Educational Publishing

Educational Publishing: Views for Editors

May 18, 2005
Organized by David Couzens and Christine Freeman
Notes by Dawn Adams

Panelists were:

  • Liz Russell, Director of Development for Teachers' Curriculum Institute
  • Claire Masson, Managing Producer at Addison-Wesley/Benjamin Cummings
  • Lana Costantini, Vice President and Executive Editor at Straight Line Editorial Development
  • David Couzens, freelance editor in math and science
Because schools are everywhere, making textbooks is big business, whether elementary-high school (el-high or K-12) or college. Educational publishing, with its guaranteed audience and defined target market, creates a highly competitive environment among publishers all seeking a piece of the pie, or preferably the whole darned thing.

"Twenty or thirty years ago, textbooks were one- or two-color, without much illustration," said Liz Russell, Director of Development for Teachers' Curriculum Institute, a publisher of social studies materials. "Now, books are bigger and heavier, customized to various state standards. There is an enormous range of supplemental materials out there—print, online, CD. We start with core content and move out from there."

In the el-high market, state adoption programs play a key role in determining content. With today's technology, it's possible to create a textbook that is specifically geared to satisfying the standards of a large market such as Florida. Customizing a text can be as simple as adding a special title page or as complex as adding material about the state or tables correlating textbook content to a state's standards.

And then there's the political angle. "Publishers have to create materials for students working below level, for second-language learners, etc.," said Lana Costantini, Vice President and Executive Editor at Straight Line Editorial Development, a team that does writing and editing for major publishers such as Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin. "This has meant that there are three more books for every level."

Russell noted that pressure groups play a huge role in el-high publishing because it's generally public money that funds schools. A textbook that is used throughout the state has to satisfy everyone—not an easy task. Costantini said that quite often, publishers get around dicey issues like the Big Bang vs. creationism by generalizing.

"Publishers avoid specific numbers," Costantini said. "In the language arts, there are whole lists of things we can't mention. Publishers aren't really to blame; there are small, vocal groups of people who pull their kids out of school and sue" if controversial material is included.

Another factor unique to educational publishing is the influence of the academic calendar, David Couzens, freelance editor, noted. Books have to be available for the start of the school year, which means they must be marketed in the spring. And, according to Russell, for open-territory sales (states without adoption programs), sales people have to start selling even sooner.

College textbooks differ from el-high in that there are no state adoption programs, and satisfying the needs of pressure groups isn't such an issue. But as in el-high, there is intense competition among publishers, as the life of an edition gets shorter and shorter. From the 1980s to the present, the number of educational publishers dwindled because of acquisitions and mergers; those that remain have become extremely cost-conscious and risk-averse.

"The life of an edition is down to two years now, where it used to be four," Russell said. "One impact of the consolidation in educational publishing is that each publisher has to get a bigger share of the market."

According to Claire Masson, Managing Producer at Addison-Wesley/Benjamin Cummings, a college textbook can often be updated with a media edition, meaning that a new e-book or website is added to the previous edition. Unlike K-12 textbooks, college textbooks rarely have annotated instructor's editions. In Masson's specialty, multimedia, the model is shifting from additional coursework to online homework and assessment testing.

"Students do not go looking for extra work," Masson said. "The test bank is the biggest opportunity in college-level textbook publishing. Universities are in the same situation as schools—the number of teaching assistants has been cut, and class sizes are large. Publishers have invested heavily in delivering online homework and testing."

The college textbook market has also been changed by the growing sales of used textbooks. According to Masson, the first edition of a college textbook is the make-or-break one, because with used textbook sales, the publisher must recoup its costs the first go-round. However, there is now an opportunity to sell an additional, online component to students who have bought a used book, making multimedia development key.

"There are advantages to technology," said Couzens. "If you know from the get-go that you want to do a CD-ROM and a website, you can build them in to the work flow. And while people are outsourcing, it doesn't all have to go to India; we freelancers can be the 'outsourcees.'"

However, the proliferation of multimedia doesn't mean that traditional print will go away, either in college or K-12. Varying levels of technology among school districts and colleges make it highly unlikely that books will disappear from the curriculum.

"Publishers would like to push ahead on technology, but school systems are so under-funded," Russell said. "This industry is like a football field: well-intentioned people are at one end, teachers and kids are at the other, and every ten yards there are obstacles."

Familiarity with state standards can give freelancers a boost in el-high. "Publishers are always looking for people familiar with standards to write ancillary materials," Russell said. "And test writing is an art. Many publishers do separate content booklets to address state standards. For example, California asks for a standards map."

The Marco Polo website collects standards information. In addition, each state department of education publishes its standards on the Web. And locally, there are curriculum libraries—ones in Alameda and San Mateo were mentioned—that have state-adopted books available for review.

Having content-area expertise is also a plus for finding work in educational publishing. Couzens' background in hard science and engineering has garnered him projects with Addison-Wesley, working on a physics database, and with Elsevier, working on scientific journals.

"The developmental editor for a college textbook could be in-house or freelance," Masson said. "For the sciences, these people are very hard to find. Accuracy is vital in the sciences."

For freelancers who are interested in educational publishing work, the cost-cutting in the industry, the growing integration of technology, and the reduction of in-house staff all open opportunities for copyeditors, proofreaders, developmental editors, and marketing specialists.



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