A few times recently I’ve heard some discussion of textbook writing. The underlying question always seems to be whether or not it is worth writing a textbook. You can understand the hesitation. The barriers are fairly obvious. Textbooks are clearly not seen to be of any value in research assessment exercises. As a result the worry is that they will take up valuable time in which they might be working on something that is seen to be of more value. This is one of those outcomes of the measurement of research that gets little attention, and its a real shame that this type of restriction is placed upon the type of writing people do – especially when it might have important outcomes for the development of disciplines and teaching. Beyond this concern, there are often other worries that emerge around time management, maintaining enthusiasm, managing to be comprehensive enough, the difference in writing style, the commitment required and so on.
There is some discussion of textbook writing in this Times Higher Education piece from a few years ago. This piece outlines some of the benefits, but it doesn’t really get in to the way that textbooks can be used to spread ideas to new audiences. I rarely use textbooks in my teaching, but they can be of real use if they are vibrant and interesting. It is always helpful to have materials that outline and explore new teaching ideas and that develop questions that students might be interested in. So they do have some tangible value in terms of the development and teaching of ideas. It is worth defending. Sometimes the importance of communicating ideas and critical skills to students gets a bit lost in the talk of impact, citation and the like.
It’s been five years since my co-authored book New Media: The Key Concepts was published. I wrote the book with Nick Gane. The book has done reasonably well. By last December I think we had sole around 3,000 copies (I’m not sure how many we’ve sold this year). And the publisher, which was originally Berg until they became part of Bloodmsbury, have agreed the rights for a translated Chinese edition (which I think will be published later this year). The book is packaged as a textbook, with discussion questions and boxed examples, but in many ways its a research text. We tried to capture what was going on in new media theory and translate it for a broad audience. We only discuss 6 concepts and we focus on each in detail (with an introduction and conclusion that attempt to situate the work in contemporary problems, questions and debates). Each chapter has an argument, as does the book itself. We found this was the only way we could really engage with the material and produce something fresh. We wanted the book to be accessible but to break some new ground, yet the book is clearly a textbook and is aimed at a broad audience. But, hopefully, because of the way we try to build arguments and engage with some difficult theory there is still something in there for researchers (at least that was our intention).
Despite the limitations and obstacles I’m pleased we wrote the book. The book has been really well priced from the outset (ranging from 11.99 to its current price of 14.99 on Amazon). It’s got to a fairly big audience (i think there have been some illegal PDF knocking around as well). So it is probably one of the more visible things I’ve done. Plus it’s been really nice to hear about it being used in lecturing and research. In terms of reach, the new media book has definitely got to different types of audiences – even if these are actually quite modest in terms of size. In terms of my own development, it was a real learning experience to work with Nick on a book project within a year or so of completing my PhD.
So, I would say that it has been well worth writing a textbook. But I think it was also worth us shaping the content on our own terms, it was also worth the time we took to reflect on the way we thought the book should work. I suppose that it is important to consider the practical implications of taking on a textbook. I must admit that I didn’t really think about these at the time, I was too eager to work with Nick on the book. But it seems to me that the pressures of time and the need for certain types of research outputs is felt more strongly now, particularly by people who are just out of their PhDs. We maybe need to resist a little and protect the variety of types of writing that are needed to maintain the vibrancy of disciplines.