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3 Novice textbook authors share lessons learned

Rick Mullins, Dave Dillon, Brent Blair, Laura Frost
(l to r) Rick Mullins, Dave Dillon, Brent Blair, Laura Frost

At a 2017 TAA conference session, entitled “So You Want to Write a Textbook? Lessons Learned and Advice Sought,” moderator Laura Frost, a veteran chemistry textbook author, interviews three novice writers, Brent Blair, Dave Dillon, and Rick Mullins.

Brent Blair is an Associate Professor of Biology at Xavier University in Cincinnati and is writing his first textbook, Environmental Science: Ecology and People, for Oxford University Press. Dave Dillon is counseling faculty and an Associate Professor at Grossmont College and is authoring the second edition of his textbook, Blueprint for Success in College. Rick Mullins is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Xavier University in Cincinnati and is writing his first textbook, Organic Chemistry: A Learner-Centered Approach, for Pearson Education.

Frost asked each of them to describe how they got interested in writing a textbook, and the three things they wish they had known, or learned, about textbook writing.

An acquisitions editor approached Blair about seven years ago and asked if he was interested in writing an ecology textbook. Although he originally declined the offer because ecology wasn’t his passion, he retained the editor’s business card until two years ago when he began considering the idea of textbook writing again. He put together a chapter and prospectus and gave the editor a call. He is currently in the process of writing the fourth chapter.

Dillon’s interest in writing a textbook came from working as an adjunct at four different community colleges at the same time and using different textbooks and materials at each one: “I thought if I ever became full time I am going to write my own textbook and simplify.” He was also teaching a unique one unit class on study skills and time management and couldn’t find existing resources that were a good fit. He started writing the first edition of his textbook in 2009 and gave himself a timeline of two years. It took five. “While I am fiercely proud of that accomplishment, had I known what I was getting myself into I’m not entirely sure I would have started,” he said. His first edition was published in 2014 and he was just approved for a sabbatical to work on a second edition.

Mullins said he fell into writing a textbook by serving as a textbook reviewer. After giving a rather thorough review of one particular textbook, he says, “the editor said that if I had so many suggestions for improvement, perhaps I should write my own textbook.” He decided to take the challenge and has now written 12 chapters of what will eventually be the first edition of his organic chemistry textbook, which he plans to finish drafting within the next year.

The first thing Blair wishes he had known before beginning the textbook writing process is the cycle and rhythm of writing and responsibility. “Often when I am at the end of the first or second chapters and I have to review them, I am really in a rhythm and then when editing starts it slows me down, but when I get back in the rhythm of editing there’s a lot of waiting for the reviewers to come back and that is just something I wish I would have known.” The second thing he wishes he had known is the cycle of motivation during the writing process. “While I’m writing, towards the end of a section or chapter, I am sort of really motivated and everything is going well, but then when I start something new I sort of clam up and it’s much harder to get started.” He says that it’s not that he isn’t trying to sit down in front of his computer and write, it’s that he isn’t able to do it as efficiently. The third thing he wishes he would have known is the difficulty of juggling his own goals for the textbook alongside the reality of competing with other textbooks in his discipline. “When I created this book I thought I was going to be writing what I wanted to write and putting my own ideas forward, and of course I’m doing that, but I also have to put forward what the buyers want,” he said. “What goes into the book and the scope aren’t as controlled by me as I thought it would be or I wish it would be.”

Dillon said he wishes he had known about TAA and its annual conference before writing his textbook. “The knowledge, insight and wisdom that the seasoned authors and the presenters have shared with me both in presentations and one-on-one has been absolutely invaluable,” he said. “I have no doubt that because of some of that information I have received here [at the TAA Conference], will make the second edition a higher quality product.” The second thing he wishes he had known was the magnitude of the project he was taking on and how personal life events might impact the timeline. “For two years I did not write a single word because a string of major life events pulled my attention away from writing,” he said. He was eventually able to get back to writing and complete the first edition of his textbook with Montezuma Publishing. The last thing he wishes he had known was more about the acquisition process and how textbook contracts work. “If I had found TAA earlier I would have asked Steve Gillen [an intellectual property attorney who serves as a member of the TAA Council] to review my contract and I would have felt more confident.”

The first thing Mullins wishes he had known before embarking on his textbook writing journey was just how long that journey would be. “I am three and a half years in and not quite halfway finished with the process and that doesn’t even include the production,” he said. The second thing he wishes he would have known is that his teaching style, which has done well with his students and even the market, doesn’t always translate to other professors adopting his textbook in their classroom. “When I am sending out chapters for review I feel like I have something to add for the students and my teaching style has meshed well with the students that I teach at Xavier and think that I have things to share with them and the market has backed that up,” he said. ”The challenge is that that’s not the people who are adopting the book. It’s an odd industry in that we are writing a book that will be used by students and that will enable students to learn better but they don’t choose the book and it has gone so far as to even have reviewers say ‘my students would like this book more’ or ‘my students would learn from this book better than the one they have currently, but I would not adopt the book’. So how do you get past that barrier of writing for people who don’t pick it?” The third thing Mullins wishes he had known is the frustration he would feel in not knowing whether years of hard work will end in the book being published. He joked: “I just had lunch with my acquisitions editor and she alluded to me as an emotional author. I can own that, but I would love to see a detached, unemotional author.”

Listen to the full recording of this session in TAA’s library of Presentations on Demand.