Friday, 19 August 2016 17:18

Turning an Idea into a Textbook—a Back-to-School Special

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Published in Microbial Sciences

Book tunnel on the upper level of The Last BookstoreFigure 1. Book tunnel on the upper level of The Last Bookstore or entryway to the mysterious land of newly materialized textbooks?  It’s hard to tell.  Photo credit: Steven Goins

Sitting on my bookshelf between ハーパー・生化学 (Harper’s Biochemistry) and Principles of Microbial Diversity is the copy of Brock Biology of Microorganisms from my undergraduate days.  Its presence is a testament to its longstanding usefulness—and to my age.  As I contemplate the differences between my nostalgic edition and the latest one, I think about all the students preparing for classes this fall.  When I picked up my textbooks as an undergraduate student, I never considered how the information presented was gathered, vetted, and ultimately arranged for my benefit.  Textbooks were the infallible products of equal parts paper and magic.  They were spontaneously generated in secret, far-away places, known only to publishing companies who plucked the nascent tomes and delivered them to bookshelves worldwide, for a hefty fee. I didn’t put much thought into the effort, skill, and time required to create a textbook. This was simply the way of things: I went to the bookstore, and books were there. 

Textbook Blog-figure 2-SGoinsFigure 2. When magic meets paper—if only writing were so easy!  Part of another art display at The Last Bookstore, one of my favorite places to spend money in Los Angeles.  Photo credit: Steven Goins

Not So Spontaneous Generation

How does a textbook come into being?  Before magic ever comes into contact with paper, someone has to have an idea.  Not just an idea; an idea and the motivation to see it through.  Motivation is key, as you’ll soon see.  The idea first needs to be fleshed out and put into context.  What kind of book or textbook will it be?  What topics will it cover?  How does it compare to other books already published?  At what level would the information be presented and how many would use this text?  These questions, and more, first need to be addressed and at ASM, for example, this is done with the author- or editor-to-be submitting a proposal to the acquisitions editor for review.

Because books need to be available when customers want them, a number of expenses come up front, making the investment risky if due diligence isn’t done to ensure the book would be desired by readers.  This is why the acquisitions editor must critically consider an aspiring author’s proposal and solicit feedback from the publisher’s editorial board and other experts in the given field.  Marketing research needs to be done as well.  At ASM, the proposal also goes before the Books Committee and often the head of the editorial board for Microbiology Spectrum.  All of the people involved in this process consider the question of whether or not the book is needed.  If they decide yes, the process of putting words to paper begins.

Textbook Blog-figure 3-SGoinsFigure 3. Nascent tomes—publishers must rely on authors and editors to bring forth new texts.  Years of hard work culminate in a textbook that, to the reader, seems to have spontaneously appeared.  The other half of the art display shown in Figure 2.  Photo credit: Steven Goins

The Development of Nascent Tomes

Ask any writer and he or she will confirm that creating an appealing literary piece is, sadly, only smoke and mirrors covering up hard work by numerous people.  Even this simple blog piece is not my creation alone.  My fellow blog writers and ASM staff play important roles in its development, and for these I am grateful.  Scale this effort up to a textbook, and now the project involves a staggering number of contributors and steps.  The lead author or editor not only commands text to paper, but also herds cats (i.e., other authors) to do the same.  Depending on the content and style of the book, the writing process can take on one of several forms.  For example, contributors may respond to a call for chapter submissions and their review.  Alternatively, the proposal-creation stage may have established writing teams who work to produce the necessary chapters or sections on a pre-established timeline.

Multiple people have written about their first-hand accounts of this process, and I’ve provided links to a few of them in the further reading list below.  A common theme is the large amount of time and effort spent managing one’s own contribution along with the pushing and prodding of others.  This time and effort are critical.  The scientific information provided needs to be up-to-date and accurate,  requiring contributors with expertise who will spend hours and hours poring over the scientific literature. An even greater amount of time is spent determining what makes the cut, what has withstood the rigor of scientific investigation strongly enough to teach as fact, and what previously taught information needs amending.  Scientific facts can come with an unknown half-lifedue to the continuous evolution of our understanding about this world.

Textbook Blog-figure 4-SGoinsFigure 4. A small section of my home library.  What self-respecting microbiologist doesn’t have a pair a plush microbes guarding her precious textbooks?  The dinoflagellate (left) was gifted by a student who enjoyed studying harmful algal blooms with me and thought I needed an algal subject easier to see.  The rabies (right) along with the signed copy of Principles of Microbial Diversity were parting gifts when my ASM Science Communication and Strategic Marketing fellowship ended.  Note: In ASM’s Headquarters there is a room with an entire wall of shelves that are filled with books belonging to ASM’s Books division.  It was my favorite room to drop by.  Nearly everything a microbiologist could want was there, the literary world of microbes at my fingertips and in multiple languages no less!  Photo credit: Steven Goins

Furthermore, as the relevant information is assembled, writers and editors need to ensure that it is adequately and understandably conveyed to the intended audience.  This means countless revisions and lots of back-and-forth rewrites. However, writing doesn’t occur in an academic vacuum; all authors are simultaneously conducting their own research, managing the students and personnel in their labs, teaching courses, and preparing their own contributions to the pool of peer-reviewed scientific literature.  It’s not surprising that this process can take years from start to finish.

Coming to a Bookshelf Near You

Finally, in a process no less wondrous than my imagined trek to the far reaches of the globe seeking newly formed volumes, books are brought into physical form via sophisticated equipment and a layout team who skillfully arranges the pages of text and images so that when printed on extra-large sheets of paper that are then folded, cut, and bound, everything appears in the correct order and uniformly aligned.  Walking through this process with the company that prints UCLA’s Undergraduate Science Journal, I felt as though I were watching a card trick being performed with exquisite sleight of hand.  Even with our small-scale publication circulated only on campus, the costs of test copies, corrections, and final printing add up quickly, along with the demands on time and energy.  Imagine a 900-page textbook for the global market, and my earlier analogy to magic seems less hyperbolic.

With my days as a student long past, I’m now on the opposite side of the classroom.  I’m in charge of selecting the literature for the courses I teach.  In considering which volume will give my students what they need, I’ve come to appreciate those who provide me with excellent options from which to choose.  I’m definitely a bibliophile, and when I think about the process of how an idea in someone’s head turns into the invaluable knowledge at-the-ready on my bookshelf, it’s hard not to be awestruck.  But it isn’t magic, it’s dedication and passion.

Do you have a great new idea for the literary world of microbiology?  There’s still some space on my bookshelf—hopefully one day I can read it.

Further Reading

Akst, J. (2012) So You Want to Write a Book? Advice on authoring a textbook, popular nonfiction, or even a novel.  The Scientists, 26(10).

Jones, N. (2010) Q&A: Peter Atkins on writing textbooks.  Nature, 463(612).  doi:10.1038/463612a

Lewis, R. (1989) The Trials And Tribulations Of Science Textbook Writing.  The Scientists, 3(11).




Last modified on Wednesday, 28 September 2016 15:44
Janet Goins

Dr. Janet Goins is Assistant Director of UCLA's Undergraduate Research Center. She works to provide undergraduate students with research experiences that prepare them for future success in STEM-related careers. Previously, her research focused on the ecological impacts of algal host-virus interactions, the evolution of and molecular steps involved in host cell pathogen defense, and the biological factors that influence harmful algal blooms. She was awarded a 2012-2013 ASM-BWF Science Teaching Fellowship and completed its program. In 2015 she received the ASM Science Communication and Strategic Marketing Fellowship.