The publishing rich: Shelf-made wealth of textbook tycoons

January 27, 2006

Bestsellers and study staples deliver profitable returns, Jessica Shepherd finds

Academics can boost their annual salaries by tens of thousands of pounds by producing undergraduate textbooks in subjects such as management, law and the natural sciences, The Times Higher 's survey of the academic rich shows.

The elite group of high earners who enjoy major publishing deals includes famous popularisers of science and history, bestselling authors on management strategy, as well as professors who have produced standard texts in their fields.

The top 11 earners, according to our survey, include Simon Schama and Lord Winston, both of whom are beneficiaries of what is known as the "BBC effect" - when an author's book sales are boosted dramatically by appearances on a TV series. They follow in the footsteps of academic authors such as Stephen Hawking, whose A Brief History of Time was a publishing phenomenon in the late 1980s, and Richard Dawkins, who has written several bestsellers on evolutionary biology.

Other academics on the list have made small fortunes from writing textbooks that have become standard reading for students. Some such books have generated five-figure sums annually over more than two decades.

John Thompson, a sociology lecturer at Cambridge University and author of Books in the Digital Age , said: "A very successful textbook can generate very handsome returns. It can sell well year after year and have multiple editions. A small number of academics could be getting royalties in the thousands of pounds, and in exceptional cases tens of thousands of pounds."

Perhaps the most prolific textbook writer is Peter Atkins, whose Physical Chemistry and Inorganic Chemistry are two of the world's most popular chemistry texts.

Also among the top 11 earners is Gerry Johnson, who co-wrote the first UK strategy textbook, Exploring Corporate Strategy , which was published in 1984.

Other money-spinners have tapped into the US market with titles on business strategy. Gary Hamel, visiting professor of strategic and international management at the London Business School, has become one of the world's leading business gurus, giving lectures on how to foster innovation in companies.

Charles Handy, a former LBS professor, is another leading management thinker whose bestselling titles include The Age of Unreason .

The Warwick University Bookshop reports that his books, and those of Professor Atkins, still fly off the shelves years after they were first published.

The list of wealthy academic writers was compiled by canvassing the views of 100 experts. It is dominated by textbook authors, many of whom may be unknown to their peers outside their specialisms and most of whom are in the fields of science, management or law.

Textbooks in the humanities are thought to sell less well because students of the subject are urged to read original sources.

Academic publishing had been buoyant from the early 1980s until 2000, when the growth rates of university presses began to head south.

Mark Potter, manager of Warwick University Bookshop, said: "Management and law (books) tend to be the key ones in Warwick, but students now want to buy fewer and fewer books."  

Next week: the high-earning academic consultants

How to get ahead in publishing: Authors and publishers offer their tips

Authors need to think about what university faculties might want. The larger textbook publishers are looking to customise material, to combine different chapters of different books into one package.

A successful textbook is likely to be one aimed at a US market as well as a UK one and for first and second-year undergraduates.

Graham Taylor, director of educational, academic and professional publishing, Publishers Association

A successful mainstream book can reach a generally wide readership. On the other hand, successful textbook authors don't have to be well known even to their peers.

Certain subjects lend themselves well to textbook adoption.

These include natural sciences, economics and psychology. Textbooks in the humanities, such as history, may do less well because original sources are often used.

John Thompson, sociology lecturer, Cambridge University

Textbooks are where the money is. The secret is to aim for a big readership, a subject that has many students. The US market is enormous, but it has to be an international book to succeed.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health, Lancaster University Management School

The best books are accessible. Students want stuff they can understand without looking up every word. It has to be comprehensive. Students want to buy fewer books.

Mark Potter, manager, Warwick University Bookshop

Check out what the tutors would like, find a gap in the market and push the field of current research.

Gerry Johnson, professor of strategic management, Strathclyde University Business School

Successful textbook authors have good relationships with publishers and a joint approach to the development of the book. The text should be well written, and the subject must be presented in a way that helps students learn. Texts need good pedagogic input from the publisher and expertise from the editor.

Philip Shaw, managing director of science and technology books, Elsevier

Get a good agent, write what you know about and write what you enjoy writing about. A textbook will always need revision and updating. Academics should write if they are moved to write - you can't just set out to write a bestseller.

Iain Stevenson, director of publishing studies MA, City University

The top 11 earners

John Sloman, Charles Handy, Gary Hamel, Nigel Slack, Peter Atkins, Simon Schama, Anthony Giddens, Gary Slapper, David Starkey, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking

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