Textbook Writing

A few weeks ago, I had a YIR post on my External Service. In that post, I mentioned that I was spearheading a book series. A commenter, Nick, asked this after the post:

I am actually fascinated to hear about the process of writing a book as a professor. It was always quite the hot topic in school to go buy books written specifically by your professor. I would be curious as to the pros and cons. Does the money help fund side research? What kind of time goes into it? Do you structure is [sic] so you can teach a specific class?

Nick brings up a few interesting questions about buying books written by your professor. I have to be honest, when I was an undergraduate, I thought it was improper for a professor to require their own textbook for a course they were teaching. There are mainly two reasons for this, one of which should directly answer the first question about “does the money help fund side research”. The first reason I thought it was improper was that it seemed like unnecessary self-promotion and it left students little opportunity to question the professor about the supplemental material in class (i.e., the book). But more importantly, I really disliked it for the financial reasons. In ~2004 during UG, I remember having to buy a professor’s textbook, which was used for the class he was teaching, and said textbook was about $120. So naturally naively, I did the $120 x 45 students in the class calculation and said “Holy shit! This professor is making $5,400/semester when he teaches this class!”

This is wildly misguided, although faculty do directly profit and the money does not go to their research group. Most textbook deals for authors range in the 10%-25% of the sale price to be split by the authors. That $5,400 is a large overestimation and is more like $540-$1,350. If you have multiple authors, then that amount typically gets shared equally. So on the surface, it seems like a professor is “getting rich” off their students from selling their textbook to them. But in reality, the amount of money to the authors is minimal. I happened across my MS thesis advisor in the break room at UNCC when I said, “Hey, I just got your book on order.” His response was priceless. He held up his coffee mug and said, “Well, thanks for buying me this cup of coffee today.” His cut of a ~$60 book sale amounted to about the cost of a cup of coffee.

This mirrors my own experience writing an SPIE Field Guide (the link is a shameless plug). That contract nets me 15% of the sale price (and tops out at 20% with sufficient sales). Ebook versions net me 20%, flat rate. This translates to about $6/book. In my course, my book is not required but certainly recommended. I did have a student who, similar to when I was an UG, questioned the profit motive of requiring (but it wasn’t actually required) my own book for my course. My response was fairly simple. If a student thought that I was unduly profiting, then I would personally refund the 15% of the list price to them. To some, this may sound crazy. After all, I did spend a lot of time planning, writing, and editing the book. Why should I forego my share of the sale for this seemingly moral dilemma. There is actually a very simple reason for this doing this and it is not a moral reason and it directly relates to Nick’s second question.

The amount of time put into preparing and writing a book complete outweighs the amount of money the author will make from it. I didn’t write my Field Guide for the money. I wrote it because there was a void in the knowledge space and I sought to fill that void. The only books that rake in money are the books that are for core classroom topics that have many majors and many programs. Topics like Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology (all the “101/102” classes) have tens of thousands of students enrolled in hundreds of programs in the country. These are the textbooks that make money and frankly, there would have to be a sizable shift in a program to warrant a completely new textbook from a new author. Thus, when faculty write textbooks, they are usually related to their research which inherently has a smaller audience. If an author makes a few thousand bucks from book sales, they’ve got a hot seller. So in my case, the return from the book sale to an individual student is so minuscule compared to the hours put into writing the book, that its not worth the argument with the student over the philosophical debate of unduly profiting.

Even if the author truly received $120/book (my original UG assumption), the money still wouldn’t work out for most engineering faculty. The time investment to write a book would still dwarf that return. Most engineering faculty have opportunities to do outside consulting. In my experience, if an engineering faculty member is looking for more money, the smarter (and much more efficient) place to look is in consulting. During the final push to meet my deadline, which was already pushed back twice, I was waking at 4 AM daily to work until 6:30 AM and then once my daughter went to bed, I would work for another 2-3 hours. This went on for final 4-6 weeks. Then there was editing, fixing figures, editing again. And then I received peer reviews, which required more edits, more changes to figures, and more copy editing. In the end, I felt really proud of it (and exhausted). And now I cringe every time I see a typo, or minor mistake, or something that squeaked through editing. But all that time and effort dwarfs any financial return I will ever make from the actual book sales.

As to Nick’s last question, the answer is yes. Many faculty who write a book do so because they are teaching a course where there is insufficient material from a single source. For example, my grad course pulls material from ~4 textbooks and ~4 SPIE Field Guides. At some point, I will likely pull my lecture materials together to produce a book that includes all of the material that I think it should include. In the end, this would make it easier (and cheaper) for the students in the course.

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