Featured Member: Embracing change in an evolving textbook industry
Kevin Patton, the author of 10 anatomy and physiology textbooks or manuals in over 40 editions, shares his views and strategies on how to adapt and remain relevant and successful in the fast evolving textbook industry.
TAA: At this stage in your writing career, where do your developmental interests lie in terms of your current text projects?
Kevin Patton: “Presently I am passionate about using current learning theories to adjust the construction of my textbooks, including text, illustrations, and learning enhancements. There is an ongoing explosion of research helping us better understand how people read and learn. Classrooms and textbooks need to keep up with best practices.
For example, my textbooks introduce a whole new language chock full of complex scientific terms that must be understood before the central concepts can be tackled. So I’ve developed a ‘word study’ approach in my textbooks that uses enhanced word lists to introduce readers to the new language before they begin reading.
These chapter word lists provide a pronunciation guide for each boldface term in the text along with a tip from learning experts to read them out loud before starting to read the text. An audio glossary of recorded vocal pronunciations is embedded in the digital version of all my books (available online for print readers).
The word lists also provide a breakdown of the Latin-based word parts that make up each scientific term. An embedded tip suggests that readers scan the word parts for each term. Such practice builds a working vocabulary of word parts that help learners recognize meaning in new words they encounter.”
TAA: I understand you also are working to make your textbooks more accessible for students with learning and reading challenges. Can you share what you have learned and what formatting strategies you are incorporating to address these challenges?
KP: “As introductory-level books, my texts have the added challenge of reaching learners who may not be well-prepared academically—perhaps even with deficiencies in learning abilities or in the use of English. Over the past decade or so, I’ve consulted with many learning coaches, college reading professors, and ESL/ELL experts to get advice about how to make my text more accessible to challenged learners.
One thing I’ve learned is that academics who write textbooks often write in a formal language that is often convoluted and rife with advanced vocabulary and unnecessary jargon. It’s hard enough for academics to read such writing in a professional journal; it’s nearly impossible for beginning students to stick with it. So I’ve been simplifying the writing where I can. I don’t mean ‘dumbing it down’—I mean I’m rewriting in language that is more direct and clear.
Another strategy I’ve employed is chunking. This is a process in which a huge, dense mass of text is broken down into smaller, more easily digested pieces. Reading experts and neuroscientists tell us that our brain relies heavily on the physical ‘frame’ of the text on the page or screen. The smaller the frame, the less text there is facing the reader at once—and the easier it is for the brain to scan and interpret the content.
For example, most books in the same market as my Anatomy & Physiology have 20-something chapters. My book has the same number of pages, but it’s chunked into 48 smaller, more accessible, chapters. Within each chapter, I’ve also chunked long sections into subsections, each with its own descriptive title. This frames the text in a way that makes it easier to read and understand.
Within subsections of the text, I have broken longer paragraphs into smaller paragraphs that are easier to read. Some textbooks have paragraphs as long as an entire page column. That’s hard for anyone to read quickly and easily. I’ve found that my construction, which is more like a newspaper article in its formatting, not only makes it more accessible to challenged readers but also more effective for expert readers.”
TAA: What are your views regarding the rapidly changing landscape of content delivery? What steps are you taking to position yourself strategically for the long run?
KP: “In my opinion, we are rapidly heading into an era when the digital platform will dominate in college courses. When novels started coming out in digital format, that option took a while to catch on. But once it did, it grew like a wildfire. I was skeptical at first, but I now prefer to read a novel on my Kindle rather than hold a book. I think the same thing will happen with textbooks.
Right now, most college students are not very comfortable with e-books and still prefer paper books. But my sixth-grade son has no paper textbooks this year—only digital textbooks with online videos, interactive worksheets, and adaptive practice problems. I was skeptical, but it’s a lot more fun than the way I did sixth grade! My son will be ready for college in only six years (yikes). So even if only some of the middle schools have gone all-digital, we are still going to see a sudden influx of college students who are very comfortable with digital learning platforms—and not so much with paper textbooks and workbooks.
So my strategy has been to embrace digital formats and ancillary learning resources. Whether I like it or not (and I do kinda like it), the digital textbook age is dawning. I’ve focused on learning all I can about what’s out there and what’s in the pipeline. I’m taking every opportunity to practice teaching and learning with digital textbooks, adaptive learning solutions, and virtual dissections so that I can be experienced enough to effectively participate in making our suite of products work in ways that truly enhance learning. And I’ve been keeping an eye on what learning researchers are finding out about how the different digital approaches work—or don’t work—so that we can use the right tool for the right job.”
TAA: As an active blogger, explain how you have incorporated blogging as a valuable tool for both your writing and teaching.
KP: “I built my first website (lionden.com) to supplement my courses back in the late 1990s because I wanted to provide learning outlines with color illustrations and hyperlinks to anatomy resources—and my college didn’t yet have an online platform. Because it is ‘open’, many users around the world started using my resources. After realizing that broad reach, I attended a TAA presentation by David Brake about how blogs can build relationships between authors and potential adopters—and I knew that I had to try blogging.
A frustration I have as a textbook author is that I don’t have an easy way to connect with adopters to share scientific advances, to explain the logic behind my design and content choices, and to provide tips to new professors. Blogging reduces this frustration by providing channels to communicate with people worldwide.
My first blog, The A&P Professor, full of teaching tips and updates, was aimed at those teaching in my discipline. It was not linked specifically to a textbook because my goal was to create a brand for ‘Kevin Patton, the A&P guy’ that I hoped would indirectly support the marketing of my books. That was followed with The A&P Student, featuring study tips specific to A&P. Then I decided to add Anatomy & Physiology to specifically support my textbook with that title. Now I have the opportunity to outline and explain revision updates. For example, I can explain the word-study approach or the chunking process described earlier in this interview. I’ve found that this helps clarify the ‘message’ of my books for professors and students alike—and even for publisher reps who sell my book.”
TAA: As a veteran textbook author, what three tips can you share with beginning and newly published authors in terms of approach to a book project?
KP: “Working on a textbook is like getting a second job in a new profession, so treat it as such. First, that means carving out significant, scheduled time to work on it—because ‘getting to it when you can’ in between your regular stuff will not work. It’s a very time-consuming business.
It also means putting time and effort into getting some education in your new ‘textbook profession.’ You’re not likely to succeed if you just wing it, relying on current skills and what you think you know about the process. Your publisher can provide some assistance, as can other authors—so you really need to build a good network early on.
I also suggest getting appropriate professionals to help you with business matters outside your specific expertise. Besides copyeditors, illustrators, and other publishing experts—who may or may not be arranged by your publisher—you need attorneys and accountants who know about textbook publishing. Having Aunt Sue edit your book and Uncle Bernie advise you on your contract or taxes can get you into hot water down the road.”
TAA: What are your favorite TAA benefits?
KP: “Given my prior advice about the value of a professional network, I think those benefits that facilitate my networking are the most valuable to me. The TAA Annual Conference, for example, is a great opportunity to meet new and experienced authors in a variety of disciplines and check in with the many authors, editors, consultants, and attorneys I’ve already met at prior conferences. The TAA online communities keep that interaction going all year.
The very best benefit of all is the restful sleep I get knowing that even though I’m all by myself in my writing studio, I have a global network of friends and colleagues I can call upon any time to give me advice, provide a service I need, or just pop open a beer and listen to me rant about some frustration I’ve experienced.”
Kevin Patton has worked as an anatomy and physiology (A&P) professor for three decades, having taught at high school, community college, university, and graduate levels. He has more than 26 years’ experience in textbook authoring, with 10 published textbooks/manuals in over 40 editions. He is a President Emeritus of the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS) and was the founding director of HAPS Institute, a continuing education program for A&P professors. He publishes several blogs and websites related to teaching and learning, including TheTextbookAuthor.org.
He will be presenting two sessions at the 29th Annual Textbook & Academic Authoring Conference: Strategies to Make Your Textbook Workflow More Efficient and Blogging to Promote Your Academic Works: Where Do I Start?. View the entire conference program and register to attend by visiting the 2016 TAA Conference website.