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 ...
The Writers Are Unqualified and Probably Have No Interest in the Topic
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?
"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.
"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.
"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 ...
"Expert" Fact Checkers Can't Be Bothered
"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.
"'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.
The Proofreaders Don't Speak English, Add Errors
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?
"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. 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 ...
The Deadline Is the Bottom Line
You, cultured reader, might read that title and think, "Indeed! That is the very foundation of business!" Hopefully this has placated you, and you have recovered your eyewear. Don it, for it shall be knocked out again: In the textbook industry, hitting that deadline is more important than anything -- even if it means omitting extremely vital information.
"After Hitler's death, Gremany was defeated, and we all lived happily ever after.
I once worked with the Texas School Board, writing a middle school text. One of the topics was Texas ecosystems. I did my research and came up with a dozen or so unique ecosystems that exist in the state. Unfortunately, the deadline was looming like a massive schoolyard bully waiting to pummel me into cryptobiotic soil, so I contacted the publisher and had the following conversation:
Me: Hey, friends, I don't think I have enough time to really flesh out all of these ecosystems for the students of the great state of Texas. It may be best if we push the deadline back a day or two."
Publishers: Whhhaaaat? Miss a deadline?! You'll never work in this town again, you shameful harlot!*
Me: Oh God, oh no!
Publishers: Haha, nah, we're just messing with you. Fuck it. Just pick four and do those. The kids'll just have to pick up the rest of their ecosystem information on the street, like we did.
*Not an exact transcript
"Yo, you want some of that marshlands, some of that tundra, some of that rain forest? What you need? I got you."
So that's how it came to pass. I picked the ecosystems I thought were coolest, and that's what we went with for the official textbook. If you are in middle school in Texas, I'm sorry that you have no idea what a prairie is. That one's on me.
The Names on the Textbook Mean Nothing
But you, distinguished reader, know what to look for: You only buy textbooks from esteemed and respected professors. Well, that fancy professor is probably a very nice person, but she didn't write your book. And you'll never know who wrote it, because when I submit my work to the publisher, I am required to remove all indication of my involvement -- no byline, no credits in the back, no thank you note, and no accountability. This is so the publisher can take full credit and assign authorship to whomever they like.
"I don't give a shit who it is as long as he has a beard. Beards equal sales."
It works like this: The school district hires the publisher, who outsources the actual content creation to a writing company, who hires a contract writer like me to make all that "not book" into a big steaming pile of "book." If your textbook said "By Joe Schmo, Some College" on the cover, there's no way you'd shell out a car payment for that sweet, succulent knowledge. But thanks to the industrywide ghost-writing system, you end up buying books from experts in the field who not only had nothing to do with the textbook, but may actually be horrified to discover the kind of ridiculous (sometimes plagiaristic) crap that is being attributed to them.
"Apparently I'm vaguely racist against Swedes now."
But it's not like the industry is hurling this stuff out there en masse without paying any attention -- they pay a lot of attention. To the updated "new" editions, at least ...
Updated Versions Are Just Rearranged Content
Remember standing in the college bookstore, trying to decide between buying a four-year-old calculus textbook for roughly the price of a wet sandwich or the brand new edition that cost six times as much? It's always a gamble: What if there was something in the new edition that was substantially different? What if it was actually worthwhile, or even worse, on the test? Better buy the new one, just to be safe.
And that is, of course, exactly what they're counting on.
"Damn right. Those two new paragraphs you bought just paid off my boat."
I sometimes contributed to assignments that were works in progress, which means I got to see what was being changed from one edition to the next. I would say that a solid 80 percent of the comments I saw were changing page and chapter numbers. The rest was roughly 15 percent formatting adjustments, 4 percent typo corrections, and 1 percent actual changes to content. This is, in part, why textbook prices have risen 812 percent since 1978.
Don't feel bad if that number is mind-boggling to you. Your math books were probably written by someone who failed algebra.
Basically what I'm saying is that your suspicions are absolutely correct: Updated editions of textbooks are old content, lightly rearranged. That $180 price difference goes into changing some page numbers and rewording a chapter or two, while the rest is presumably used to bankroll those sweet cocaine parties that the textbook industry is so famous for.
For more truth bombs about our educational system, check out If Schools Told The Truth.
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