Textbook award-winning insight (Part 4): What they wish they had known before they started, writing advice

2017 TAA Textbook AwardsA few weeks ago, I reached out to winners of the 2017 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 five-part series to share them. The first installment focused on why they decided to write their textbook, and how they got started. The second installment focused on what they do to boost their confidence as a writer, how they fit writing time into their schedule, and what software they use. The third installment focused on which pedagogical elements in their textbook they are most proud of, and what involvement they have had in marketing their book.

This fourth installment in the five-part series focuses on what they wish they had known before they started, and advice for other authors.

Q: What did you learn in the process of writing a textbook that you wish you had known before you started?

Paul Battaglia, coauthor of the 2017 Most Promising New Textbook Award winner, AP Calculus, 1e: “I really had no idea that it was a process that involved so much input from so many different people. I found that fascinating. And it was amazing to see how it all came together. Our project managers were absolutely amazing!”

Russell Grimes, author of the 2017 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Carboranes, 3e: “Good question. If I had known how much work it would be I might not have started. Having a supportive wife made a big difference!”

Karen Hardy, author of the 2017 Most Promising New Textbook Award winner, Enterprise Risk Management: A Guide for Government Professionals, 1e: “That TAA existed!!! What a great resource!”

Lifespan DevelopmentTara Kuther, co-author of the 2017 Most Promising New Textbook Award, Lifespan Development: Lives in Context, 1e: “First, I wish I did a better job of keeping track of references when I began writing. At first I did it the old fashioned way, lots of sticky notes (and lost references). Now I use Mendeley religiously. It’s easy and effective. Second, I’ve learned to break chapters down into sections and subsections. I write each section separately, using small chunks of time. I skip around based on my time and the order that makes sense to me. When I first began writing I tended to start at the beginning of the chapter and work my way through. Some sections would stump me and halt the process. Third, I’ve learned to rely on reviewers. I used to fear reading reviews – and, sure, it’s still a bit scary. But I’ve learned that if a reviewer doesn’t understand a point it means that the writing isn’t clear. Separating myself from my writing is difficult but important. Now I direct specific questions to reviewers to get feedback on sections that concern me.”

Robert Lucas, author of the 2017 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Customer Service Skills for Success, 6e: “When I wrote the first edition of my textbook, there was a learning curve because the academic process differs from professional nonfiction book publishing. For example, end of chapter content has to be included with terms used in the chapters, review questions, chapter summaries and various other content.”

Jonathan Pinder, author of the 2017 Most Promising New Textbook Award winner, Introduction to Business Analytics Using Simulation, 1e: “I looked at the whole process as a learning journey – the whole idea was to learn about writing a book, to learn more about the material, to learn about how to motivate and explain the material better. So any author of a textbook better be ready to learn – not just teach.”

Clinical Psychology: Science, Practice and CultureAndrew Pomerantz, author of the 2017 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Clinical Psychology: Science, Practice and Culture, 4e: “‘Writing’ a textbook involves so much more than writing. It includes many activities key to almost any job: working well with others; meeting deadlines; using feedback constructively; sticking to long-term goals in spite of setbacks; managing time effectively; and seeking support when you need it, among others.”

Kenneth Saladin, author of 2017 McGuffey Longevity Award winner, Anatomy & Physiology: The Unity of Form and Function, 7e: “I think the skills important to my successful writing now were pretty much there 24 years ago, in my first year or two of writing. I can’t think of anything about writing per se that I know now and regret that I didn’t know earlier. However, I wish I had engaged professional counsel to advise me in contract negotiation from the very start, instead of trying to renegotiate later in my career when I discovered contract terms not in my best interests.

When writing my first edition, I initially found myself getting bogged down too much in the primary scientific research literature, most of which is too arcane for a sophomore-level textbook. I gave up that approach in 6 months or so. I found that the best way to write a good chapter on something like immunology or renal function was to read highly regarded textbooks written for medical school and beyond, and ask myself, ‘Now how much of this does a typical 20-year-old pre-nursing student need to know? How can I bring the essence of this information down to a level of detail commensurate with what my competitors in this market niche are doing? How can I make this complex topic understandable for students like mine, and engaging to read?’

In keeping up with the field for revisions, I look mainly at review articles in the journals I subscribe to, such as Science, Nature, and JAMA. I glance over the primary research articles in them but it’s the review articles that I read most on a week to week basis. I look at the primary research only for the most seminal new discoveries, such as when a review article or Science news item tips me off to something especially important.”

Timothy Slater, coauthor of the 2017 McGuffey Longevity Award winner, Lecture-Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy, 3e: “That I would put more time and effort into images and illustrations than the narrative text.”

Michael Solomon, coauthor of the 2017 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Social Media Marketing, 2e: “The importance of organization and discipline. Unlike most academic projects the timelines are real.”

Alan Trujillo, author of the 2017 McGuffey Longevity Award winner, Essentials of Oceanography, 12e: “That there is such a thing as a literary lawyer, who can help answer your legal questions.”

Tracy Tuten, coauthor of the 2017 Textbook Excellence Award winner, Social Media Marketing, 2e: “I really didn’t understand the copyediting, permissions, and production process. This meant that I underestimated the time needed once the manuscript was submitted to the publisher.”

TurbulenceJerry Westerweel, coauthor of the 2017 Most Promising New Textbook Award winner, Turbulence, 1e: “I think making an index is very complex, because you have to imagine how a student will use it to find topics. An index is much more that a list of keywords. It should direct the reader to the proper parts where a topic is introduced and discussed (and not just a list of all entries), and also show each keyword in relation to similar and/or related keywords.”

Q: What advice can you share with aspiring textbook authors?

Battaglia: “Believe in what you do. Be critical of yourself so that you can grow from it. Accept that you may not have all the answers and your way might not be the best. But if you keep your intended audience in mind, and always make decisions based on them, you’ll find success!”

Grimes: “In my view, authors should aspire to fill a need that is currently unfilled by existing books, either in subject matter or in the approach to the subject. In chemistry, this rule is often ignored because the textbook market for general chemistry and organic chemistry texts is huge, and the potential for considerable income from royalties is very tempting. But the competition is also fierce, and for new authors this is a tough business to break into unless they have some novel ideas on how to approach the subject. Books with a narrower range, covering subfields where a need exists for good textbooks, may offer better prospects for success.”

Hardy: “Don’t be intimidated by the process and have fun. When I first started, I googled ‘How to Write a College Textbook.’ I was not aware of TAA until I googled, and the book by Mary Ellen Lepionka [Writing and Developing Your College Textbook] popped up on the search. I used her book for tips, which was very, very helpful.”

Customer Service Skills for SuccessLucas: “Look for openings in the marketplace in which you have expertise and check out potential competing textbooks, then approach your desired publisher. It may be difficult to break into a market. However, if you provide a valuable product, it can be very rewarding since you have a dedicated sales staff making visits to potential customers to sell the books. The key to successful textbooks is to think like an adult educator. Often, these people (or a committee of them) select textbook for classes. Make sure you create professional support materials to make their lives easier when teaching from your book. Have professional looking slides, not just multiple lines of black text on white background. Also create instructor manuals that guide them through the text (step-by-step). Keep in mind that with the advent of for profit colleges, many of the people teaching are subject matter experts who have little or no training on the adult learning process. They are hired for their expertise in their course topic.”

Pomerantz: “Don’t sell yourself short—you may be much more capable of writing a textbook than you think you are.”

Saladin: “Many aspiring authors seem to underestimate how much work this is. When writing a new book, and during the writing years of a revision cycle, this is a full-time job. You have a large team of editors, designers, project managers, photo researchers, illustrators, and others whose work and paychecks depend on you to keep deadlines and keep the process rolling on schedule to meet your publication date. Your book owns you.

Writing a successful book and sustaining it through revisions requires many long hours of intense, single-minded, distraction-free concentration and mental organization. You’re likely to find your textbook demands more time than your ‘day job’ does.

To be an effective writer, you must first be a good reader. Some aspiring authors seem to underestimate the effort required to keep up with advances in one’s discipline and to keep one’s book current. I subscribe to about a dozen scientific journals. I have a system for efficiently distilling textbook-useful information from them and organizing this into my revision plans. I also maintain a substantial library of higher-level medical textbooks and buy new editions that come out—not necessarily every one, but I try not to let my library fall too far behind on key books such as Gray’s Anatomy and medical physiology texts.”

Slater: “Know that you need to do all of your own marketing, even with the big publishers, and that your book will be far from perfect and error free, and that has to be okay or it is never done.”

Solomon: ​”You’re in this for the long haul. It’s potentially a lifetime commitment (if you are successful).”

Todd Swanson and Jill VanderStoep, coauthors of the 2017 Most Promising New Textbook Award winner, Introduction to Statistical Investigations, 1e: “My advice to aspiring authors would be to find a group of people you enjoy working with who have a vision similar to yours and write the book together.”

Trujillo: “Don’t be put off by the fact that writing a textbook is a long and solitary journey. Your colleagues at school may become envious about your success, be mindful of that.”

Tuten: “My best advice (after the Diigo recommendation) [made in an earlier installment of this series] is to just do it. If you are thinking about writing a book, do it. Worse case scenario is you’ve improved your own teaching materials. Best case is that you are the next great textbook author in your field. There is no downside.”

Westerweel: “Use a sabbatical to write a book and finish it before your sabbatical ends. Otherwise it will take a long time to finish it.”

View all of the 2017 Textbook Award winners


Read the first installment in the series – Textbook award-winning insight (part 1): Deciding to write and getting the interest of a publisher

Read the second installment in the series – Textbook award-winning insight (Part 2): Boosting writing confidence, scheduling writing time, software

Read the third installment in the series – Textbook award-winning insight (Part 3): Pedagogy and marketing involvement

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.