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Textbook proposal submission tips: How to evaluate the competition

Study competing textbooksWhen submitting a textbook proposal, most publishers will expect you to provide information on two to four of the closest competitors in the market and identify how your book will be different and better than the competition.

Three veteran textbook authors share their advice on how to study competing textbooks and which elements should be reviewed in making the case in a textbook proposal.

Q: Once you have acquired a copy of a competing textbook, how do you study it?

Al Trujillo, author of Essentials of Oceanography and a 2017 TAA McGuffey Longevity Award winner:

“I think most instructors, whether they are authors or not, use a couple of key topics of a textbook as metrics to assess a competing textbook. One topic that I use is the Coriolis effect, which causes moving objects to veer in different directions based on the hemisphere they’re in. It’s a complicated topic that often confuses students. I study the way it’s presented in a competing textbook, especially looking at the figures associated with the explanation. Is the description clear and accurate? Does the competing textbook cover the topic in a way that could be understood by students? How it the coverage different than in my textbook?

Another thing I examine is the overall order of the textbook. Are all the main topics covered? How is the order different than in my textbook? For example, does the competing textbook devote an entire chapter to the topic of energy from the sea, or is it split up into its appropriate chapters (waves, tides, and currents)? Where does a competing textbook put the topic of marine life: at the beginning, middle, or end? And for the oceans and climate change, is that topic covered as a separate chapter, or integrated into all parts of the book? I don’t think there is any one ‘right’ way to do it, but to me, it’s interesting to see how other authors have organized topics within their book.

I also look at the overall features of a chapter. How are graphics such as figures and tables used? Are the graphics clear and understandable? What kinds of end-of-section and end-of-chapter features are there to help students study? Are there any items that a competing textbook has that my book doesn’t? If so, would it be helpful if a similar feature was added to my textbook?”

Denise Seguin, computer textbook author:

“I start by examining the TOC in detail. I look for a logical progression of topics and consider whether I agree with the author’s sequencing and grouping of topics. Then, I pick a topic that I know from experience is one of the more challenging in a course, and I go to that section of the book. I read the section and take note of the author’s approach to explanations—e.g. is the concept explained in plain language with sufficient coverage, are there visual aids and examples, and what, if any, extras are given to expand upon a topic? I also look at the page design. Is the page pleasing to the eye? I also look at the end-of-chapter content to see how the main points are summarized, reinforced, and expanded upon. I look at how many projects or work is provided for student to review the chapter and practice. I also check for projects or other activities that provide opportunities to critically think and learn more about a topic beyond what the book can provide. I gauge the progression of simple to complex activities. I always look at a competitor’s book in terms of if I was the student would I want to use this book in my course? If yes, why. If no, why not.”

Jay Coakley, author of Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies:

“My book exists in a fragmented, multidisciplinary market (sociology, kinesiology, sport management, sports studies, physical education), and it has had separate adaptations designed and written for students in Canada, Australia/New Zealand, and the UK/Europe.

When I review competitors’ books for the regional adaptations I do it worldwide. and that involves a longer process than what I describe below.

For the US text and competitors—about 5 of them—I do the following:

  • Compare the tables of contents
  • Scan or read sections that are not covered in my book, and assess their relevance to the market, which is coming to be dominated by courses in sport management.
  • Check the references/bibliography to see the number of references and the disciplines from which they come.
  • Page through the books to see how they use photos, illustrations, cartoons, and other visuals. My book uses more visuals, by far, than any competitor, and this has been a major selling point. I spend up to $10K per edition on visuals; the publisher, McGraw-Hill spends $0 for photo and cartoon acquisition.
  • Scan the competitors for how they connect research and theory, which theories they used to explain and guide coverage of topics, and how research is summarized and linked to the coverage of topics.
  • Scan content to see if international issues are covered and if the book is US-centric and ignores global issues. As McGraw-Hill phases out the regional adaptations of my text, for reasons not fully explained, I cover more global material in my original text, because it is used by people outside the U.S. This is a tricky challenge for an author: students in the U.S., as opposed to most students in other parts of the world, must be shown why global material is useful to them.
  • Summarize the coverage of topics in terms of how they deal with current issues that are interesting to students now. I also try to see if the competitors’ revisions contain only token changes, or if the revision is substantively significant. I have made major changes in all but one of my 11 revisions, and instructors have appreciated my efforts to keep up with changes in the field and to provide current examples.

Finally, I check the ancillaries. I have created a full set of ancillaries that assist instructors using my text. I provide test questions (either M-C or essay), discussion topics and projects for class, and complimentary readings that I have written on a wide range of topics related to content in each of the chapters. No other text comes close to mine in the provision of support materials. McGraw-Hill provides a learning management framework for the text, if people want to pay the price they charge for it—but that’s another story in the whole comparison process!”

Q: What elements should be reviewed in making the case in a textbook proposal?

Trujillo: “I think all elements of competing textbooks should be reviewed. In my situation, a proposal for a new edition of my textbook is not as formal as one might assume. The publisher contacts me when I should start working on the new edition and asks what I would like to change. My book is sent out to review by both users and non-users. Some of the reviewers who use competing texts often give a detailed review of the features of those textbook, which often helps in identifying new ways to present material or new features to add. The reviews are thoroughly analyzed: What do the majority of reviewers want in a new edition? We also get ideas from other texts that are published by my publisher. My editors sometimes state, “This new feature in x textbook has been very successful in that book; perhaps we can modify it and use it in the new edition of your textbook.” So we try to take all the best ideas from a variety of sources and modify them to use them in a new edition of my book.”

Seguin: “An acquisitions editor always asked me these questions: How will your book stand out from all the others? What is your main differentiator? In the computer applications field, there are a lot of books that teach the same skills. To me, the TOC is essential because most teachers grab a book and scan the TOC to see if they have any interest in exploring further. Your TOC has to be more appealing either by choosing a more logical grouping or a simpler sequencing of topics. Always consider how a teacher will be able to teach from the book. e.g. if there are normally 3 hours per week for 12 weeks or 4 hours per week for 16 weeks, will a teacher be able to appropriately cover a chapter or two each week or two-week period? If certification is an issue, you have to make sure the proposal clearly indicates that the book will meet certification objectives or whatever professional accreditation is desirable in the discipline—a certification mapping is a good idea. Look at the competitor’s ‘extras’ in terms of boxed elements or margin elements that give a student more content beyond the narrative explanations.”

Coakley: “The major element to be covered is the student-friendliness of the text: accessible writing style; clear pedagogical approach; identification of special sections/boxes/thought questions/summaries/visual materials/applications to real life issues, etc. Other points include the following:

  • ‘The market’ — showing knowledge of the market is crucial
  • Coverage of topics central to the field
  • Clearly explained theoretical and methodological framework
  • Connection of content with issues and questions relevant to students today
  • Elements that make it easy for instructors to use the text, and reduce the time they invest in preparation of the syllabus and planning for class, tests, and assignments.
  • Connection between the text and new media (This is usually publisher driven, but it is becoming more important. Additionally, it is usually done through IT specialists who often are outside contractors. Authors should anticipate this so they can stay on top of things as the proposal is discussed).”

Eric SchmiederEric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.