Category Archives: publishing

We’re talking about why we work excessive hours and how to stop

Head and shoulders photo of Eleanor Connor.Many people working in publishing find themselves doing excessive overtime on a regular basis. And because Oxford is a publishing hub, this is an issue that affects many of our members. Branch member Eleanor Connor explains how we have started to tackle the problem.

Overwork is a major issue in publishing, but few of us actually talk about it. We thought we should. We wanted to create a space in which we could share experiences with colleagues across the sizeable publishing industry in this area, as a first step to working out ways to address the problem.

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Ideas for strengthening NUJ organisation in books and journals

bill mackeithHow can NUJ activists and organisers strengthen union organisation in  book & journal publishing, and achieve a stronger profile within the NUJ?

The following notes represent the results of conversations between members of the Oxford branch committee and the Taylor & Francis chapel committee. They formed the basis of a talk given by Bill MacKeith at the London Book Branch meeting, 11 October 2018. We encourage members working in the sector to take a look and to comment. We see greater collaboration as key, and hope this contribution can help open up an inclusive discussion.

You can leave a comment at the end, or contact us directly at

NUJ Book Branch talk on Organising in Books, notes, 11 October 2018

Need for the best resources

Need for updated resources/campaign and tailored templates aimed at the books/journals sector on key issues:

  • recruitment,
  • improving pay
  • improving pensions
  • equality
  • gender pay gap
  • stress and workload/staffing levels
  • health and safety
  • maternity/paternity
  • mental health awareness

Find a collaborative way of addressing that, by at least having a central resource centre where campaign/recruitment materials that chapels have already prepared (e.g. the T&F leaflet on the gender pay gap) can be uploaded and accessed by others

Possibility of doing a cheap and cheerful recruitment video aimed at this sector – could be just people from different book/journal chapel saying why they joined, why they are glad they did etc.

A profile for academic publishing

Academic publishing should have much more of a profile within the NUJ, so it looks as if ‘the NUJ knows know academic publishing and the current issues’ in the way that we clearly know journalism. The content of this would need chapel input, particularly in terms of defining the big current professional issues and how they feed in to industrial issues (e.g. working out how the digitalisation of every aspect of publishing impacts on old recruitment divisions and also gender pay/status gaps; earlier examples include impact of Open Access on investment in editorial quality, and also impact of contracting out and race to the bottom on quality). Chapels need to define the issue, but it is up to the leadership and The Journalist (!) to give more visibility to them.

Building collaboration between our chapels

It’s all about building an effective collaboration around these issues between chapel committees in the sector (particularly within academic publishing). The new Books NEC members could be important in helping this happen. Also, important to build direct links with the Springer Nature chapel, and other active academic publishing chapels (like Lexis Nexis maybe?)

Publishing Alliance 

We should look into setting up some sort of (working title) ‘Publishing Alliance’ where all the active NUJ and also Unite book/journal chapels can campaign publicly on chosen issues (also with Society of Young Publishers/ Society of Freelance Editors and Proofreaders), maybe starting with the gender pay gap. Could be one way of building a profile for the NUJ in academic publishing.

Who can we recruit?

Who can and cannot join? This is a source of much friction and people see it as arbitrary, because a lot of sales and IT work involves making editorial-type judgements and understanding things from an editorial perspective. You cannot separate them. When commissioning editors attend book fairs, they are sales persons. We need to be more flexible with the interpretation of NUJ eligibility criteria. Would be good for book/journal chapels to suggest guidelines and see if they do or do not fit within the current rulebook. Alternatively propose a rule change.

A more secure and up to date way of handling membership information
[GDPR issues have since been addressed]

Present system is not GDPR compliant.

More important, an M/FoC should be able to welcome each new member in the Chapel into the NUJ community.

T&F Chapel has submitted evidence to Michelle Stanistreet on this.


Absolutely essential to have a programme of NUJ education. Such a programme, according to the T&F MoC, has transformed the chapel, it has been inspirational, building confidence and boldness in the chapel and its officers and representatives.

T&F Chapel speak very highly of NUJ trainer Caroline Holmes, who has delivered training to some 8-11 NUJ reps at T&F.

Book Branch could organise a series of NUJ training sessions for book reps and M/FoCs in the London area.

Training courses could include courses on:

  • Running a Chapel
  • Running campaigns in your Chapel
  • representing members
  • negotiating
  • pensions etc.

Chapel organisation

  • T&F have monthly meetings
  • Training of reps central (see Training above).
  • Have appointed NUJ reps department by department.
  • T&F, in addition to the annual round of pay negotiations, organise around issues which they raise with management. They have task forces of members working on the following:
    • Equality and diversity
    • Stress and workload
    • Recruitment and communications
    • Pensions

Branch meetings

Locate for convenience of important groups of members
Time/day ditto
Time agenda to fit with Chapel reps/members not staying for whole meeting
Take Chapel reports early in agenda.

Magazine and Book Industrial Council

Responsible according to the NUJ rulebook for:

  • Overseeing industrial matters in the 2 sectors
  • Training
  • Oversight of the work of the servicing officers.

Big victory for Springer/Nature recognition.

Note some MABIC activities in the past: recruitment and bullying leaflets, pay and conditions Broadsheet with agreements in at least 30 Chapels, full oversight of claims and agreements

One way forward is closer working between workplace, Branch, MABIC and NEC members, and the full-time officials Fiona Swarbrick and a.n.other (replacement for second organiser in Magazine and Books needed).


Among leaflets needed is one for potential student members that is books-specific that says Why You Should Join the NUJ/What’s in it for you?

Working with Unite

  • Experience varied: Penguin, Macmillan, Pearson, OUP experiences
  • Lessons from Penguin? Generally very good experience.

New media

Effective use of new media to be explored

BM 11.10.18


Bill’s background

  • Penguin 1970-75
  • Elsevier Publishing Projects/Phaidon/Musterlin 1976-90
  • p/t Macmillan Dictionary of Art, Economist Intelligence Unit 1990-94
  • freelance: OUP, Pearson, Routledge, Minority Rights Unit, etc.1994-

Union positions: ASTMS Publishing 516 Branch committee, ASTMS negotiating team at Penguin, 1971-5. Founding chair Oxford ASTMS Publishing branch 1976-8. Oxford NUJ branch member since 1978, chapel officer EPP and Musterlin 1985-91; MABIC member and sometimes chair 1980- ; Oxford branch or MABIC delegate to national delegate meeting, 1978- ; member and currently chair NUJ Appeals Tribunal 2008-


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Stuck in the doldrums: notes from a freelance editor

Drawing of a person sitting in a huge rut in the ground.IT IS NOT just newspaper publishers that are cutting costs and seeing quality drop: this is becoming prevalent across many sectors within the NUJ. A branch member with long experience in educational publishing reports on the issues facing freelance editors. Continue reading

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Making journalism pay in the digital age – a networking event

Thursday July 3rd, 7,00pm, upstairs in the St Aldates Tavern,
Opposite Oxford Town Hall, St Aldates


An open networking event for journalists and would-be journalists working online and/or in broadcasting and print, as reporters, feature writers, photo/video-journalists, editors, PRs, designers, bloggers, front-end developers and more.


This is the second in our new-style branch meetings which aim to be more informal and inclusive, and follows a very successful June meeting where we piloted the new format.

Tim Dawson, chair of the NUJ’s Freelance Industrial Council, who writes regularly for a range of national newspapers and magazines including the Sunday Times, New Statesman and Times Education Supplement, blogs at and is co-publisher of, will present a short overview of some of the innovative ways journalists are using the internet and digital media to find new ways of working, and new ways to promote themselves and earn a living from what they do.

Steven Mathieson, a freelance member of the Oxford NUJ branch who has spent many years on the Guardian, specialising in information technology in healthcare and government, will talk about his experiences using the internet to reach a wider audience, build his profile, gather information, advertise his book CardDeclined, and crowdfund his reporting on the Ends of Britain via the Beacon journalism platform. He will set out why he thinks raising money from subscriptions is a more workable model than advertising for sustaining quality journalism.

We will also have contributions from Sonja Francis the editor of, who moved from a background in local newspapers to set up the web-based news service, as well as from members who started off on the web development side and are now looking to expand into creating content.

If you have experiences good or bad in using digital media to earn money from journalism – offering web-based services or using the internet to boost your profile, find new clients, network within your specialist area, gather information – please come to the meeting and share them. If you are looking for tips and advice on getting started, or maybe for opportunities to collaborate, then this is the place to be.

The meeting is open to all NUJ members, whatever media sector you work in.

If you are not a member but are interested in joining or learning more about the union and getting started in journalism, you can apply to attend the meeting by sending an email to subject line ˂making journalism pay˃


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We’re standing up for book/journal publishing workers

Publishing workers in Oxford will be aware their pay is among the lowest earned by graduates, they know about the unfair pay discrepancies, the long hours culture, and that being valued and treated with respect at work is heavily dependent on having a competent and supportive line manager. What many of them don’t know, however, is that this sector used to be a better place to work – and could be again.

We in the Oxford NUJ branch want to make that happen. We are reaching out to everyone working in publishing in Oxford to join us in this quest. Specifically, we are looking to work with the Society of Young Publishers and Unite to get publishing workers talking to one another about how to get the most out of the work we do. We are interested in how we can all work together to ensure that, in this period of rapid change:

  • Publishing remains a place where traditional values of creativity, diversity and quality are valued and rewarded
  • The expanding areas of multimedia and digital publishing enhance and add value to content, but don’t become the main drivers
  • Everyone gets the opportunity expand their skills and exploit the new career opportunities opening up
  • The people who do the work have an effective say over both their terms and conditions and professional aspects of their work and working environment.

We don’t want to talk about turning the clock back. We do want to talk about some of the valuable things that have been lost, and how we can regain them. And we want to open up a discussion with everyone working in Oxford’s publishing industry about priorities and what we can achieve by working together.


Aside from Oxford University Press, which is bound up with the earliest days of printing in the city, much of Oxfordshire’s publishing industry today is based on companies that relocated here in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Companies like Butterworth Scientific (now part of Elsevier in Kidlington), Heinemann (relocated to Elsevier’s Harcourt site in Jordan Hill, Summertown, but now part of Pearson at the same site) and Routledge (now part of Taylor & Francis in Didcot) had some of the best organised chapels in the NUJ, and had negotiated good terms and conditions for their members over a period of many years. But as most of the staff chose not to make the move to Oxford (thanks in part to generous redundancy agreements they had negotiated!), the chapels were hugely weakened. Managements took the opportunity to terminate the union agreements, and as a direct result they have been able to systematically increase workloads while pushing down real pay and driving down terms and conditions.

A salary survey conducted in 2006 at Harcourt (then part of Reed Elsevier, now Pearson) –  showed that salary levels had dropped from around 80% of average white collar earnings in 1991 to less than 60%. The concept of being paid ‘the rate for the job’,  with transparency about grades and negotiated pay scales, has been replaced by schemes ostensibly linking pay to performance, which seem to be designed to squeeze the most they can from each employee while concealing what are often significant and unjustifiable pay discrepancies between people doing similar work. The general workplace culture has also changed for the worse.  Where once working lives were organised by negotiation and agreement, roles and responsibilities were clear, hours were specified, today it can feel as if there are no limits to what can be demanded of you and what you can be held responsible for.

Before Butterworth Scientific was bought by Reed Elsevier and relocated to Oxford to it had transparent pay scales that were negotiated annually along with contractual hours, rates for voluntary overtime and more. The same was true for Heinemann, Routledge and Macmillan. The starting salary of £13,564 shown here for an editorial assistant (Grade 6) is worth £22,176 in today’s money – well above the starting salary currently paid by Elsevier. We don’t call that progress.


butterworth pay 1990048

Transparent, negotiated salary scales, like these featured in the 1990-1991 NUJ Annual Survey of House Agreements in Book and Magazine Publishers, meant people were paid according to the job they did and the responsiblity they had, rather than a secret figure based on what the company felt it could get away with



We’ve spent time in recent weeks discussing members of our book chapels, with members of the Society of Young Publishers and with Unite activists about a broad, inclusive initiative exploring what we can do to make publishing in Oxford a better place to work. These talks have resulted in a preliminary suggestion for a series of high-profile events that we build for within all the big publishing workplaces in the area, possibly starting this September, which will now be further discussed by the constituent groups to make sure it reflects key interests and concerns of their members and can capture their enthusiasm.

Watch this space for the finalised proposals, which we hope will be ready by the end of April.

If you work in books and journals publishing in the Oxfordshire area, as a staff or freelance, in any capacity, this is about you and your work. We would love you to get involved and contribute your own  ideas and help shape and organise this unique and long overdue initiative.  Contact us at

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Battle for the book sector: branch meeting, Thursday

Our branch meeting this coming week (Thursday 13 February) will focus on Oxford’s publishing sector. Fiona Swarbrick, NUJ national organiser for magazines and books, will lead a discussion on rebuilding unions across Oxford’s book (also journal, digital and multimedia) publishers.

Oxford is a seat of education, academia and book lovers. Yet most of the publishers now based here relocated to the area in the past 20 years, derecognising the NUJ as they came, as part of a bid to drive down pay and conditions. Butterworth, Heinemann, Macmillan and Routledge moved here from London or the Home Counties, resulting in the break up of some of the best organised chapels in the union. A salary survey we did in 2006 at Harcourt (now Pearson), which incorporated Heinemann, showed that salaries had dropped from around 80% of average white collar earnings in 1990 to less than 60%. Hard won terms and conditions that seem barely believable in today’s climate were stripped away. A culture of stress, overwork and in some cases bullying emerged. We want to right that wrong.

Come to our meeting on Thursday 13th February at Oxford Town Hall, 7pm. We’ll be discussing how we can improve pay and conditions in the publishing sector. This is a branch initiative, which should involve raising our public profile in relation to book publishing, so everyone who cares about the issue can get involved. Please come and join the discussion.

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How we built a chapel of 70+ at Macmillan Basingstoke

Ruth tellis croppedThis is a time of great change and uncertainty in the publishing industry. No one knows this better than staff working at Macmillan’s operations in Oxford and Basingstoke, which are in the process of being relocated to London, as the company restructures and rebrands itself as primarily a “service provider” rather than traditional “publisher”.

Here Ruth Tellis, who recently took over as Mother of Chapel at Palgrave Macmillan, describes how staff responded by building a joint chapel of more than 70 members at the Basingstoke site, and what they have achieved so far.

Many of those of you reading this blog will know more about the history of unionism at Macmillan than me but there has been a strong tradition in the past. Chapels existed at Oxford, NPG (where Annette Thomas our CEO was Mother of Chapel), and at Basingstoke, both NUJ and Unite, representing warehouse and distribution staff. Unfortunately complacency set in over the years and the Basingstoke NUJ chapel disbanded.

In November 2011 came the shock announcement that Macmillan planned to close the Oxford office and the publishing functions in Basingstoke and relocate to expanded offices at Kings Cross as part of the Regents place development.  This is to be called the Macmillan London Campus and the move/change was branded as ‘Next Chapter’.

Affected staff were informed in mass meetings that there would be a job for everyone in London, but most staff faced a 1.5- to 2-hour commute to the new offices.

At the time of announcement, with the intervening closure/relocation of the warehouse and distribution functions, just a handful each of Unite and NUJ members were left in Basingstoke including Emily Lawrence and Steve Chilmead.

Emily co-ordinated and arranged an open meeting at a local pub, inviting speakers – Fiona Swarbrick from NUJ and Doug Williamson from the Oxford joint chapel.  The meeting was well attended, and it was agreed that an attempt should be made to set up a union in Basingstoke.

At the first open meeting on the premises, a committee was elected.  We quickly set up a website and began recruitment. The committee was really well supported both by Fiona, and Louisa Bull from Unite, with local training, including how to set up the chapel, recruitment and representing members.

Of particular use for recruitment was physically mapping members on the site identifying gaps in membership and using our members’ networks to reach out.  We held a lot of small departmental meetings (with cake!), presenting the union in these friendship groups.

This recruitment drive has resulted in 70-80 new members. We have regular meetings, and a seat on the existing Macmillan I & C [statutory Information and Consultation] group. The I&C reps do a great job, but the union have been able to provide more systematic feedback to the company’s plans by providing survey data and timely group feed back, as well as precedent and legal advice from the full-time officials.  The Union has sought to ensure that the redundancy and relocation terms are fair and consistent, and have had particular input into the flexible working arrangements and implementation of travel expenses over two years from the move.

Since the formation of the chapel early in 2012, Emily Lawrence has left the company, our replacement MoC Lynda Thompson, is also leaving us soon to have a baby and I am the new MoC.

Macmillan have unfortunately refused to recognise the chapel and with the looming relocation, unstable bargaining unit and following advice from the Union legal reps we have decided not to pursue local recognition.

Our aim now is to work towards a chapel for the new campus in London, working together with members of the Nature Publishing Group chapel and the members of the Oxford Macmillan joint chapel, who are in the process of moving to London. We also plan to form a new Unite chapel for the 100+ non publishing staff who will remain in Basingstoke.

We are looking forward to having the opportunity to represent our members in the future.

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What I learned from Macmillan Educational’s head of digital publishing

Went to see what insights I could glean from Tim Oliver, head of digital publishing at Macmillan Educational, speaking at a Book Machine meeting yesterday eve, and learned this:

90% of book sales in the UK are still print, 10% e-books

95% of profits are from print, 5% from e-books

There is huge consumer demand for digital formats, but publishers are struggling to find ways to make digital bring home the profit margins to which they are accustomed.

It’s all about publishing in multiple digital formats while not abandoning print

Heavy emphasis on keeping cost low

Major push to centralise all digital publishing within a company so different departments aren’t constantly reinventing the wheel

Efficiency requires sticking with the same technology, developing, revising and adhering to strict process manual and rulebook so all players in a project work in a streamlined and integrated way

Roles previously outsourced are now being ‘backsourced’ i.e. brought back in-house, like:

  • web designers (not quite what emc design, sponsors of the event, wished to hear)
  • software developers who build frameworks to create apps, websites, interactivities…
  • training on how to use the software, which is largely done online
  • testing – when products have to work on so many devices which are themselves being constantly updated, it is cheaper to keep a cupboard full of the latest tablets, phones, ebook readers… than outsourcing

New role of update controller is essential, to ensure products keep up with changes to operating systems of existing devices and work on new devices.

Lengthy development time and the need to respond to particular development issues as they arise requires flexibility to tweak and change projects midstream

Much talk about the wonders of Agile vs Waterfall as an approach to project management. (This is surely where freelances and small outfits have an advantage over mega digital publishing outfits)

Interesting point raised about who has IP rights over software developed by techies in-house (if anyone present doubted that the company should have full rights, they didn’t dare speak out. The case in question was apparently in the hands of lawyers, so there must surely be some question about the rights and wrongs. )

Points raised too about distribution. Traditional distributors are also selling digital stuff, but will this be superseded by aggregators like Amazon, Apple, Google? Or direct to consumer? (point not raised: how will distribution power of mighty aggregators impact on the shape of the industry and who/what gets or does not get published)

So an interesting evening, but a slightly strange experience being among a bunch of capable and motivated editorial and design people discussing, in their own time, how to be the best and most successful in the digital publishing industry without any reference to what the industry is doing to people like them.

No mention that in moving from Oxford to London, driven largely by the demands of centralising digital production, Macmillan Educational will be losing the best part of a quite exceptional team of people who have expertise and experience not just in educational publishing but also the languages and the cultural backgrounds of the markets they serve.

No worries about the most recent round of redundancies at OUP and Pearson (both related to their digital programmes), or about the fact that OUP  is now advertising a load of jobs that look suspiciously like the ones just declared redundant.

No mention of the pressure on the people who remain being asked to do such ambitious, integrated, multiskilled stuff with minimal staff to keep the costs down.

Or on how these pressures and stresses aren’t always resolved by streamlining efficiencies and process manuals, but sometimes by demanding too much from too few people to meet too tight deadlines, which some people thrive on at some points in their life, but can make life miserable for many.

Maybe that’s why they call it Book Machine…

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Macmillan staff give thumbs up to new freelance training course

A new NUJ training course that aims to help people working in book publishing to start out on a freelance career was pioneered in Oxford last month, and proved a big hit. The course was devised for staff at Macmillan in Oxford, which is relocating to London at the end of the year, leaving the workforce pondering their options of following the company down to London, seeking another job in a difficult market, or going freelance.

In all, 60 people attended the day-long course, which was held on site and ran on two days to keep the numbers manageable. Course leaders were Phil Sutcliffe, who has been running NUJ courses like this for journalists for many years, and Jenny Vaughan, who has long advocated the cause of book freelances within the NUJ, but had not, until now, got involved in training.

Branch member Maura O’Brien, who attended the course on the first day, said it had been very valuable in opening people’s minds to the many skills and different options they all had. “Jenny was very clear from the beginning. She said, within education you deal with everything: you are looking at design, content editing, copy editing, the way the images interact with the text, so many different things. You’ve got such broad knowledge at your fingertips that you can actually do much more than you think you can.

“A lot of people came out of it and they just said all of our minds had been stretched a bit. We were thinking: we don’t have to just contact OUP or Pearson or the other EFL companies,  we can also consider other things, such as writing – that was one thing that I don’t think anyone had really thought about. It was also very interesting to think about how we could get involved in other types of editing, and also networking and how to really put yourself out there and chase that kind of work.”

Jon Beck, a Unite member who had experience of working freelance 13 years ago, agrees that the course help people look wider afield. “I’ve always tended to be a specialist throughout my working life. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of not being pigeonholed into one particular specialism and not closing yourself off to opportunities that might come up.”

Advice about negotiating rates was particularly welcome said Jon. “There were some very good practical pointers on how not to paint yourself into a corner, and leave room to negotiate. Very sensible and straightforward advice.”

“It’s almost semantics – all about how you phrase things,” said Maura, “and I thought that’s true, because whenever I am offering a rate I always know there is a little bit more there. When you’re on the other side,  you can forget that.”

Ideas about networking, tailoring your pitch to the interests of potential clients – and being persistent – were also seen as very valuable, said Jon. “There were lots of anecdotes, which were very enjoyable, and made very good points. It was a chance to hear from two people who had worked in the business and had a huge range of skills and experiences about how they had survived as freelances.”

“A lot of jobs are being lost in book publishing at the moment,” said trainer, Jenny Vaughan, “and more and more of us are likely to be working freelance in the future.” However people from a publishing background are often less assertive than journalists, she added, and more hesitant about getting out there and chasing potential clients, so the course could be worth repeating in other settings in the future.

Looking ahead here in Oxford, might people who attended the Macmillan course be interested in an initiative the branch is considering to bring members together with people from the local community of programmers and digital workers? “I think people would really jump at it,” said Maura. “To be fair, all of the changes that are going on in publishing with Macmillan, with OUP, with Pearson, the reason they are making all these redundancies is that they are looking at the publishing plans and everyone is scared of what’s happening with digital and uncertain about the way forward. We are all aware that we need to embrace that side of the industry a lot more and get a handle on it.”

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Counting the costs of cost-cutting

“What we do matters. That’s a point I never thought we’d have to make.” Anna Wagstaff opened the Quality in Publishing summit with a snapshot of the current situation in academic publishing: cost-cutting and outsourcing leading to a decline in quality.

The event was organised by the Oxford & District branch of the NUJ as a way of bringing together people who work in academic publishing in order to start a conversation about the problems. Oxford is famous as a centre of publishing excellence, but the expertise of editorial workers could disappear within a generation if there is no investment in training.

Peter Wrobel has been paid by various UK publishers to carry out copyediting training – but in India, not in the UK. He told the meeting: “The companies in India don’t feel like sweatshops… but they do feel like factories.” Most India-based copyediting firms don’t even allow employees to use the internet, which means that minor queries about a journal article take a lot longer to handle and usually involve contacting the author directly.

Although the copyeditors in Indian companies are usually qualified to MA or PhD level, they’re not necessarily interested in copyediting as a career and don’t stick around long enough to learn the skills involved in doing the job really well. Mr Wrobel estimated that turnover in the big copyediting companies is around 90%, although management claim it’s nearer 50%. And perfect English, even if it’s spoken as a first language, doesn’t always make for a good copyeditor of English-language publications. He explained that Indian English is very different from British English, which can cause huge communication problems within a company.

So why do publishers outsource? Mr Wrobel told us that the cost of getting copyediting done offshore is roughly an eighth of the cost of hiring a UK freelancer. For that reason, publishers are prepared to accept a certain decline in quality. However, the trade-off is nowhere near as simple as it looks on the balance sheet.

Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, described the “standardisation paradox”: using a one-size-fits-all outsourced copyediting solution means that UK-based employees have to use subtle, non-standard skills to manage the situation. She believes that these tacit skills are under-recognised by publishing management. Her research shows that outsourcing generates extra unpaid work in the UK, and this was confirmed by the experience of many people present.

Professor Huws explained that when an organisation’s structure changes through outsourcing, this often means that tacit knowledge turns into codified knowledge. In other words, training stops being about on-the-job learning and starts being about a specific checklist of items to be learnt. Evaluating performance also becomes codified, with written standards and goals replacing more nuanced appraisals. “It’s management by results, not relationships.”

Outsourced work also happens at a faster pace than in-house work. Productivity targets are set much higher for offshore workers and turnaround times are much shorter. Many publishers use offshore companies “as an emergency service” to meet deadlines that would be considered unreasonable in the UK.

Of course, as Peter Wrobel pointed out, these deadlines are often unreasonable for the outsourced workers too. Indian copyediting firms regularly end up with a backlog of work which they can’t cope with. When this happens, the publisher usually looks for UK-based freelancers to do the work – and offers lower rates than were available before the original outsourcing.

The issue of hidden costs and externalities came up again and again. One audience member reminded us that the basic product of the publishing industry is free to publishers: publicly-funded universities pay for the research and writing that goes into academic journals. If their cost-cutting is driving down standards and pay in the industry, we have to ask whether the current model is the best use of taxpayers’ money.

Steve Ball of the International Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes was the final speaker. He said that in order to fight the decline in quality, we need to understand the publisher’s point of view. “To make this process work, you need to talk to publishers and find out what they think they’re doing.” He believes that publishers are conducting a long-term experiment with outsourcing, seeing how this affects the “production triangle” of cost, quality and speed.

An audience member pointed out the problem with such an approach: “It’s a great experiment, but the feedback never comes.” The problem is the distorted market in academic journals. Publishers sell mass subscriptions to academic institutions, so there’s a lack of individual feedback. Professor Huws describes it as “a passive supply with no signals from the market”. (Site licences are sold on the same model.)

This brought us back to the main purpose of the meeting. “As people who care about quality in publishing, how do we make our voices heard when nobody is consulting us?”

Fiona Swarbrick, books organiser for the NUJ, had some suggestions from her own experience. “Get to grips with what’s happening, work with it.” She gave examples of publishers where the union has collected information on quality and presented it to management. Doing the homework and working with management is key.

Steve Ball pointed out that editorial boards can make a difference, because they set the tone, standards and quality for a journal and have the power to take their business elsewhere.

Other suggestions from the audience included:

One audience member suggested pushing for the industry to adopt a “first do no harm” principle when outsourcing work. Indian companies can add value to the published product in many ways, such as structuring content and marketing, but most publishers use them solely for copyediting where they have the potential to do more harm than good. (Many people present complained about having errors inserted into their work through poor editing.)

One of the last people to speak was a professor emeritus with decades of experience in publishing. He reiterated a point that is sometimes forgotten: “The primary function of a university is not to contribute to the economy, or please politicians… it is to create knowledge for its own sake.” We need to shift the focus away from business models and start talking about why journals are produced in the first place. The Quality in Publishing meeting was an attempt to start that conversation.

Note: Reporting restrictions applied to the meeting to protect individual identities. This post originally appeared on the blog of branch chair Kate Griffin.

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