Textbooks Are Like Sausages
September 30, 2010
Let’s start with a quote widely attributed to Otto von Bismarck:
The less the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep in the night.
I like to have coffee with people from the traditional textbook publishing industry; they tell me stories about how screwed up their companies are. Here’s this week’s example:
An author was writing a math text in Microsoft Word. He used macros to execute the calculations in the problem sets and automatically generate the answers in the back of the book. That way he didn’t need to proofread them. Clever, no? Well, that’s not what the publisher’s production department thought.
They mucked about with his equations as they loaded his book into Quark. Of course, that broke the author’s macros. The author was furious, which mystified the production team: they breezily told him that any errors they introduced would be caught during a final proofreading. It never occurred to them that the problems didn’t need proofreading until they screwed them up.
Authors have it worse than students
You think students get a raw deal because they’re forced to pay so much for textbooks? Authors have it even worse. Over and over, I’ve heard stories from authors who submitted sharp, concise manuscripts to The Big Publishers. By the time their books emerge from the meat grinder that is the acquisitions, development, and production process—we’re still talking about sausages here—all they have to show for the eighteen months that have passed is a book that’s been transmogrified into an 800 page doorstop devoid of all personality and vigor.
The current system is inflexible, expensive, and slow. To paraphrase Buckminster Fuller, it’s time to blow it up and start over.
What’s next for authors (and textbook publishing)
While writing might be a solitary pursuit, making a textbook shouldn’t be. Authors need help. They need feedback, encouragement, and advice. They need their facts verified, their prose tightened, and their assumptions challenged. Occasionally authors even need someone to double-check the answers to the exercises.
However, it never made much sense for publishers to be the source of that help. Publishers are middlemen, not customers. Feedback from professors is far more valuable. After all, they’re the ones who decide which book to adopt. They’ll advocate changes that actually make the books more useful in their classrooms, whereas a publisher’s recommendations are often along the lines of “Let’s replace all the exercises, add an appendix, call it a new edition, and increase the price 20 percent!”
Publishers originally assumed this role because when the current process was invented, it just wasn’t feasible to have a direct link between authors and their audience.
It is now. Want to be part of it? Email us.