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Authors share advice for writing your first textbook

textbooksWriting that first textbook can be a really time-consuming and exhausting experience, but knowing the ropes beforehand can make it less daunting.

Easy money. A screenplay. Fame and glory. If you’re thinking about writing a textbook, put these out of your mind. But if you’ve got a lot of knowledge to share in return for the satisfaction of just doing it, there’s some advice out there for writing your first textbook.

First of all, really want to do it. Transferring information from your brain to a college textbook is a demanding process of organization, attention to detail, hard work, and time. Underestimating this process may be the biggest mistake a first-time author can make.

Daniel Pack and Steven Barrett can tell you how easy that mistake is. Two years ago, Barrett, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, and his good friend Pack, electrical engineering professor at the United State Air Force in Colorado, decided to write a book about an area of digital design. “We didn’t have a clue how to do it,” says Barrett. But years of teaching, research, and consulting had made them eager to try. “Writing a textbook was presenting the whole picture,” says Pack. “And we wanted to tell why we thought it was a good way to teach the subject.”

After chatting at an ASEE conference with an editor from Prentice Hall — the world’s largest engineering text publisher — Barrett and Pack were encouraged to submit an outline. A year later, their 600-page book with a 100-page solutions manual hit the presses. Their journey from would-be authors to published veterans prompted them to write a guide for anyone who wants to write a textbook. “We are typical faculty members with typical work and family commitments,” they say. “If we can write a book, you can too.”

The very first thing you need to know about book writing is the commitment of time. “It’s like having a second job,” says Pack. For the first six months of the project, each day, weekends included, Pack finished his normal work load, spent what time he could with his young children, and then worked three to four hours more in his office with the door closed. “It was costly in terms of lost time with my wife and kids,” says Pack, citing his daughter’s flute performances as a particularly missed opportunity. Barrett rose at 4:30 a.m. each day to get in his writing before his normal work schedule, returning to it again at night.

Tom Robbins, an acquisitions publisher at Prentice Hall, guided and advised Pack and Barrett, and his 28 years of experience has produced real-world advice for would-be authors. He says diligence is key. “When a prospective author tells me ‘the bulk of writing will be done during the summer and over the winter holiday,’ I’m thinking that guy’s really going to discover something. The successful authors know the secret is that you put a little on paper every day.” Robbins says about a third of authors who start a book bail before completion, almost always because they have underestimated the required devotion of time.

The road to becoming an author starts with a decision about who will write the book. Co-authoring has the advantage of bouncing ideas off one another, critiquing each other’s work, and adding the strength of another engineer’s knowledge. The downside may be different work habits. Pack’s “a best friend, but that’s not what makes it work,” says Barrett. “It’s important to pick someone with a similar work ethic.” Both Barrett and Pack were dedicated, self-disciplined writers. Full-time professors with families, they religiously set aside time every day to work on the book and faced deadlines with the same sense of urgency. If you can’t find someone with the same commitment, better to go it alone.

You may have a lot of stuff to put in a textbook, but you’re going to have to convince a publisher that the purpose and focus of the book is good enough to warrant placement in a college curriculum — and that another book like it doesn’t exist. “When it comes to evaluating a textbook,” says publisher Robbins, “there are certain criteria that any acquisitions editor is going to ask the author: Who’s the audience? Why will this book succeed in a market that has lots of competition? Can you articulate what makes your text better than other books?”

For Barrett and Pack, writing a book was an evolution of their growth as teachers. “We didn’t find textbooks to meet our needs, so we thought, why not write one?” Pack says now. They checked out what was available, and found that their topic — “The 68HC12 Microcontroller: Theory and Applications” — wasn’t already on the market.

Robbins says his role is to select judiciously what might add some value to the literature that already exists. “There have been about 550 books written on linear circuit theory in the last 50 years. Frankly, there’s no need for that many books on one subject.” What gets you in the door with a publisher is first a topic, then the prospectus — two or three paragraphs giving an overview — and finally a detailed outline. To prepare their prospectus, Pack and Barrett examined some of their favorite textbooks and tried to include many of the features — readable text, plenty of illustrations, a solutions manual for text problems and lab assignments, and related software — in their own prospectus. The critical review of colleagues was helpful in crafting a final version.

Publishers who come to technical conferences are plugged into university educator networks, and a number of publishers can be contacted through this channel. Pack and Barrett approached Prentice Hall because of its strength in the engineering textbook market. On the Prentice Hall Web site, “author guides” give prospective writers a soup-to-nuts view of the publication process.

The prospectus is sent, weeks of feedback and additional requests follow, and then if it all works, the contract comes through. Included are terms outlining exactly what will be provided to the publisher, editing and revision details, copyright provisions and royalty terms, and the all-important delivery date for the book.

Nailing down a schedule for writing and submitting each chapter and then sticking with it proved an effective work plan for Pack and Barrett, with one writing the first draft of a chapter and the co-author reviewing, incorporating comments and changes, and producing and reviewing a second draft. Each writer established a daily and weekly goal timetable to keep from being overwhelmed. Correspondence with their editor kept him informed of the progress.

Three sample chapters were due two months into the project. They met the deadline, but the review of their work by seasoned textbook writers and faculty members almost proved their undoing. “The first reviews were pretty vicious,” says Pack, still able to recite specific criticisms about the material being written at too high a level for students’ understanding. Barrett agrees, saying, “We took it personally and thought we had failed.” But after digesting the criticism, both writers felt that the caustic reviews were meant only to improve the book.

The authors began their first draft in June 2000 and mailed it to the publisher on December 15, 2000. In retrospect, the extremely tight schedule was a mistake. “We pushed ourselves too hard,2 says Barrett now. Robbins, too, says taking your time is important. “How a book is put together and how the parts work together is really important,” he says. “The winner is the first person to market with a successful teaching textbook that has the right depth, that is accurate and precise.”

Even so, publisher Robbins says the numbers of books sold just isn’t in the stratosphere. “Typically, in a 20,000-copy market, if you get 20 percent of that market, that’s a bestseller. We used to have a clause in our contract that we would get 5 percent if it were made into a television show. Who’s going to write a movie based on electric circuits?”

Royalty is a bit of a misnomer for the checks sent out for engineering textbooks. “Our first checks were for $400 each,” Barrett points out. And Pack adds, “I didn’t ever ask how much money we could expect.” Eventually, he figures, he may make enough money for one family vacation, maybe to Hawaii or the Bahamas. “Maybe then my family will forgive me,” he jokes — only a bit.

Their first foray being stressful but successful, the two writers/friends have signed on to write another book, this time stretching the timetable out to two years rather than one. Pack says his wife resisted at first, but Barrett says, “It’s going to be much more comfortable this time.”

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the December 2002 (Vol 12, number 4) issue of ASEE Prism Online, a magazine of The American Society for Engineering Education, as “Author! Author!” by Linda Creighton)