Textbook award-winning insight (part 2): Scheduling writing time and getting involved in marketing

2016 TAA Textbook Award QA
A couple of weeks ago, I reached out to winners of the 2016 TAA Textbook Awards and asked them to answer some questions about their textbook writing. I had so many great responses I decided to create a three-part series to share them. The first installment focused on why they decided to write their textbook, how they got started, and what they do to boost their confidence as a writer.

This second installment in the three-part series focuses on how they fit writing time into their schedule, what software they use, what their favorite pedagogical elements are, and what involvement they have had in marketing their book.

Q: What strategies do you use to fit writing time into your schedule? How much time do you spend writing each day?

Eugenia Etkina, coauthor of College Physics, winner of a 2016 Most Promising New Textbook Award: “We usually spent both weekend days working on the textbook and about 10 hours during the week (here and there), but the big chunks came on the weekends. I did not think we spent a day not working on the book during the 13 years that passed between signing the contract and holding a hard copy of the book in our hands.”

Andrea Honigsfeld and Audrey Cohan, coauthors of Serving English Language Learners, winner of a 2016 Most Promising New Textbook Award: “Our strongest strategy is collaboration. We devised a writing schedule, which included specific writing topics, due dates for each chapter, and when we would get together to share our own writing and offer revisions to each other. We had a learning curve as this was our first e-book, so the manuscript development included special interactive features that had to be designed.”

Kevin Patton, coauthor of Anatomy & Physiology, winner of a 2016 Textbook Excellence Award: “I write about 6-8 hours a day, 5 days a week. It’s my job and I treat it as such. Before retiring from full-time teaching, I worked a lot of time in between classes and on weekends. I find that it’s best for me to make sure I have at least a few hours at a time to work—anything less than that is not very productive for me.”

Joan Saslow, coauthor of the Top Notch: English for Today’s World series, winner of a 2016 Textbook Excellence Award: “I write most of all days. It’s my full-time occupation. My challenge is to fit the rest of my life around my writing! But more seriously, I find that if I don’t work every day or take too much time away from my writing, my work loses continuity. It’s possible that other disciplines that are more centered on content than on teaching a skill might be more modular and thus not as susceptible to loss of continuity (I could be completely wrong about this!), but in organizing language for skill development, each new bit needs to be related in some way to earlier bits to contribute to its memorability. So a reading selection or a listening passage should incorporate the vocabulary from the immediate study unit as well as bringing back and incorporating language students learned weeks or even months before. It’s just as easy for the author to forget language learned as it is for the student! Not stopping the process helps me keep the language in my books well integrated and permits that essential recycling for ‘unforgettability’ I mentioned earlier.”

Lorraine Papazian-Boyce, author of Pearson’s Comprehensive Medical Coding: A Path to Success, winner of a 2016 Most Promising New Textbook Award: “I preplan my schedule based on the publisher’s ultimate goal for publication.”

Timothy Henry, coauthor of Data Abstractions & Problem Solving with C++: Walls and Mirrors, winner of a 2016 McGuffey Longevity Award: “I ensure I have a good block of time with no meetings or classes. With my schedule, I have come to accept a block of 2 to 3 hours as valuable (though I do occasionally have an entire day). Because that is a short window to write, my normal writing day begins by clearing my desk and work list of distractions, such as  minor ‘ToDo’ items, urgent emails, etc. Then, my email, phone and other messaging apps/devices are turned off so there will be no interruptions. I try to have any needed research completed outside of my writing time, since research can be done in ‘snippets’ of time.”

Frank Carrano, coauthor of Data Abstractions & Problem Solving with C++: Walls and Mirrors, winner of a 2016 McGuffey Longevity Award: “I work about 4 to 6 hours a day, five days a week. For a new book, I spend about four hours a day writing new material. The rest of the time is spent thinking of new examples, writing code, revising, etc. Note that I am retired from university teaching.”

David P. Clark, coauthor of Biotechnology, winner of a 2016 Textbook Excellence Award: “I’m retired from university teaching now so I don’t really have a problem here. Perhaps 2-3 hours alternate days of writing. Plus time for research and making rough figures.”

Kathleen Miranda, coauthor of Calculus, winner of a 2016 Most Promising New Textbook Award: “I begin each week by blocking off inflexible time commitments. Then I allot chunks of the remaining time to book work. Some days it is 9:30 – 1:00; often it is 10:00 – 4:00. I particularly like to work on weekends. No one interferes on most Saturdays or Sundays from 7:00 a.m. – 3:00.”

Q: Which pedagogical elements in your textbook are you most proud of?

Etkina: “Experiment tables – tables describing experiments in a systematic way that either lead students to develop new ideas or to test them.”

Andrea & Audrey: “We are most proud of these key pedagogical features:

  • Videos that feature real teachers and students in the classroom, connecting theory with practice.
  • Stop and Check interactive features that give students the opportunity to check comprehension as they read.
  • Stop and Process feature boxes that encourage students to pause in their reading, think critically about the content, and apply the content to their own lives.
  • Case studies and vignettes that challenge students to think about how they would handle real-world scenarios and students.”

Patton: “The word lists that I use to help students master the overwhelming terminology of my discipline of human anatomy and physiology. These lists are very thorough—not just a few terms for each chapter. They include an easy pronunciation guide and a breakdown of the word parts with translations. This helps students in a variety of ways to help them build a solid working knowledge of a new language they must master to be competent in health professions.”

Saslow: “We are told by teachers that what they love about Top Notch is the naturalness and authenticity of the language used in presentations, and the emphasis we’ve put on social language and the idioms of everyday speech. We are known for a signature speaking pedagogy developed from model conversations that are intensively practiced, manipulated, extended, and personalized, which we have been told leads to competent conversation skills. English today is not an academic course, as it was years ago where students would prepare mainly to read and write it, with grammar the most important focus. Today, English is a lifeskill for people all over the world, who use it as a lingua franca to function in business, study, and travel. And being able to speak to and understand the 80% of the English-speakers in the world who are not native speakers of the language is one primary reason to learn English. Through the pedagogical design of intense exposure, practice, and recycling, students become genuinely successful at communication both in English-speaking countries and in countries where English must be used with speakers of other languages. Finally, through a deliberate cultural fluency syllabus, students become competent at understanding a variety of native and non-native accents and learn to interact with people of unfamiliar cultures.”

Papazian-Boyce: “Unique tables and figures not found in competitive textbooks, step by step guided examples for technical processes.”

Carrano & Henry: “We are most proud of these key pedagogical features:

  • Security Notes.
  • Relatively short chapters that provide focus one a topic.
  • Chapter dependencies and content are designed to give an instructor great flexibility in the order topics are covered. (Concept/Abstraction Chapters, Implementation Chapters, Language/C++ Chapters).
  • Many diagrams that clearly show step-by-step how algorithms work.
  • That the differences between steps are highlighted with color. (As opposed to a single diagram with numbered arrows to show sequence).
  • That the book is culturally sensitive.”

Miranda: “This textbook is loaded with pedagogical features both for the student and the instructor. But there are two features really excite me.

  • One is the NOW WORK feature. It existed long before I was part of the process. After a worked example is presented in the text, we ask the student to do a similar problem from the end of section exercises. It keeps students engaged, and it gives them immediate feedback indicating whether they’ve learned what was taught.
  • The other is the NEED TO REVIEW? feature. It is new to the calculus text. It is a margin note that refers students to the section and the page where a topic pertinent to the current discussion was originally taught.”
Q: What involvement have you had in marketing your textbook?

Etkina: “We ran in person meetings with interested adopters, we travel and give talks, and we work individually with sales representatives. We also created a special website for the book where we post new developments.”

Patton: “Besides consulting with marketing and sales professionals at my publisher, I also participate in online and onground sales presentations. Beyond that, I do a lot to support my ‘brand awareness’ in professional organizations and in social media. I have a blog that includes author’s notes, insights, and tips for teaching from the textbook.”

Andrea & Audrey: “Minimal involvement, but we feel supported by this award and appreciate the exposure it is giving us.”

Saslow: “Both Allen and I travel extensively to the places where Top Notch is (or might in the future) be used. We have developed for Marketing a ‘sales story’ for Top Notch that is compelling to teachers. We do sales presentations, teacher training, sales training, workshops with teachers, academic appearances at conferences, and more recently webinars for teachers and administrators. In addition, we frequently write and review materials for sales campaigns, draft front matter, back cover copy, website descriptions of the course, and write monographs that are distributed to teachers.”

Papazian-Boyce: “My publisher hosts several webinars each year in which I present an educational session for instructors for which they can earn CEUs required by our profession. I use material from the book but the content is not sales oriented. There is a short sales pitch at the end and instructors can request samples. Invitations are sent to the publisher’s entire client list and prospective client list in the related fields.”

Carrano & Henry: “We describe the features of the book, major changes in a revision, and remain receptive to user questions and suggestions. We are open to email correspondence with both instructors and students who use our book.”

Miranda: “In the beginning we were very involved with marketing. Then there was a change in company organization. There is currently a new marketing manager who has just contacted us and has asked us to become involved again. So, we shall see.”

Fox & Patterson, authors of Engineering Software as a Service: An Agile Approach to Cloud Computing, winner of a 2016 Most Promising New Textbook Award: “We were offered the chance to adapt the first half of the campus course to a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), and while the book was only recommended (not required) for the MOOC, the MOOC was instrumental in increasing the book’s visibility. We also spent about $2,000 to purchase mailing lists from contacts in the publishing industry; Armando had learned from his experience on the board of a community theater that a combination of email plus postcards works better than either one alone, so we had our designer create postcards to match the book’s look and feel and we did a combined postcard-plus-email campaign. We’ve found marketing to be the biggest challenge for self-publishing, and the largest potential remaining advantage of traditional publishers today. While it’s obvious that we can produce a book far more inexpensively and quickly ourselves, it’s less obvious whether the book will be as popular as if we had gone with a traditional publisher. We may know in a few years if we’re successful as self-publishers; if the book never becomes popular, we may never know.” (They self-published their book.)

Q: What software do you use to organize your research and other files? If you don’t use software, or use other methods besides software, please describe them.

Andrea & Audrey: “We used Dropbox to share drafts, research and other resources. To select photos which supported the text, we used www.superstock.com.”

Patton: “I still keep a lot of my research in paper files. Some of it is just kept in digital file folders. But I am increasingly using Mendeley, which is embedded in many of the literature databases in my discipline.”

Saslow: “Organizing files for a large complex course written by two authors needs first of all a file-naming system. My nightmare is having multiple versions of textbook units and not knowing which is the most current. Allen and I divide up each title and discuss which units he will do and which I will. We draft units and exchange them numerous times to critique each other’s (and our own) work before delivering them to the publisher for editorial review. When our file-naming gets confused (as it sometimes does) it leads to lost time and frustration (“But I’m SURE I changed that. How can it still be there!!??).”

Papazian-Boyce: “Nothing profound. I use a spreadsheet to log the status of each chapter. I set up folders for each chapter of the book, and subfolders for the various stages of the process, like draft, copyedit, first and revised pages, etc.”

Carrano: “I use a simple text editor to write notes. I use Xcode to write programming examples.”

Clark: “I write in Word and save PDF files in folders. I use PubMed to keep track of new findings.”

Miranda: “I do not use organizational software, but I would love to. I save my work in electronic files labeled by chapter, and sub-files labeled art, text, answers. Also, since I work with another author, we initial and date each file. Dating is really important.”

Fox & Patterson: “We used LATEX to produce the book. Since the input to LATEX consists of ASCII text files, we used the Git version control system with the shared-repository model to coordinate edits while writing. We used the free online software project-tracking tool Pivotal Tracker to track and assign tasks—coincidentally the same tool we require our students to use to track software projects. We used OmniGraffle for drawings to create high-resolution vector images; the resulting PDF files are versioned and used directly in the print edition, and converted on-the-fly for the ebook, which requires images to be converted to gif, scaled, and layer-flattened.”

Q: What is your approach when preparing a new edition? When do you start? How do you organize your research and files? How do you decide what needs updating?

(This question was asked specifically of 2016 McGuffey Longevity Award winners).

Carrano & Henry: “After publication of an edition and even before the first book is sold, we maintain a list of tweaks or changes that we either could not make during production or that occurred to us after publication. During the course of the edition’s lifetime, we collect any comments and suggestions that are made to us by current instructors and students. About a year before the next edition will go into production, I ask the publisher to get reviews of the current edition. We analyze these reviews and decide how these comments and suggestions fit with our own ideas about how to improve the book. We also look at any updates or changes to the programming language discussed in the book to see whether the changes are relevant and need to be covered. Typically, we discuss the plan with our editor.”

View all of the 2016 Textbook Award winners


Read the third installment in this series, Textbook award-winning insight (part 3): Advice and lessons for other writers.

About Kim Pawlak

Kim Pawlak is Director of Publishing & Operations for the Textbook & Academic Authors Association (TAA). She has been writing about the textbook and academic authoring and publishing industry for 20 years.