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Considering Writing a Textbook? Questions to Ask

By Sierra Pawlak

In her November 9, 2022, TAA webinar, “Textbook Authoring Inspirations, Insights, and Innovations”, award-winning textbook author Jamie Pope shared several questions you should ask yourself before writing a textbook. Those questions include:

  • What’s the book’s primary focus and level?
  • Who’s your target audience?
  • What are your qualifications to author the book?
  • How does it differ from other books on the market?
  • Why would someone adopt it over your competitors?

She used these questions to contrast what went right with her successful textbook, Nutrition for a Changing World, the recipient of a 2020 TAA Textbook Excellence Award, and what went wrong with a creative trade book proposal that was never published.

What’s the Book’s Focus

Pope described the focus of her trade book idea as a light and humorous but foundational approach to nutrition basics. The book’s focus, developed in the 90s along with a humorist book co-author, was on fifty weight management tips based in evidence, each illustrated with a cartoon. The book, and especially the title, she said, wouldn’t go over well today.

Her textbook’s focus, however, was quite different and more conventional for an academic intro to nutrition textbook than her trade book idea. Quite a few introductory textbooks were already on the market, she said, some of which were doing exceptionally well. What made hers different was the approach and journalistic style: “It was targeted differently, and truly aimed for student engagement.”

Who’s Your Target Audience

The primary audience for her textbook was initially for students not necessarily majoring in nutrition, but those who were taking it out of general interest or as a prerequisite in another area. Other books on the market were more “heavy-hitting” and geared towards nutrition majors. However, as the textbook progressed into later editions and was widely adopted, it “branched out into mixed-majors and even majors in the evolution of the text,” she said.

With her trade book, however, there didn’t seem to be a well-defined target audience. “Through my literary agent and based on the success of my previous trade books, numerous publishers looked at it, but none ended up going with it even though some editors called me to talk about, because in part there wasn’t a good fit for this book,” she said. “It didn’t fit in how-to, it didn’t fit in humor, and you couldn’t give it as a gift to somebody.” As a result, she said, it never got published, even though editors thought it was an interesting and unique concept.

What Are Your Qualifications

In the 80s and 90s, before she was working on her trade book, Pope, a registered dietitian nutritionist, had written and coauthored several articles and books in the diet and nutrition arena. By 2012, she had become an assistant professor teaching introductory nutrition, was honing her educator skills, and had continued to publish academically. Her publishing experience, along with more than a decade of teaching with various textbooks set the stage to take on the challenge of authoring a textbook that would meet learning objectives while keeping students interested and engaged.

How Does it Differ from Other Books on the Market

Her trade book was certainly different from other books on the market, but there wasn’t a clear sales category for it. While there were competitors in the introductory market, her textbook had enough unique attributes to set it apart from the competition. “We use a story-based approach to provide context and relevance for the science, more visuals and infographics, and organized it in such a way to maximize student engagement and understanding,” she said.

Why Would it be Adopted Over Competitors

For instructors, considering a change from a textbook they use in their course can be a big deal, often requiring the revamping of resources, slides, and other teaching tools, said Pope. They often question whether it is worth changing, so as an author, you need to consider how you can both interest and support instructors in making a change. “That was a big thing to me in 2012 when we first started working on this book,” she said. “I was teaching with another [textbook] and they came to me about writing this intro text, and I was like ‘why would I change, and why would other instructors change?’ So, a big thrust throughout has been providing resources, slides, samples, syllabi, everything we can think of to make that ease of transition better and easier for folks.” And now with evolving digital platforms, that transition is becoming smoother.

In summary, asking yourself these vital questions before writing a textbook can save you a lot of time and headache. You can learn more about Pope’s experience writing academic and trade books, along with more advice in her on demand webinar, “Textbook Authoring Inspirations, Insights, and Innovations.”