6 February 2008

Textbook tribulations

Posted by Jessica Ball

An interesting part of my job is that I end up doing a lot of different (read totally unrelated) things. Since I work for a non-profit organization, we can’t just hire people on whenever we have a new project or come up with new duties that need to be taken care of, so current employees pick up the slack. Asking someone in my office to tell you their job history gets you such a circuitous route to their current position that throwing darts at an organizational chart would probably have gotten roughly the same results.

As a symptom of the “Here, see if you’re any good at this” distribution of projects, I’m now working on photo research for an environmental science textbook.

Which, at this point, is what’s making me wish that putting my fist through my computer screen would actually help me feel better. Because we’ve redone all of the photo documentation at least twice, been told of the photo requirements in increments by the publisher (who seems to disappear for months at a time, only to return and make us redo everything), accumulated a horrible number of photos we need to get copyright permissions for, been told by the publisher that we need to make every drawn figure 30% different than the examples we supplied, and had to eliminate every initial photo in 17 chapters because they all depict students (who we don’t have permission to show). Oh, and did I mention that the author has now decided he’s no longer interested in being involved with the work? And that there are now exactly three people, including me, working on the entire project?

I understand that this is probably an unusual situation and not the norm, but in case any of this is typical of textbook writing, I’ve got a few requests.

To the authors: If you’re going to include specific information on what photos you want, please don’t pick images from non-public-domain sources and then refuse to accept alternatives. If you don’t mind the photo researchers choosing alternative images, don’t make your captions so vague or weird or specific that we can’t figure out what you want or can’t possibly find the image. (I.E., don’t ask for things like “Photo of beach wrack, perhaps with a sand flea biting a beetle.”) Because I work for a non-profit organization, we have to find public-domain images before we can pay for copyrighted ones, and there are very few useful sources for high quality geology photos.

And please, if you don’t want to be involved in a project, don’t accept the job and then duck out of it and refuse to help your researchers.

To the publishers: Give us all your publication requirements before the research starts. What size does the photo need to be? What resolution? What file type? How do you want them organized and named? Who’s responsible for copyright permissions? Who needs to pay for copyrighted images? Who owns the rights?

Set reasonable deadlines. We understand that you’re trying to meet a publication date, but if you expect a very small team of people to completely redo all the work they’ve already done because you didn’t like the formatting, you shouldn’t expect it to get done quickly.

I was never really aware of all the work that goes into textbook writing, but my introduction to it (aside from reviewing chapters from a text that a professor was revising) has certainly been less than glamorous. I think the main problem with this project is that there’s been a major lack of communication between the three parties – publisher, researchers and author – but not for lack of trying on our part. My one consolation is that, at the end of this, I’ll have my name on the title page of a textbook, although if I’ve gone completely insane by that point I won’t really be able to enjoy it.