How to not write a textbook

Debrah “blogos” Hawhee had a post today titled “one. more. week.” where (as she wraps up a new edition of a textbook she has co-written) she lists her necessary conditions for textbook writing. I possessed none of them. To quote:

1. You really love the material you are working on. I mean, really, really love it, and you must feel it is important (politically, morally, whateverly) to make the material available for teachers and (even more) for students. Just wanting to make money is really not enough IMHO.

Nope, not me. I mean, I think I thought what I was doing was useful and interesting (for a while), but no, I didn’t love it. Or maybe another way of putting it: if there wasn’t money involved, I would have never attempted to write this book.

2. You are willing to work your ass off every five years for a new edition–that is if it goes into new editions.

Nope. Far from it. Of course, I never got to the first edition, so…

3. You are surrounded by loving people–near and far–who will put up with your muddle-headedness and who will understand when you say nothing is new.

Sorry, no. I mean, not counting “loving people” like my wife and son and friends and such. But they weren’t really working on the book. What I needed, to be honest, was some loving (or at least “liking”) book publishers.

4. You don’t mind being consumed for a very long stretch of time.
5. You can adhere to deadlines. These deadlines are quite serious.

No and no. I’ve heard similar things from other successful textbook publishers, actually. I had some kind of shifting deadlines from the publishers for a bunch of different reasons (and that made the deadlines more complex), but as the project lingered on, I did indeed started minding being consumed by the project.

6. You can find a good research assistant who will respond to your piles and pleas, even though the work can be a real bitch (search engines simply aren’t equipped for the kind of hunts we do). Relatedly I have some public library observations to be made at a later date.

Research Assistant?! Nope, didn’t have one of those. Actually, at EMU, I think there is a bias against giving too much in the way of institutional support for any kind of book projects that might actually make money.

7. You have a coauthor who is smart and honest and supportive and whom you admire and respect a hell of a lot.

Also something I lacked and also something that seems to be common in successful textbook writing projects– though I have to say that I don’t know if I could put up with a co-writer for a textbook project, given all of the other necessary ingredients.

Oh well. Live and learn. Or just slap it up on the web when the publishers don’t want it anymore.

Inside Higher Ed News on Textbooks

See “Next Chapter on Textbooks,” published on June 1 in Inside Higher Ed. Basically, it’s a long piece about the high price of textbooks (various investigations, etc.) and the various solutions for dealing with the expense, including legislation. Frankly, I think the idea of the feds stepping in to control the price of textbooks is a little like getting them to step in and control the price of gasoline: it makes for good politics with various constituents, but at the end of the day, the price of gasoline (and textbooks) goes up.

I suppose it depends on what you mean by “expensive,” too. I had a book rep tell me once that the really expensive books in the sciences– ones that typically involve a lot of full-color printing– are more or less “break even” propositions for publishers. So that might not actually be expensive. On the other hand, charging $60 for a warmed-over fifth edition of some composition textbook is a profit source.

Anyway, let’s assume that textbooks cost too much money. Why is that? Here’s an interesting passage that I think tells at least part of the story:

“Turn the Page: Making College Textbooks More Affordable,� is the result of a yearlong study by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, a nonpartisan federal panel that advises Congress on issues of access.

The advisory group adopts a common framing of the issue. The textbook market, it says, is driven by supply rather than demand. Publishers set the price. Bookstores order the products. Students have little, if any, direct influence over the final cost, format and quality of the textbook. The common retort from publishers: Pay more attention to the faculty role. They are free to choose cheaper editions or unbundled material but resoundingly say educational value trumps price in their purchasing decisions.

I like to say that textbooks are a lot like dog food. Dogs don’t pick out their dog food; their owners do. As a result, dog food companies market to their owners. Like dogs, students don’t pick out the textbooks for their classes; their professors do. As a result, textbook companies market them to the professors. There’s one significant difference though: textbook companies rarely tell professors explicitly how much the books they are ordering for students actually cost.

What to do about all this? Well, a lot of the solution in the article revolve around organized online publishing, but it seems to me that this is probably not going to reduce the costs, and it ignores the many reasons for textbooks. And besides, a lot of times, a) a print textbook is the best way to deliver content, and b) the cost of some textbooks is actually worth it. Don’t get me wrong– this is not some kind of apology for the textbook business. There are a lot of really bad textbooks out there. Still, there are also a lot of good ones, too.

It also seems to me that professors can often find alternatives for textbooks if they just look around a bit. For example, I’ve been assigning Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace for years– the 1995 trade book edition. I’m not sure if it is still in print or not, but students have never had a hard time getting it, and it’s about $12 or so new, $5 or $6 used. On the other hand, Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (now in its ninth edition) is $43.33 from Now, I suppose the textbook version might have some advantages, especially for less than prepared instructors.

And as a slight tangent: that’s another function of textbooks that seems overlooked by this piece. Textbooks– especially in a field like composition studies, where instructors are frequently inexperienced– are often a key part of the “on the job training,” as much of a teaching tool for the graduate assistant or part-timer as it is for the students in the class. I know I learned a ton about teaching writing from the textbooks I was required to use as a new graduate assistant.

Obviously, I have mixed feelings.

Of course, I’m also for the solution of just self-publishing textbooks, like my modest little project, The Process of Research Writing.

The Process of Research Writing: The Web Site

Over this weekend, I had and/or created some time away from grading, a sort of calm before the storm. Among other things, I finally got around to putting up on the web my failed (?) textbook project, retitled what I had originally called it, The Process of Research Writing.

As I wrote back in July and in other entries here, I decided that I was not interested in trying to restart the textbook project with another publisher mainly because I was not at all interested in going down the path of reworking this book yet again. Thus this web site.

This is not a collaborative/wiki-like textbook, mainly because it would have been too time-consuming and complicated to do. I mean, this is a 200+ page manuscript. I don’t think I would describe this an “open source” textbook either, though it is free. But maybe that’s debatable.

Anyway, I for some reason felt the need to get this thing out there/get the monkey off my back so that I could then go on to other things. This might be a simple mental thing only for me, but I also like to think that there are at least some folks out there who might find some parts of this project useful.

Electronic Literature Collection, Vol 1

I had seen this about a week ago, but I got another email reminding me about it today:

The Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1.

I’ve had a unit (off and on) in English 516 where we talk about sites like this, and as I start thinking more about planning the online version of 516 I’m going to teach in the winter, this site makes me think it’d be a cool thing to include. If nothing else, the layout is neato.

Electronic Academic Publishing Inevitable (or I told ya so….)

On various occasions in this blog and elsewhere, I’ve argued that it seems increasingly obvious to me that almost all publishing for fields like English studies and composition and rhetoric will be done electronically. This is perhaps most likely with journals– heck, even the less than techno-savvy CCCC now is available electronically before the paper copy arrives– but I also think it’s going to happen with books too.

Anyway, not that I’m the only one who has had this crazy notion before, but you’ve heard it here before. Now, according to the July 14 issue of Inside Higher Ed and the article “New Model for Scholarly Publishing,” it turns out I’m right. Maybe.

It’s a good piece, one you should read for yourself and one that would probably make good reading in my graduate course on computers and writing (which reminds me: I need to start doing some of the set-up work for that….). A few highlights:

  • “Rice University on Thursday announced a plan to shake up those interconnected problems. Rice University Press, which was killed in 1996, will be revived. But unlike every other university press, it will publish all of its books online only. People will be able to read the books for no charge and to download them for a modest fee. Editors will solicit manuscripts and peer review panels will vet submissions — all in ways that are similar to the systems in traditional publishing.” They go on to say that since the editing and vetting process for these books will be the same as for traditional, “on paper” books, the folks at the reborn Rice UP believe they should “count” the same as traditional books.
  • “And Rice also announced plans Thursday to take on the textbook industry, offering print-on-demand textbook versions of scholarly resources it has been assembling — generally for less than $25.” Hmmm…. perhaps they’d be interested in a little textbook project I’m slowly working to publish electronically….
  • “The home for Rice’s new publishing ventures will be Connexions, the university’s open source site that has been gaining more and more users with its compilation of course and scholarly materials, prepared by professors from all over the world and provided for anyone to use.” What’s interesting to me about Connexions is, at first glance at least, it’s just a Plone-driven CMS with a lot of content.
  • “The Rice press plans also arrive at a time that some scholarly associations are pushing for more recognition for digital scholarship. The Modern Language Association has a special committee working on a proposal to change the tenure process in many ways, one of which is to provide more recognition for work online. English professors have been particularly concerned about the decline of monograph publishing, which has made it especially difficult for them to earn tenure.

    “Sean Latham, associate professor of English and director of the Modernist Journals Project at the University of Tulsa, is a member of the MLA tenure reform committee, and he said Thursday that he was very encouraged by the Rice announcement. ‘This sounds like a fascinating model,’ he said.” So perhaps even the MLA is on board with this one? See, I am right!

Textbook Independence Day!

Well, it’s official, finally: McGraw-Hill and I have seperated ways. The signed and sealed copy of my “TERMINATION LETTER” was in my school mail box today. I’m finally free (well, sort of….)

In a way, this process is a little version of the way the whole thing with McGraw-Hill went, especially in terms of the time line.

  • In December 2005, things weren’t going well, and we had a mutual “parting of the ways,” so to speak. At the time, they said if I wanted the book back, I’d have to give them the advance. Needless to say, I was not happy about that.
  • In March 2006, I talked with some folks (no publishers, just people) at the CCCCs and, because they thought I was getting a raw deal here, they encouraged me to ask for my book back again. So in early April 2006 or so, they decided they could set me free.
  • They sent me the frightfully titled “TERMINATION LETTER” at the end of April 2006. In brief, it says all the rights revert back to me, but if I sell it to some other press and/or figure out another way to make money off of this, then McGraw-Hill is entitled to the advance they gave me. Seems like a reasonable deal to me.
  • I signed this document on May 8, 2006.
  • The folks at McGraw-Hill signed it between May 30 and June 1, 2006.
  • The envelope indicates it was mailed on June 30, 3006.

In short, I couldn’t even get TERMINATION in a timely fashion.

Anyway, I’m going to let bygones be bygones and bask in my new textbook independence to do… what, exactly? Well, I haven’t completely decided, but I’m not interested in going through the whole textbook revision process with another press. Because while I would ultimately describe my experiences with McGraw-Hill as “bad,” I’m not convinced that any other textbook publisher would treat me a whole lot better. Some other publisher would send the thing out to a group of readers and then want me to make revisions based on every little whim of the 10 or so readers roped into reviewing my book in the first place.

So, not interested in all of that rig-a-ma-roll but still interested in making my book accessible (at least to my students and myself), I think what I’ll probably do is throw it all up on a web site some place. I don’t have the time or energy to format it for the web, so I think what I’m going to do is just try to clean up a few things here and there and then post it all as a series of PDFs.

Oh, and I’m gonna change the title. One of the sets of reviews came back with two or so readers who said something cryptic about wanting more info on “critical thinking.” So one of my editors insisted suggested that I title the book Thinking Through Research. I’ve never been crazy about that. So I’m going back to my original title, The Process of Research Writing.

Hey, it’s my book. I can do whatever the hell I want.

Anyway, stay tuned for more details and free and open availability of the complete manuscript.

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.

When textbooks cost too much (which is often)

I came across this post on Maud Newton’s blog, where she’s quoting from GW Bush about fixing interest rates on students loans (apparently, this is a new change in the student loan program), despite the fact that it will potentially (likely, actually) allow corporations and other borrowers to get money with a lower interest rate. Click here for a more complete version of the story. Yet another example why it is clear that the phrase “the education president” was meant to be ironic.

In any event, on an issue that is perhaps a bit closer to my heart (because of my recent failures as a textbook writer) is this Washington Post article (which I found via Maud’s blog), “Swelling Textbook Costs have College Students Saying ‘Pass.'” Here’s a nice quote:

Textbook prices have been rising at double the rate of inflation for the past two decades, according to a Government Accountability Office study. In Virginia, more than 40 percent of students surveyed by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia said they sometimes just do without.

That’s been increasing, said Jennifer Libertowski of the National Association of College Stores; recently, the group found that nearly 60 percent of students nationwide choose not to buy all the course materials.

Sixty percent! Here’s some other fun facts from the article:

  • Textbooks and supplies costs an average of $900 a year, and it doesn’t matter much if you’re attending “Most Expensive and Quaint U” or “Cheap Cheap CC,” the books are about the same and the cost is about the same– but a greater percentage of the bill for students at Cheap CC, who are liable to be paying most of their expenses by working anyway.
  • According to the GAO study on which this article is based, textbook costs tripled between 1986 and 2004.
  • And then there’s this passage: “Students have plenty of conspiracy theories for the rising prices: Greedy publishers who change the cover just to charge more. Self-absorbed professors who assign their own masterpieces or forget to list the books till it’s too late to find a used copy. Overpriced stores.” The article tries to correct some of the “conspiracy theory” here in the next paragraph, suggesting that the profit margin on textbooks is low (at least compared to things like sweatshirts and mugs). Riiight. That’s why no one is making money off of used textbooks or why the price of new textbooks keeps going up for no apparent reason.

Arguably, English studies and composition is “less guilty” in some ways than other fields in terms of the overall cost issues because our textbooks tend to have less expensive “production values” than books for art or the sciences which are routinely filled with hundreds of elaborate color images. But English– particularly first year composition, the one course that just about every college student in this country has to take–is also a cash cow for textbook publishers. I once had a book rep explain to me that the profit margin on the most expensive textbooks (the ones in the sciences and the arts with lots of color printing and such) is actually a break-even proposition for publishers; conversely, because first year composition books are so cheap to make and the volume is so high, the profit margin on those books is quite large.

I’m not saying that textbook companies don’t serve a valuable purpose in the composition community; there’s a lot of textbooks that I have used in the past that I like a great deal, and I also know, that when I started teaching first year composition many moons ago, I learned a lot from the textbook that was assigned to both my students and to me. I do and I will continue to use textbooks in my teaching, though nowadays, I also tend to find out how much students are going to have to pay students before I make the adoption decision.

But I also think that textbook companies don’t do enough to make materials available at a more reasonable cost, mainly because many of these folks still seem to not “get it” when it comes to electronic publishing, and also because they are terrified about doing anything that might cut into profits.

Take my efforts at trying to publish a version of my textbook online. This is a project in which McGraw-Hill has decided to more or less abandon. Based on a review scheme that I think is debatable at best (but that’s another post), they’ve decided that the interest out there is not great enough to justify a publishing run for my book. I’m not happy about that, but okay, these things happen. So, at no cost to McGraw-Hill, I suggested that I make it available electronically. To date, the answer has been a combination of “no” and a non-answer, and as far as I can tell, the main reason why McGraw-Hill doesn’t want me to publish the book I wrote on a web site– a book project that they would continue to own, I might add– is because some people might actually read and/or use the book, and, somehow, this will cut into the profits of the print books, despite the fact that the review process suggested that that many folks aren’t interested in it.

But enough about my problems.

My point simply is this: according to this article, a surprising number of students are already self-opting out of textbook purchases. If the prices keep going up, it seems entirely possible that teachers will seek other options, too.

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?