Krause's Textbook Post-Mortem, #1: Never write a textbook

I found out a week ago Friday that my textbook project, which is under contract with McGraw-Hill, is finally dead. By “dead,” I mean McGraw-Hill isn’t interested in trying to publish it anymore, and I am not interested in working on it anymore. This wasn’t surprising news since I had seen the reviews that came back from readers in late October, and they didn’t have the “yes, I would certainly change the way I teach to use this book just as soon as it comes out” kind of clarity that publishers (at least my publishers) are seeking.

So, after about five years and many revisions, it is pretty much dead– I say “pretty much” because I am still talking with them about some options I don’t want mention now. Further, because they paid me an advance on the project, they own it. The good news is I don’t have to pay them back; the bad news is if I wanted to send it to another publisher, I would have to buy it from them. (This is pretty standard practice in the textbook biz, by the way).

Am I bitter? Yeah, I’m a little bitter. I mean, on the one hand, I (as a still Happy Academic) don’t have too much to complain about because I like my job at EMU, my wife just started a tenure-track position here, and this project had nothing to do with me getting tenured and promoted. Plus, as a colleague of mine (who is literature) pointed out, I made significantly more money off of this failed book project than he has off of successful academic book projects.

And I have learned a lot about myself as a writer, a lot about myself as a teacher, and a lot about the textbook business and my field’s weird relationship with it. But those are different posts.

But yeah, I’m a bit bitter because, basically, I worked on this thing (off and on) for about five years and now it is dead and that’s that.

Anyway, this morning, I wanted to write about what I see as the most important lesson I learned by writing this textbook:

Never Write a Textbook

Why? Here’s a few thoughts:

  • It is so not worth the money. That’s how textbook companies get people like me to do this in the first place: they wave around dollar figures that seem like a lot at first blush, and then they point out (indirectly, of course) that if a book catches on, well, the sky’s the limit. But of course, that doesn’t happen with most textbooks, which makes the money and time spent to earn it suddenly not that good of a deal. Let me put it this way: I would have made much more money if I had gotten a minimum wage job at a coffee shop for five hours a week over the last five years instead.
  • The kind of money “capital” you can get from a textbook isn’t the same as the symbolic “capital” that you get from a more academic book. Maybe this is just obvious, but I guess what I’m saying is while you can make some “real money” writing a textbook (especially if you get lucky), the kind of symbolic capital an academic can make from an academic book is ultimately worth more. And it can even lead to some “real money” in the form of career advancement, etc.
  • I think the review process for textbooks (at least the process I went through) is problematic at best. Without going into any great detail about it now, it seems to me that the way that textbook companies test a manuscript’s chances of selling is what leads to the many textbooks out there that are trying to be all things to all people.

Having said all that, I can imagine writing a textbook again. Sort of. But what I think I would do is write the “book” first, maybe make it available on the ‘net, maybe try to generate an audience that attracts a publisher instead of the other way around. After all, this has been the great dream and promise of many a blogger; why couldn’t something like that work with textbooks?