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View Full Version : Textbook Authors: When was the last time your chin hit the floor THIS hard?



JoeEkaitis
06-11-2005, 06:25 AM
California State Assembly says shorter books would help kids (http://www.sacbee.com/content/news/education/v-print/story/12962144p-13809430c.html)


From the "You Can't Make This Stuff Up" Dept.

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TashaGoddard
06-11-2005, 12:30 PM
What an odd law! It could actually be benificial to the publishers, though. If they make each chapter in the textbook a basic introduction to the that topic, with some homework exercises, they can then stick the actual content on their website (using some kind of password control, of course, so only those who buy the textbook can access it). It will mean a lot of the variable costs will be translated into fixed costs, which could the opportunity for more profit; or more time to work on the content itself, while the 'textbook' is printing.

It is bizarre though. I don't see how the size of a textbook affects learning. Surely, it's the actual content and how it is presented (and, of course, how it is actually taught) that affects the learning. It might make students' school life a bit more comfortable, though, as they won't have such heavy backpacks!

Thanks for sharing!

Inspired
06-11-2005, 06:14 PM
I just purchased text books for my science class. They're pretty hefty. But, what I thought was cool is that many of the textbook publishers are going to online textbooks or cd-rom versions. You buy the textbook for the kids to use in class, then they go home and access it online for studying at home. My school isn't going to do that, because we just don't think it works for this community - rural, not all that interested in technology, etc.

But, I thought it was a neat idea. The online fee is only $6 per book per year. So most schools just ask the parents to give one more dollar in fees, if they are going to use the online book - or to borrow the CD-ROM for a year.

Nelumbo
08-21-2005, 01:13 AM
Maybe this law has something to do with students throwing out their backs from carrying around heavy bookbags?

I'm curious if there are any textbook writers lurking here, and how they got started. I am a newly minted biology professor at a small junior college and writing a textbook has always been a goal of mine.

Tish Davidson
08-21-2005, 08:58 AM
I'm working right now on the human biology section of a high school biology textbook for a major publsiher. I've done chapters in nursing textbooks and early childhood ed textbooks for McGraw Hill/Delmar. Amazingly, I got started doing this by answering a blind ad in the New York Times. It was just luck that I had an ideal background to write textbook features (the stuff in boxes that lighten the text) for an early childhood ed preschool health and safety book. (I had an MS in physiology and was teaching at a training school for nannies) and the book packager that was doing the book was only a few miles from my home. Their other writers were spread across the country, and I think they liked the idea that I was someone who could actually drop in at their office. Once they discovered I could write and had a science degree, they gave me work on some of their nursing textbooks and finally a whole book. This answer is probably not helpful, because it would be hard to replicate my entry into textbook writing, but there does seem to be a scarcity of people in the sciences who can write simply and clearly for textbooks.

What you do need to know is that the author of a textbook and the writer of a textbook are usually two different people. My experience has been that the textbook publisher researches the various state standards (this is for lower than college level) and gets a bunch of content experts to put together an outline that covers the topic and meets the state standards in the larger states (CA, NY, TX). Then they hire a writer to work from the outline and actually write the text. The outline not only tells you what to cover, but how many pages should be devoted to each section. Usually you can re-arrange things in the outline to some extent, but meeting the length is critical. The trick is knowing what to leave out, and that is harder than it sounds. The other critical factor is the ability to simplify and hit the right reading level for the target audience (you're given a sample of what they want as a guide). Sometimes I have been given research material and/or competitors books to help with the project. Sometimes I do all the reseach on my own. The writer can suggest graphics, but doesn't have to find them. Usually someone else does the sidebars and features and a professional indexer does the indexing. Basically all the writer is responsible for is the running text and usually some review questions for each section or chapter, but none of the bells and whistles that make the book visually appealing. The writer is also responsible for producing a list of works consulted or used in research for each chapter or section of a chapter. Once the material is written, it gets edited by an in-house editor, the expert(s) whose name is going on the book as author reviews it for accuracy, and the publisher or textbook packager does all the rest - puts together the graphics, gets permissions to use photos/art, copyedits, proofreads, indexes, and sells the book. Contracts are work for hire. The writer usually only gets a tiny credit somewhere in the front or back of the book. Usually multiple writers work on a a book doing different chapters or sections and in-house editors smooth them out so that they don't sound too different in style from each other. Payment, in my experience, varies from about 50 cents to one dollar per word, and I've never been asked to do revisions of my submissions.

If you are interested in this area, you might want to join AMWA - American Medical Writers Association. You can also get your foot in the door by figuring out who publishes encyclopedias that cover your field and trying to get work writing articles on your specialty (virtually all encyclopedias that i know of are done by freelance experts/writers).

Hope this helps you figure out if you want to be the author of a textbook or the writer. If you have more questions, I'll try to answer them. I don't know many other textbook writers, so I don't know how universal my experience is, although I have done this for several different major publishers, and the process has always been similar, regardless of the publisher.

MadScientistMatt
08-22-2005, 05:27 PM
Maybe this law has something to do with students throwing out their backs from carrying around heavy bookbags?

That wouldn't surprise me. Ten years ago I can remember carrying home somewhere around 20 lbs of homework on some days, and I hear that the books have been getting even heavier now.

Tish Davidson
08-22-2005, 09:00 PM
Textbook publishers are aware of this. Size was a publisher's consideration on the book I am currently working on. As they put it "We don't want to be the heaviest book on the block." This makes the deciding what to leave out part more critical than ever.

TashaGoddard
08-22-2005, 11:09 PM
In the UK, educational publishers have started supplying CD-ROMs with many of the textbooks. Quite often, they'll put extra content on there to keep the actual textbooks quite small. There are also teacher's resource files (with accompanying CD-ROMs) that contain lots of photocopiable worksheets for use in class/as homework (again bringing down the size of the textbooks). I have heard that a lot of schools these days keep the textbooks in class and just send pupils home with worksheets/homework, so that they do not need to carry too much around. A number of educational publishers are also putting extra content on their websites. Technology is certainly helping to lighten pupils' loads a lot, over here at least.

I wish this had all happened 20 years ago - it would certainly have made my school life a bit easier!

Tish Davidson
08-23-2005, 09:44 AM
Textbook publishers are doing this in the US, too, and school districts are screaming about how it increases the cost of the books. I think eventually textbooks in areas that change rapidly, like biology, will eventually be digital, but the change will be slow to come in the US because there is no national curriculum and each school district chooses its own text and its own approach to using computers in the classroom.

TashaGoddard
08-23-2005, 12:06 PM
Yes, educational publishers in the UK are very fortunate, because there are set curriculums and syllabi to work with. It means they can tailor each book/other resource to exactly what is required, either in terms of the curriculum or the exam syllabus. It also makes it easier for the authors, I think, because they tend to have a ready-made synopsis to work to (though I suppose some people could find that restrictive). It also makes my job, as an editor, easier, because I also have a syllabus to check against when editing, so missing material can very easily be identified.

I honestly can't imagine how educational publishers in the US manage to decide what to include, with so many different curriculums out there.

One problem we do have over here, though, is that the syllabi change frequently - often every two years. This means that textbooks and related material have to updated a lot - and very quickly, because a new syllabus often only becomes available a couple of months before schools have to start teaching it. This is great for me, though, as it keeps me in work!

Codger
09-02-2005, 08:49 PM
I cannot read anything that requires a lot of concentration on any of my computers. The CD would be wasted on me. I have to print hard copy if I want to really focus and master the material.

Guess this makes me a geezer.

As far as the size/weight of textbooks...a book is as big as it needs to be to cover the material required by the curriculum. They don't sell 'em by the pound.

Based on the studies I've browsed, many (most?) students don't actually master the course materials anyway. (Grade inflation, social promotion, dumbing down, etc.)

CA is known for stupid legislation that restricts human rights. Why should this be a surprise?

Spidercat
09-11-2005, 01:39 AM
I'm working right now on the human biology section of a high school biology textbook for a major publsiher. I've done chapters in nursing textbooks and early childhood ed textbooks for McGraw Hill/Delmar. Amazingly, I got started doing this by answering a blind ad in the New York Times. It was just luck that I had an ideal background to write textbook features (the stuff in boxes that lighten the text) for an early childhood ed preschool health and safety book. (I had an MS in physiology and was teaching at a training school for nannies) and the book packager that was doing the book was only a few miles from my home. Their other writers were spread across the country, and I think they liked the idea that I was someone who could actually drop in at their office. Once they discovered I could write and had a science degree, they gave me work on some of their nursing textbooks and finally a whole book. This answer is probably not helpful, because it would be hard to replicate my entry into textbook writing, but there does seem to be a scarcity of people in the sciences who can write simply and clearly for textbooks.


Thanks for the information Tish! I have an additional question. How common and convenient is it for the writers textbook packagers recruit to be telecommuting workers? I'm interested in working for a textbook packager and wanted to know how critical it is to be located in the area of the textbook packager's physical offices. I'd also like to know what kind of credentials textbook packagers look for -- I'm interested in writing text for the English and liberal arts field and have several degrees (BA in English Education, MA in Literature, and a PhD in 20th American Lit) but if you know of any other credits or skills a textbook packager would like their writers to have, I'd really appreciate the info!

Tish Davidson
09-11-2005, 10:53 AM
I think textbook packagers recruit telecommunter writers almost exclusively. It was only a freak coincidence that my first job with one was near where I lived. I currently live in California and am doing textbook writing for a company in Illinois. Virtually all my communication with them is electronic, and no one seems to suffer for it. I have never seen an ad for a textbook writer that indicated location was a deal breaker, although I have been asked for proof of citizenship by US companies (photocopy of passport or birth certificate by snail mail), so living out of the US might be a problem unless you are a US citizen.

Skills - mainly the ability to write to grade level and word length and to meet deadlines. I have a MS in biology and that certainly has helped me get work. Most of the work I have applied for has required at least a master's degree. Often the packager/publisher will ask you to do a (almost always) paid trial piece before they give you a contract, rather than asking for clips, because the work is not really like writing for magazines and newspapers. They usually give you a sample of the sort of writing they want as a guide along with the trial piece, so you aren't flying blind. When I am starting a new project, I try to go to the library and take out half a dozen nonfiction books for the grade level I am intending to write for and read and analyze them. It sort of helps get me in the right frame of mind. Sometimes when I know a lot about a subject, I find it difficult to simplify to the introductory level and to hit the right level of detail. I find looking at other grade-level books or texts helps a lot.

Spidercat
09-15-2005, 01:20 AM
Thanks! A couple more questions (and perhaps a resource to other writers interested in the field)

First, how long do packagers typically give their writers to complete an assignment. I've heard the deadlines in this business can be short and I can write fairly quickly, but I'd like to get an idea of how a writer for a book packager should schedule his/her time.

Also, while surfing the web, I came across a web page for something called "The American Book Producer's Association". It contained a membership directory that gave info on a number of book packagers located in the US. Does anyone know about this site? I haven't had time to look at it in too much detail but it seems reputable (most of the packagers listed have been in business for many years)

Tish Davidson
09-15-2005, 08:13 AM
I don't know anything about the Web site.

Deadlines - I've never felt rushed. Most of the people I have worked for assume that I have other projects going on and am not going to devote full time to their textbook. In my experience book publishing moves with glacial slowness. My current project deadline is roughly 6,000 words every 3 weeks. I have to do the research, but the research is pretty basic, as this is a beginning high school text. I use an up-to-date community college and a 4-year university textbook for background and then check out things on the web that might be unclear to avoid making errors when I simplify and I sometime use the web to find age-appropriate examples.

There is so much in-house work that has to be done on a textbook (content review/graphics/layout/permissions, etc) that once you start producing material, you usually get ahead of your editor and deadlines aren't a problem. Usually the first chapter is the hardest both because everyone in-house is waiting for it and because it takes a while to adjust to the requirements of the project. I am also happy to say that the publishers I have worked for have paid my invoices within 30 days and often sooner (not 30 days after approval, 30 days after I sent the original material and invoice). The current publisher I am working with pays in 2 weeks which is almost a miracle.

Jamesaritchie
09-16-2005, 10:42 PM
California State Assembly says shorter books would help kids (http://www.sacbee.com/content/news/education/v-print/story/12962144p-13809430c.html)


From the "You Can't Make This Stuff Up" Dept.

(cancel the Print window that pops open)

It's about what I'd expect from the cuirrect eductaional system, and California in particular. There's no logic to it, no common sense at all, and not a single peice of evidence to back it up. This makes it perfect for politicians.

Epicman
09-17-2005, 12:58 AM
I'm fairly new to this. I have been paid to write for Salem Press numerous articles for "The Seventies in America" which is a reference targeted to high schools and colleges. I am extremely interested in writing texts for the High school and college level in the sciences and history. I am working now on a text book adaptation of my recently released book "Come Together: Creation and Evolution Joined" I am not sure how to introduce it though. Most of what I see as far as the sparse information on texts is that you don't need an agent. I've heard that most text publishers accept submissions directly from the author. What is the general take on this? I see that Tish works directly for a publisher - but is this common? Anyone going the route through an agent?

Epicman

Epicman
09-17-2005, 01:08 AM
I forgot! The topic: I think that there may be benefit to authors here with this California thing. For one I could see doing "Micro Texts". Like an American History series broken down into American History: The Civil War, American History: The Age of Industrialization, American History: Cattlekings & Gunfighters, etc. Even Biology, Chemistry, etc. could be broken up and further this could be done with existing texts as they are usually broken down in chapters by subject anyway. A ten or fifteen volume set for American History presented in 125 - 200 pages each in 6X9 hard or even soft cover would reduce weight, appear to reduce the retail cost by making them individually available, and I think overall would end up increasing revenue for publishers and royalties for the author.

Just an idea - Thoughts?

paprikapink
09-17-2005, 01:13 AM
I cannot read anything that requires a lot of concentration on any of my computers. The CD would be wasted on me. I have to print hard copy if I want to really focus and master the material.

Guess this makes me a geezer.

As far as the size/weight of textbooks...a book is as big as it needs to be to cover the material required by the curriculum. They don't sell 'em by the pound.



I agree with not being able to absorb the material as well online as I do when I have that book in my hand and can touch the pages. But I ain't no geezer. Ahem.

But as a kid, I could not carry a heavy book bag. I had to decide what I would study that night based on what I could carry. It's probably unrelated, but by the end of high school, I wasn't bringing any books home -- or doing any homework, but I still graduated and got into college (where I promptly found out that I had to get with it!)

Tish Davidson
09-17-2005, 08:40 AM
I'm fairly new to this. I have been paid to write for Salem Press numerous articles for "The Seventies in America" which is a reference targeted to high schools and colleges. I am extremely interested in writing texts for the High school and college level in the sciences and history. I am working now on a text book adaptation of my recently released book "Come Together: Creation and Evolution Joined" I am not sure how to introduce it though. Most of what I see as far as the sparse information on texts is that you don't need an agent. I've heard that most text publishers accept submissions directly from the author. What is the general take on this? I see that Tish works directly for a publisher - but is this common? Anyone going the route through an agent?

Epicman

When I write directly for a textbook publisher, it is work for hire - $200 per 280 words. I don't know that agents get involved with work for hire arrangements. The only agent I have had was for an adult non-fiction book.

I'm interested in the writing you did for Salem Press. Did you propose the articles to them or did you respond to an ad or did they come to you? If you pitched the ideas, did you propose them as a group or individually? And did they fit into a line Salem already had or were they a new project?

Epicman
09-17-2005, 09:07 AM
Tish

One of my professors received an e-mail from them inviting his submissions. He did not have the time but recommended me to the editor there as he was familiar with my writing in his class. They gave me a few topics with deadlines and after the deadline I was one of the authors given the opportunity to write on several topics that had not been completed. The deadline was very short the second time around but they indicated that they were pleased and would be sure to contact me on other projects.

Initially there were hundreds of topics and I simply selected several and they sent me a contract with the ones I was assigned from my list.

History is a minor of my degree but something that I really enjoy studying and writing about. Biology, chemistry, and physics are my major areas but I have found no "in" yet except considering creating a full text and submitting it.

Perhaps we could network on this with me recommending you for the next project that comes up at Salem Press and maybe you could do the same for me. I don't see any competition issues on my end as Salem Press always presents hundreds of articles at a time - far more than I could produce alone within a deadline. I know that Salem desires a diversity of authors anyhow.

Let me know what your thoughts are on this.

Glenn

Jamesaritchie
09-17-2005, 04:38 PM
I forgot! The topic: I think that there may be benefit to authors here with this California thing. For one I could see doing "Micro Texts". Like an American History series broken down into American History: The Civil War, American History: The Age of Industrialization, American History: Cattlekings & Gunfighters, etc. Even Biology, Chemistry, etc. could be broken up and further this could be done with existing texts as they are usually broken down in chapters by subject anyway. A ten or fifteen volume set for American History presented in 125 - 200 pages each in 6X9 hard or even soft cover would reduce weight, appear to reduce the retail cost by making them individually available, and I think overall would end up increasing revenue for publishers and royalties for the author.

Just an idea - Thoughts?

Well, the current trend is electronic. Half my kid's textbooks are now on CD, and more will be next year. Like it or not, E-books are the future of textbooks, whatever their length. Weight is getting to be less and less a problem.

And have you tried to buy a law book or medical book lately? I'm not sure every lawyer and doctor out there hasn't gone electronic already. Coleges and high schools aren't far behind them.

As for increasing revenue for publishers and royalties for authors, the first is likely, the last isn't.

But I guarantee it will cost more for students to buy the books.

Nelumbo
09-19-2005, 12:15 AM
Thanks, Tish, for sharing your experiences. I didn't realize that "writers" and "authors" were very different roles! Perhaps there's a difference between secondary texts and college texts? It seems for the college textbooks that the authors do most of the writing. At least that's what I've seen in academia-- a professor will spend a summer or a sabatical at the computer.

Where do you suggest I look for enyclopedia work? That sounds interesting.

I'm thinking about putting together a lab manual for an Environmental Science class...perhaps I can send a proposal to a textbook publishing company like a normal non-fiction book proposal?

Tish Davidson
09-19-2005, 07:46 AM
I'll PM you about encyclopedia work, but not tonight.

I've only done high school and community college texts. I've never worked on a 4 year university textbook, so I don't know about the writers/ authors split. It may also vary by field, My husband has contributed chapters to academic computer science books that were used in graduate school classes/seminars, and he is a computer scienctist, not a writer.

I think a stand-alone lab manual would be a hard sell. Better to give them a sample and see if you can get work writing a lab manual to accompany a textbook.

very busy, so if I ignore you for a day or two, it isn't personal.

Nelumbo
10-06-2005, 12:06 AM
Maybe there's one good thing about shorter textbooks-- lower prices perhaps for students that have to buy the texts? I think it's insane that students have to dish out almost $100 for a textbook in just one course. CD's should be cheap to make, although I doubt they plan to pass on a discount...and there's still writers involved that need to be paid.

Not every student may have easy access to a PC, either, especially at community colleges, so that's a problem with moving to CDs.

One reason perhaps that prices are so high- I just got a stack of stuff free from two different publishers. They send all sorts of free textbooks and CDs to instructors. It's a clever way to market textbooks, though. I'm finding myself happy with texts that have digital videos and art slides to go with the text. Pretty slick.

Codger
10-06-2005, 05:58 PM
Maybe there's one good thing about shorter textbooks-- lower prices perhaps for students that have to buy the texts? I think it's insane that students have to dish out almost $100 for a textbook in just one course.


It's all about marketing. One $100 book, or 10 $10 shorter textbooks - What's the diff. to the consumer?

In most of the recent H.S. books I've seen, the text-to-graphic ratio is pitiful. The books are 75% whitespace and pictures/illustrations. They could be reduced 50% in size without loss of significant content.

(IMHO)