U professors try their hands at writing books

Ken Eisinger

As summer nears, many professors anticipate trading in their duties as teachers and committee members for roles as authors.
When texts become outdated, many University professors take writing into their own hands. The University Bookstore’s World Wide Web site lists 320 University professors who have penned their own textbooks in the last five years.
Math professor Bert Fristedt was dissatisfied with available textbooks in the 1980s. He recalls teaching from texts that were outdated by more than 20 years. Fed up, he and co-author Lawrence Gray decided to write their own book.
“We just started in the late ’80s, and by the late ’90s we had a book,” Fristedt said. “It took 10 years because we kept becoming dissatisfied with what we had already written.”
Fristedt published “A Modern Approach to Probability Theory” in 1997.
Richard Leppert’s book debuted the same year.
Leppert, chairman of Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, taught classes on imagery in art for 25 years. He endorsed a book called “Ways of Seeing,” which was published in 1972 but never revised.
“I found that each year I was spending more time with my students, telling them the ways in which the book was no longer adequate,” Leppert said.
Leppert spent three years in biomedical museums and art galleries across the United States and Great Britain compiling his text, “Art and the Committed Eye.” In an effort to keep costs low for students, Leppert said a lot of what he wrote “ended up on the academic equivalent of the cutting room floor.”
Cost for students was a large concern for Leppert during negotiations with his publisher. Costs are affected by length, number of reproductions and quality of paper. “Art and the Committed Eye” uses coated stock paper for clarity and contains 10 color reproductions. A new copy sells for $25.60.
“The students use the book, sell it back to the bookstore and get half their money back,” he said. “That’s 12 bucks, and as far as art books go, that is one cheap book.”
College of Liberal Arts sophomore Doug Brinkman said that he did not mind buying his professor’s textbook for the biology class he took.
“I think teachers should get paid more than they do,” Brinkman said.
Carissa Ryan, a CLA sophomore, said she initially felt apprehensive taking a class from a textbook author. The parallel between the text and the lecture turned out to be a plus.
“I felt more confident,” Ryan said. “If I had to miss a lecture, all her ideas were in the book.”
Many authors employ techniques to make material readable and student-friendly.
Leppert’s book improves on previous texts by discussing a wider range of representations of gender, race and class. Fristedt’s formula for a hit math text is to offer a variety of problems and to center chapters around the most difficult ones.
In his text “Fundamentals of Mass Communication Law,” journalism professor Donald Gillmor used several techniques to make sometimes complex and archaic legal language readable. His book includes definitions printed in the margins, outlines at the end of every chapter and photographs.
“How many law textbooks have photographs?” said Gillmor, who has written textbooks on mass communications since 1969. “It’s practically unheard of.”
Textbook writers don’t necessarily win more points with tenure promotion or review committees, Gillmor said. Texts are often co-authored derivatives of another’s research, he added.
“There’s nothing wrong with writing texts, but generally a textbook is less significant than a book that’s purely original,” Gillmor said. “It’s a tougher racket.”
It’s not always guaranteed that books will be huge sellers, either.
“Fundamentals of Mass Communication Law” did not get the hyped-up release Gillmor had hoped for because the publishing house he wrote for got absorbed by a larger firm, International Thomson Inc.
According to the Association of American Publishers, textbook authors’ royalties are generally 7.5 percent of profit. But textbook writing can a be a lucrative undertaking if an author corners the market on a discipline, Gillmor said.
“I made substantial money in the field before my colleagues and former students began competing against me,” he said.
Leppert said he feels good about his textbook, which students have lauded in evaluations.
“The student response matters to me the most,” he said. “They’re who you write for.”