The Chronicle Review

Textbook Writing 101

July 04, 2003

Are you ever dissatisfied with your textbooks -- those awkward, overloaded wheelbarrows of information that wobble off course every few pages? Why not assemble your own lecture notes into the ideal textbook for your classes and, incidentally, become rich and famous? As the author of two textbooks on writing -- and purely to serve my colleagues -- let me guide you through the process.

Most professors think you need a great idea for a textbook to put your stamp on the discipline -- a sparkling, cutting-edge theme. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rule #1: Original ideas are messy for students, teachers, editors, and writers. No one really wants them, only the appearance of them. Simply blend a teaspoon of originality into a bucket of the same old thing. Imitate top-selling texts shamelessly.

As you draft sample chapters, you'll face every textbook writer's dilemma -- do I write for students or for the professors who order the copies? Students want simplified, clear, and entertaining texts; to reach an average student, your style must compete with the local newspaper, Saturday Night Live, and Puff Daddy. Professors want intellectual complexity and vocabulary that announces, "This is college, ladies and gentlemen." They want you to sound like The New York Review of Books, PBS, and Joan Didion. From my observation, most textbook writers figure out which group butters their royalty checks. I, however, took the path less traveled and wrote directly for students. Sure, some reviewers sniffed, "Maybe it's OK at a community college, but we would never use it here" -- meaning at a place of higher education. I gathered my integrity about me like sagging underwear and pressed on. Today it gratifies me when students say my book talks to them and they really like that it's not too heavy to carry. Rule #2: Write for both students and professors, to spread the alienation around.

To win a contract, you must create a dazzling book proposal -- a 10-page document that demonstrates your expertise, your ability to write simultaneously to a Harvard Ph.D. and the pimply kid slinging burgers at Wendy's, your skill in smearing a patina of innovation over crass imitation, and your firm, unbiased belief that the book will enhance the publisher's reputation as a leading-edge moneymaker. Direct your proposal and several chapters to acquisitions editors. Those people work hard to fill gaps in their catalogs, anticipate new trends, and save their butts. That final item is important because few acquisition editors survive long enough to face the consequences of their decisions. That opens the door for you to become one of their mistakes. How? By understanding Rule #3: A book proposal delicately balances truth and expectation: 10-percent truth, 90-percent fantasy.

The proposal explains how your book is unique but just like leading books, what makes you the only person in the modern world who can write it, and why it will crush competitors. In general, create the impression that you're full of enthusiasm, creativity, and energy yet also wise, conservative, and experienced -- in other words that you're both edgy and safe. Keep in mind that publishers adhere to the same ratio of 10-percent truth and 90-percent fantasy. So when a publisher offers a contract and promises strong promotion, fame, and early retirement, be wary. Consider the publisher's reputation and your long-term goals. Then follow Rule #4: Accept the first offer any fool makes you.

Sadly, many authors with contracts do not finish their books. Why? Because reviewers mug them. In comfortable anonymity, reviewers announce they liked everything about your book except its main premise. Or, interspersed with sensible praise, they make suggestions that are the equivalent of putting spandex shorts on Michelangelo's David or grafting a third arm to his back. Rule #5: Reviewers always suggest 50 pages of new ideas and insist the book be shorter. Rule #6: What one reviewer loves best another hates best. My advice for authors: Rule #7: Accept reviews with stoic dispassion and gratitude. Rule #8: Smash your hand only into soft objects.

Should your book survive reviews, a copy editor will polish it to perfection. Copy editors are fastidious; they must pass the American Psychological Association's Anal Retentive Assessment to be hired. They worry that you use commas before "ands" in items in a series and daydream about dangling participles in leather jackets. Rule #9: Consistency always outranks creativity. The copy editor also polices political correctness, checking that you used roughly the same number of hypothetical men and women in examples to prevent stereotyping. That means that women should not be nurses, cooks, secretaries, or sex objects. It means men must be.

Finally the big day! A FedEx box arrives with 10 copies of your new book inside. You flinch at the glaring red and canary yellow cover with your name in iridescent blue. You caress it, sniff its newness, crack the spine. Then life picks up exactly where you left it two minutes earlier. You're so sick of the book, you can't bear to read it. No paparazzi snap photos as you emerge from the Piggly Wiggly with groceries. No one sends you sales figures or reviews by John Leonard. Actually, you feel like hiding. You are about to be abused in hundreds of classrooms. In my own classes, students say, "You wrote this?" glancing from me to the book, which I take to mean, "The book's OK, but how did this guy write it?" One student who asked me to autograph the book whispered to his friend, "I bet I'll get more for it at buyback if it's signed."

About a month after publication, I received a postcard from an Ohio professor. In my textbook on college writing, I had narrated an anecdote Abraham Lincoln told, in which he referred to a tightrope walker named Blondin. I had spelled it "Bloudin." The professor corrected me and added, "Such egregious errors mar an otherwise fine book." Ouch! Over the next year and a half I received three more "Aha!" postcards from Ohio. I fixed the errors and was grateful she took the time to notify me. But I felt nervous. Was a horde of professors hunting for all my obscure, petty flubs? Yes they were. But more surprises were coming.

After reading the first chapters, a student in Oregon wrote a bulky letter to tell me that I understood her and was the teacher-guru she had searched for all her life. She truly believed I would help her make personal and writing breakthroughs after years of bitter failure, betrayals, trauma, and suicidal moods. She wondered what would be a good time to arrive at my office. A red flag and a Saturn rocket went up. I sweated out a letter encouraging her to finish the course she was in rather than seeking enlightenment across the country with a married man.

I also received a call from a woman who wanted my help writing a business proposal to Kinko's that, she claimed, would generate $4-billion in new sales. She offered to pay me to write her secret plan -- subtly -- so Kinko's could not steal her idea. "Just tell them enough to tweak their interest," she said.

"Are you going to tell me the plan before I write it up?" I asked.

"I don't think I should."

"I see," I said. "This must be big."

"It's huge! Huge!"

Rule #10: Fame is all it's cracked up to be and less.

You must promote your book -- with dignity if sales are good, shamelessly if not. We've all seen pathetic authors at conferences shifting from foot to foot at the publisher's display, hawking their books. Bookstores and used-book buyers drive them to it, murdering textbooks before they can die natural deaths. When I learned that bookstores made more than I did for each textbook they simply unpacked and put in a bag, my ethics and greed were outraged. Then I learned Rule #11: Stealing is a matter of perspective.

When I spot book buyers slinking around campus snapping up examination copies from instructors on the cheap to be sold for near full price while the author receives nothing, I want to kick the thieving rascals down the stairs. They're kidnapping my child into slavery. It's mine to sell! Here's how the system works. Say a publisher charges $50 for a new textbook. The bookstore marks it up 25 percent to $62.50 (the author gets, say, 15 percent of $50, or $7.50). At semester's end, students sell back their used books for $15, and next term they're resold for $40 (bookstore makes $25; student saves $22.50; author and publisher eat air). New book sales plummet as used books and examination copies flood the market. The publisher raises prices. Higher prices mean more incentive to buy and sell used books. Rule #12: Everybody else is greedy.

Most textbooks die in the first edition. But if you say the old ideas in a new-wave style or have friends on textbook-adoption committees, you may be asked to do a second edition. Warning: You may now actually have to become cutting edge. When colleagues hear you're doing a new edition, some groan, "All the pages will change! I'll have to rewrite my notes!" Others demand 10 crucial revisions. Rule #13: Don't change anything people like and change everything they dislike, even if they're the same thing.

I've just finished a fifth edition now, but I can imagine, when I'm doddering around like old Mr. Chips, being asked to work up a 10th edition. I'll just cackle, heft my book, and sigh, "Let's see how this dead fish smells this year."

M. Garrett Bauman is a professor of English at Monroe Community College (N.Y.) and the author of Ideas and Details: A Guide to College Writing (Harcourt, 2003). Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 49, Issue 43, Page B5