Making school texts to satisfy choosers, users
Southborough, Mass. — If you are old enough to have children in school, you probably remember Dick and Jane. Or perhaps you knew Janet and Mark, their main competition in the postwar basal reader market.
But if you opened your children's reading books today, you wouldn't find Dick , Jane, Janet, or Mark. They are gone, replaced by children of various races and incomes. And in today's math books it isn't always the girls who are measuring for curtains while the boys handle the money.
Times have changed and so have textbooks, bending with the trends and rolling with the research that suggests new ways to teach.
Today's textbook publishers have to pay attention not only to the educational quality and the cost of a new product, but also to the politics of the marketplace.
Since the 1960s many states, by public demand, have passed laws and written guidelines specifying what may and may not appear in textbooks. California, for example, mandates that racial and sexual stereotyping be removed from textbooks and that junk food not be shown.
In areas without legislation, educators themselves may reject a book because it offends their own or the community's values.
Publishers have written detailed instructions for their writers and illustrators to make sure their books conform.
The states with rigid requirements influence what the rest of the country sees in textbooks, because publishers cannot afford to put out a separate edition for each state.
''One satisfies their needs and then whatever ones one can identify,'' said Thomas G. Anderson, director of planning and business development for Ginn & Co. , a big publisher.
Publishers also pay attention to the guidelines of big cities, said Nina MacMillan, a project manager at Addison-Wesley, another one.
States with guidelines on adopting textbooks are not in absolute control, Marlowe Teig, senior vice-president of Houghton Mifflin Company, said, explaining that a publisher that is fair has little trouble meeting requirements. In addition, he said, publishers can, and sometimes do, decide not to publish for a particular state.
''People confuse censorship with selection,'' Mr. Teig said. A new textbook is the product of a complicated process involving business, politics, and education.
Textbooks must teach the children who use them, please the adults who will select and pay for them, and, of course, make a profit for the companies that produce them.
Textbooks last about five years, and replacing them keeps a highly competitive, multimillion-dollar industry busy.
Publishing companies spent millions of dollars and many years producing the new books that were waiting in neat stacks on the teachers' desks last fall, and they are already working on the books that will be there in the next 10 years.
''There is always some new program or a revision of an existing program in the works,'' said Mr. Anderson.
The decision to write a new textbook or series is in large part a business decision, according to Mr. Teig.
It begins with the same kind of market research another company would do to sell soap. The first question asked is whether there is a need for a new book, said Ms. MacMillan. Has the way the subject is taught changed? What does the competition have?
Then publishers ask who will be buying the book. What do they like and dislike?
Is the timing right? Twenty-two states require state approval for adoption and they, especially the larger ones, influence when the whole country gets new books because they are such a large share of the market.
A state adoption doesn't mean everyone in the state has to buy that book, only that the company may try to sell the book there. An adoption can mean big money. In California, for example, the adoption of a reading series can mean $40 million or more.
And finally, what will it cost? A new reading series costs at least $12 million to develop and a single text takes about $1 million. In short, the company has to decide if a new product will be worth the investment.
Once the decision to go ahead has been made, the writing begins. Publishers find authors by attending national conferences and reading professional journals to see who has good ideas, Mr. Teig said, and many of the authors used are referrals from authors already being used.
Most of the authors are free-lancers and often work on teams to write series.
Few of the unsolicited manuscripts that are sent to publishers are used, he said, but the authors are sometimes hired to work on other projects.
The higher the grade level, the more likely the book will be written by a single author, an expert or specialist.
During the first year there are meetings, outlines, trial assignments, more meetings, and more outlines and final assignments.
In the second year the art department gets called in. ''At this point you begin the process of deciding what the book is going to look like,'' Mr. Teig said.
Decisions have to be made on the kinds of illustrations and paper to be used, on the number of maps and other graphics, and on the size of the book.
Hundreds of people are involved in the preparation of a textbook series that includes teachers' manuals and workbooks, said Mr. Anderson. ''It is a very intricate business to manage.''
Some of the work is done ''in house'' by the company's own designers and editors, and much is done by free-lance writers and artists who may, in turn, hire other people to work for them.
As the artwork and text are being developed and pulled together, the company keeps one business eye on costs and the other on the marketplace.
There is a constant juggling of educational and business decisions, said Ms. MacMillan.
''People are fond of saying that it costs as much to publish a book that doesn't sell as one that does,'' Teig said.
Design decisions are often influenced by cost, and salespeople are called in to comment frequently because they know best what will sell, he said.
When the books reach a certain stage, they are tested on students and teachers for their effectiveness as teaching tools and their attractiveness to potential buyers.
Competition in the textbook industry has become stiffer in recent years with declining enrollments and tax revolts cutting school budgets.
Smaller companies have been selling out or going bankrupt, Anderson said, because a company needs large capital resources to develop new products.
Some growth is expected in the next decade because enrollments are expected to increase slightly and because, what with being dropped in puddles and serving as homeplate, textbooks do wear out.
''People always have to buy textbooks,'' Ms. MacMillan said.