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Textbook award-winning insight (part 3): Advice and lessons for other writers

2016 Textbook Award Winner QA

A few weeks ago, I reached out to winners of the 2016 TAA Textbook Awards and asked them to answer some questions about their textbook writing. I had so many great responses I decided to create a three-part series to share them. The first installment focused on why they decided to write their textbook, how they got started, and what they do to boost their confidence as a writer. The second installment focused on how they fit writing time into their schedule, what software they use, what their favorite pedagogical elements are, and what involvement they have had in marketing their book.

This last installment in the three-part series focuses on the advice they have to share with other authors and what they wish they had known before they started their writing journey.

Q: What advice can you share with aspiring textbook authors?

Eugenia Etkina, coauthor of College Physics, winner of a 2016 Most Promising New Textbook Award: “Writing a textbook is much more difficult than it might seem. The average time needed to write a textbook is about 10 years. If you are ready for such commitment – go ahead!”

Andrea Honigsfeld and Audrey Cohan, coauthors of Serving English Language Learners, winner of a 2016 Most Promising New Textbook Award: “Be patient because it is a long process. Textbooks are reviewed by multiple experts, the feedback cycle may take a long time, and often multiple revisions are needed. Don’t give up!”

Kevin Patton, coauthor of Anatomy & Physiology, winner of a 2016 Textbook Excellence Award: “The biggest thing is to take it seriously. Textbook authorship is its own profession—not just a little thing to do on the side. It is a huge commitment that, if successful, will take a lot of your time and energy for the rest of your professional life. So being careful about your relationships with publishers and coauthors is important. As is being careful about your legal tax status, suitable workspace, and contract issues—I’ve learned that an abundance of counselors (paid and unpaid) is very valuable in textbook authorship.”

Joan Saslow and Allen Ascher, coauthors of the Top Notch: English for Today’s World series, winner of a 2016 Textbook Excellence Award: “Identify what is lacking in materials currently available and try to devise a way to create material that will address the need. Be able to articulate simply what is or would be unique about your contribution and why it would appeal to teachers.”

Lorraine Papazian-Boyce, author of Pearson’s Comprehensive Medical Coding: A Path to Success, winner of a 2016 Most Promising New Textbook Award: “Be clear and thorough in the book proposal because it is the only thing the publisher knows about your vision during the internal approval process. Many people will see it during the approval process. The proposal must be written from the perspective of the publisher and end users. A proposal also lays the foundation for the development process and marketing program. Publishers often have a specific format and specific information desired. Check the websites and talk to the acquisition editor.”

Kathleen Miranda, coauthor of Calculus, winner of a 2016 Most Promising New Textbook Award: “The lead author Michael Sullivan asked me to coauthor the book, and then warned me with a post-it note that arrived with the contract that needed to be signed. The post-it was stuck on my refrigerator until the sun faded it into oblivion. It read, ‘I hope you know what you are doing.’

Although co-authoring Calculus was my first foray into writing a textbook, I have had two advantages that most first time authors never have.

  • I have been attending TAA meetings for more than a dozen years, long before I ever seriously thought of writing a textbook. What I learned over the years gave me incredible insight into the trials, tribulations, rewards, and frustration of authoring.
  • I have been fortunate. I have the foremost author in college mathematics as a mentor and as my coauthor (Michael Sullivan).

My advice to other authors:

  • Get organized.
  • Use simple language and be consistent in the language you use. Remember the student doesn’t know, or necessarily understand, the subject. But mostly, be accurate.
  • Be humble. Pay attention to reviewer’s comments, criticism, and suggestions. Use this feedback to improve the manuscript. Request feedback even after your textbook is published. It will help form and improve the second edition.
  • If you are not sure of something, ask the publisher to have it vetted by another expert. We had all the math checked by other mathematicians. We had all applied problems checked by an expert in the field – say a chemist, physicist, or engineer.
  • Be involved in the entire process. The art, the composition, the copy-editing, and the proof-reading.”
Q: What did you learn in the process of writing a textbook that you wish you had known before you started?

Etkina: “This is the project that will consume all your life.”

Andrea & Audrey: “The better the outline and more detailed the proposal is, the easier it is to write the book.”

Kevin Patton: “I didn’t fully realize how time-consuming textbook authorship is—even just to maintain (revise) books you’ve already published. I’ve also learned that it will never, ever, ever be perfect. You just have to keep moving on and keep notes on which imperfections you want to tackle in the next revision cycle.”

Saslow: “That no writer, no matter how good, doesn’t benefit from a good editor!”

Papazian-Boyce: “Publisher time frames are frequently negotiable and flexible.”

Miranda: “I learned more than I ever learned in my life.

  • I learned how intensive writing is. A chapter you think is good sometimes needs to be rewritten and revised six, seven, maybe even eight times.
  • I learned a deep respect for the publisher. Those folks have a job almost as hard as ours.
  • I never worked so hard in my life, but I enjoyed the process. I have been known to comment that writing a textbook is the most volunteer work that I have done in my lifetime.”

Timothy Henry, coauthor of Data Abstractions & Problem Solving with C++: Walls and Mirrors, winner of a 2016 McGuffey Longevity Award: “I now clearly understand the phases/steps in the process. Ask for a clear timeline from the publisher.”

Frank Carrano, coauthor of Data Abstractions & Problem Solving with C++: Walls and Mirrors, winner of a 2016 McGuffey Longevity Award: “Be receptive to criticsm from reviewers and copy editors. Don’t get your feelings hurt, consider what they say, and know that you don’t have to agree with their comments. Try to get a good copy editor from the publisher. Having the ability to interact with the editor is quite useful and might be frowned upon by the publisher. Push back. Try to work with the same editor on subsequent editions. I learned how to write clearly and grammatically with the help of my longtime and talented copy editor.”

David P. Clark, coauthor of Biotechnology, winner of a 2016 Textbook Excellence Award: “1) To be totally obsessive about keeping track of sources of photos and figures and their copywriter owners; 2) Never change or cross reference figure numbers until very close to the end or you will end up changing them and inevitably lose some; 3) Stop writing when you feel tired or bored. Forcing yourself on results in poor writing with lots of mistakes.”

Fox & Patterson, coauthors of Engineering Software as a Service: An Agile Approach to Cloud Computing, winner of a 2016 Most Promising New Textbook Award (the pair self-published their textbook): “1) We’ve found marketing to be the biggest challenge for self-publishing, and the largest potential remaining advantage of traditional publishers today. While it’s obvious that we can produce a book far more inexpensively and quickly ourselves, it’s less obvious whether the book will be as popular as if we had gone with a traditional publisher. We may know in a few years if we’re successful as self-publishers; if the book never becomes popular, we may never know. 2) Two people write more than twice as fast as one: deadlines make you ashamed of disappointing your co-author and keep you on schedule, and each writer gets another perspective on editing, which results in far better prose than self-editing only. Alas, a major caveat is that not all writers are good editors or proofreaders! 3) Design, typographic choices, indexing, and other ‘collateral’ tasks should really be handled by professionals, or at least strong aficionados (e.g. as Armando is a font-and-typography geek).”

View all of the 2016 Textbook Award winners