35

For example for an undergrad CS/ECE course, say Intro to Computer Networks, there are about 5 textbooks published by the top 15 publishers in the last 20 years. Why aren't there way more textbooks, since there are probably tens of thousands of people (academics) who have the necessary knowledge to write such a book.

Is it because:

  1. publishers don't publish a book about a topic for which they already published a book previously;

  2. or academics don't think writing a textbook is beneficial for their careers and royalties are very low?

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    Because it's a task as huge as it is thankless, would be my first guess. – gnometorule Jul 2 '16 at 20:16
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    a) Writing a book is a lot of trouble. b) Unless you write a blockbuster, your royalties will be in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. – Bob Brown Jul 2 '16 at 20:16
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    5-10 textbooks for one course is a lot of choices. Unless all of them are bad, adding another to the pile is pretty much pointless. – user37208 Jul 2 '16 at 20:19
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    Unless all of them are bad — Every textbook approaches the material differently than the instructor would, given free rein, unless the instructor actually wrote the textbook. So if you're a control freak like me, then yes, all of them are bad. – JeffE Jul 2 '16 at 20:38
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    @J.Roibal. Generally, I'd estimate that the royalties divided by the time it takes to write a text works out to an hourly wage that's less than you would get in a job where the only requirement was the ability to ask "Do you want fries with that?" – Rick Decker Jul 2 '16 at 20:45
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As in the other comments and answer: it's a lot of trouble, doesn't generate money, and doesn't generate status, either. In fact, it often generates anti-status, for various reasons: because of the other features, many academics (I'm in mathematics) would never consider writing any sort of book at all... and many of these people seem to subliminally want to rationalize this as a positive virtue by denigrating anyone who does write a book (especially a textbook). This is a fairly typical mechanism: declare the desired state a virtue... I've had "colleagues" say to me, quite snarkily, upon hearing that I was working on a book, "Oh, you must have a lot of time with nothing to do!" Sigh...

It is also true that there is pressure from publishers to make new textbooks as similar as possible to old textbooks... which perpetuates certain features that one might decide are not so good. That is, understandably because publishers want to sell books, a new textbook "has to" resemble existing ones enough to compete in the market for those books.

Another disincentive, of a different sort, is the point that nowadays with an internet, one needn't have pseudo-perfected a body of material before putting it on-line, because it can be corrected, tweaked, etc., indefinitely. In contrast, a physical book's immutability creates pressure for a degree of perfection that is (relatively) very expensive (if only in time and energy), due to severely diminishing marginal returns. The very linearity of a book creates similar somewhat-fake problems... And physical books are not searchable! It's crazy! :)

So, I personally have written some texbooks, didn't make much money... Nowadays, I mostly just put textbook-like material on-line, thus without the constraints of old-timey publication. This similarly generates no status-points at all, and no money. :)

  • 2
    Not that you need status points (which I imagine are about as useful as SE rep), but I think you get some sort of points in the eyes of many researchers for your "vignettes." (I also think Rota's statement about people being remembered more for their expository work is at least half true. I'm sure what I'll be most remembered for is something stupid like my Exceptional Math Reviews page.) – Kimball Jul 3 '16 at 11:53
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    But, great mathematicians like Bela Bollobas and Terrance Tao write books ! Not to mention Hardy, Timothy Gowers, Herbert Wilf, Serge Lang, Paul Halmos, etc. – user230452 Jul 3 '16 at 14:23
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    @Deepak, I've heard of a few other people in-effect-deliberately making a bit of money from a calculus text. Probably Stewart's timing was better, so, yes, some luck, in addition to deliberation, thus, more money. So it seems that some success is deterministically repeatable, but degree is not clear. E.g., how would you compete with the on-going enterprise of "Stewart's Calculus", for one thing? – paul garrett Jul 3 '16 at 16:01
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    @Kimball, it is heartening to hear that those vignettes are useful to people! Occasionally I've been told by "colleagues" and department heads that anything other than publication in peer-reviewed journals is not a significant part of a mathematician's job... can even be a sign of frivolity or dysfunction. Our yearly "activities reports" explicitly make a sharp distinction between that sort of "publication" and everything else. But it's pretty obvious that the vast majority of "publications" are of no interest to anyone except to put on the ol' CV to show dept heads and Deans and NSF. Sigh... – paul garrett Jul 3 '16 at 16:17
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    ... and for a long time it has seemed to me that it would be a sad thing if parts of mathematics collapsed under their own weight, due to too much "traditional publication" or even the chaotic arXiv ocean of (pre-) publication, while lacking high-ish-end "synthesis". I think even an attempt at distinguishing "research" and "exposition" is misguided (and leads to dubious editorial mandates...) Oh, well, ... – paul garrett Jul 3 '16 at 16:20
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In my experience, reason (1) is less important than reason (2). Publishers will publish a book if they think the potential market will pay off their investment in production, marketing, distribution, and all the other costs they'll incur. My first book was published even though the publisher already had a book on the same topic (yeah, stupid on my part, but I never thought about the pitfalls inherent in competing in-house), which is partly why I said (1) was not particularly important. If you look around, you'll find that many publishers, especially the larger ones, carry more than one book on a subject, particularly for intro- to intermediate-level courses, in the hope that a potential adopter will find some of their offerings acceptable.

The more important reason, in my opinion, is that at many schools in the US, a published textbook counts for little or nothing when decisions are made about tenure. Writing a text is a time-consuming project: most of the texts I've written took from one to two thousand hours of my time. For an untenured faculty member, a much better return on investment would be to use the time getting articles published in respectable journals, or whatever's appropriate for their discipline. When this subject comes up in conversation with a junior faculty member I'm unambiguous: save the book-writing until after tenure.

  • 2
    "you'll find that many publishers, especially the larger ones, carry more than one book on a subject [...], in the hope that a potential adopter will find some of their offerings acceptable." I've received as many as four texts to look over for one class from a single publisher. And two different editions of one of them. – dmckee Jul 2 '16 at 23:58
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    You don't necessarily need to write books just to get published. You could write them for yourself too. – user230452 Jul 3 '16 at 14:24
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    @DCTLib Hmm ... What about the satisfaction of creating a book ? And, the feeling of having understood something better and the feeling of having made something that will last ? – user230452 Jul 3 '16 at 18:03
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    You can't pay the mortgage with feelings. – Wetlab Walter Jul 4 '16 at 1:02
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    @user230452 The feeling of having understood something better and...having made something that will last --- Isn't that why we do research? – JeffE Jul 4 '16 at 11:26
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First of all, without knowing much about the subject you mentioned, I'm willing to bet that the premise of your question is simply wrong and that there are actually quite a lot more than 5 books on Intro to Computer Networks published by reasonably well-known publishers in the last 20 years. The world is a big place, and the publishing world is also much larger than you think, and don't forget it includes books written in languages you don't speak (yes, believe it or not, many textbooks are written in languages other than English) or that cater to an audience from a geographical region or academic subculture you have no connection with. The numbers you cited (5 books, top 15 publishers, last 20 years) are clearly just your own private speculation and have no evidence backing them, so assuming that they're wrong with high probability is one way of answering the question.

Second, another way in which your question is unfortunately not very well-formulated is that it's phrased as a multiple choice question but offers only two choices, none of which really come close to the heart of the reason why more textbooks don't get written (to the extent that there's anything that needs explaining here, since as I said in the first paragraph, a lot more textbooks actually do get written than I think you realize).

The truth is that writing textbooks is simply very hard. Academics have to decide what they will work on at any given point in their careers and what they will invest their limited time and energy in, so naturally they will opt to invest those resources in projects that will have the best impact on the world, their scientific community, and their personal careers (where these considerations are ordered differently according to what that person cares about most), and that have the best chance of success. Writing a textbook is a big project that takes anywhere between 1-4 years, and sometimes much longer (I personally know an author who took 15 years). While there are a lot of people who would like to undertake such a large project in some utopian, hypothetical sense, when it comes down to the practical task of actually sitting down and writing one, many people end up being deterred by the large effort and degree of focus that this task requires. By contrast, some alternative ways for academics to invest their time in that can be just as beneficial as writing a textbook, like working on short-to-medium term research projects, or even long-term research projects that yield intermediate deliverable products like actual publishable papers on a short-to-medium term basis, end up being a lot more suited to the psychology of many academics and hence a lot of people will prefer to focus on those other approaches to making an impact and advancing their field and career.

Finally, I have two other remarks about some of the reasons mentioned by others for why more textbooks don't get written. One is that I disagree with those who say that writing a textbook is a thankless task - my experience is that if you write a good textbook that actually helps your field in a substantial way rather than just present a slightly different point of view from 10 other textbooks, then that is likely to win you a lot of respect and admiration from colleagues, and even translate into material career benefits - promotions, speaking invitations, maybe job offers, etc. Overall, if you choose your textbook project wisely and have the talent to write a good one that makes a real contribution, it can be just as good for your career as any other thing you could be doing with an equal amount of time. It can also teach you things that doing other activities will not teach you, and make you a better and more disciplined scientist in ways that will eventually produce their own benefits far into the future. So those secondary and tertiary effects also need to be considered, but perhaps it's true that those benefits are not sufficiently appreciated by many would-be authors.

The second remark is that I also disagree with people citing the low royalties as reasons why anybody doesn't write a textbook. All the other activities that academics do when they're not writing textbooks don't pay any royalties at all, so from that point of view writing a textbook is strictly more profitable than publishing papers, writing research software or whatever. This calculation of the royalties you get divided by the number of hours it took you to write the book mentioned in some of the comments is completely nonsensical - you are paid a salary by your university while writing a textbook, just like you are paid a salary when you write your latest paper or do anything else. So, to summarize, yes the royalties are low, and certainly I don't think a sane academic will write a textbook for the royalties it will earn them, but just as certainly no one will not write a textbook because the royalties are low. If an academic decides not to write a textbook, you can be pretty sure that they made that decision for completely unrelated reasons.

8

I can't really speak personally to what does/n't motivate an established academic to work on textbooks, but I do have a little insight on the work involved. I'm currently writing/editing for an established broad IT textbook series. I suspect there are a few big things that factor into an individual's calculation:

  • There's a tension between finding a field/niche that is both new enough that there isn't already an authoritative, entrenched textbook but large enough to support a book (both ways--there's enough content to cover and enough programs/classes/teachers/students to have any prospect of making money). I would guess a clear majority don't work on topics that clearly need a textbook.

  • If there is already an established textbook, you're probably going to have to go through several editions just to get legs under it unless you or your publisher have enough clout to convince professors/instructors/departments to leave a book they already have developed curricula around.

  • This treadmill effect means you're pledging to give up a certain amount of time every few years if the broader (trans-edition) project of the "book" is to succeed. My perspective on time may be skewed by the size (quite large) of the books I'm working on, but I'd guess most minor to moderate revisions (updating for gradual change in the field or your own pedagogy; no large-scale restructuring/rewriting) take between 2-20 weeks of full-time work (without accounting for time spent procrastinating by those who find writing/editing less fun than research/mentoring/teaching).

  • Given the above, I would guess there aren't many people with the stamina to write a substantial first-edition textbook in less than a year without neglecting (or being excused from, or not even having) teaching, research, and/or family responsibilities.

  • I think there's a relationship between how much time you get to spend teaching material and how successfully you can structure it in a way that is useful for students and other teachers, which I suspect makes it hard for early-career academics to quickly turn out a textbook that will really resonate with others, but may make it (relatively) easy for mid/late-career academics to build a textbook from a body of material they've been iteratively shaping for many semesters.

  • InRe: "treadmill effect" That is at least partly an artifact of the economics of the traditional publishing industry. Given the possibility of e-publication or print-on-demand these days, there ought to be a way to sidestep some of the traditional infrastructure of the publishing business. But simply going the vanity press route wouldn't be it. You need some kind of vetting by professionals (in the field, not in publishing) to certify that the book is ready for prime-time. Maybe the structure of open-sources journals would provide a model, but who has the time to look into it? – dmckee Jul 3 '16 at 0:03
  • @dmckee If you just want to write an open source book, just post it and let people know, and some will start trying it out (at least in fields without a wealth of good free textbooks). I looked at a bunch and picked one that looked good but I'd never heard of before for my Discrete Math class. Similarly, I've heard some people used some of my online notes for classes without me doing any advertising. – Kimball Jul 3 '16 at 11:59
5

Wow, what a lot of negativity re writing textbooks. Let me offer a more positive perspective, at least in the field of mathematics. I've written seven textbooks over 30+ years, some solo, some with colleagues. One is at a beginning undergraduate level, two are at an advanced undergraduate level, and four are graduate texts. The first was written primarily while I was a post-doc and appeared as I was applying for tenure track jobs, the second was written while I was in a tenure-track position. Yes, they were a lot of work; the rule of thumb I've learned (for me) is to estimate the amount of time it should take, and then triple it. Would I have done better, career-wise, to have spent more time on research. Possibly, who can know, but I'm satisfied with how things have turned out.

My personal answer to "why write a textbook" is primarily:

Here's am area of mathematics that I love, and I'm writing the book that I wish that I'd had available when I was learning the subject.

Or, in a similar vein, the undergraduate cryptography textbook that I wrote with two colleagues is designed for a course that we teach, and it presents the subject in the way that we find most interesting. This is not to say that there aren't plenty of other cryptography textbooks with perfectly valid viewpoints, but they don't say what we wanted to say.

There is also a great deal of satisfaction in holding in one's hands a book that one has written, and it's great to receive positive feedback from readers. There's even satisfaction in receiving lists of errata, since it shows that someone cares enough to carefully read your book!

As a practical matter, as others have indicated, it's easiest to write a book after developing the material as a course and creating detailed lecture notes. But the road from lecture notes to polished publishable book is neither short nor straight.

Finally, since it seems apposite, I'll end with a link to an article that I recently wrote entitled: Rational points on, and the arithmetic of, elliptic curves: A tale of two books. It details some of the history behind the writing of two of my books, and is (freely) available at http://www.ams.org/journals/bull/0000-000-00/S0273-0979-2017-01542-X/S0273-0979-2017-01542-X.pdf

  • While I'm not saying your post isn't valuable, it doesn't really answer the question of "why don't more academics write textbooks?". This answers why some academics do. – tonysdg Jan 25 '17 at 2:29
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    @tonysdg Good point, it is a "non-answer". I guess that I viewed the question as implicitly raising the issue of "what are the pros and cons of publishing textbooks", but I'll admit I may be reading in something that's not there. However, I think that I will leave my answer, rather than deleting it, because otherwise this thread may lead young academics to believe that publishing textbooks is purely negative. And I don't think that that was the goal of the original question. – Joe Silverman Jan 25 '17 at 2:48
4

As someone writing a text there are 3 reasons to write one.

  1. Money from royalties
  2. Career advancement and reputation
  3. Advancement of the field

Regarding 1 I anticipate that the money I have spent traveling to visit my collaborators will exceed the money that I will receive in royalties.

Regarding 2: My hope is that this establishes me as a leader in the field in the eyes of people outside the field (I'm sufficiently respected within) - which will then help my career. The rewards probably don't justify the effort I have put in from a purely objective view however. The same effort put into departmental politics or grant writing or publishing would probably yield comparable outcomes.

Regarding 3 - this is the reason I'm actually writing it. I think there is a gap in the field that is best filled by a single broad coherent overview (as opposed to review papers or more research papers).

Once this book exists, all 3 motivations are reduced for other potential authors.

3

In the UK there is strong academic pressure to produce work which will add to the research rating of the school/institution, since that in turn governs a critical portion of the funding received by the institution. Rating is not governed simply by the number of citations but by a system of rating how valuable your contribution is to the field Lure a Nobel Prize winner to your department and you may get lots of money. Support someone who's written a good textbook and you may get nothing. Which means a textbook won't look great as a reason to hire you.

This is a strong disincentive to those who might want to write a textbook early in their careers.

There is also a disincentive if there is already a strong or well-established textbook in the field - nobody will buy a text book which their tutors / professors have not recommended. And getting a new textbook recommended might be easier in a technical field, where old ones may be out of date or there may be no older ones. Doing it in, for example, history is much trickier.

Again, basing this on the UK pattern, most students will get by with purchasing as few books as possible. They will download stuff from the internet, use material from libraries or just ask a friend - again this applies less to technical and professional material. Trying to write a history textbook is a mug's game - no one will buy it unless they have to and most students won't have to - "Why can't you just put it on the internet?"

The introduction of tuition fees in the UK over the last couple of decades has led to students feeling that they have already paid enough for their education and that the information they need should be provided for them - again on the internet.

0

2 is more like it, though perhaps the royalties for a well used text would be reasonable if all the students in all the courses for which it was set actually bought it. But my last book didn't net enough to cover the time writing it.

I've several times had publishers ask me to write a textbook in areas where I have a high research profile (and some already have multiple related textbooks). Early on I considered it, today I wouldn't (although I'm working on something that could be called a textbook but isn't). I'd rather write another research monograph, but in such a way as it could be used as a textbook for a senior undergraduate or postgraduate class (no exercises, problems or answers). As an EIC for a book series I seek research monographs, but if they also double as textbooks, great!

But, if you are interested in citations, writing a well used textbook is the best way to get lots of citations without doing anything original - because most students are lazy and cite the textbook, rather than reviewing the work and citing the seminal work, the key developments, and actually getting up to date.

An easier way though, is writing a good review paper. A better way still, is writing a good critical review that doesn't just rake over the coals but organizes the work, and sets out a pathway for future work in the field - I liken it to SWOT analysis.

Many textbooks are written by people who are more experts on writing textbooks than experts in the field they are writing about. In fact, spending your time writing and revising textbooks tends to STOP you being able to be at the forefront of the research in the field. But there are exceptions, time out for a top researcher to write one good text (not normally the Q&A type), and back to good research. Some combine good research with the textbook - and still get gazumped. I'm thinking of the Minix/Linux saga here with Tanenbaum's Modern OS textbook...

For me it comes down to time more than money, I want to be working on tomorrow's version of the field, not recapping yesterday's! But if some publisher paid me enough to fund my next three years' research (say $1M) I'd be happy to spend six months writing a textbook. In practice, the royalties would be a fraction of the salary for the time spent.

-1

Because you can just hire an undergraduate to TeX his lecture notes and have an easily amendable script specifically tailored around your course. Although it does not generate you any income, it requires a lot less effort than going though the whole publishing process of a textbook and yet serves its purpose exactly the same.

  • 1
    This doesn't answer the question. – Ben Crowell Jul 3 '16 at 0:13
  • Well I've seen (used) notes that have been inherited from others (and modified by me gradually over the years) that originally were the produced by a poor (in the pecuniary sense) but bright (in the intelligence sense) postgraduate contracted to fill in a missing but required bit of syllabus. So who owns these notes? And where would I find to write a textbook when what they (dept, govt) want is for me to spend all my time teaching and supervising and then write a dozen research papers a year. – David M W Powers Jul 4 '16 at 15:04

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