Faucher: Publish and perish? The case for and against writing the academic textbook

During the holiday break, a major academic press solicited my interest in writing an undergraduate textbook in one of my areas of teaching expertise. For a cash-strapped scholar at the beginning of his professorial career, the offer seemed enticing as it conferred what seemed to be an honour as well as possibly being lucrative.

However, once the initial lustre of enthusiasm has worn off, questions bubble to the surface.

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FAUCHER

Assuming the publisher is optimistic the subject you’ve been solicited to write on is in sufficient demand to drive sales and guarantee a wide readership, and that the textbook fills a gap in the market, should you do it?

There is no doubt the academic textbook industry plays an ancillary role to the academic mission, and such books facilitate learning outcomes for students just beginning to dip their toes into the waters of their area of study. As survey texts, these textbooks generally function as useful guides and as a supplement to lecture content. Setting aside their pedagogical value, what does an undergraduate textbook do for the scholar who undertakes to put one together?

Although we who teach and research are no strangers to putting in a lot of time into our work, the first issue of note would be how much extra work writing or compiling an undergraduate textbook can be.

Not only is one entrusted to sufficiently cover the ground, but one is expected to do so at a level of undergraduate understanding. This may not prove too daunting for those of us already accustomed to crafting our lectures for undergraduate courses, and in some cases scholars can draw upon their existing lecture notes as source material to be re-purposed and rewritten as chapters in the textbook.

If the publishing agreement places one in an editorial position, then comes the work of selecting key articles and book selections that can be arranged thematically, which requires doing the work of acquiring permissions to reprint copywritten work.

Once all the articles are ‘in the bag,’ then comes the possible added work of supplying editorial introductions (sometimes for each section) where one is required to provide a summary of main points written in an accessible style. There might also be the requirement of adding questions at the end of each chapter. And, again, one might also be asked to develop an interactive DVD to be bundled with the textbook. One might also be called upon to produce helpful appendices, a glossary of key terms, charts and images to increase the reading appeal of the book.

Undergraduate textbooks with a survey flavour are not the place to introduce one’s own original research unless the case can be made it is absolutely relevant to the aims of the textbook itself.

Given the heavy work in preparing a book does not add to one’s research portfolio, the question arises, why do it?

 If one needed a reason beyond the noble gesture of providing a key source book on a subject that other instructors can use for required course material, that reason might be money. Those who choose the textbook route can expect to be paid royalties based on sales, and so if one’s textbook is expertly packaged and marketed, mass adoption of the textbook by instructors in universities around the world might provide a pleasant income supplement. Realistically, however, fortunes are only seldom made, and most professors, says Will Jacob of the Bowdoin Orient in a 2006 article, write textbooks to “fill gaps, not pockets.”

There might be reasons to beg off solicitations to write textbooks, and this depends on the general attitude of one’s department or disciplinary field. One former professor of mathematics at Tulane told me that, in his field at least, the publishing of a textbook is considered ‘lesser’ in terms of academic prestige since it is simply a pedagogical tool that covers the extent of the disciplinary field without providing one’s own research.

As he put it to me, it’s “drudge work.”

Some scholars may become marginalized as ‘technical writers’ rather than respected researchers for devoting the heavy and intense time commitments associated with producing a textbook. Worse, given there is the possibility for one’s task to be lucratively rewarded, this might be seen as being ‘in it for the money.’

There is no doubt taking the time to write under the publisher-stipulated deadlines is time taken away from original research.

The issue of when one chooses to write the textbook is also an important consideration. If one is currently in a tenure-track position, we have to keep in mind some departments will not consider a textbook counting toward significant research contribution.

In all cases, before you sign the publishing agreement, it is a good idea to discuss your plans with your department to ensure it would be a suitable use of your time with respect to your career aspirations. Some departments might grant you course relief for textbook-writing.

Is writing a textbook right for you?

This very much depends on where you are in your career, what support you might receive for doing it, and if you have the time and organizational skills required to work under this sort of pressure. The textbook option might be best suited for those who are just getting started in their academic careers and need a few more entries on their publication list.

It may also be suited for those long-tenured professors who can leverage their extensive experience in teaching and research in the field to provide a mature, broad overview. Considering the pros and cons of the issue, I am still unsure, but in the escalating demands of the academic market and the state of the economy will no doubt influence the decision.

Kane X. Faucher, a Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor, is the author of several novel, most recently The Infinite Library.