As someone who has published three textbooks over the course of a decade, and has another edition of our most popular one in the works as we speak, I frequently am asked two questions: “How much do you earn in royalties?” And, “How can I get a textbook published?” If you think you are going to earn a bazillion dollars in royalties with a textbook, you will be disappointed. That is not the reason for heading down this publishing road. The idea of writing a book is exciting. The thought of your name emblazoned on every bookstore shelf and online distributor is heady stuff. However, I am here to tell you, it is hard work and not for the dabbler or faint of heart. Herewith, I share my top ten tips for publishing a textbook.
1. Be dissatisfied with what’s available. The only reason Nancy Shanks and I wrote our textbook is because we were not happy with what was available. I hasten to tell people we were having coffee, not alcohol, when we came up with this crazy idea. As we sucked down caffeine at breakfast at an AUPHA annual meeting, we tossed back names of texts for our introductory course. Like Goldilocks, we complained that each text was too big, too small, too erudite, too watered down, too hard to read, too easy to read, on and on. Nothing was just right. At last, I looked at Nancy and said, “You need to write a book.” She laughed, shook her head and said, “No, YOU need to write a book.” This went back and forth ten times. Then we said, almost at the same time, “WE need to write a book.” That morning, we sketched out a table of contents on a paper napkin. Our work had begun.
2. Have a course the book will go with. We knew we had a course this book would go with, and that is what the publisher needs to know. If you have a one-off class on a topic only one person in the world wants to teach, then you do not have a course for a book. If you look at curricula around the country (yes, you must do this) find out if other programs have the same course you are trying to fix up with the book love of its life. That will give you a rough estimate of demand. Write down the number of programs in the U.S. that have your course. You will need it for your proposal. Publishers want to know if they will sell more than one class of books.
3. Find a writing partner. A good one. If you have not already done so, find a good writing partner. Not the one who sits there and tells you how WONDERFUL your work is. And not the one who RIPS your work apart, either. You want a thoughtful critique partner who complements your style. Preferably, someone with a sense of humor. Someone who will call you and say, where are we on this project while you are drowning in grading and prod you to get back on track. Good critique partners are very hard to find. Think about your colleagues and consider carefully who you invite to your party. No, you can’t have Nancy Shanks. She’s taken.
4. Talk to the end users. Find out what they really really really want. Willy Sutton was asked why he robbed banks. He said, “Because that’s where the money is!” You have to go to your end users and ask them what they are using for a textbook for that topic and what they like or don’t like about the book(s). Ask them, in an ideal world, what would you like this book to do for you? What are the features they are missing? What are the benefits they would like to see for them as the end users? What would they like to see in a Table of Contents? You can do this in person, or in an online survey. You may even find some volunteers who would LOVE to contribute to your textbook. Take names and emails and phone numbers!
5. Research your competition. The biggest book emporium in the world is at your fingertips. You need only enter the Amazon jungle, and type in the key words for your textbook idea to find out who is doing what. Carefully research your competition. You may even need to buy a book or two so you can do the same Goldilocks routine Nancy and I did. You will need sales rankings, review ratings, and an idea of what the leaders of the pack are missing for your proposal.
6. Find a publisher who fits with your vision and style. Publishing is a tough business. Companies are merging and going under, some because they failed to keep up with the eBook boom. Find a company that is innovative and has books in your line. See what they have on the shelf. If you can chat with a book representative at a professional meeting, that is optimal. They are looking for hot, new products, and you might just have the next big thing. While not a marriage, you may be working with them for a long time, so choose wisely.
7. Write the best proposal you can. Every publisher has different submission requirements. Some might want the first few chapters of the book, others might just want the proposal. Whatever the publisher wants, FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS. I know, I sound just like a teacher, don’t I? Read the instructions, ask questions for clarity before you start writing. This is not a back of the envelope task. It’s a bit like writing a dissertation proposal. Did I scare you? Good. Use the data you collected from the end users and the research you completed on the competition to build your proposal, in whatever format the publisher wants. And make it a CLEAN submission. No typos, no slang. This isn’t a peer-reviewed journal with APA formatting, but it is a business document. Be respectful of those who will be reading it and write the best proposal you can. Then get someone you trust to read it and comment on it before you submit it.
8. Get rejected. Do not whine. Be persistent. Yes, you read that right. Get rejected. No one, and I do mean no one, likes a whiner. If you get rejected, allow yourself no more than 24 hours to cry, stomp your feet, and have a pity party. After 24 hours, STOP. Don’t take it personally. While this is your baby and you know this is the best (fill in the blank) textbook proposal ever written, publishing is a business. The publisher is in business to make money. If it does not fit, keep moving, keep tweaking, tweaking, tweaking. You will learn from those rejections what works and what doesn’t. Our first textbook (Introduction to Health Care Management) was rejected by a well-known publisher. Not only did I listen closely to the feedback, the experience taught me to look at other publishers. Michael Brown of JBL saw what the other publisher did not see and offered us a contract.
9. When you get a contract, read it. Be reasonable in your requests for changes. This is a business. The contract will spell out not only the royalty rate, but also the due dates for deliverables, and the penalties if you don’t hand your work in on time. The publisher has a timeframe that is even more drawn out into the future than our teaching schedules. Once the book is in the queue, time marches on and you had better, too. Nancy and I have conference calls to keep our work on track. Sometimes life happens. But you must get back on track as soon as possible to keep on deadline.
10. Produce a squeaky clean manuscript and deliver it and all the ancillaries on time. If you’ve read any of the Jasper Fforde Thursday Next novels, you will know there are living creatures in books that go around catching typos, fixing grammar, and cleaning up the author’s work. Sadly, these lovely beasts only live in his novels. We mere humans must take the time to be attentive to our work and the work of others, if you decide to create a contributed text. Set high standards for yourself and your co-authors. Establish deadlines and stick to them. Be punctual and picky about what you submit. It is your reputation and the publisher’s on the line. Sloppy submissions mean someone has to clean them up, which delays the process. If your text is scheduled for a spring release and your manuscript is messy, you may be putting copy editors and yourself into overtime. Not a pretty picture. Treat each page like a student’s paper and be ruthless in your editing.
After the book is released, you can raise an adult beverage and toast your accomplishment. But don’t stop there! Listen to feedback from your end users. Tweak, tweak, tweak, and repeat.
Sharon B. Buchbinder, RN, PhD
Sharon Buchbinder is Professor and Program Coordinator for the MS in Healthcare Management at Stevenson University in the Graduate and Professional School and former chair of the Association of University Programs in Health Administration (AUPHA). She is also the author of three books from Jones & Bartlett: Introduction to Health Care Management, Cases in Health Care Management, and Career Opportunities in Health Care Management.