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The Anatomy of Textbook Publishing

The Anatomy of Textbook Publishing
Complex publication process, lack of respect steer many scholars away from writing textbooksEverything else from your college days may be fading into the mists of middle age, but there’s one thing you probably remember with utter clarity: the first time you had to shell out more than $50 for a textbook.
Let’s see, there was Gray’s Anatomy; Jensen’s art history tome; Samuelson’s doorstop in economics. And whether you were the kind of the student who fingered the pages with rapt and loving attention or the kind who never cracked the spine, that textbook author’s name has most likely lingered in your memory.
So it’s one of the academy’s more troubling ironies that neither the textbook nor the textbook author gets much respect. That is to say, the writer of a standard textbook may be the most visible scholar in his field — but that doesn’t mean that scholar is a recognized expert in his field.
“Nothing in this area is simple,” says Dr. Jacqueline Royster, professor of English and senior associate dean for research and faculty affairs at Ohio State University. The fact is “we need Black scholars who are interested in knowledge-building, who are interested in questions of what the students learn, who are interested in issues of access. … But being involved is a complex issue.”
The statement seems counterintuitive. What, one wonders, could be “complex” about writing a textbook in an institution whose primary mission is, at least allegedly, the production and dissemination of knowledge? The answer can be summed up in one word: plenty.
First, there are the complexities of navigating the system. While profit figures are closely held proprietary information, textbook success stories are of the kind that make publishers salivate.
There are the quiet success stories, like The Harbrace College Handbook. Written by the late Dr. John C. Hodges of University of Tennessee-Knoxville, the handbook reliably pumps out hefty profits year after year for its publisher — and, through an endowment, funds critically important research as well as leave and travel provisions for English faculty at Tennessee.
Then there are the stories that make a media splash — like that of Dr. N. Gregory Minkiw, the Harvard economist who won a $1.4 million advance for an economics textbook the publisher planned to position as the successor to Samuelson’s. The amount was roughly four times the $300,000-$400,000 that was the industry standard for an economics textbook in 1997 — and untold thousands more than the advance one might receive in another field.
With those kinds of numbers being flung about, publishers have a tendency to move cautiously. For example, despite many awards and honors, including winning the Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize from the Modern Languages Association (see Black Issues, Feb. 14), Royster noted that her most recent freshman reader — Critical Inquiry: Readings on Culture and Community, forthcoming from Addison Wesley Longman — had to wind its way through a tortuous review process: 16 reviewers on the first round, then, due to a buyout, 12 reviewers on the second.
It comes with the territory, Royster notes, adding, “You can understand the publisher’s point of view. There can be a great deal of money at stake.”‘Kiss of Death’
But even if a scholar manages the difficult tasks of winning a publisher’s ear and winding his or her way through the arduous proposal and publication processes, there’s something to contend with that can be even worse — the contempt of one’s colleagues.
“In my field — in psychology — it would be the kiss of death for a young scholar to author a textbook,” says Dr. James Jackson, founder of the Program for Research on Black America at the University of Michigan and director of the school’s internationally renowned Research Center for Group Dynamics.
And while “kiss of death” sounds extreme, it’s a sentiment that one finds replicated across the Research I disciplines — economics stands virtually alone among the fields in which the top names lose no respect for writing textbooks, Jackson says.
The reason is painfully simple. In the hierarchy of publication, the single-authored work of original research or the scholarly article appearing in a reputable refereed journal is at the top of the pyramid — followed by the edited collection of scholarly essays, the edition of a “lost” primary text and sometimes even the anthology.
But the textbook isn’t at the bottom of the pyramid; it’s not even on it. The textbook just doesn’t figure in the complicated promotions and tenure formulae laid down by Research I institutions. So it’s hardly surprising that African American scholars, relative newcomers to the academic table, have heaped their plates with other types of publications and generally ignored textbooks.
“Realistically, writing a textbook is something that takes a tremendous amount of support, and African American scholars don’t tend to get those levels of support. And if you pursue that choice anyway, there’s always a cost,” says Dr. Joseph Graves, professor of evolutionary biology at Arizona State University and author of the acclaimed The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium.
“Say you spend your time and your energy on writing that textbook — that means your other scholarly activities will suffer. And so what you’ll hear from your colleagues, or, worse, those who are evaluating you: ‘You wrote a textbook, fine. But what about the five papers we were expecting you to write?’
“I may want to write textbooks, but I know I won’t be supported; I won’t get rewarded. (Even given the need), there’s also the argument: How much martyrdom can people expect (of Black scholars)?” Graves says.
Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of history and Africana studies at New York University, can only shake his head at the academy’s bias against textbooks. “You’re supposed to write the kind of books that are so obscure that only five people can understand them,” he says.
But Kelley is one scholar who has followed a different drummer, publishing not only traditional works in his discipline, but also the witty trade book Yo’ Mama’s DisFUNKtional! and a textbook: To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. The textbook, which won the Gustavus Myers award, was a History Book Club selection and a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2000.
“Why do so few people do it?” Kelley asks. “A lot of it is the fact that we live in a culture that is suspicious of collaboration and, thus, makes collaboration difficult. To Make Our World Anew is a wonderful book, and what makes it good is the collaboration” of the 10 co-authors.
There’s also the issue that the textbook is not original research, but “a synthesis” of available knowledge, as Royster says — or as Jackson puts it, “a compilation of what is known, like a review but written downward,” to the level of the general or student audience.
Of course, a strong argument can be made that the student audience is precisely the audience that the academy needs to be targeting.
That’s certainly the point of view of the scholar-members of the TAA — the Textbook and Academic Authors association — based at the University of South Florida. The TAA annually conducts three to six workshops at sponsoring campuses, assisting would-be authors with proposal writing, contract negotiation, self-publishing and much more.
“One of the best services TAA provides is mentoring,” says Dr. Peggy Stanfield, TAA president.
But there is one area of concern among TAA officials. While the organization does not maintain official records of its members’ racial and ethnic backgrounds, one senior member has estimated that only 30 of the 1,100-plus membership is African American.
“Textbooks are too White from a social sciences perspective,” says Dr. Ronald Pynn, a retired political scientist from the University of North Dakota who serves as the TAA’s executive director.
Last year, the TAA conducted its first workshop in association with a historically Black institution — Howard and Gallaudet universities in Washington were sponsors. But Pynn raises a question that begs pondering. With Black scholars literally changing the paradigm of what is known in most academic disciplines, is the “master narrative” of the White-authored textbook keeping pace with the rapidly changing state of racial knowledge?
Absolutely not, says Dr. Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University’s renowned African American Studies department. That’s why Asante chose to publish his own: African American History: A Journey of Liberation (1993), which has won a broad audience among high schools, historically Black colleges and universities, and even Research I institutions.
“I wrote that book because, as a scholar surveying the field, it was clear that our mythic quest as a people had never been dealt with. And that is our mythic quest as a journey of liberation, in contrast to the American quest of conquest,” Asante says.
Dr. Floyd Coleman, a professor of art at Howard University who is collaborating on an art history textbook with a team that includes the MacArthur-winning photographer and art historian Deborah Willis, has a similar motivation. The standard text in his field mentions only “five or six” African American artists and misreads their work because it insists on tacking them on to the European and European American canons, Coleman explains.
Even worse, in scholarly treatments of the artists of the 1960s, conservative scholars are “gentrifying” the history of the period, Coleman says. “Faith Ringgold, Martin Puryear, the late John Biggers, Charles White — those names might be mentioned in discussions of social commentary. But in general, the history of the period is being ‘whitened’ and the contributions of important artists are being forgotten.”
But while passion provides the fuel, success is due, at least in part, to the “point of career issue” described by Dr. Martin Davidson, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School.
Writing a textbook is “the kind of thing that when you’re younger, you absolutely wouldn’t want to do because you’d jeopardize your chances of tenure,” he explains. “But when you’re older, you would want to do it because you’re established and you’re looking to those royalty checks.”
Coleman emphatically agrees. “See, I’m old now,” he says, only half-jokingly, “so the timing is just right.”Ignoring the Rules
There’s another avenue as well — trod by scholars who simply ignore the academy’s rules and carve out nontraditional career paths for themselves. Deborah Willis, the MacArthur fellow, is an excellent example.
Formerly a curator of exhibitions with the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Museum, over the past 20 years Willis has written or co-written a series of pioneering books in the study of race in photography, including this year’s The Black Female Body: A Photographic History; Reflections in Black, A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (2000); and Picturing Us: African-American Identity in Photography (1994).
Willis, who started doctoral studies at George Mason University after she was already an established name in her field, says she began writing because no one had written the kinds of books she longed to read.
“Now I’m meeting people in American studies, history, art history, cultural studies who are adopting Picturing Us, because it crosses racial and disciplinary boundaries, allows (scholars and students) to have a conversation about imaging, family, politics, gender — really fills the gap in the topics we’re discussing now in photography and history,” Willis explains. “I’m getting wonderful, warm e-mails from people saying, ‘My classes loved this book. Thank you.’ “
And then there’s Susan Fawcett, who during the early 1970s left a doctoral program at Columbia to participate in the City University of New York’s grand experiment in open admissions. Finding her students at Bronx Community College “very bright but … poorly educated and underprepared,” Fawcett decided to write a textbook “to help them develop their skills.”
That textbook became a best seller — and sales from later editions plus two more textbooks allowed Fawcett to leave full-time teaching. Now she’s a tireless advocate — through TAA and TRIO’s Council for Opportunity in Education — for minorities seeking entrée to textbook publishing.
Fawcett, who is White, clearly understands the dilemma that textbooks represent for African Americans in the academy: “There’s so much added pressure on scholars of color. They are asked to take on so many responsibilities that other faculty members may escape, and are sought out as mentors by many students.”
But nevertheless, it troubles her that, over the last three decades, she has seen virtually no change in the ranks of textbook publishing. “I’ve seen who works in publishing, and they’re usually White,” Fawcett says.
Fawcett conducted her first textbook publishing workshop for minority faculty at a national TRIO meeting last September and says she was strongly encouraged by the results — one participant, a psychology professor, has landed a contract for a psychology textbook.
And that textbook may not be the “kiss of death” or a source of “martyrdom” for that scholar — it may, as textbooks have for Fawcett, buy freedom to pursue one’s own interests regardless of the academy’s constraints.
It’s as Royster tells her graduate students. “I always try to get them to realize that there are many different kinds of academic careers and many different kinds of contexts. They need to look at the contexts and be much more critically reflective of what they want to do and plan based on that.”
There’s certainly room for textbook publishing in an academic career, particularly for those who have an abiding interest in it, Royster says. Just remember, she adds, “If you’re doing textbooks, you’d better have a lot of articles.”

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