Sunday, March 04, 2007

On Textbook Writing

A professor writes to me:

I've been giving some thought to writing my own textbook (not in Economics-so fear not!). What advice can you give for those of us who dream to write?

Having been in the textbook writing business for almost twenty years, I have to admit an unfortunate fact: My sense is that most professors who start down this path regret it. Some start writing a textbook, find that they do not enjoy the activity, and abandon the project. Some write enough that the publisher sends the partial manuscript out for prepublication review, receive the bad news that reviewers don't like it, and then abandon the project. Some finish the book but experience disappointing sales; they abandon the book after one or two editions.

A fraction of those who start writing textbooks--I would guess about one fifth--make it past those three hurdles and find themselves with a successful book. Such a book can continue for many editions. Samuelson's classic text, for example, was a leading book for introductory economics for about a half century.

How do you know into which group you are most likely to fall? That is a hard thing to judge. Having observed many failed textbook projects over the years (I won't mention names), I notice several predictable pitfalls. They include:
  1. The author is too busy to give the project the time it deserves.
  2. The author is not particularly careful.
  3. The author has a writing style that is too dense or too mathematical for the intended audience.
  4. The author has views of the field that are too idiosyncratic to appeal to the vast majority of instructors who teach the course.

It takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness to recognize yourself in these descriptions. People are reluctant to view themselves as careless or idiosyncratic. Few academics will admit their writing is hard to follow. Such lack of self-awareness is one reason so many unsuccessful textbooks are written.

To avoid sounding too pessimistic, let me note as well the substantial upside of textbook writing. For me, textbook writing has been a wonderful activity. In an essay some years ago, I explained why it appeals to me:

I view textbook writing, like classroom teaching, as a good use of my time. One benefit is pecuniary. Few people in the world earn a living just creating knowledge. Most academics spend some of their time imparting knowledge as well. Giving lectures is one way of imparting knowledge; writing textbooks is another. So far, I have been able to make enough money imparting knowledge to students that I have not had to spend time on other activities, such as paid consulting, to put food on the table.

Of course, the most immediate benefit of classroom teaching and textbook writing is that they allow you to mold the minds of students. Economics is not a straightforward discipline like Newtonian mechanics or Euclidean geometry. Whenever you
teach economics, you have wide latitude in choosing what material to include and how to present it. In making these choices, you give your own "spin" to the subject and help determine the views of your students. Although classroom teachers and textbook writers share this responsibility, textbook writers reach a larger audience. For those who want to bequeath their view of economics to the next generation, textbooks are the most efficient medium. Indeed, because textbooks are so important in shaping the field, many of the most prolific writers in academic journals are also textbook authors: Samuelson, Baumol, Blinder, Stiglitz, Barro, Dornbusch, Fischer, and on and on.

A less obvious benefit of classroom teaching and textbook writing is that they stimulate ideas for research. Whenever you have to explain something to someone, either in person or on a printed page, you have to think it through more thoroughly than
you otherwise would. Preparing a lecture or drafting a textbook chapter reveals holes in your understanding. And, sometimes, as you try to fill these holes, you get ideas for research. Put simply, imparting knowledge and creating knowledge are complimentary activities. That is why these two forms of production take place in the same firms, called universities.