The most useful textbook & academic posts of the week: May 25, 2018

"That isn't writing at all, it's typing." ~Truman CapoteThis week’s collection of articles from around the web begins with advice and perspectives on research cases, grant applications, using figures in your papers, and developing a strategic publication plan for your research. We then explore changes and challenges in academia including a look at the modern day scholar and mixed methods research. Finally, we see industry changes in library subscriptions, the school publishing industry, open access, and textbook distribution models.

Truman Capote once said, “That isn’t writing at all, it’s typing.” Whether you are writing or typing, continue to find ways to get your ideas onto paper this week. [Read more…]

Textbook authoring in the digital age, Part one

Mary Ellen Lepionka

Mary Ellen Lepionka

On August 19, 2009, I finally saw in print a statement echoing my long-held belief that the business of textbook publishing is truly in a state of radical (some would say, catastrophic) change. The statement was in a Courthouse News Service summary of a suit brought by a group of stockholders against their company, Barnes & Noble.

B&N had just bought BN College, its own spin-off private company, for nearly $600 million. BN College is a chain of more than 600 campus bookstores serving nearly 4 million college students and a quarter of a million faculty members. The stores provide textbooks, ancillary materials, trade books, and other goods through exclusive supply chains, especially Barnes & Noble.

The suit claimed that this acquisition lacks transparency (it enriches B&N’s CEO, who has a controlling interest in BN College), wastes corporate assets, and increases shareholders’ exposure to risk (potentially reducing their earnings), because, QUOTE: With used textbooks available on the Internet and rental textbooks available at 40 percent to 70 percent off sale price, the college textbook business has entered ‘permanent decline’ END QUOTE .

There it is: permanent decline (and note that lawyers, not the publishing industry, first uttered these words in print.) I couldn’t agree more and first said as much in 2007 upon news of three precipitous events that struck me as particularly ominous:

  1. In 2007 the government responded officially to the CALPIRG price revolt, which started in 2004 and was being strongly reinforced by the mushrooming open access movement. Congress’s Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance called for free and low cost textbooks and facilitated access to used textbooks, textbook rentals, digital textbooks, and textbook lending libraries. The current international member roll of the OpenCourseWare Consortium attests to the success of the open access movement, which has reached critical mass alongside the wiki-textbook phenomenon.
  2. The Thomson Corporation promptly sold all its higher education imprints. (Thomson Learning had included, for example, Wadsworth, Delmar, Heinle, Brooks/Cole, South-Western, West, and Gale—most of which became Cengage.) In a parallel development, publishers in other parts of the industry began to dump their soon-to-be no-longer-so-lucrative scholarly journals.
  3. CourseSmart was founded the same year, in which industry giants (including Cengage)—once to-the-death rivals—suddenly teamed up to try to appear to be complying with public mandates while propping up prices before it was too late. (In addition to Cengage, the CourseSmart club currently includes Bedford, Freeman & Worth, CQ, Elsevier, F.A. Davis, Wiley, Jones & Bartlett, McGraw-Hill Higher Ed, Nelson Ed, Pearson, Sage, Sinauer, Taylor & Francis, and Wolters Kluwer.)

And now that the actual curse has been spat (that the college textbook business is in permanent decline), there is no going back. The tipping point, Malcolm Gladwell would say, has been reached and passed. The question now is, how can textbook authors survive, perhaps even thrive, in this giveaway Digital Age. I see four essential, broad, brave new world measures (Are there more?:

  1. Negotiate electronic rights separately with commercial publishers. Do not sign away any “content”. Demand adequate royalty consideration in textbook rentals, the sale of e-textbooks, and the sale of digitized textbook content (not to mention foreign textbook sales and other deeply discounted sales).
  2. Keep alive and find ways to promote and publicize the values of authority, validity, credibility, accuracy, currency, and reliability in the authorship of reviewed expository text. Use the new social media to communicate these values. Develop and disseminate guidelines for assessing the quality of online textbooks and for building them. Promote yourself as an expert. Have things to say, and say them in online forums.
  3. Author high-quality online textbooks though new publishing models that will not pauperize you for your efforts. Some entrepreneurial online textbook publishers offer royalties, for example. Some combine both free and monetized layers of access to their textbooks and supplements, allowing them to be profitable. Some also act as academic portals, providing comprehensive web site support for users of their products. Depending on your qualifications and market, ability to invest, and desire to have a business, self-publishing is also an option.
  4. Sell your content in bits, as learning objects or modules, for example, or share your content on sites that earn money for you through some means other than sales of your content—through blog subscription, for example, or under the auspices of an organization that has publication grants or does profit sharing through advertising revenues (or other sources of income besides donations).

Thus, the statement that the college textbook business is in permanent decline must be modified. It’s only the traditional business model for commercial textbook publishing that is going the way of the dinosaurs. The world truly needs the stuff of good textbooks. In whole or in part, they are here to stay. Textbook authors need to defend the world’s right to good textbooks along with their right to earn a decent living from writing them.

Mary Ellen Lepionka is the founder of Atlantic Path Publishing, author of Writing and Developing Your College Textbook (2008) and Writing and Developing College Textbook Supplements (2005), a consultant and content provider to textbook authors and publishers, and a member of the Text and Academic Authors Association.

Read Textbook Authoring in the Digital Age, Part Two