Creating a companion site for your textbook: What to consider

Companion sites can enrich the learning experience for readers by offering valuable features that can’t be shared on a printed page and/or might be too costly to include in an e-book. There are many factors to consider when planning or developing a companion site for your textbook. In a recent TAA webinar entitled Texts Plus: Ancillary Materials & Companion Sites, Janet Salmons, an independent researcher, writer, consultant, and founder of Vision2Lead, offered detailed advice for authors interested in creating companion sites for their textbooks.

First of all, Salmons stressed the importance of considering your audience when planning a companion site for your textbook, as a traditional college student may need different kinds of ancillary materials than graduate students involved in self-study, professionals, or consultants. Once you have identified your audience, you can consider the wide range of other factors that come into play when choosing the type of companion site that will be the best fit for your textbook and your readers:

Where will your site be housed? Companion sites can be located on a publisher’s website, the author’s personal website, or a third party website, the latter being especially useful if the ancillary materials for your book will include technical features that are beyond the capabilities of your publisher’s website.

How frequently will the site be updated? Companion sites can be static, can be updated periodically, or can be continuously maintained by the author.

How will the site be accessed? There are several levels of access for learners and instructors:

  • One option is to provide a separate digital subscription in addition to the cost of the textbook.
  • Another option is to create an interactive e-book, in which the ancillary materials are inserted into the textbook itself, and instructors have the option of adding their own comments, projects, assignments, etc. directly into the e-book website.
  • A third approach is to offer password-protected resources. In this approach, sometimes only students who are registered for a course that is using the textbook can access the materials, and sometimes anybody can access the student resources but only instructors using the book for a course can access the instructor resources.
  • Finally, it is also possible to make your ancillary materials on your companion site freely available to everyone. This option may be especially attractive for authors writing textbooks for professionals, for use in workshops, or for students learning outside of a formal course. If the materials will be open access, you can link the resources to your social media page, to bookstore sites like Amazon.com, professional association newsletters, and blogs in your field to make your book more appealing to instructors.

Oftentimes a single publishing company will offer different types of companion sites and different levels of availability of materials, so when you are shopping for a publisher,  look carefully at the kinds of resources each company offers to see if they have the options that interest you most. You should also keep the following questions in mind during the textbook proposal stage:

  • Is my proposed book a candidate for a companion site?
  • What are your expectations about online resources or companion sites?
  • Will the companion site be available to anyone purchasing the book?
  • What do you think makes the best site for instructors and students? Can you provide access to your most successful instructor resources? Which companion sites in your discipline are most successful and can serve as a model?
  • Will the site be on the publisher’s website or maintained by the author?
  • What is the development process for materials? Who will work with me from the publisher’s staff?
  • Who creates the technical, interactive pieces? Will I serve as an SME, or will I play a role in designing features?
  • What is the process for maintaining the content? Can content be updated?
  • What will be available for open access for readers who will not be using this book as part of a college course? Are there options to link to resources on social media to help promote my book?

After selecting the type of companion site that will best suit your needs, you should also consider what types of ancillary materials you want to share on the site. Frequently-included materials include tests or quizzes, assignments, examples, syllabi, and media resources such as videos. You may want to have separate materials for instructors and students or general materials for any reader. Asking yourself the following questions can help you determine which materials you will offer:

How will the resources be accessed? Users who will be downloading a PDF file will be restricted to print resources whereas users accessing the materials on their mobile devices can be offered multimedia materials.

Who are the users? An 18-year old college freshman may find multiple choice quizzes helpful, whereas an older adult working in industry may be more interested in practical scenarios in which they can apply the concepts you share in your textbook.

Is your subject matter abstract or practical? Abstract subject matter may require additional information to explain key concepts, whereas practical subject matter may require how-to information for applying key concepts in the real world.

Does your field change often, or is it relatively stable? Authors in fields that change quickly will likely need to update their ancillary materials more frequently, whereas authors in stable fields have the option of more static resources.

When writing the supplementary materials for your companion site, Salmons recommends making your materials experiential, usable by both small groups and individuals, varied in style, and tailored to students with aural learning preferences.

Salmons also offers helpful suggestions for the textbook writing process. Rather than completing the entire book and then tackling the supplementary materials, she recommends addressing both the main text and the supplements in a parallel process in which ancillary materials are considered while research and writing are underway for the textbook.

With these guidelines in mind, your companion site will be maximally relevant and useful to students, and your book will be more attractive to instructors and readers.

Watch Salmons’ full webinar.


Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons, Ph.D., is an independent researcher, writer and consultant through Vision2Lead and on the doctoral faculty for Walden University. She co-directs Path to Publishing, which offers online classes to help aspiring writers plan their books, articles, and online publications.

About Dionne Soares Palmer

Freelance writer specializing in college textbook supplements and other educational materials for adult learners.