Help me publish a calculus textbook.
May 19, 2010 6:47 AM   Subscribe

I want to eventually publish a high school / college level math textbook, but I have no idea what I'm doing.

Recently, I've been toying around with the idea of writing a textbook for a college first-year calculus class (or BC calculus for high school students).

I am confident that I can write a good book, appropriate for the target audience. I am even doing my own illustrations, which I think are at least as good as anything I could commission.

So, after a while, I could have a nice pdf ready to be printed and bound. However, I'm not sure about actually getting it published. For example, are publishers going to be picky about precisely how it's formatted and the exact content?

I know the material perfectly well, and I feel that I am capable of teaching it reasonably well. My only concern is that there's something obvious I should be keeping in mind that textbook publishers expect (i.e. lots of color illustrations, tons of "real world applications", how to use your graphing calculator, stuff like that).

I really would like it to be a simple black-and-white thing, with the option of paperback, simple non-distracting illustrations -- a very minimalist product. Is this just a pipe dream?

Also, how hard is it to get a textbook published in general? Do I need to "know people"? Should I be sending publishers drafts before I finish? I have no idea. I am in grad school now, but I expect to have a PhD by the time this thing is done.
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You need to find a publisher first. Don't write the whole book, and don't bring a book with illustrations you've done yourself to a publisher, because that's not the way it works.

First, find the publishers of the kinds of textbook you're hoping to write. See what is being published already, and determine whether or not your approach is unique enough for them to pitch it to school districts. Textbooks aren't published and then just put on the market (especially for calculus, which would hit high schools); they're basically designed by school districts and large educational publishers then create products that fit those designs.

Find an educational publisher (Pearson, Prentice Hall, Houghton Mifflin) and see if you can get an informational interview with a math editor. S/he can tell you a lot about the process, and save you a lot of time in writing a book that, even if it's the best calculus textbook ever, won't get published in the format you spent so much time creating.
posted by xingcat at 7:01 AM on May 19, 2010

If you consider going ahead with an inexpensive, clear, straightforward textbook, there IS a market for that, but a lot of that market will be homeschoolers, self-study, etc. It may be worthwhile to look into homeschool publishers, study aid publishers (some of the "study aids" are just textbooks with less nonsense), and projects like wikipedia's open textbooks.

I feel like there is a shift coming, as creative commons, self publishing, open content, and so forth get more common, and students and schools will be less willing to pay a huge publisher's premium for low-quality textbooks on high-quality paper with four-color printing. (I teach one class with a $88 textbook made up entirely of texts my students can download on Gutenberg and short two-page "introductions" to each piece, which is nothing more than one could read on Wikipedia ("so and so lived 1850-1888 in Boston ..."). I have not yet convinced my department to let me pretty up the Gutenberg texts and have it printed on demand by Lulu for $12, but I'll get there!) There will always be a demand for high-quality textbooks, and some "traditional" textbooks are high-quality, but I know that often my students are paying for nonsense, and I hate it. But I have no idea when this shift will arrive or who, finally, will drive it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:26 AM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

The people I know who have written textbooks have gotten on the order of $3000 for several months of hard work. This is not a way to get rich quick! If you really can do all the work yourself, your best option might be to self-publish and market toward self-studiers or as a companion for students who need extra help with their classes.
posted by miyabo at 7:55 AM on May 19, 2010

I work for an academic publisher as a development editor for tertiary textbooks. In my previous role of publishing assistant I would forward on any interesting looking proposals to the publishers if they fit certain criteria, otherwise I'd send a letter of decline.

Publishers are looking for very specific things. Do your research. Look for the right publisher, then check and check again. Do they publish textbooks in mathematics, specifically calculus? Are they local publishers, or do they publish those lists at a different office? Who is the person that I should speak to there?

In my experience, I would probably have sent you a letter of decline, to be honest. I was told to look for proposals from lecturers and senior lecturers. If that criteria wasn't met, or the book wasn't a textbook in the areas that we work in in my branch, then I would decline the proposal.

That isn't to say that you have no chance, you just need to think carefully about the book, find the right person at the right publishing house, and convince them to work with you in developing your proposal.

Things to think about include: why are you writing this book? What needs in the market is this book addressing? What makes it different to all the other books out there? What pedagogical features do you think it should have, and why should it have them? If you can't convince the publisher why they should publish your book then you'll get nowhere.

Sorry this is so scrappy, I'm on my phone and can't really type too well on it. Feel free to memail me if you want more information.
posted by jonathanstrange at 8:13 AM on May 19, 2010

For a high school text appropriate for AP calculus, the publisher needs to worry about state adoption. Typically, the adoption board will try to determine how well aligned your textbook is with the College Board's exams, and whether your textbook meets state process standards and state content standards, whether the reading level is appropriate, whether there are gaps between what topics you have covered and what is expected for that class. These state standards don't vary much from state to state, and from what I understand adoption by Texas, New York, and California are crucial, so you might want to look to those state standards first. There will probably be some board members who are familiar with the mathematics education research literature, and they will be comparing your instructional strategies with those in the literature.

For both college adoption and high school adoption, the next thing the publishers will need to take into account is the marketability of your text. There's a lot of inertia in textbook selection, and there will need to be a compelling reason for a university math department or for a school district to choose your text over the one already being used. So the marketing team at the publishers will need something flashy to point to, for example ancillary computer-based materials, online homework directly tied to your text, etc.

From my limited exposure, publishers who already have a textbook out will look to a new author when their current author dies or retires before they complete the next edition, or when their market share starts to dip and they don't think the current author will be able to modify their current offering enough to revive sales. Their acquisition editor will know who is well-regarded in math and math education circles, and will approach someone they think they can work with to either start a textbook from scratch, or to come on as an additional author to modify an existing text. That person will need to be currently teaching calculus, and will need to have taught calculus for a number of years to be considered. (Especially in math, the importance of pedagogical content knowledge -- not only knowing the math, but knowing how students' mathematical ideas typically develop and evolve, and what errors of understanding typically occur and how to address them, is becoming more apparent, and I think that publishers will be looking to authors who have some track record that they can point to.)

So: There are probably some niche markets out there that you might work to fill, like home-schoolers. Or you might approach a publisher with the idea that your materials are an ideal study guide for an established or proposed text. But I'm afraid that the prospect of having a traditional textbook author publish your textbook without your having established yourself in math education is pretty slim.
posted by Killick at 8:27 AM on May 19, 2010

I have no idea about publishing, but the best (most readable, most useful) textbook I ever had was the one the professor teaching the class had written himself. By textbook standards it was small and inexpensive, it was a paperback printed in black and white on average-quality paper (which was great: it made the book lighter), but most importantly it was very comprehensive and every bit of it was useful.

Write the kind of textbook you would actually use to teach a class.
posted by Xany at 8:51 AM on May 19, 2010

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