6 Disturbing Things I Learned Writing Your Textbooks

Academic textbooks are wildly overpriced. We can pretty much all agree on that. If you've ever spent rent money on the required reading materials for your class on the socioeconomic impact of ALF, you know the pain of which I speak. But what most of you probably never imagined is how misinformed, lazy, and opportunist many textbook companies are. I've written textbooks for two years. I've covered every subject, and I'm here to tell you that ...

#6. The Writers Are Unqualified and Probably Have No Interest in the Topic

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Ahh, academia -- the land of rigorous research standards and carefully thought-out conclusions. Surely this is where our knowledge comes from, handed down on high from those who have spent countless hours with their noses buried in books instead of coke and the genitals of strippers, and who have thus achieved the highest academic accolades. Right?

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"Begone, temptress. The only Alps I wish to peruse are the ones crossed by Hannibal."

Nope! Turns out textbooks aren't just written by laymen; they're written by laymen who don't give a shit about the subject. Once I worked on a textbook about Canadian accounting. Not even Canadian accountants give a shit about Canadian accounting. The problem is that the experts generally have more interesting stuff to do than write basic, tedious textbooks on the subject. Low-level textbook writing isn't exactly glamorous work. The company that hired me to write textbooks (for enormous, major publishers!) did so for exactly one reason: I have a B.A. in English. That's it. End of requirements. And I wasn't a special case.

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"I was B.A. Baracus one Halloween."
"Do you want intro to chemistry or Russian lit?"

While my degree almost certainly qualifies me to write articles for the most prestigious dick joke-themed websites, I'm probably less prepared to expound on the nuances of phlebotomy, even though I've totally done exactly that. The fact is, every word you're reading in that high school-level textbook was probably written by someone who is only a couple years older than you with approximately the same dedication to the subject matter. You're taking that class for a passing grade; they're writing that book for a paycheck.

"But you're working for a textbook company," you might be saying, "surely there were special resources available?" Yes, sometimes I was given some help, but the vast majority of the time, that "help" was just another textbook, most likely written by another textbook freelancer (a different, less attractive version of me). More often than not, all I got to work with was an outline, and outlines by their very nature do not contain content, just a list of subtitles that will fill out my chapter. I still have to find the information myself, and since I'm no expert on interdisciplinary research practices in the modern nursing profession (another actual topic), then here I go a-Googling; a-Googling I go.

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"If it's good enough for Yahoo! Answers, it's good enough for Vassar."

Which is why we're getting fourth grade history textbooks that claim slaves fought in the Civil War on the side of the South. Some overworked freelancer based their research on a racist source, and no one bothered to fact check. Because ...

#5. "Expert" Fact Checkers Can't Be Bothered

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"But there simply has to be a fact checker at some point!" you sputter incredulously, jostling your tea and possibly even popping a monocle out of your eye, depending on the degree of your outrage. True, we do have subject matter experts (or SMEs), but they rarely have more than a single day to edit and review entire chapters of content before sending them back with no notes or insight. That's not an exaggeration: In all my time writing textbooks, I have never gotten feedback from an SME.

And it's not like I'm some exceptional super-writer who never needs to be corrected -- the simple fact is that these "expert" fact checkers have neither the time nor (in some cases) even the actual expertise to do so. The "expert review committee" for that history book I mentioned in the last entry turned out to be nothing more than three elementary school teachers.

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"'In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blu-' I paid $250 for this shit?"

Of course, most elementary school teachers are brilliant, noble, and underappreciated champions of education -- but that doesn't mean they know any more about the role of Virginia's slaves in the Civil War than they do about luxury yachts or those "emojis" the kids keep talking about.

Fact checkers are employed only for isolated portions of a given text. This means that the lady who reviewed my chapter on tornadoes is not in any way affiliated with the dude who looked over my chapter on hurricanes. So if you've ever picked up a brand new textbook and found it to be rife with contradictions and errors, the reason is probably because you're the very first person to bother reading it all the way through.

#4. The Proofreaders Don't Speak English, Add Errors

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The company that hired me outsourced much of their proofreading to a third party, often to a country other than that of the intended readers of the textbook. The nation of choice at my company was India, and while they seemed like perfectly competent people who I'm sure had a great number of skills, carefully analyzing the grammar and mechanics of American English was not one of them. Sure, English is prevalent in India, but fluency isn't guaranteed, and even if it was, they're two dialects removed from the reader. Are you qualified to proofread for a Jamaican company just because you watched Cool Runnings eight consecutive times and once took a two-week Caribbean holiday?

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"I'm back from the salon. Let's do this."

There was a particular project I worked on that had already been through the proofing stage and was moving on to publication. To say that there were errors is like saying the Hulk might have an anger management problem. The course in question was about geography, and a key list of nations read:

Gremany
Suisserland
France
Angeland
Pershogal

Gremany. You know: where gremlins live.


"Unfortunately, Europe ignored the warning about not feeding them after midnight."

At least this was due to shoddy quality control. Sometimes there were much more sinister things at work ...

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