Five myths about writing textbooks debunked
This month I’m releasing my Quick Guide to Writing for Educational Resources. This got me thinking about the publishing process and how opaque it can be for first-time authors. In this month’s post, I debunk five of the most common myths about writing for the educational market.
Myth 1: You have to go to publishers
Reality: The publishers come to you
When we think of writing a book, we all have a clear perception of what that means. We think of daydreaming big ideas while staring longingly out of rain-speckled windows. We imagine tapping away at a computer. Probably in snuggly clothes.
We’re also most familiar with the fiction publishing process, in which struggling authors hawk their lovingly written books to every publisher they can find until one of them agrees to publish it.
The reality of textbook writing is a lot more business like. It’s unusual (although not unheard of) for an author to dream up an idea for a book, pitch it to a publisher and then be contracted to write the book.
More often, the publisher identifies a gap in the market and approaches authors to write the book. They look for authors with experience in – and passion for – the subject area.
Myth 2: You have to come up with all the ideas
Reality: The publishers will brief you
In our imagined writing process, we see the author scratching their head, their face screwed up in thought. We imagine that they have to create the whole book concept, from start to finish.
In actual fact, textbook publishers brief their authors on what to write. Most authors will find that a lot of the early concept work has been done already when they are brought on to a new project.
The nature and depth of the brief depends on the type of book being commissioned. The book might form part of a series that has a well-established style. In that case, the brief is likely to be prescriptive. The publisher will know exactly what features they want the book to incorporate and they will give detailed information about them in the brief.
If the book is the first in a series, then the briefing process might be collaborative between the publisher and the author. They might have meetings in which they discuss ideas and agree an approach. The publisher will formalise their discussions by writing it up as the author brief.
Myth 3: Most of the author’s work is in the writing
Reality: The final manuscript isn’t finished
If you’re imagining that after writing those two magical words – ‘The End’ – an author can sit back and relax, knowing that the work is done, think again.
After the author submits the finished manuscript to the publisher, they will find out that it isn’t actually finished. There are several forms of editing that might then take place. The whole process is often referred to as ‘development’ of the manuscript.
The manuscript might be sent to reviewers, who comment on various aspects of it. Does it meet the needs of the curriculum it’s written for? Is it pitched at the right level for students taking the course? Are there any factual inaccuracies in the text?
Separately, the manuscript might go to a development editor and/or a copyeditor. The feedback produced at all of these stages will go back to the author and they will be asked to make revisions to the manuscript or to answer queries.
Myth 4: The author’s work is over once the book is published
Reality: The author's work is never really over
Surely once the book is published, the author’s work must be done?
Unfortunately not. The work of selling the book is only just beginning. Increasingly publishers are asking their authors to help with the sales process. Authors might be asked to write blog posts or lead webinars to engage their customers.
And the writing work itself may not be over. After a book is published, minor errors are sometimes found by customers. The publisher might ask for the author’s help correcting these at reprint stage.
The reprint stage happens when the first print run (the number of books originally printed) has been sold. The publisher has to place another order for more books with the printer. There is an opportunity at this point to make corrections to the files before they are reprinted.
Myth 5: Authors get paid juicy advances
Reality: Many publishers now pay fees
The compensation for this high workload is of course a nice big royalty on every book sold.
Except it isn’t. More and more publishers now pay authors fees rather than a royalty. This is particularly true for work writing digital materials.
Although authors sometimes feel short changed by this system, it does have benefits. The author’s pay isn’t tied to the sales volume of the book. Under a royalty agreement, the author may be paid very little if the book doesn’t sell as well as expected. The sales process is mostly out of the author’s hands, so it’s reasonable that the author should get paid for their work, whether the book sells or not.
Working to a fee also means that the author has certainty about their pay from the start of the project. They can assess the level of work involved and determine whether the fee offered is sufficient. Whereas an author being paid a royalty cannot know what their final pay for the project will be.
Find out more
If you would like to know more about writing for educational resources, check out the Quick Guide to Writing for Educational Resources. You can learn about the publishing process, as well as the team that turns a raw manuscript into a finished book.