Textbooks have a life.
They have fathers, mothers and siblings. They grow and expand, experience midlife crises, and eventually die, often out of sight. There is much to be said about the hidden life of a professor’s best friend, and much yet to be learned.
Just as most books start in the brain of their author, the inception of textbooks is often in a university professor’s mind. Professional writers are a minority in the business, mainly because the amount of work required is very high.
Julia Gordon teaches Calculus III, as well as higher level math classes, at UBC. “To write a good calculus textbook is a tremendous effort,” she said.
Gordon believes the cash prize attraction is at best a background motivation. “People have mainly academic motivations for writing textbooks,” she said, “and I think there are better ways for making money.”
Some people, like James Stewart, author of a bestselling calculus textbookused at UBC, can afford a five-story 18,000-square foot designer house and legitimately claim to have paid for it with the money made from books alone. But far from every author can claim such fame and wealth. Many professors start writing simply because they think they can do better than existing textbooks, or have a different point of view on the subject.
After months or years of labour, the book is sent to editors, as a regular novel would be. The difficulty of getting published is a function of the stability and size of the existing market; an innovative calculus textbook may still have trouble facing the Stewart colossus, for example. If there is room for a new textbook on the market, editors will give it a definite shape, and a new textbook is born.
To know if they will live and prosper, editors send the textbooks to the teachers who select them. In his office, where shelves full of used textbooks cover a whole wall, Enrique Manchón explained the rush that happens at the beginning of the year.
Each year, editors send their own reference textbooks directly to him. “As I am listed as the coordinator, editors usually find me,” said Manchón, a senior Spanish instructor. “Textbooks are coming out all the time, so I’m always assessing the textbooks, and when a new edition comes up, it is a good time for us to review it all and see if we want to consider other textbooks.” If new, interesting content does come up, Manchón passes on the new material and discusses it with other professors.
Among the selection criteria, little place is made for the price. “I try not to think about the price. It is never going to be cheap,” Manchón said. Despite asking for a custom edition that leaves useless parts of the Cómo se Dicetextbook out, the Spanish professor observed that the price only dropped by a small amount.
Instead, for Manchón, the main criterion is academic. “The idea is to find a textbook that fulfills my sense of a pedagogical approach and hopefully one that also is going to be accepted by all” — in other words, one that is comprehensive and practical.
Gordon faces the same challenge in mathematics. “UBC has 1,700 students in first-year calculus,” she said. “It becomes an industry. [The content] has to be fairly standard. It shouldn’t vary that much from professor to professor.”
The textbook acts as a baseline for every teacher and allows post-doctorates, graduate students and senior professors alike to spread uniform knowledge. “You need a solid basis,” Gordon said.
The fate of textbooks
Through administrative channels, the list of textbooks ends up on the UBC Bookstore’s buy list. While some students prefer to shop on the Internet or at the discount textbook shop, a vast majority buy them at the bookstore. Debbie Harvie, managing director of University Community Services (which includes the bookstore), explained the process.
“[The bookstore] will look at last year’s history of sales, at the number of students expected in the class … and then determine what our initial order quantity is.” Old books are also bought from wholesalers, students or other universities that don’t use them.
As for unsold new books, they are returned to the publisher, while some of the used ones can be returned to the wholesaler. If they can’t be handed back, they are put on Amazon. “If the book has no value, we can’t return it [or] can’t sell it, we will donate it to Books for Africa,” said Harvie.
Come the end of the term, students face a choice: to keep or sell the textbook. For Gordon, two factors should be taken into account when facing this decision: family, and future use of a textbook. Your old geography or chemistry textbook could very well find another life in your little brother or sister’s studies; if not, students can sell their books at 50 per cent of their new price if the bookstore has put them on their buy-back list.
As for high-level, specialized books, they might help students who pursue a career where the knowledge they contain will be put to use — as in teaching, for example.
“Those are the books you want to keep and keep referring to,” said Gordon. “Some of my friends kept their old university books and still use them.”
Old habits die hard, and so do the best textbooks.
You can read the rest of the article here: http://ubyssey.ca/culture/the-textbook-industry-378/