Laying the foundation for an academic textbook: Testing for audience
It’s one thing to write a textbook; it is another matter entirely to get a critical mass of people to buy. For someone socialized as an academic, the audience for a textbook is a far less specialized one than one is accustomed to addressing. The format has to be perceived as accessible; the audience has to find it welcoming.
A website about trade books provides analytics enough to give a would-be author pause. According to Bookscan, of the 3.2 million books tracked in 2021, fewer than 1 percent sold more than 5,000 copies. While I confess to find myself turning to book writing for the sheer love of the spaciousness it affords to expand on ideas, it’s hardly a wise investment of all-too limited time to a write a book that only a few will ever buy.
Writers of all kinds test their audience through readings. The audience for an academic textbook is ultimately students. Like other writers, it’s advisable for an academic aspiring to write a textbook to test and re-test sections of their text on the target audience. Assign sections of it for discussion in a class or seminar. Pull together a group of students who are your most ardent followers to create a discussion group. Weigh the questions that are raised and what each can tell you about how you can improve clarity and succinctness. This interactive process is far more effective in tuning a manuscript to an audience than sending a draft to a colleague and asking for clinical feedback about its accuracy.
In part because the audience is so different, being adept at writing a scholarly article is not the same thing as writing a textbook. A textbook designed as a tool to guide is instruction, not a recap of a series of scholarly articles that have been published elsewhere on a topic. Even when there is no intent to create a commercially viable trade book, creating a document and a set of supporting materials that are effective with a student audience ultimately requires academics to adapt to a new style of writing.
Dr. Elizabeth G. Creamer is professor emerita from the Educational Research and Evaluation Program in the School of Education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the US. She is an applied research methodologists with a principal interest in mixed methods and how it can be partnered with qualitative approaches. A prolific writer, Creamer has published two textbooks: An Introduction to Fully Integrated Mixed Methods Research (2018) and Advancing Grounded Theory with Mixed Methods (2021).
Creamer (academicwriting.blog) brings an unusual perspective to writing textbooks. As a life-long academic she is deeply immersed in scholarly discourse, yet acutely aware of how it differs from textbook writing. Her expertise spans the social sciences and humanities in her lifelong interest in writers and the writing process and in her awareness of the similarities shared by all writers in their intent to communicate with an audience.