It’s not easy publishing textbooks

This news article, by Laura Berman in the Detroit News, caught my eye this week (apologies to Facebook friends who’ve already seen it):

State’s $300,000 e-textbooks flunk out with critics

The first batch of textbooks commissioned under a $600,000 state Department of Education grant is online and ready for Michigan social studies teachers and students with one catch: Some textbook experts and educators around the state are so disturbed by factual inaccuracies, poor grammar, overgeneralizations, clumsy word choices and cultural insensitivity, they are recommending teachers not use them in their classrooms. Released in August, the first four books produced in the Michigan Open Book Project were written by Michigan social studies teachers. Their mission was to produce “dream” resources that teachers around the state could download to iPads and other electronic devices at no cost.

But educators who have reviewed the materials say the $300,000 spent to develop the e-books was largely a waste of resources. Teachers, even the best teachers, they say, aren’t trained to be professional textbook writers. Textbook publishers require layers of editing and professional review to produce books that have a high degree of specificity, accuracy and freedom from obvious bias — all qualities critics say are lacking in the Open Book Project works.

To which I say, “Well, duh!” The story goes on to say that the materials are so bad that school districts are warning their faculty not to use them, even though the writers “spent one day [emphasis mine] in a group training session.”

Why do I suspect those who dreamt up this scheme understand that the local high school football team isn’t quite the same as a professional sports team; know that a Broadway play is worth the extra $200 in ticket price vs. the community playhouse; and wouldn’t even consider consulting a medical “expert” who hadn’t been to all four years of med school? Oh, by the way, remember the last time you ate out at a restaurant that didn’t have a chef, but just dumped some foodstuffs on your plate? Who would assume that amateurs can produce an acceptable textbook without years of experience and training — and the decades of institutional memory and expertise most textbook publishers boast — any more than an amateur football player or actor can produce the same outcome as a professional? Does education have less value than sports, theater, medical care, or a nice dinner out? It insults publishers, experienced authors and the educational system!

Chances are that those those carefully-selected writers are talented teachers who could produce quite good teaching materials with the proper (professional) support. Gosh, what might that entail? For a start:

  1. Analysis of organization and pacing
  2. Advice on emphasis and coverage
  3. Comparison with existing materials, learning from what they do right and wrong
  4. In-depth, substantial editing, at the chapter, paragraph and sentence level, to make sure concepts are clear and well-supported, terms defined, difficult ideas unpacked
  5. Careful thinking about pedagogical apparatus like learning objectives, review questions, timelines, summaries, and other helpful tools
  6. Discussion of the art program —  diagrams, charts, photos and illustrations to support and enhance the text
  7. Once the manuscript is final, copyediting and proofreading
  8. Page design and layout (yes, even “free” e-books need to be designed)

But, of course, if you can get something for FREE, why bother with all that extraneous stuff? Here’s the reality: these skills and services aren’t free and, at the risk of sounding trite: you get what you pay for.

If you’re interested, the books can be viewed or downloaded here, (I learned from the sample U.S. history text that Pacific Northwest Indians occupied areas where the states of Northern California and Southern Alaska are today! The Plains Indians, who occupied at least 1/3 of the continent between the other groups which were covered, don’t merit a mention, sadly, or we might have learned that they lived where the state of Michigan is today.)

A vintage shot (photographer unknown) of artist Donna Dennis in the foreground, wearing a top bejeweled with mint lifesavers and a cap laced with licorice, to match her licorice-whip hula skirt! She wasn't a professional model, but she did make it look easy!

A vintage shot (photographer unknown) of artist Donna Dennis in the foreground, wearing a top encrusted with peppermint lifesavers and a cap laced with licorice, to match her licorice-whip full-length hula skirt! She wasn’t a professional model, but she did make it look easy! The event was called the Fashion Show Poetry event., in 1969.


2 thoughts on “It’s not easy publishing textbooks

  1. Laura A. Lander

    What a fantastic post, and so true of the trend in publishing today. Everyone wants something for free, open access is de rigeur, but without editing there cannot be quality. Slowly those outside the industry are starting to realize this.



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