some people. It can be time-consuming but is time well-spent. Organise a meet-up, face-to-face if that’s appropriate or online if it isn’t. Or try a hybrid meet-up. You don’t need to be a big institution to do this. Individuals have been organizing such social events for family and friends since the COVID pandemic when people were confined to their homes.

Hang out with the right people – people who belong to the same kind of communities as your target users. If you are writing Business English materials, join Business forums. If you write materials for children, offer to babysit for your sister’s children. You get the picture. Being in close proximity offers great opportunities for observation. You’ll notice what kind of things they are talking about, what they are listening to, watching, reading.

Learn from the publishers. Sometimes we can get valuable information from others who have been in classrooms and observed what’s going on: the publishers. Check out current materials on their websites. Read their catalogues. See which kinds of things they are highlighting. Are they suggesting any unique selling points (USPs)? If so, then this is likely to be something they’ve done extensive market research on and worth taking note of. If you can get to a book shop, browse ‘real’ materials. Have a look at things like text lengths and recurring themes or topics and trends.

So, as you can see, there are plenty of ways to find out the things you need to know to inform your materials writing. If you can think of anything else, please get in touch and let me know. I’ll edit your ideas in (and credit you, of course).

Happy writing!