Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? will be focusing on the writing & publishing sector. We interviewed Lewis Lansford, who is currently a freelance editor, writer and project manager.
After getting a BA in English Lit at the University of Colorado, Lewis initially worked at a proofreader at the University of Arizona Press in Tucson, then spent about six months teaching English in Barcelona. After that, he earned an MA in teaching English to speakers of other languages, then taught at a US university and then a manufacturing company in Japan. In 1995, Lewis took an editorial job with an international publisher in Hong Kong, and in 1997 became a freelance editor, project manager and writer in the UK. He now writes full time. Lewis has worked on books, videos, tests, audio materials, worksheets, apps and online materials for learners of all ages across the world.
For more information on working in Publishing and Writing:
For more info on Lewis: www.lewislansford.com
Hello & welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do? My name is Kate Morris, and I will be your host today. In today’s episode, we will be talking about the publishing sector. Today we are joined by Lewis Lansford, who works as a freelance writer. So Lewis – what do you actually do?
What do I actually do? That is a big question. The main part of my work as you might guess from the job title is writing. But, nothing is ever that simple, and a question always with writers is what are you writing, or why are you writing, or whose ideas are you writing? I’ve just come from a workshop with students here at University of York to talk about careers & publishing, and one thing we often speak about is the sort of misapprehension that being a writer consists of coming up with ideas, writing something and then taking it to a publisher to get it published. That is rarely the case with me.
So, what are the key elements of the role then? How does it work in reality?
In reality, I should actually start by saying that my writing is focused on English language teaching materials, so for the most part I write textbooks that people will use who are studying English as a second language, generally outside the US or the UK but not exclusively, so English is a foreign language we could say, and that sector is known, at least within that sector as ELT – English Language Teaching. There was a time in the seventies and eighties, when the industry was coming of age that teachers with great ideas came up with course books or ideas for course books and they would go to a publisher and say ‘I’ve got this great idea, let’s make a course book.’ So that’s the model that people still have in mind. The way it works now, it is far more corporate, it is far more organised and far more professional. What tends to happen is publishers identify a gap in the market. They identify a certain market sector, for example students who are studying engineering or other technical subjects at university level. So people who are studying engineering or other technical subjects at university level, more often than not these days also need an English language element in their studies because chances are, they are getting some or all of their lectures in English and most certainly, when they go into the workforce, they will work in English. Not necessarily in the US or the UK, with British or American engineers, or Canada, or Australia, New Zealand, or even India, South Africa or other places where English is a first language, but they they’ll be speaking English. Saudi engineers might be speaking English with Spanish engineers who are working on an oil project in Saudi Arabia, so that is why they need to learn English. That market need is identified, then the publisher looks for someone like me who has experience writing English language teaching materials in technical subject areas. So, I get a brief of some kind, often to write a sample unit and then a decision is made whether to go ahead with the project or not.
So that is interesting, they come to you. You don’t come to them pitching an idea, they come to you and say we’ve got this project available and think this would be a good fit for you, do you fancy it?
That’s correct and we might get into this, but partly because of the way I came into writing, I can fairly say I’ve almost never pitched an idea, and I can say with great confidence that I’ve never pitched an idea that got published. There have been one or two ideas that I’ve came up with and I’ve thought ‘that would be a good idea’ and I’ve put some sample materials together and gave it to people who I know, and it just didn’t end up getting published. For whatever reason, it wasn’t good enough, it didn’t fit the market well enough or there were just other things going on, meaning it didn’t happen, so I’ve never put a lot of effort into that approach.
That’s interesting though because I’m keen to know how they knew you existed then! What was your starting point and background – how did you break into actually becoming a writer then if you haven’t gone out and said ‘hey I’m a writer’ and people have come to you?
Right, and this is what I was alluding to when I said the root by which I became a writer meant that I was never in this position of pitching. I have worked in publishing for most of my career. I grew up in the US, and I studied English Literature at undergraduate level and at that time decided I wanted to work in publishing. I did some internships and work experience. I worked in fiction publishing. My interest was literary at that time actually, but as I embarked on working life I ended up doing proof-reading for an art gallery guide, I ended up proof-reading at University of Arizona Press, which is academic publishing – not literary, and kind of piecing it all together. I was in Tucson, Arizona, there is not a lot of publishing going on there, and really what I wanted to do was to see the world. So, I went off to Spain at the invitation of a friend who said ‘come teach English in Spain.’ No problem – this was the late eighties, it wasn’t exclusively a professional field at that time. There were a lot of people like me who were just native English speakers, who could get some kind of work. So I went along and did that, and what I discovered was that it was a good way to see the world, that I more or less liked teaching English, but I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. So I went back to Arizona and got a Master’s degree in teaching English for speakers of other languages. I taught for a couple of years at a language centre at the University of Arizona, then I got a job in Japan, teaching at a manufacturing company, so this was the beginning of the ‘seeing the world’ part of teaching English. After two years teaching at this factory in Japan, which was very stimulating in many ways, but gruelling in others, it was in some ways, we could say a tough schedule, I realized that the day in and day out song and dance of being a teacher maybe wasn’t my cup of tea. At that point an opportunity came along to get back into publishing, to work as an editor. I was recruited at what was then Addison Wesley Longman in Hong Kong, to edit materials and help develop materials for Japan and other markets in East Asia. So that is how I made the jump back into publishing – it is kind of a long story! So, in the time between taking that job in 1995 and now, more or less what happened is I moved up the ranks of editorial jobs. I came in as an editor, then I became a senior editor, then I moved to the UK and became a freelance project manager. So I was managing editors and taking more of a role in developing materials, but in that job it is a useful skill to be able to write things in addition to editing them. Often, say a second edition of a book is being created, the original authors aren’t available to write the review units or they don’t want to write the review units, so they need someone who can do it and if you are a project manager who is aware that that needs to be done, and you can do it yourself, the simplest way is just to say ‘I can take care of this.’ So I started picking up little jobs like that along the way, then it became writing an entire workbook to go along with a course book and it built up like that. I was writing, I was picking up available writing jobs that came across my desk as an editorial project manager.
So that is interesting how your different ideas have all kind of led into each other in a way, so you have got that interest in literature, that has given you a bit of the writing and publishing stuff, but then you wanted to see the world, that’s fed into your teaching but your teaching fed back into publishing, which fed back into your writing, so it is these different experiences which have influenced and impacted on each other, and I am presuming that the contacts that you have built up along the way have allowed you to be in this position, where people come to you rather than you going to them?
That’s exactly right, I honestly can’t remember the last time I actively touted for worked or tried to get someone to give me work. The reason is that I came from Hong Kong, I was with Addison Wesley, and they then became Pearson Education while I was there. I came into work with Pearson Education as a freelance project manager in the UK, and it was in the late nineties that I sent CVs to Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, MacMillan, the big ELT publishers, and exactly one of those CVs that I sent out led to something, but it took around three years. I got a call after literally three years. Someone phoned up and said ‘Hi Lewis, I’ve seen your CV, I’m from Oxford University Press’ and in fact that contact, I have been working with them ever since.
So, is your approach pretty typical or say, have other authors gone into the industry differently and operated within the industry differently?
In fact, I won’t say I’m unique, but not far from it. I cannot think of another author. I started off my first job in publishing as a proof-reader, which is in terms of working with text, the most basic job you can have in publishing. I have worked and done just about every job that you can do in working with text, right up to creating it. Probably, more people who do what I do are teachers who started developing their own materials and sought publishers. Even ten years ago that was more the done thing. A lot of people who do what I do are active teachers, so they teach and also write. On the one hand that is seen as hugely superior to my position because they have day to day contact with students, but on the other hand – how can you possibly write materials full time? You don’t have access to students in classrooms, but in fact publishers send me to observe classes and I go to conferences and talk to teachers, and I myself do a lot of teacher training, so I get into contact with teachers in that way. I view myself as a professional writer and I fully devote myself to professional development. I take courses, I’m active in professional bodies and it is what I do, nine to five and beyond. I think there are benefits with that – there are no distractions you could say.
But it sounds like for a lot of people it would be, if you are going to write a non-fiction, you have got to be an expert in the subject area you are writing about. Whether it is teaching, making music – to be practicing in that field as well as having the actual writing skills, and then you would take that to a publisher and you would have the credentials to back it up. That would be a more regular way to break into that role?
I think that’s right, but what I have developed is an understanding of text and materials, down to the full stops. To the very bottom, I know what the business of putting a book together is, and so I have made an expertise of that because if you work with an author who doesn’t really know to look at a book, we talk about the spread – a left hand page and a right hand page. That works as a single unit, and then anyone in publishing would talk about a spread and knows that you don’t have an exercise on a right hand page where you have to flip it over and refer to something on the back of it, because that is incredibly awkward and crass. If you are a teacher who is putting together ideas for a textbook, you’ve got a lot to learn in terms of the mechanics for a book, and so what I lack in regular contact with students, I make up for in the ability to rock and roll when it comes to thinking of it, not just of the ideas of what we are going to do in the lesson, but mechanically how it fits together in a book.
That is interesting – is that something that you think would be useful for people who wanted to be a professional writer – to get a bit of work experience within a publishing firm to understand the process and the more commercial aspects of it, so they can anticipate what a publisher might need from them, they can make it more of an attractive sell in the beginning?
The principle of what you are describing is absolutely correct. It would save a lot of heartbreak, because what you find is teachers are quite rightly and understandably loyal to the idea of the book that they have put together, but for some reason from a sales & marketing perspective, it may not work. There may be material in there that doesn’t click in to a certain market that the book has to sell into, in order to be financially viable, and so if teachers who are writing were made aware of the needs, not only of the students who they are working with every day, but also the fact that they are part of a large organisation that itself has very valid needs. If you want to get paid for writing your book, someone has to sell that book, if someone is going to sell that book, you can’t put things in there that make it not sale-able in a market that needs to support the projects. So, if all writers were given a three week course that included training on book budgets and book schedules, ‘why can’t I have a full coloured photograph on every page?’ Because each one costs one hundred quid or whatever. There are all kinds of bread & butter decisions that are made inside publishing houses which affect the content of books that, because of an experience, teachers who are writing just don’t know about. All they’ve ever seen is finished books and think ‘I want mine to look like that, but it looks like that because of all these people doing their job to make it happen.
It sounds like having that real commercial understanding is important. What other kind of skills and personal qualities would you say someone needs to have if they are going to have a successful career as a writer?
To be the kind of writer who I am – a jobbing writer – people come to me. I am a technical writer as there is an art to what I do. I was interested in creative writing once upon a time. This is creative writing that I am doing. Often, publishers will come to a writer and say ‘we need you to write to a certain word count’ or ‘we need you not to refer to certain animals or certain food products because of the market this will sell into’ and I know personally, many writers who feel offended by that, they feel it limits their work, that it stifles their creativity. My take on that is that any kind of limitation is a spur to my creativity. If you tell me that there are five things that I can’t put in the text, then I have to dig deeper. I have to get away from my normal habits of putting things in a text, and I still want it to be related to the real world, I want students to love it, I want teachers to like it, I don’t want teachers to say ‘now we’ll turn to the boring text on page 98’ so it has got to be great and it has to have these limitations. To me, that is greater creativity than being given free rein to write whatever pops into your head. So what I’m getting at in terms of skill, well creativity, whatever that is, but also an ability to not see compromise as a bad thing.
To really be flexible?
To be flexible & loyal to the quality of your work, as well as fierce in defence of the integrity of what you are trying to do, but open minded about exactly how that may play out. You need to communicate openly with people, you need to know when to draw lines. Some people might say in certain markets such as English Language Teaching, you can’t write about evolution. Some people might draw the line and say that if they can’t work on evolution, they don’t want to work on the project. So a skill would be to communicate openly and for a rational conversation to take place between two professionals. So that ability to communicate is hugely helpful. The way a typical book project goes is that I write a draft of material. I’m given a brief and I write something which I think is really good and fills that brief. That gets sent off to an editor and occasionally I get a note back that says that this is brilliant and nothing needs changed. More often than not, I get comments back that identify ways it can be improved. Depending on the voice of the editor, the language the editor uses and their personality, sometimes it is easier to take and other times it is not, but the tone of voice that someone uses in their comments if you see what I mean, even though it is written feedback, that has a tone of voice. I have to have the skill of ignoring the tone of voice and identifying what’s actually a good comment and what isn’t. Just because they are an editor doesn’t mean everything they say is right. I have to work through my own sense of feeling. It is a criticism and I have been at this long enough to know that the criticism will make the material better, but still there are times when you have to remind yourself to deal with criticism correctly and to see the editor as your friend. Ultimately, you are trying to do the same thing – to publish the best possible work.
Having that personal resilience, the ability to see the bigger picture, it sounds like that is pretty important in this process?
It is. And it is a delicate balance between being loyal to your ideas and putting a lot of yourself into them, which shows, even if it is English for Engineering, and I’m not exaggerating – something which seems quite dry and technical can be written in a dry and technical ‘I don’t care’ kind of way, or it can be written with care and pride and some humanity. You have got to retain that, but not just feel like you want to cry when somebody says it has got a bit too much humanity in it, or it has to be a bit more technical. As long as you are telling me that based on good, sound market feedback, then we will change it.
What sort of words of advice would you give for anyone out there who is thinking that they would like to build a career as an author – how should they start out?
There are so many possible ways to answer that question, but I might come back to that. I’d like to answer a different question because what I launched into life with was some general principles. I wanted to travel and see the world, I thought I wanted to work in publishing. I wanted to work with text and words and ideas, and I guess on some level, I do come from a family of teachers and there was some sense that teaching was possibly a good place to be. With those three things on my horizon, I looked for what was available where I was and looked for opportunities, so when this old friend phoned up and said ‘come teach in Spain’ I thought that ticks two of the boxes – teaching & travel, I’ll go do that. I did it until it wasn’t really working anymore, I could see that there was only so much I could do with what I had, so I thought, what happens next? I went back to Arizona, and in fact it was just a chance conversation with a friend who said ‘I’m looking at this master’s degree at the University of Arizona – what do you think?’ I hadn’t really thought about it, but by the end of the week I had enrolled on that course because it just fell into place. I didn’t have any specific ambitions, my ambitions were general so, what I’m saying is one thing led to another. I kept in mind some general things that were comfortable and things that were not comfortable, or things I wanted to do, or things I wanted to avoid and looked for whatever opportunity was available that was acceptable. Rather than saying ‘I want to be a writer, I’m going to go and do that’ because I couldn’t tell you what to do, except to do what I did and what I did makes so much sense looking back over the last 25 years. It is this really neat, one thing led to another trajectory. As I was sailing along that trajectory, it was chaos, it was decisions based on convenience or availability. A lot of random influences and very good luck, but I landed on my feet. I love my work and I am very happy where I am.
That is probably quite reflective of the sector that it is not really a linear pathway where there is a nice grad scheme. It is building up different experiences and it sounds like taking every opportunity that you can that is interesting, is in the general ballpark of the things that you want to be doing, keeping connects, maintaining them and developing more connections, taking opportunities to do extra things like you said when you were doing the publishing. Because you had done a bit of writing you could do those edits and those extra sections for the second editions which then helped you do your own writing. It is important to take opportunities, getting on with it and not holding back waiting for it to happen. Also, having thought about what it is you want to be gaining rather than just drifting along. You had some key areas that you were interested in.
There is a more straight forward answer to your original question – what advice would I give? It is quite specific to my sector but if anyone gets into teaching, one way teachers get into publishing that isn’t just blindly sending a manuscript, I in my work rely on teachers reading and commenting and sometimes practice teaching something I have written in their classroom. It is called piloting, so I will write a sample unit which is sent out to teachers. They pilot it, they say this works, that didn’t work, and my students loved this and hated that. What they are doing is building a relationship with a publisher. They are showing their ability to understand, interact and comment on text, and so for someone who wanted to get into writing, the first way to do it would be to contact your local publisher as a teacher and say ‘I’m a teacher and I would love to pilot some materials’, and almost certainly you would get something to pilot. If you said that you were piloting materials and you would like to write something, you might ask ‘do you have any review units that need writing?’ It would build up slowly, with bits and pieces that most people don’t think or know about. That is the problem. People know they want to be a writer, but all they see is the name on the front of a course book. They don’t see the guy who did the index or the word list at the back, or the grammar reference for example. There are all these bits and pieces that you can get involved with if you know to make yourself available.
It is really making those speculative applications and being pro-active about it rather than waiting to see an advert about it?
Completely. Networking is important. It can take a long time to build a network up, but I would say follow groups related to publishing on LinkedIn, join the chat around publishing. If you are a teacher somewhere, I was working in publishing in Japan, and I know that there was some overlap between teachers and some publishing people, and so if you get chatting to someone who works in publishing, you might find that they need this or that. It is almost trying to become friends with people who work in publishing, but there are ways that you can do that. In any way possible, get closer to the sector in any terms that you want to work in – that is the way you create opportunity.
Thank you. I am going to add some relevant links to the episode description and a full link to the transcript of today’s show, so thank you so much for talking to us today Lewis, it has been really interesting, and I am looking forward to seeing the humanity in the engineering books!
Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do? This episode was hosted by myself Kate Morris, and edited and produced by the Careers & Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers & Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook & Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers & Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers.