Textbook Post-Mortem #2: If you must write a textbook…

It seems that I struck a cord with my first textbook post-mortem post. So, in the spirit of trying to make my lemon into some lemonade (and to not be completely bitter), I thought I’d muse a bit this morning about some of the more constructive lessons learned. In other words, if you feel like you must write a textbook (and if I were to do this again) and if that textbook is to be with a publisher and done in part for the money (open source textbooks, that’s a whole different post in my mind), then there are basically two things I think you should think about doing:

  • Finish the book (or come at least as close to “finished” as you’re willing to get) before you talk to the publishers.
  • Don’t– DO NOT– take an advance, at least not until after the book has gone through the review process and is getting ready to go to press.

I’m not sure what most textbook publishers would say about either of these suggestions. They want to buy the project up-front and based on a proposal (rather than a more formed text), and they want to pay you an advance. I once had a conversation with an editor with one of the major presses about this, and her argument was that publishers wanted to be able to work with their writers through the process. Maybe. But really, I think the reason why they want to fund textbook projects up-front is so that they “own” you. Essentially, it’s the same fiscal model as share cropping.

If you manage to finish a draft of the project before you even start talking to publishers, then I suspect you would have a better chance of keeping a better handle on what you want out of this textbook. Without going into great detail about it now, one of the experiences I had as a result of having little more than a proposal and an idea when I was offered a contract was what my textbook “was” kept shifting (based largely on reader reviews), and I don’t think my publishers and I ever really saw eye-to-eye on the whole thing.

And if you don’t take the money up-front, then you have a lot more flexibility and ownership of the project later on. Oh sure, “the money for nothing but an idea” thing is tempting– that’s how I got into this whole process in the first place. But had I thought of following my own advice, I would now be in a completely different place right now. For starters, when things at McGraw-Hill were stalled early on in the process (and that’s the subject of yet another future post), I could have taken my project elsewhere.

But the main reason to not take the advance is ownership and flexibility. Had I followed my own advice, I would either currently be showing my book to other presses or (more likely since I am at a point with this project where I’m just “done” with it) I could be putting it up on a web site or in a wiki or something.

Anybody out there try this tactic with their textbook project? Anybody out there think this would work?

This entry was posted in Textbook Post-Mortem. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Textbook Post-Mortem #2: If you must write a textbook…

  1. John says:

    A very different market, but Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English, published by Blackwell, began life as online material–first his Old English Aerobics and then his full-blown text, now titled The Electronic Introduction to Old English. Baker’s material evolved over time based on feedback from other instructors and his own classroom experiences. Eventually, not only did Blackwell pick up the book that was freely available online and publish it, they agreed to allow the electronic version to remain online.

    But again, the Old English textbook market is quite different from the composition textbook market and while Blackwell does publish textbooks, they’re not focused on textbooks in the way that McGraw-Hill, et. al. are.

    While other examples are failing to come to mind, I’m pretty sure I’ve come across other textbooks with comparable stories.

  2. Joanna says:

    With these two posts you’re describing yet another reason why I am writing a text/tech developmental writing book for my classes. Aside from wanting to put together something that would be: in keeping with how I teach; using technology as an integral part of the course; deliverable as a CD (versus a large, half-used and expensive textbook), I also wanted to avoid dealing with publishers. I don’t want to give up control, and I don’t really give a darn if I develop a national reputation as a textbook author.

    As you have written above:
    But the main reason to not take the advance is ownership and flexibility. Had I followed my own advice, I would either currently be showing my book to other presses or (more likely since I am at a point with this project where I’m just “done� with it) I could be putting it up on a web site or in a wiki or something.

    I have been thinking that with more wikis and webs going up, teachers can create, pick and choose (assuming that these sources are open source, etc)and develop “texts” that really suit the needs of their students, instead of being stuck with a book so expensive that students refuse to write in it out of fear of not being able to resell it. And there’s no running around at the last minute trying to find a handout that addresses stuff not in the text which was written for a mass audience.

    Which leads me to wonder how other instructors use textbooks–I’m always finding things outside of the book to use, but I wonder if that says more about my temperament–fussy–than anything else.

    At any rate, Merry Christmas!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.