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Traditional vs. open textbook authoring: An interview with Steven Barkan

Steven Barkan
Steven Barkan

Steven Barkan is a Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology Department at the University of Maine. He is the author or co-author of six textbooks published by large and small traditional publishers. Barkan has also published one textbook with open textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge and is under contract to author a second textbook.

Here Barkan talks to TAA about his experiences authoring for both traditional publishers and open textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge:

TAA: How did you get started in textbook authoring?

Steven Barkan: “In the early 1990s, I was about to be promoted to full professor status, and decided it was time to write a textbook. I had always enjoyed my conversations with textbook company representatives about their books and the textbook industry. I realized there was a need for a criminology textbook emphasizing a sociological approach, and later published this book with Prentice Hall. It is now in its 5th edition and was a Texty winner in an earlier edition. I enjoyed that initial experience in textbook writing so much that I sought out other projects and wrote additional books in the areas of sociology and criminology/criminal justice for Allyn & Bacon and Wadsworth. My newest book, an introductory sociology text, is with Flat World Knowledge.”


SociologyTAA: What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a traditional publisher and an open textbook publisher?

SB: “I’ve published textbooks with several traditional publishers and with one open publisher (Flat World Knowledge). The advantages of traditional publishers vary with how large or small they are. A major advantage of large publishers is the size of their marketing force: book representatives, advertising, and so forth. In addition, potential adopters are more likely to be impressed with a book coming from a major publisher than from a smaller, less-known publisher.

A disadvantage of large publishers is that they often have competing books in the same market as your own book, and book representatives have an incentive to more heavily promote the competing books when they first hit the market. Small publishers often offer a mirror image in these respects: Although they have a smaller marketing force, they are likely to give more attention to your book since there are fewer or no competing books.

A major advantage of open publishing is affordability for students. In the Flat World Knowledge model, students can read textbooks for free online or via a variety of low-cost alternatives, including $35 for a printed text. Flat World also offers a 20 percent royalty rate on everything they sell, including supplements and international sales, whereas traditional publishers usually offer royalty rates in the 10 percent to 15 percent range and smaller rates for international sales and often no royalties for supplements. The publishing process with Flat World is very similar to that with traditional publishers. The books are peer-reviewed, copyedited, and so forth.”

TAA: How have the marketing efforts of the traditional publishers you’ve worked with differed from the marketing efforts Flat World Knowledge has used to market your books?

SB: “ In my experience, traditional publishers rely heavily on book representatives, snail mail and email, while Flat World relies on email and on word-of-mouth recommendations from instructors, who have been so impressed with Flat World’s open model that they are recommending the books to their colleagues.”

TAA: Can you share any writing or publishing advice or lessons learned with other authors?

SB: “I’ve been writing textbooks for about 20 years. My advice for other authors is to be prepared to be busy and a bit lonely. Writing a good textbook takes a lot of time, and more time than one might expect. Writing in general is a solitary process, especially if one does not have a co-author, but writing textbooks tends to be a solitary process.

Other advice and lessons I would share:

  • Have a supportive spouse/partner/significant other/children/whoever else is in your life. Textbooks are written under deadlines, and that means that authors are under pressure to get a book done by a certain time. Sometimes family members get neglected as a result. Textbook authors need their patience and love, and family members should know how much their support is appreciated.
  • Regarding sales of your book, don’t expect too much so you won’t be disappointed. Some books do well in terms of sales, and some books do not do well. Enjoy the writing process, and know that you are writing a good book that will help students learn something about an important subject matter. Robust sales are the icing on the cake, but you can have a great cake that was fun to make even if it doesn’t have excellent icing. If your only reason for writing a textbook is to become rich, you should not be writing a textbook.”

TAA: What do you value about your TAA membership?

SB: “I discovered TAA in the mid-2000s, long after I began writing textbooks, and was delighted to find that there was actually an association of people who were smart and crazy enough to be writing textbooks. Many scholars don’t consider textbooks to be worth writing, and colleagues of textbook writers can’t begin to understand what it is like to be a textbook writer. TAA provides a like-minded community for people to share ideas, advice, and commiseration.”