What's behind text appeal

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McGill Reporter
October 19, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 04
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > October 19, 2000 > What's behind text appeal

What's behind text appeal

Illustration: Tzigane

The line-ups occur like clockwork every autumn. Shortly after receiving the reading lists for their new courses, students troop off to the McGill Bookstore to purchase their required textbooks, grumbling about the $50 to $100 they have to spend on some of the sturdier tomes.

It's a scene that plays itself out on university campuses the world over and it speaks to an essential truth about higher education: it's not about who you know, it's about what you read.

Textbooks play a pivotal role in the teaching of courses and the publishers who specialize in producing them participate in a multimillion dollar industry.

The people who write them, who tend to be university professors, tell different stories about their experiences. Some butt heads with their publishers over content. Some complain that after they've put in long hours to create an engaging and comprehensive teaching tool, their efforts tend to be looked down upon by colleagues. And the pay?

"Is it financially rewarding? Given the number of hours we worked on it, I would say no," says management professor Manuel Mendonça, co-author of the human resources textbook Compensation: Effective Reward Management.

Economics professor Chris Ragan is a co-author of two highly successful textbooks -- the Canadian and American editions of Economics, a work that is often required reading for first-year economics classes across North America. The Canadian version of the book is now in its 10th edition. Ragan has been on board for the last two.

He enjoys working on textbooks. "I think it's a lot of fun. I really enjoy teaching and I see this as teaching in another medium."

He acknowledges that writing a textbook isn't always regarded as an especially important contribution to scholarship by other academics.

"I didn't get involved in [textbooks] until after I received tenure and that was a conscious decision. In my department, I think [writing a textbook] would have been perceived in negative terms."

He believes such thinking is wrong-headed. "One thing that most professors realize is that textbooks are valuable, especially for introductory courses. Our students want textbooks. They like the structure they give to a course.

"So should we leave the writing of them to people who aren't especially good at it?"

Ragan believes working on textbooks makes him a more thoughtful professor. "I like to believe my own research is better because I do the textbooks," says Ragan. "It involves getting in touch again with the basics of economics. And that drives home to me what the really important issues in the discipline are."

Another popular entry in the textbook market, The Textbook of Pain, is co-edited by emeritus psychology professor Ronald Melzack.

Despite the title, Melzack views the book "as more of a reference book than a textbook." Still, he acknowledges that the book, or portions of it, is required reading for many university courses. A quick search on the web indicates that the University of California, Davis, the University of Queensland, University College, Middlesex University, Wayne State University and Texas A & M University all use the book for courses.

Now in its fourth edition, The Textbook of Pain features chapters written by specialists in particular areas of pain research; pediatrics professor Ronald Barr, for instance, was recruited to do a chapter about pain and young children.

"We ask the contributors to write their chapters so that they can be read by an intelligent student who can get past the lingo," says Melzack.

Putting these kinds of books together is no easy task.

It requires "an enormous amount of work" and involves "a terrific amount of integration," says biology professor Robert Carroll, author of the 1987 book, Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution. "I had to cover every group of vertebrates, from fish to mammals."

Carroll's book was designed as a scholarly overview of its topic and as a teaching tool for upper year courses.

Mission accomplished; the book is required reading for courses at the University of Modena, the University of South Dakota, the University of Michigan, the University of Otago and Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Carroll says the book hasn't made him rich, but it's helped him carve out a reputation. "It's put me in a conspicious position in my profession. If anyone wants to find out about vertebrate paleontology, they tend to be steered towards the book."

He estimates that the book has sold more than 12,000 copies over the years. Not blockbuster numbers, but far better than the sales figures for most academic books. And with the book seen as something of a classic in its field, Carroll can expect hundreds of students to continue to buy it for their courses in the future.

Given its enduring popularity, you would think Carroll's publisher would be keen to cash in by mandating Carroll to do an updated version.

In fact, given the new information uncovered since the book was first published, Carroll himself wants to update it.

"I've talked to my editor but her opinion is that [the book] is sort of like an encyclopedia; she thinks the information is almost all there already." As a scholar who knows that science doesn't stand still, the company's position "doesn't make me too happy," says Carroll.

Most publishers are more than happy to encourage their authors to update their works. Maybe a little too happy.

The students who put down their hard-earned dough to buy textbooks often muse, "Just how often do these things need to be updated anyway?" Students, who would prefer to buy cheaper, used versions of a textbook, cock a sceptical eyebrow when asked to shell out $85 for a new, revised edition.

"I probably felt exactly the same way when I was in their shoes," says Ragan.

"That's not really an author's decision. I would be delighted to do [a new edition] every four years, instead of doing it every three years. It's the publisher's decision to put out a new edition.

"In the U.S. there are books that are updated every two years. That's a cold, calculated business decision. Publishers don't make any money when you buy your book secondhand."

Says Melzack, "The newest edition of The Textbook of Pain came out five years after the last one and I think that's reasonable for a field that moves very vigorously. There was a real advance in our understanding of neuropathic pain between the first and third editions, for example, so you do have to update the book to keep it current.

"You see some books coming out in new editions in fields where things don't advance as rapidly and you have to think that it's just about selling the book."

While Ragan thinks new editions often appear too soon on the heels of a previous one, he defends the need to update textbooks periodically.

"When you look at Canadian economic policy, there are major changes that occur over the course of a few years. We weren't talking about the brain drain five years ago. Fiscal surpluses are a big issue today. Five years ago we were talking about deficits.

"The basic themes of supply and demand are unchanged, but the policy debates are always shifting."

A new edition offers writers and editors an opportunity to fine-tune their work as well.

"When you update a book, you step back and take a good look at it," says Ragan. "What are we doing wrong? How can we improve it?

"My students let me know what they think. The publisher hires users of the book to review sections of it and we pay attention to that, too.

"With a 10th edition, you would think most of the bugs would have been worked out. But we're always coming up with ideas to improve it."

"We're always thinking about the book between editions," agrees Melzack. "Which chapters were strong? Which chapters were weak? What are the areas where things are changing quickly?"

Even in years where there is no new edition of a book to promote, publishers still try to entice students into buying a brand new copy of a textbook, Ragan notes. "They'll offer you something a little extra with a new book -- a free CD ROM with a study guide, for instance.

"One thing I've learned is that there is a lot more to putting together a book than just writing it and sending it in to the publisher," Ragan adds. "The publishers put a lot of effort into graphic design and marketing."

That can lead to conflicts between authors and publishers with different aims.

Mendonça, who wrote Compensation with fellow management professor Rabindra Kanungo, says the pair enjoy a generally good rapport with their publisher. "But there are tensions sometimes.

"The desire on their part is to make the book as attractive as possible, with many pictures and diagrams. Our preoccupation is with the text and with the examples we want to use.

"There is pressure to compromise. To keep the cost of the book down, you have to keep the number of pages down. The diagrams and pictures occupy space so our [text] is reduced.

"Sometimes concepts are not as thoroughly explored as we would have liked."

Mendonça says Compensation isn't a typical textbook in that it doesn't really offer a standard overview of its subject. Instead, the whole book is tied to a theoretical model that the authors created to explore issues related to compensation.

When they first shopped their idea to publishers, Mendonça and Kanungo weren't pleased with some of the responses.

"Different publishers suggested we just Canadianize an existing American textbook that dealt with compensation. We simply refused to do that. Canadian professors can think as well as American professors. We didn't just want to copy something."

"I am surprised at the number of people who get rid of their textbooks," muses Ragan. "I kept mine for years after I graduated. They're such useful reference books."

Melzack says he still gets a kick when he spots a copy of The Textbook of Pain in a colleague's office.

"It's a pretty thick book. I can't miss it."

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