Trade vs. textbooks: 6 Key takeaways from my experiences

Competency Based Education in Aviation

Suzanne Kearns’s trade book, “Competency-Based Education in Aviation”, published by Routledge

Suzanne KearnsI am the author or co-author of three books. A textbook with a vanity publisher, two trade books with an academic publisher, and an upcoming introductory textbook.

My first book was the result of a publisher’s agent knocking on my office door and asking if I would be interested in writing a textbook. All the publisher asked was that I would require the book within my courses and sign away the copyright. I was excited to get started, so I barely even read the publishing contract. I now know this experience epitomizes that of working with a vanity publisher – the goal is to generate some revenue rather than produce the ideal product.  The textbook ended up being an effective tool within my course, but it wasn’t adopted anywhere else.

A year later I was attending a conference and stopped by the table of Ashgate publishing, the top imprint for trade books in my field. The acquisitions editor (AE) was working at the table and we struck up a friendly conversation – we both had young boys of the same age so we immediately had something in common. This AE attended my presentation later in the conference and subsequently encouraged me to submit a proposal for a trade book.

Upon returning home, the proposal was at the top of my agenda. Unlike with the vanity publisher, the proposal was sent out for reviews by other academics in my field. The feedback required adjustments to the focus of the book, but was valuable as it led to a stronger project.  I signed a contract without negotiation. The royalties were less than a tenth of what I received for my previous textbook, but the prestige of the publisher justified the rate. The audience for this type of book was limited, as it targeted other academics or graduate-level students. My goal was to establish myself within my field of study to eventually achieve tenure.

With that book complete, I swore I was finished writing trade books. The commitment and ongoing pressure was too-overwhelming. For 18 months, whenever I was doing anything other than writing the book, I would feel guilty. Yet, after a few subsequent years focusing on journal publications, I came across a topic that seemed perfect for a new trade book (it was new, misunderstood in my field, yet recognized as important).

I approached the same AE about the feasibility of writing a new trade book. However, this time I knew the workload required to write it independently, so I asked him about the possibility of an edited volume. My AE suggested that these books (with each chapter written by a different author) often come out as disjointed finished projects. He asked if I would consider working with co-authors. I agreed, but didn’t know who would be a good fit, so my AE did some digging and generated names of two academics from Australia. I met with these gentlemen via Skype, had a great connection, and ended up writing the book collaboratively over the next 18 months.  Through our weekly Skype meetings they became close friends of mine, even though we never met face-to-face. The academic exploration of this topic was incredibly challenging, and the end product is something that I am very proud of, as I know I couldn’t have produced it on my own.  It was an ideal collaboration where each of us enriched the book based on our own talents and experiences.

When that title was released, Ashgate was acquired by Taylor and Francis (T&F) and my AE moved his list under T&F’s Routledge imprint. This move offered an interesting opportunity, as Routledge publishes textbooks where Ashgate did not. I had been toying with a textbook idea and this change made the project feasible. As this introductory textbook had potential international appeal, I sought support from legal counsel (found through TAA), and went through a lengthy negotiation process (for the first time). The end result was a fair contract that offers exciting opportunities both for myself and the publisher. Yet, this textbook has been a very different process than the trade-books.

A few key takeaways from my experiences:

  • Don’t expect to make a lot of money from trade books. My trade book royalties start in the low-single digits. The goal is establishing an international reputation in an academic field and building a portfolio towards tenure.
  • Co-authors can become friends, or not… My co-authors and I grew to become very close. However, I have heard several horror stories of co-author relationships falling apart and leading to legal battles over authorship. It’s smart to establish the key parameters and expectations of co-author relationships in advance (though I must admit I did not – I got lucky on this front).
  • Establish a track record with an Acquisitions Editor. My work wouldn’t have seen the light of day without the efforts of my AE. He has been a fantastic ally in the publication process. He is quick to encourage good ideas, but also lets me know when a concept won’t work. Take time to chat with publisher representatives while at conferences. Having a rapport with an AE is extremely valuable, especially if they work at a publisher who has a reputation in your academic field.
  • Copy Editors are lifesavers. I worked with a talented editor for both of my trade books and, although this was a financial investment on my part, it was worth it. This allowed me to focus on the content of the book (and continually make progress towards completion) without becoming bogged down in the minutia of stylistic edits.
  • Go International. I am Canadian, my publisher is based in the United Kingdom, and my co-authors are Australian. Don’t limit yourself to national borders. Particularly for trade books, the markets tend to be limited so try to work at an international level.
  • Trade books are academic pursuits (textbooks are businesses). I have heard of textbook authors becoming rich as a result of their books, yet this exceptionally rare for trade books. My upcoming textbook has to fit the needs of many instructors, on an international scale. This requires me to continually share draft chapters, revise, add/remove features, and develop images. I am continually thinking ‘will this meet the needs of instructors’? With trade books, the goal is very different. The intent is to produce a book that accurately reflects the research question and is a culmination of knowledge in the area. It doesn’t exist to serve the needs of instructors it serves the academic discipline as a whole. So, the question at the front of your mind is ‘will this enrich the academic discipline’?

Overall, both trade and textbooks have many similarities. Both require dedicated time and effort to the writing process and both offer exciting opportunities to share ideas in different ways. Yet, it is helpful to remember that they are quite different from financial, reputation, and readership perspectives. In retrospect, I would encourage junior academics to focus on trade books pre-tenure and shift into textbooks after tenure has been achieved.


Dr. Suzanne Kearns is an Associate Professor who teaches aviation students at the University of Waterloo. She is a former pilot, the author or co-author of three books and several academic journal articles, and is in the final stages of completing a new textbook called International Aviation: An Introduction for the Next Generation of Aviation Professionals to be published in 2018.