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Why You Shouldn’t Publish a Custom Textbook (And Why You Should)

By Sierra Pawlak

In her 2023 TAA webinar, “Is Custom Textbook Publishing Right for You?” Rebecca Paynter describes the journey of creating a custom textbook. Paynter is the associate director of the editorial team at the University of Arizona Global Campus, or UAGC. UAGC hosts online courses that are five weeks long, “which is not a lot of time for students to read a traditional textbook in full,” says Paynter. Because of this, her department creates custom textbooks for many of these courses, with the help of “faculty and other subject matter experts to better meet student needs… and potentially [create] books that can meet unmet needs out in the broader market,” she says.

In her presentation, Paynter lists various why creating a custom textbook may be right for you, and several reasons why it might not be. “I’m well aware that the custom textbook publishing landscape is broad and varied, so my hope is to give you a high-level overview and just help you begin to think through the questions you’ll want to begin to ask yourself,” she says. She also provides information on what approach you may want to take, what you may want your end product to be, and how much support you might need. For more information on those topics, you can watch her presentation here.

Why Do I Want a Custom Textbook?

Creating your own textbook is a huge commitment, so why you want to do so[KP2]  ends up being the most important question you’ll ask yourself, Paynter [RP3] says: “It’s important to keep your why at the front of your mind so you don’t get lost in all the details and decision making.” She includes some possible reasons or objectives for writing your own custom textbook:

You Want to Create a Resource that Better Aligns with Your Course

Paynter says it is sometimes more ideal “if the course drives the textbook rather than the other way around.” Specifically, you may want the organization of content to follow the order of your course, rather than assigning chapters out of order. This can make the book, and therefore the course, she says, “more convenient and more logical for students.” You may also be trying to “tell a story or help your students make connections in a certain way based on how you’ve organized your course, and you want the book to do the same,” Paynter says. You could also be trying to increase or cut material that existing textbooks do or do not cover.  Another reason you may want to create a custom textbook is if you’re in a niche field of study where there is no such material available yet.

You Want a Resource that Better Aligns with Your Students

According to Paynter, “good learning design dictates that content be personalized, brief and engaging.” Traditional texts can often be dense, and students may find them to be too long, boring, or not read them at all, she says. It may also be helpful to deliver content at a different level or in a different tone than an existing textbook would.

You Want to Create a More Affordable Option

“Traditional publishers are having to maintain higher prices, revise more frequently, promote digital subscriptions, rentals, inclusive access, and otherwise adjust their model to keep making a profit,” Paynter says. She points out that students value affordable materials, and “turning to custom publishing can enable you to select only the content you need, which can keep the cost down.”

You Want to Make the Learning Material More Convenient or Accessible to Your Students

Making the material more accessible to your students could include “housing all your resources in or one location so students don’t have to go to different sites or purchase more than one resource.” It could also mean formatting your resources in a way that best suits your students, she says.

You Want to Make Your Vision a Reality

“You might have had a book on the brain for a long time, and you’re wanting to make it a reality,” Paynter says. The custom textbook publishing route could be a way to make that vision happen.

You’re Interested in Supporting Your Own Professional Development, Developing a Brand, or Just Having an Additional Stream of Income

“I think it’s rare that these are the primary motivators for people who get into textbook writing and publishing, but it’s a legitimate reason,” she says. Most of her authors said they just like writing and say writing a textbook has “helped them refine their teaching,” she says.[KP4]

Why Don’t I Want a Custom Textbook?

Knowing why you shouldn’t create a custom textbook is as important as knowing why you should, Paynter says: “Custom publishing is not for everyone.” Some big reasons you shouldn’t create one, she says, are

  • if you want to have a lot of flexibility with your course,
  • want to access a lot of supplemental material,
  • or don’t have time or energy.

Traditional textbooks offer greater course flexibility than a custom one, because, she says, “they’re designed to appeal to as many instructors as possible.” At UAGC, says Paynter, if a “course changes significantly, [her team] often has to make significant changes” to the custom textbook they created for the course. If you don’t want to follow a strict course every semester, or think your course may be subject to change, a custom textbook may not be for you.

If you want to access a lot of supplemental material, such as assessments, instructor manuals, videos, and so on, you would have to create those resources yourself, and it may be more valuable to house said resources on a “digital platform that a traditional publisher will have the resources to provide,” Paynter says.

Another reason you may not want to go the custom textbook route is because you don’t have the time or energy. Paynter says it could take her team at UAGC at least 8–12 months to create a custom textbook. “Curating or even creating resources is a big undertaking, and you’ll need to be willing to be responsible for the updates and corrections after a title is published,” she says.[KP5]

What’s In It For Me?

Some things to consider if you’re looking to get anything out of creating a custom textbook are:

  • Do you want recognition?
  • Do you have your institution’s support?
  • How important is it for you to be compensated?

Paynter adds that there are grants available to help fund textbook writers, “while a publisher will likely offer you some sort of royalty agreement or upfront fee.” She says these are most likely not the leading factors for you to create a custom textbook, “but they can influence how you decide to approach your project, who you decide to work with, and how you decide to price or sell your work.”t

How Will I Measure Success?

Your success goes back to the first question she asked: your why. Paynter says that “if you know what your goals are, then you’ll be better able to know whether you’ve accomplished them.” At UAGC, students have “commented on how much they enjoyed using customized more streamlined materials.” She noted that she wished they had more data, but it’s still great to hear.

Paynter is the Associate Director of Editorial for The University of Arizona Global Campus, where she leads content development and acquisitions for the university’s custom textbook publishing team. She has more than 13 years of experience in publishing college-level digital textbooks and guiding authors and other subject-matter experts through writing content, navigating editing and peer review, and developing ancillaries.

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