Breaking Into Textbook Publishing: The Field is More Level Than You Think


Academic publishing. One might think the entire system has broken down. The Internet is filled with articles and Weblogs (blogs) that bemoan the fact that quality scholarship often goes unpublished. With 44,000-plus newly-minted Ph.D.s each year, many of whom invade campuses to try to climb the tenure ladder, the competition to have one’s work published is fierce. So where do part-timers fit in? Is it even more difficult for those who hold part-time faculty appointments to find publishers for their scholarship and research?


According to Cathy N. Davidson, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, co-founder of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, and a professor of English at Duke University, in her article “Understanding the Economic Burden of Scholarly Publishing” printed in the October 3, 2003 issue of The Chronicle Review, the crisis in scholarly publishing is real, “and it signals a major threat to scholarly communication as we know it.” The focus of her essay revolves around the financial decline of the university press, the center of academic publishing. In the essay, she identifies several theories. They include the aforementioned tie between book publishing and tenure, the rise of chain bookstores and electronic booksellers, and the jargon of post-modern critical theory shrinking the audience for the humanities, among many others.


“The most basic aspect of scholarship–the foundation of our profession–is at risk under the current model of who pays to publish the books and articles we write,” Davidson writes.


According to Dr. Timothy Burke, an associate professor of History at Swarthmore College, and frequent poster to the now-defunct Weblog Invisible Adjunct (, disciplines have come to rely on books as an “absolutely [quantitative] marker of merit,” and it keeps administrators from “having to judge the relative merits of intellectual work according to some sort of transportable standard.”


“The crisis in scholarly production is not about books: it’s about the fact that in some disciplines, the book is the fetish-object that shapes one’s chances for hiring, tenure and promotion. It’s those systems that need forcible intervention in this regard.”


Within this system, Burke says part-timers face unique challenges in getting their books published. He synthesizes those challenges thusly:


  • 1. How to do it when you don’t have the support systems that tenure-track faculty have (salary, time, access to resources, sabbaticals).
  • 2. The problem of gate-keeping in peer review.
  • 3. The expense and difficulty of “shopping” your work at conferences and so on (e.g., that it is important to give papers that showcase some aspect of your publication in order to get it academic credibility).


So what’s an adjunct author to do? Surely with these additional challenges, and all the tenure-track faculty fighting over the last drop of press ink, a part-timer might as well be resolved to vanity publish.


However, that’s simply not the case. Adjuncts are getting their textbooks published–but not without hard work, ingenuity and determination.


Roger Bowles is a business adjunct at Kaplan University and Grand Canyon University, as well as a full-time associate professor at Texas State Technical College. He doesn’t believe full-timers have the advantage where getting published is concerned. He says: “I think it depends on how your material stands up against its competition.”


He also attributes persistence and marketing abilities as key factors in publishing success. He says when he was shopping his book, Critical Careers: A Guide to Opportunities in Medical Equipment Service, many publishers turned him down because they felt it addressed an overly narrow a field of study. However, he researched how to best approach publishers and present material before he attempted to sell his book. He subsequently pitched his book proposal to fifty publishers. He received four offers, including one from the eventual publisher, Upstream Press.


Agreeing that adjunct authors would be wise to learn how to market themselves and their work is Peter D. Lucash, CEO of Digital CPE, and Marketing adjunct at the University of Phoenix Online. He learned this when shopping his book, Medical Practice Business Plan Workbook – 2nd Edition, before he found a home for it at McGraw-Hill.


“As with any textbook, it’s the quality and marketability of the package,” Lucash says. “What makes your book better than someone else’s? Why would a faculty member…want to adopt your text?”


The key, then, to selling a work to a publisher is the book proposal. Peter Lucash suggests seeking out the sales representatives at academic conferences. The sales representative may serve as a referral to an editor, who will actually read the proposal. Lucash also looks for editors, who frequently staff publisher displays at academic conferences. They also attend the sessions and are on the look-out for potential authors.


“One editor told me that good speakers usually make good writers, so she looked for the good speakers,” says Lucash.


One adjunct struggling to get a book published is Dr. Margaret Eaton. She has worked as an adjunct since 1997, and currently teaches Beginning Hebrew and Greek Texts classes at the University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand. In 1996 she was able to get her book Introduction to the Study of the Bible published by Pacific Theological College Publications, the college press where she was a full-timer during the printing of the textbook. But Eaton now feels the frustrations of the industry as a part-timer, although she refuses to blame her current academic status for the struggle to publish her most recent book, Conversational Strategies in the Hebrew Bible.


While she understands that publishers need to take books that will sell, “when you see some of what is published you wonder how high their standards really are,” Eaton says. “They seem to like certain ways at looking at things and subjects which are currently ‘sexy.’ Some of what you read that does get published seems to string the fashionable phrases together with little regard for content. Of course, there are a good many people out there (academics among them) who think that what is incomprehensible must be good.”


In a cursory review of the publishing guidelines of large academic publishing houses, such as Jossey-Bass, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin, nearly all require the author to include a Curriculum Vita among the manuscript proposal materials. Some of the common specifics requested include information which details professional and educational backgrounds, teaching and research experience, awards of professional recognition, and prior publications. There is no requirement that overtly favors full-time faculty.


Lisa Kimball is the Senior Sponsoring Editor for Houghton Mifflin’s Developmental English division. She makes a point of saying that she doesn’t discriminate against part-timers in making her decisions about who should get published. She does admit, though, that editors who develop textbooks in other disciplines may feel differently about adjunct authorship.


“Grammar can be pretty boring stuff, and anyone who can make this material interesting and motivate students to learn the skills necessary to become better readers and writers is key,” according to Kimball.“ Any instructor who can show me that [s/he] can write content that will achieve these ends, I’d be interested in talking to.”


In fact, there are some subject areas in which it can be an advantage to be a part-timer, Kimball says. She explains that a large number of instructors teaching these courses are adjuncts.


“In addition, developmental courses are extremely practical courses, and I need to sign authors who are actually working with students in the classroom, not just doing research on the subject,” says Ms. Kimball.


Dr. Alfred Kahl hasn’t had any trouble getting his many books published. However, he got started while he was full-time professor. Since his retirement in 1996, Kahl has been an adjunct and on-line instructor, currently teaching in the School of Management at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Publishing company Thomson Nelson, Inc. actually approached him to co-author Contemporary Financial Management, First Canadian Edition, which they published last year, and Managerial Economics, First Canadian Edition, scheduled to be published in 2006. While he has had great success publishing his work, he believes there are some challenges for first-time adjunct authors.


“I would expect it would be more difficult for an adjunct who had not previously published any books to get the first contract,” Kahl says. “Publishers prefer authors from schools that have large enrollments for the book under consideration, because that makes it more likely that they [the publisher] will break even.”


Since publishers look at an author’s prior publications in determining future proposals, getting a first book published seems to be a key to serious consideration for authors. But how do you get that first published book under your belt that will pave the way for future success? According to Houghton Mifflin’s Lisa Kimball, a good way to break in to publishing is to write supplements, such as instructor’s manuals and test banks for existing products.


“Many companies have someone other than the textbook author write these materials,” she explains. “Many supplements authors have gone on to write textbooks, because they have proven themselves as effective writers.”


Kimball also encourages anyone who has a creative idea for doing something different in a course to write it up as a proposal and send it to publishers for review.


“We look for authors (whether they are full-time or part-time) who know the market, have ideas as to what makes current texts for a course successful or not so successful, and can come up with new ways of improving upon what’s already out there,” she says.


The bottom line, then, in getting a textbook published is selling an editor on the quality, merits and potential profitability of the textbook. Your academic credentials, prior publications, teaching or scholarly awards, exceptional marketing, and creative idea will help you close the sale. Make no mistake, textbook publishing is a highly subjective process. However, while there are significant challenges in successfully pitching a textbook proposal, everyone faces the same challenges, both part-time and full-time faculty authors. In short, the playing field is relatively level—excellent news for those part-time faculty looking to publish their books.



by Brian Cole