We often talk as though publishing was a monolithic industry in which everyone has the same concerns, challenges and chances. But it's not so. We can see that in the amazing range of organisations belonging to the IPG.
After all, what do two businesses have in common if one publishes academic journals and the other erotic fiction? We shouldn't expect people working in those businesses to be thinking about the same issues or be subject to the same pressures.
One often sees this mistake made at publishing conferences and seminars—not at the IPG’s though, I'm always glad to find!—when presenters talk as though the novel was the model for all publishing, and an infallible guide for diagnosing all our ills. I've spent the past 20 years in a range of publishing environments, including eight years at an educational publisher, so thought I would share a few things about publishing textbooks that might surprise some people.
1 The author isn't always king
Textbooks are almost invariably commissioned to fill a gap in a publisher's list, responding to a clear market need driven by curriculum change or demand from teachers or students. The controlling hand is thus the editor's, not the author's. Authors are hired to deliver a book that adheres to a specific brief.
This isn't to say that authorial skill isn't vital, of course. But decisions about a book aren't the author's to make by themselves; they must follow the instructions and guidance of their publisher.
2 Competition is direct
We often hear that books now compete with TV, video games and social media—and this is true of books that are meant for entertainment. But textbooks don't compete with distractions, and are directly up against other textbooks and online resources. The question for students isn't ‘Shall I buy a book?’ but ‘Which book shall I buy?’
That’s why educational publishers work hard to create a personality or brand, so that teachers and students know what to expect from any new book. Which is to say that, unlike in many areas of publishing, branding plays a major role in educational publishing.
3 Presentation is content
Thanks to the technological changes of the 20th and 21st centuries, textbooks must have photos, artworks, attractive design, effective navigation, interactive digital components and more. Also, the readers are often young, and use the book under some level of duress. (Many students would rather avoid education than embrace it!) So presentation is a crucial aspect of a book—it's not just a pretty extra but a core part of the design of the product.
The rise of digital also means that educational publishers need to think ahead continually about what's possible, what's useful, and what teachers and students might want over a span of years.
4 Things take longer
Because of all that, it can take a long time to publish a textbook. Trade publishers are used to schedules that might be as quick as two or three months from submission—or even commissioning—to publication. But in education, six to nine months of continual, active effort is more common.
You can go faster, of course, but that means running bigger risks. Because these books get students through exams that might affect their whole futures, they won't buy content that is unclear or contains mistakes. Word of mouth about available books spreads fast among communities of buyers too. Publishers can't hide!
5 Allow yourself to be stupid
One of my favourite things about working in educational publishing as an editor was a small thing. When you're working on a textbook aimed at, say, 14-year-olds who are studying History or Biology for the first time, clarity is key.
As you're working, therefore, you might come across a section that you don't understand. That makes you think: "Perhaps it's just me; maybe I'm being slow." But no. If it's possible to misunderstand, then some students will misunderstand. And that means that, faced with any section you don't understand, it's definitely the author's fault—and the book needs to be improved.
John Pettigrew is CEO of We Are Futureproofs and has worked in publishing for companies including Cambridge University Press and Elsevier.