The future of my own textbook…

Jeff Rice has a post where he discusses his participation in a discussion about the future of textbooks sponsored by the future of the book organization. Interesting enough, but… well… I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but I think there are three basic problems with the basic premise of open source textbooks (though what they’re talking about here is not necessarily open source, I don’t think):

  • The main reason why someone writes a textbook and also why publishers publish textbooks is to make money. (This perhaps goes without saying, but in my most recent past experiences, this is not a good reason to write a textbook, mainly because making “real” money from a textbook is essentially like winning the lottery.) In that sense, textbooks are very different animals from academic books, novels, poetry collections, etc.: sure, people want to make money with those kinds of books too, but there are other reasons for both writers and publishers for coming out with those kinds of books, reasons like scholarship to be counted on a CV, pleasure, and/or (dare I say it?) love.

    Some institutions will “count” a textbook for the purposes of tenure and promotion, but I don’t think anyone– writers, publishers, or readers students who have to buy the textbook– is in it for the pleasure or love of books.

  • The main reason why an instructor assigns a textbook in the first place is because a) she has to as some sort of program-wide requirement (this is of course common in first year composition circles, which is one of the reasons why publishers make a lot of money from these books), and/or b) the instructor has no interest in writing his own materials for a particular class. In my opinion, the best (and worst, simultaneously) textbooks out there are like cookbooks full of fool-proof recipes: add instructor and stir.
  • The history of software developed by small groups for a very particular thing– TK3 for example, or potentially this software being developed by these future of the book people– is not very good. It’s not that this stuff is bad software; it’s just that it seems to do only one or two things, and it doesn’t seem to do those one or two things (at face value, at least) a whole lot better than the accepted format. TK3 wasn’t a hit because it didn’t have that much more functionality for most users beyond Adobe Acrobat.

Of course, I wasn’t there; maybe the conversation/thinking that happened there addressed and solved all of these problems.

Anyway, having made those grand and sweeping pronouncements, I am also pleased to report that there is at least a chance that my own textbook project has some kind of, er, “future.” I hope I’m not jinxing this, but a deal is in the works with McGraw-Hill that would essentially allow me to take it to another publisher and/or put it up on the web.

I’ll have to see what this deal looks like and what it allows me, but my plan right now is to actually put it up on the web. That might not be the smartest move as far as publishing and money and such goes– once it is available electronically, I don’t know what my chances are of getting another publisher to pick it up. But publishing it as a web site would represent something that is at least different in textbook publishing so far, which might get the manuscript some attention it might not have otherwise gotten. And it is a move that might bring me a sense of closure. At this stage, closure would be good.

11 thoughts on “The future of my own textbook…”

  1. Hmmm. I think you are way off on many of these points. First:
    1. Not true. I didn’t make any money on my textbook – or so little it doesn’t count as real money. Only a few big books make the big bucks.
    2. You are speaking to a model in circulation, but one which is not always true. I have more to say on this, but for the reason you point here, program wide requirements can dictate textbooks, but they are not the only force. The issue is more complex than you describe.
    3. This point you are way off. I won’t cheerlead TK3 or any other software, but it does not resemble Acrobat at all. Software is also not dictated by instrumental thought – or if it is one reaches the limitations you seem to reach. Software, like any other type of tool or process, is contextual and must be considered with other objectives in mind.

    A final question: where did you read that we discussed how to make money or how to replicate existing practices? Nowhere. Because that didn’t happen. Don’t mistake the generic term “textbook” for a term whose meaning is “textbooks I am already familiar with.” As someone who has a lot of problems with the textbook industry – and take a look at a few other attendees – I will say that wasn’t – nor would it b – the goal. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have attended. I also think you’re not familiar enough with the Institute to know where their funding comes from or that their future product, Sophie, will be free.

    A problem you’re making is conflating a few ideas into one: textbook, open source, software, without the closer look at how a specific situation is asking questions about all three. And, of course, you can’t; you weren’t there.

  2. Right, I wasn’t there.

    I was just speculating based on what you said and the blog entry that you linked to, that’s all. I’m not itchin’ for a fight, but when the nexttext rhetoric meeting blog entry says “We do understand that there are serious constraints, including time, money and institutional conservatism,” I personally think that the textbook industrial complex is too big of a constraint to overcome. I appreciate the goal of the future of the books talking about it (and yeah, I know, it’s sponsored by Annenburg (sp?) foundation, etc.), and there’s nothing wrong with being idealistic about it. I just think that the forces that any group will have to overcome to effect real change in the way textbooks– especially textbooks in our field– are enormous. Maybe too enormous.

    But like I said and like you said, i wasn’t there.

    BTW, were there any textbook publishers there? Judging from the links on the page, it looks like it was a bunch of academic-types– certainly an important part of textbooks, but just a part of it.

    As for textbooks and money: I’ve looked through your book before Jeff and I had a student write a very good review of it for my grad class this past year. While it sounds like an interesting book, it also sounds like a quasi-experimental one, one that tries to raise some cool questions (get it? cool?). I believe you when you say that you weren’t in it for the money.

    Me, the textbook I wrote was fairly mainstream, and I wrote it because I wanted to make money. The scale of these things, when compared to academic books, is crazy. I recall a conversation I had with one of the editors/muck-e-mucks on this project and this person said that if it didn’t sell at least 15,000 or 20,000 copies, they would consider it a failure. In the academic book market, those kind of sales would probably put you in the Stanley Fish leagues.

    And even though my project ended “belly-up” (at least so far), and even though I didn’t make a lot of money (without being too specific, I made about as much money for the project over the course of 3+ years as I would have made working a minimum wage job for about 20 hours a week for a summer), and even though I would never again make the assumption about making a lot of money that I did before, I have still made way more money on this “failure” than I would if it were an academic project I loved.

    And certainly there is a problem with the terminology here, starting with the word “textbook”– never mind the other ones. I have been using Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics for one of my classes lately, and my students tend to refer to it as a “textbook.” To me (and probably to you), that’s just wrong; but to them, anything that is assigned in a class and that is not of some obviously recognizable genre with which they are already familiar– eg, a novel– is (or becomes) a textbook.

    And yeah, there are lots and lots of ways to potentially question what a textbook could potentially be. Which is one of the reasons why I’m excited about the prospect of putting my textbook up online as a quasi-open source kind of project, and which is also why I’m playing around with trying to package a different project as a kind of online textbook. But I have to say that without the incentive to make money and with a lack of love/desire to do it, my motivation(s) for starting a textbook as an open source project are kind of thin.

    I could go on, but I won’t for now. I guess what I’m saying here is I see the “future of the book” as being with projects that are on the margins in different ways, and that’s a good thing. But I think dead tree textbooks (and all of the problems associated with them) are going to be around for a long time.

  3. No offense, but it then sounds like sour grapes. “I wanted to make money off a textbook, I didn’t, so damn you all!”
    I don’t care at all about textbooks. And hardly about open source (or at least how it is often played out in academic talk). But what I do find interesting are discussions which think about “other ways” to teach that current practices don’t allow for or refuse to recognize because of economic reasons or the myth of practicality. I’m not going to call that avant-garde or experimental or some other term which usually distracts rather than focuses. I call that pedagogy. That you call my book experimental is exactly the problem. It’s not. In fact, most of what is called experimental isn’t. Unless it doesn’t fit the cookie cutter economic paradigm. Then suddenly a given text is experimental, thus exceptional, thus only fit for a few. Thus wroth a glance but that is all. That is not pedagogy at all.
    Not fighting with you. But I really don’t get what your critique is.

  4. To tell the truth, the more you talk here, the more I think I suspect we actually are more on the same page than you might think. But I thought I’d write some more anyway.

    Sour grapes? Well, sort of. But not exactly, I don’t think. I think it’s more complicated than that. As I wrote about this way back here, I feel more bitter about the process. I think that’s different. In any event, I think I’m about to feel a lot less sour/bitter about my textbook since the latest thinking from the McGraw-Hill folks is that we’re going to be able to make a deal that will allow me to set up a web version of the site and/or see if other publishers are interested. Which, btw, was the real subject (for me, at least) of this post to begin with.

    We are totally on the same page when you write “what I do find interesting are discussions which think about ‘other ways’ to teach that current practices don’t allow for or refuse to recognize because of economic reasons or the myth of practicality.” Though as far as I can gather, a big part of what y’all were talking about were textbooks, which are all about economic realities/constraints in the name of practicality. But maybe that’s just the way it was advertised. Like I said, I wasn’t there.

    As for your book: I dunno, I’m just referring to my student’s review; but the idea that it’s about “cool,” that you’ve got assignments in there that talk about things like “cultural jamming,” that there are things like cut-up assignments, references to beat writers, etc.– that’s not your father’s composition textbook.

    Don’t get me wrong! That’s a good thing! But it’s also the kind of thing that would have never ever survived the editorial process I went through at McGraw-Hill. Though there were a lot of other issues there, much of it my own fault. But that’s another story. And your book is also the sort of thing that has probably not been adopted by many fy comp programs out there, and the reasons for that is yet another different story.

    I don’t know if I care or not about textbooks either. But they have such a powerful influence on what our field is– at least the way that our field is perceived by most of the people who teach things like first year writing, who aren’t generally schooled in the discipline (yet another layer of the problem!)– that they can’t be ignored. And I don’t think the “problem” of textbooks is one that is going to be solved by the delivery mechanism either, at least not exactly.

  5. I’m very much in agreement with Jeff on a couple counts, Steve. First, I tihnk your reaction does sound a bit like sour grapes, and I think your bitterness about the process may be limiting your perspective. Second, and more significantly, your original and overriding thesis — the “everybody’s in it for the money” argument — is fundamentally mistaken. If you examine Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts in relation to Ways of Reading — one of the most successful textbooks ever — you’ll see that Ways of Reading came out of a very specific set of pedagogical and theoretical assumptions particular to the Pitt first-year composition program, relying on not only Bartholomae’s scholarship but also the work of Mariolina Salvatori on difficulty, the work of Paul Kameen on the relationship between reading and writing, as well as others on the Pitt faculty. Pitt’s theory saturates its practice, and WoR stands as strong evidence of that fact. Second example: I was a co-editor for two versions of the UMass textbook The Text-Wrestling Book, which came directly out of the work we did on the Writing Program curriculum committee in overhauling the way the UMass Writing Program Works. The primary impetus for the textbook was that we felt that the way we were using texts in the classroom inadequately reflected the theoretical and pedagogical priorities of the Writing Program. And one of our chief concerns in writing the textbook was in keeping the costs (and thereby the book’s profit margins) as low as possible for students, because of our awareness of the already extant ridiculous overpricing of textbooks. Does the program make money from the textbooks? Yes, a little bit — which lets us offer some program funds to TAs to do cool things with their classes and to fund an end-of-year mini-conference celebration of student writing. But, ultimately, for our textbook the profit motive is conspicuously absent, although we’re very happy to see it adopted by other programs at other schools, because that indicates to us that the theoretical and pedagogical assumptions upon which we constructed the textbook carry some strength and utility to others, as well.

  6. Well, if you want to call it sour grapes, call it sour grapes. I personally prefer the word “bitter.” For me, “sour grapes” implies a certain kind of jealousy that I don’t think I feel. I think I am more on the “bitter” side of things because I feel resentful and cynical about it all, and I don’t think I was treated well. So I’m bitter about the process I went through, about the discussions I had with various publishing people about market share, about how the all-important reader reviews– no matter how dumb– ultimately decide a project’s fate, how we never really talked about pedagogy, etc. And then, at the end of all of that, McGraw-Hill was going to make me buy the book back if I wanted to do anything with it, a practice that was not what I was expecting for a bunch of different reasons. Emphasis here on “was,” because I think that’s going to change.

    Quite frankly, I’m mostly mad at myself about all this. I decided to write a textbook for my first book, instead of a more academic one, and that was an enormous mistake. I am certain I could have published a book treatment of my dissertation or about a related topic if I had used my time and energy on this sort of project instead of the textbook. Now, I can’t be too mad/bitter/sour about that because, on the whole, things have worked out well for me. I’m tenured at a school and in a department I like, my wife now has a tenure-track job here, I like the area I live, etc. But it was still a mistake.

    And again, don’t forget: one of the reasons I wrote this post in the first place was because I’m looking forward to being able to do something with this project because of recent discussions I’ve had with my publisher. The wheels are turning slow on this one, it might be a few weeks before I make any progress on this front, but I think I am going to be able to do something interesting with my book in the end. Which will make me much less bitter.

    There are folks in the textbook biz I consider friends. A variety of different companies have done some good things for “the field,” though most of these good things– parties, sponsorship of conferences, awards, some of the publishing projects, etc.– is essentially common sense PR. Despite the process, some good textbooks do manage to get published.

    However, having said all that, the profit motive that drives textbook companies forces them to take very few risks. Which, btw, is a reflection on the field as a whole, too. Basically, I think that most of the practitioners in composition and rhetoric– the people actually teaching first year writing classes, typically as a non-tenure-instructor, often at a community college– are a whole lot more conservative in their pedagogy than the scholars in composition and rhetoric. This is a gut reaction based on all sorts of things, but I think it’s basically accurate. Anyway, the result of this is a lot of textbooks that look a whole lot alike and that are all pretty bland.

    What I’m getting at is this: there are very few opportunities to publish a textbook that is even a tiny risk, that might only have a small (less than 10,000 copies) audience. It’s sort of like the major record labels: they don’t want to take risks either, and so we end up with Britney Spears and other pop crap.

    So, unless you get an opportunity like Jeff did (I believe his book is part of a series edited by Vitanza), you’ve only got two choices for a textbook that doesn’t meet the “pop music” standards of the mainstream textbook business:

    • Do a project like The Text-Wrestling Book, which I think is a great way to go. There’s a reader like that here at EMU, and there was project like that at Southern Oregon U many moons ago that was very good. Everyone likes these local projects. The locales– in your case Mike, UMass– like them because they are tailored exactly to program needs and goals. Textbook companies like them because they’re easy to make and they sell to that local market.
    • Do it yourself in the form of an open source book. Or something sorta open source, which is what I hope I’ll end up with in a couple months.

    But enough of that– I have a tee time this morning….

  7. Steve, good luck with the move to get try something new with the book. It sounds like an opportunity to look at some of these alternative models. A couple of reactions to some of the thoughts here. Yes, money is a prime motivator. I think a lot of people imagine a new book could make money or manage rights issues, etc.. But the motivations are probably as complex as all the reasons you list with money being one among many. Mike’s point about the idealistic or at least practical implementations is just on example of the ways books get written for a variety of reasons that often includes money.

    I also think that the suggestion you make in your response, that the books are conservative and that the in-the-trenches practitioners tend to gravitate toward the status quo in the books is accurate in its description but can be unpacked to think about some of the reasons behind it. This, I think is connected to one of the initial concerns that you raised–the textbook as cookbook. No doubt books try to provide not just a collection of assignments and readings but a fleshed out pedagogy. Sometimes this evolves from a concrete situation like the ones Mike points to. At other times it comes from a book writer trying to pass along her own methods. It also has to do with the need to simply take an angle in such an extensive project. Without focusing and packaging a method, we might just get a mish mash. But these reasons are probably secondary to those that do drive the users of the books. My sense is that underlying labor conditions have as much to do with the desire to cook from the book as do pedagogical, political, or any other leanings. Yes, many programs look for such books to ensure constituents have the packaged pedagogy they need. Just as often, probably, instructors running too many sections with too many students turn toward the same texts for related reasons. I’d say there is a great deal to be done to try to address these underlying problems. But, my reaction is also to say that it may also be that one cook book is not entirely the same as another and that we can still try to find the best angle to present in these books. If a book more or less delivers a pedagogy, methodology, and philosophy, then the shape of that deliver can be worked with. Perhaps the key is finding a balance between a pedagogy like that in Jeff’s book that might not play out as readily within the institutional lines and something that will fit more widely into the situation that you describe.

    I’m starting to wonder about distinctions between form and content here as well. What shifts occur when taking something more traditional in pedagogy and altering the delivery of it? I think this may be the critique under discussion here, but am not sure I have a handle on it.

  8. I should point out that it is entirely possible that McGraw-Hill didn’t want to publish my textbook for perfectly good reasons: it might just be not very good or useful or effective for anyone other than me. In other words, I don’t want to raise expectations about my little project.

    And I still haven’t heard from the textbook folk. Though I expect to soon.

  9. “. . .people actually teaching first year writing classes, typically as a non-tenure-instructor, often at a community college– are a whole lot more conservative in their pedagogy than the scholars in composition and rhetoric.”

    I don’t know that that’s necessarily true in all cases. While those of you who teach at 4+ year schools have time to research as part of your job, those of us at community colleges gain quite a bit from observation and from asking the students themselves. It’s true that many stick with the textbook and don’t experiment much because of the time it would take to redo things or because of lack of support, but there are many of us who are moving ahead.

    Also, If McGraw-Hill had chosen not to publish your textbook for whatever reason, they still had an obligation to return it and publication rights to you. That you are finally getting it back is small consolation.

    I lack the theoretical and pedagogical training that you, Jeff and Mike have, but I was married to another college professor for seventeen years, and I got to see what the ‘writing a textbook” biz was like up close. When it came around to my reasons for writing a textbook, I knew that I’d be putting far more unpaid work into it than paid, and I knew that in order to control the production, I’d have to publish it myself. To be fair, my market has always been local, not national, and a part of my reason for creating it in the first place has to do with impatience–wanting a composition “text” to be online and to function like an online text, not an adobe scanned document.

  10. I read this comment thread with great interest, because I work for the Institute for the Future of the Book and helped organize and then attend this meeting.

    I think one point of clarification on the word textbook might have been helpful. When we use the word textbook, we refer to something that will look and function in a way that is very different from the traditional paper based textbook. For the lack of a better word, we use “textbook.” Exactly what the born digital text will be is unknown, which was part of the impetus for holding this meeting. I imagine the future rhet/ comp textbook, will be more than a reader / manual/ style guide. Instead, it will combine the tradition textbook with more flexible ways of arranging and creating media (for both teachers and students), with a direct linkage between activity and pedagogy.

    Many of the attendees where published authors with paper based and online textbooks. Therefore, we acknowledged that the economics of textbooks is important, however the purpose of this meeting was not to define business models. At that this point in the project, we were more concerned with brainstorming the possibilities and understanding the perspective of the rhetoric and composition community. We did not want to get mired in thinking what publishers would want or what would sell or make the most profits (although those topics did arise.) For the time being, we tried to focus on what tools and resources would help with the group’s teaching. Funding issues and economic sustainability will of course come later.

    Just for the record, we also invited a former colleague at the institute, Kim White, who now works for Bedford / St. Martin’s and let me know about this lively discussion.

  11. The history of software developed by small groups for a very particular thing– TK3 for example, or potentially this software being developed by these future of the book people– is not very good.

    I never heard of TK3, but open source software does extremely well for very specific tasks. In fact, the phase where most open source projects fail is generalizing from the original designer’s very specific need to the needs of the early users and then generalizing again to non-technical users.

    The real division between where open source software works well and doesn’t work is between software that the developers themselves use and software that they don’t use. That’s why open source programming tools, operating systems, and web browsers are usually better than their commercial competitors, but open source word office suites don’t fare as well and there simply aren’t any open source tools in areas where there aren’t enough good programmers (commercial-grade tax preparation programs, for example.)

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