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Textbook Publishing

2009 April 18



PZ Meyers recently commented on an older article about how primary and high school textbooks get chosen and why Texas has overwhelming power in nationwide adoption rates.  It’s really quite… well… disturbing.  I won’t go into too much detail here, but if you’ve ever wondered why your old textbooks seemed so bland and flavorless while simultanouesly getting many of the facts wrong, that article will be enlightening.  Generally, many textbooks are apparently written by freelance or hired writers, and an expert is tapped to simply sign their name to the finished product.

I’m going to admit something that apparently is less common for an academic than you’d think: I’d like to write a textbook.  I think that it’s not that popular an idea because textbook-writing is more about consuming research than producing it.  You take lots of published papers, some representing years of effort on the part of researchers, and whittle them down to their component nuggets of knowledge.  You then take those nuggets and weave them into an interesting story, both interesting and informative.

Of course, that’s pretty difficult.  We’ve all read articles and texts that drag on forever, thinking, “I could have written this more clearly in a quarter the length!”  Or maybe it’s just me.

I’m not sure what my textbook would be about.  Probably technology in some regard, since that’s my expertise, but the specific topic is a little hazy at the moment.  Fortunately, this isn’t a short-term goal – this is something I want to tackle many years from now, post-tenure.  But it’s definitely a hurdle I’d like to leap.

My worry is that the higher ed academic publishing market is similar to that described in the article linked above.  How much freedom does one really have?  I know that most academic writers don’t produce the test questions or exercises that come with their texts, for example, which was quite a surprise.  Just how much of it do you really get to write, and how much is just spit out by a publishing firm, waiting only on a stamp of approval from someone with a “Ph.D.” after their name?

Update 4/20:  Apparently things might be a-changin’ in Texas.

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