A textbook case for writing one

October 5, 2007

If you are passionate about your subject, know your market and don't mind hard work, writing a textbook could bring you a tidy profit as well as satisfaction in a job well done, advises Harriet Swain

Textbooks are often perceived as dry, boring and a chore to write. But they are essential reading for tens of thousands of students, and the financial rewards for successful authors can be substantial.

The trick, according to experts, is to be informative and comprehensible while imparting a sense of excitement in the subject area. And know your market, they say.

Stella Cottrell, author of the successful Study Skills Handbook , says referring to your subject as uninteresting is rarely a way for a textbook writer to win over readers. Nor are you going to have much fun writing the textbook if you feel that way.

"Assume that your readership is going to be very small," she says. "That's why you have to make sure you love the subject."

Small or not, it is vital to know whether this readership exists. Suzannah Burywood, study skills publisher for Palgrave Macmillan, says it is essential to research the market and find out about potential readers and competitors. You need to establish what will set your book apart from the competition and think about how you can explain that difference as part of a sales pitch.

Andrew Heywood, a freelance textbook writer and author of bestselling books on political ideology, says you should assess the strengths, weaknesses and general approach of existing books and aim to produce something better. "If you cannot figure out how to do that, don't bother," he advises.

Gerry Johnson, author of successful textbooks on business strategy, says many people who write textbooks do so because they are proud of their teaching - but some of them fail to take into account the fact that they won't be there to teach it.

"Think carefully about whether you have something to say here that really fills a gap and that is going to be welcomed and appreciated," he says. "Otherwise you are going to do a lot of work for not much return."

He advises doing your sums and being honest with yourself about how many books you think you are going to sell and how much time it will take to write the book.

Cottrell says you will need to look at the contract with your institution to see whether you will have to do the work in your spare time. Then you will need to think carefully about whether you can meet the deadlines and word counts, not forgetting things such as appendices and contents lists. Remember that if you fail to meet a deadline you will be causing problems for a whole publishing team, and don't forget that you will need time after submission for corrections and changes.

Angus Phillips, director of the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies, says that while spotting a gap in the market and offering something new is important, you shouldn't be entirely put off if a similar book already exists.

A crowded market can suggest potential to publishers rather than an area to be avoided. Competitors constantly attack successful books' market share by offering shorter, cheaper alternatives.

But he warns that writing textbooks can be hard work, with extra material needed for accompanying websites, roughs for illustrations to prepare, and a writing schedule that can be as short as six months. Successful titles will regularly need to go into new editions to ward off second-hand sales. And you are unlikely to receive recognition for your work in the research assessment exercise.

If you still feel you have a good reason for publishing your book, it is wise to approach a publisher who has published in the same area. Find out which editor to contact and send a proposal, an example of a chapter, a synopsis of the other chapters and an explanation of why the book is needed.

Heywood says if you want your book to succeed, you need to work with a publisher from an early stage so that it will be tailored to the right audience. He says extensive teaching experience is also essential. "Otherwise, you would be in danger of writing what you now understand as opposed to taking someone on a journey," he says.

Editors are interested in what both students and lecturers want from a book, says Burywood. Every textbook needs to have a clear framework with a flexible but consistent structure, she says. It needs to have clear signposting and a good visual appeal.

She likes each chapter to have a definite focus and ideally be of similar length, with large textbooks structured into distinct parts. Authors also need to think about how they are going to illustrate their books with charts, graphs, tables and boxed-off material, although she advises not to get too carried away with any of these. In addition, authors must ensure that the examples they give have international as well as UK appeal.

The most successful textbooks, Burywood argues, are clearly and succinctly written. "My best authors are the most organised," she says. She stresses that, while a book should try to move the field forward, it should not be too far ahead because then it won't be so attractive for specific courses.

Phillips says the best authors have an understanding not only of the market but also of the level for which they are writing. Original research may appear in higher-level textbooks, but it can be a distraction at a lower level.

Graham Taylor, director of academic and professional publishing at the Publishers Association, says it is nevertheless important to be up to date with the way today's students use textbooks and other sources of information open to them via the web.

"If I were a textbook author I would be putting in research of my own about the kind of learning experience that students want these days," he advises.

Finally, remember that if your textbook turns out to be a success you will have to update it regularly. Heywood recommends staying prepared by jotting down ideas as they occur rather than trying to remember everything when you come to write the next edition.

More information

The Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies, http:///ah.brookes.ac.uk/publishing

Palgrave Macmillan publishers, www.palgrave.com

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