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?

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

  1. Clancy says:

    Ooooh! Why don’t you take what you’ve done and contribute it to the the Rhetoric and Composition Wiki Book?

  2. Steven D. Krause says:

    Well, without going into any more detail about it now, I will say that this is part of the conversation that is currently unresolved.

  3. Bill H-D says:

    and, failing that, there’s always The Dustbin of History :)

  4. Steve says:

    And I’m also afraid that Bill might ultimately be right about this. But like I said, that’s a post for another time. Soon, I hope.

  5. Bill H-D says:

    It is mind-boggling that the textbook weasels would rather lock your work away, never to be seen by anybody (think final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark here…your Ms. is being handled by “Top Men…:”) than release it into the wild wild weblogospherenet where it could gain a cult following, accumulate value, and be a potential money source for them in the future. Somebody just isn’t paying attention…

  6. That’s too bad. I think you’ve also hit on one of the big challenges in noting that people would have to change the way they do things proportionately to the amount of innovation/difference in the book. I guess we see here that getting a textbook to market requires making it similar enough to what is already out there to appeal to reviewers steeped in the pedagogy of the existing books. Still, it seems like reviews can really be a mixed bag and you would think some of this scuttling kind of response would have been solicited sooner in the process. I like how Bill’s proposal picks up on your plan for the next time around. I’ll be interested in hearing what develops of just more about your book.

  7. Robert says:

    I am trying to finish up work on a test bank ancillary to a forthcoming mathematics textbook, so I sort of identify with all this. I took on the test bank project not only for the money but also to get my foot in the door with a real publishing company in case I wanted to write a textbook one of these days. Now I’m sort of with Clancy, thinking more about wikis than books.

    Couple of other observations: First, I think the capital you spoke of is different for those of us at teaching-oriented liberal arts colleges. At my place, writing even just an ancillary project like I’m doing is considered a major act of scholarship that ties in with my teaching. So there is more in it for people like me, which makes me more likely to consider doing it again.

    Second, Daniel brings up a point that drives me crazy about textbooks, at least math textbooks, and that is that THEY ARE ALL EXACTLY ALIKE. I get review copies of half a dozen calculus texts each year and there’s not a dime’s bit of difference between them. What the market needs is a really interesting, radically different approach to presenting calculus (or whatever) that captures the imagination of those who would use it. But this is precisely what the textbook companies are afraid of — a text that would require the user to change pedagogy. It’s a catch-22.

    Nice blog, by the way; I got to you through the Carnival of Education.

  8. J.D. Fisher says:

    “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.”

    Yep. And all the commenters above are dead-on too. Self-publishing is something I fantasize about. There are more and more places online that make it so easy (or at least look so easy) and inexpensive.

    If you need a good editor, let me know! : )

  9. Pingback: Casting Out Nines

  10. bob whipple says:

    Hear, hear. It’s maddening how what you want to write, what you need to write, is dictated by what “sells,” even though to some of us, what “sells” isn’t necessarily the greatest pedagogy.

  11. grubstreet says:

    As someone whose textbook actually got published and then sank like a stone, I concur! It diverted me from work I should have been doing and I never made a nickel (well, I did buy an ibook with the advance). And dealing with 17 readers five times significantly shortened my life.

  12. Steven D. Krause says:

    I do think there are some ways in which writing a textbook could work out. But that’s a different post.

    And while I am okay with “open source” textbooks, I’m not so okay with the wiki textbook thing yet. Wiki stuff works well, it seems to me, with things like an encyclopedia, which is trying to capture “the facts” of something. The problem with a wiki textbook to me is that a textbook (at least my textbook was like this) is trying to promote a particular methodology for doing something, and if people start tweeking that…

    But it’s kind of a moot point still since McGraw-Hill hasn’t released my book. Yet.

  13. John Bailey says:

    Actually, all this sounds like is that you assumed facts not in evidence and didn’t read the contract very well.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to attack you or defend the publisher.

    I am just saying that you took a spin on a roulette wheel and then you looked at the odds of getting paid.

    I look forward to seeing your book in print anyway!

  14. Pingback: Steven D. Krause’s Official Blog » Blog Archive » Textbook Independence Day!

  15. Richard Hull says:

    One of your options might be to get another publisher to buy the rights, then republish. I have done that. But the other option I would like to suggest is that you give the book away, in digital format. At our convention last summer, we had a speaker who was an author of the publisher Lulu. He had a work that he decided to make available for download free through their service. He had hundreds of thousands of downloads from all over the worls. His comment, paradoxical as it sounds, was that “I never made so much money as when I gave my book away.” Turns out that a substantial percentage of the individuals who downloaded the book wanted to buy a printed copy and were willing at that point to pay for it. You might want to check that publisher out, as well (of course) as investigate our own non-profit at http://www.TAAonline.net. We’d love to have you as a member. Richard

  16. Debbie says:

    Wow…that is the most negative attitude !! If your book is anything like your narrative, i can see why it didn’t “catch on”. Why don’t you use your failed project to learn something. Examine why it didn’t succeed. What was it that teachers didn’t like? Use the information to alter your book into one that will succeed. Anyone that is talented and confident enough to spend 5 years writing a textbook….is certainly intelligent enough to change it into one that is successful. Hang on to your dreams….and don’t let one failure cloud your vision. Use it to find your way.

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