Serendipity, chance, and a lot of hard work go into creating any textbook. Given the changing market for texts, constant technological change, the open access movement, and the challenge of passing textbook committees and other potential barriers, publishers in this lucrative niche have reasons to wonder about the future. SAGE Publications may have found the perfect formula for success, a “gold standard” for today’s marketplace in the publishing franchise, in Sussex University’s Andy Field. Field has found his way through the challenges and opportunities of textbook creation brilliantly—while injecting his personality, life story, and humor—to create an award-winning and wildly popular brand in the unlikely area of quantitative research methods.
Discovering Statistics Using IBM SPSS Statistics, 4th edition (SAGE, April 2013), print edition, looks like any other traditionally printed text (a hefty 916-page tome); however, under its skin is something very different. (The ebook edition wasn’t available for review.) The collaboration formed between the author and publisher is something that other textbook writers and publishers could use as a blueprint for their own future projects.
Texts Should Go Far Beyond the Printed (Or E-Printed) Page
The old, traditional methods of teaching—at all levels—is changing radically today. Just as new models of learning and teaching abound, textbooks will be changing as well. Rather than sitting back and waiting for the dust to settle, you can be a part of the change itself. SAGE and Field are working to change the nature and role of the textbook—keeping it fresh, updated, and relevant—in an publishing arena that cries out for creative change.
Field’s latest edition, the first in SAGE’s new MobileStudy line, will be available in April as both a book and an ebook. A sample of the feature is available here. The book/ebook includes QR codes scattered throughout the text that allow students to “study on the go ... to access revision materials on their smartphone or tablet.” Making key portions of the text available in this format means students can still focus on ideas and access key materials that are specially formatted for the device platform.
Add Value Where It Counts—Nurturing Community
Why rely on sales figures or published reviews to gauge the value and impact of your work when you can use some of the existing social media to create avenues for input and critique? Altmetrics focuses on criteria that haven’t traditionally been used, but it will be replacing some of the standard methods of assessing productivity and value, and many of these use market-based statistics of use and outcomes as measures of success. Getting into the flow of your readers allows you to learn from your market as you go.
For Field, this includes setting up very active accounts in Twitter (with more than 2,300 followers), Facebook (with nearly 3,000 likes), Amazon (which promotes his books and favorite heavy metal music favorites), and even a companion website called Statistics Hell.
Using Technology Where It Counts—Mobility for Students & Teaching Aids for Faculty
This week, research reported from Connected Intelligence that there are now more than 500 million internet-connected devices in U.S. homes—and that, for the first time, smartphones and tablets outnumber PCs in that total. For students, toting around heavy texts is a pain—so making some of the key elements in the book (quizzes, formula, etc.) available in mobile formats allows students to augment existing smartphone-based features (clock, calculator, web access), which gives them more flexibility in their work/study/school lives. Looking beyond the text might allow faculty to better integrate a text with their own materials, pull information into discussions, class pages, etc.
SAGE’s use of WebAssign in the text (new to the fourth edition) allows instructors to “manage and monitor student’s progress ... set up and schedule assignments and track individual performance ... set questions for their students to practice, providing them with instant feedback whilst linking to the relevant chapter or section in the integrated ebook to help illustrate the correct solution ... All of this allowing individual instructors to mold the text to their individual teaching styles and integrate the use of the text to their own needs.”
“I do lots of video content for the book which I post on my YouTube channel,” says Field. “I really wanted to do a truly interactive ebook this time around, with some embedded video, and I had a few other ideas for fun and whacky stuff that could be done in an e-format. However, my publishers weren’t ready to go down that road just yet. In retrospect, I think I might have actually driven myself insane had we gone down that route, so they were probably right. I find it quite difficult to articulate what’s new—it was 7 months of solid work and a list of changes doesn’t do any justice to the work that went into it. Superficially, there is a new chapter on mediation and moderation, and yes I restructured things at the chapter level, but also within chapters, I added some new summary features like process diagrams for every analysis covered in the book, end of chapter pictorial summaries (with a love story attached to them!), re-wrote some of the chapters completely, heavily edited/re-wrote most of the chapters, added about 100 new tasks. SAGE also did WebAssign for this edition, which involved generating 650 multiple choice and numerical examples (most of which my wife wrote!).”
An Author Who is Present and Approachable
If you asked most students who authored their textbooks, few would remember. Making the text "real" almost requires that the author be more than a name on the title page. It doesn’t mean experts need to turn the text into a personal exploration or autobiography, but it may mean being able to pass along some of their experiences, their passion for the subject, which helps to humanize a text and make the content less onerous, especially to the neophyte learner.
Field’s first chapter, titled “Why is my evil lecturer forcing me to learn statistics,” begins with a picture of the newborn Field and information on his early years, his curiosity and love of learning—noting that “my curiosity to explain the world never went away, which is why I’m a scientist. The fact you’re reading this book means that the inquisitive 3-year-old in you is alive and well and wants to answer new and exciting questions, too.”
Field not only makes himself available through social media, but in his books, he introduces a variety of characters that he weaves through the text to give examples or highlight key concepts. This includes Jane Superbrain 1.5, Labcoat Leni, Smart Alex, and Brian Haemorrhage (who’s in love with Jane). In updated editions, Field has used examples that his readers/followers have sent him if he feels they better help explain or demonstrate key concepts.
SAGE’s Camille Gamboa says, “Andy is genuinely motivated to help anyone who is learning statistics. He aims to reduce typical statistics-induced anxiety via his fun, occasionally outrageous, but always well-crafted examples and ideas. Andy does what comes naturally to him —he writes in his own voice and often says that he couldn’t do it any other way.”
Connect to the Real World With Examples and Applications
Remembering your audience is always a good idea. Remember your last research methods class? Does the word "boring" come to mind? Engaging students in the topics through the use of compelling examples or real-world applications works to enhance and deepen the learning experience.
It takes a special publisher-author relationship to create the kind of synergy needed for this type of work. For Field, this began as a doctoral student assigned to teach statistical methods. “Ziyad Marar, our Global Publishing Director, met Andy Field at a psychology conference in the mid-1990s,” Gamboa continues. “He had been recommended as a bright, up-and-coming scholar by Ziyad’s then author and series editor Dan Wright (both at the University of Sussex in the U.K.). Andy was still a post-graduate student back then and was doing some statistics teaching for undergraduates as well, so he was able to speak to students both as a teacher and as a genuine peer. He had developed a deep insight into the anxieties students faced when confronting statistics as well as a determination to alleviate them based on his own experience of learning statistics as an undergraduate. Ziyad persuaded Andy to write a book based on these experiences and after it was approved by SAGE, the resulting manuscript was prepared along with an accompanying floppy disk—the height of new publishing technology at the time!”
Today, brand is important in every aspect of our culture, including education and publishing. Social media are providing new ways to reach markets/audiences as well as gather input, ideas, and create a reputation and presence. For authors and publishers today, the competition for the attention of your readers (and potential faculty-assigned readings) is very high and complicated with the push to open access and other ways to provide content and learning experiences.
In a 2003 interview, Field noted that the acceptance of the second edition surprised even him. “I can honestly say that I am absolutely staggered by how well it has been received. I didn’t expect it to sell at all (well, I thought my mum would probably buy a copy). Most important I’ve had so many nice emails from people saying it has helped them—from all over the world, which never ceases to amaze me. Every time I get one, cheesy though it sounds, it really does give me warm glow—like I might’ve actually done something worthwhile.”
Focus on the Audience As Much As the Content
To be asked to author a text for an established publisher is an honor and recognition by itself for one's expertise, reputation, and communication skills. The point of textbooks and classes is learning, and to learn, you need to engage learners and help them to get the maximum exposure and knowledge from the experience.
“The community around the book never ceases to amaze and humble me,” says Field. “I really enjoy getting photos of people, cats, dogs and other animals with the book, and I really enjoy interacting with readers on my Facebook page. It’s a reminder of the quite staggering (to me) idea that there are real people all over the world reading and benefiting from the book. I think that connecting with the people who use the book is a really valuable part of the process. This sort of thing would not have happened 20 years ago, but email makes it really easy for people to say ‘Hi, I really like your book, thanks,’ and social media makes it possible for people to realize that they are not a lone crazy fool for liking a stats book. It’s like a big, global support group for people who enjoy being nerds. I would have really liked that when I was a student. ... The best thing though is that it has enabled the book to become interactive with its audience in a very real way. In the latest edition I put photos of reader’s cats inside the cover, I used examples that people had emailed me about, I mention people who have emailed me things that sparked my interests, there’s a photos of some students doing a human regression equation.”
Just as other aspects of academe, teaching, learning, and culture are changing, conveying critical information for students as a foundation for their learning needs to change as well. Rather than fearing the changes, success comes from embracing change with creativity and perhaps even boldness.
“Andy’s book has continued to grow in annual sales and overall popularity over a sustained period of 12+ years in print—a remarkable feat for any textbook and very rewarding for us all to witness here at SAGE!” says Gamboa. “This is a testament to the imaginative flair and ingenuity of our author who has been given the freedom to express his unique voice in this book. We are very happy to report that in this 4th edition we have combined video, social media tools, new digital content online, and a mobile platform to provide extended teaching and learning resources for professors and students. With these digital initiatives we are pushing the boundaries in the advent of a new digital age, and arguably making a big step in the direction of providing a full online course solution for those who are teaching and learning statistics.”
Accept Criticism, As Well As Plaudits, As Part of the Game
Change comes with risks of criticism or even failure. That’s why textbook authors tend to try things out in their own classes or bounce ideas off colleagues and editors. Even if everything is clear and well-organized, there will be critics. Better to learn from this and use it as a springboard to product improvement than the alternatives.
Although some potential academic buyers are put-off by his style, it hasn’t put him off his mark. “For the overwhelming majority of Andy’s audience, his style resonates perfectly but there are a few occasions when it doesn’t,” says Gamboa. “We heard that his book was once banned by a certain bookfair because of his subtitle, 'And Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ Roll,' though we understand that the same treatment was afforded to a number of medical textbooks on anatomy at the same bookfair! Additionally, we have heard that his textbook is not a great favorite among some religious colleges in the U.S., though interestingly we once read a tirade by one Professor in one such college who then went on to say ‘but having said all that, my students love it so what can I do … ?’”
“The book and my style is certainly not to everyone’s taste,” says Field. “And I think that’s as it should be. I find teaching a very personal thing, and what works for one person isn’t what works for another. There are parts of the world where the book is not well received, and I have had emails from academics (normally in the U.S. it has to be said) accusing me of everything from being a morally-vacuous mind-corrupting imbecile to a Satanist. I take negative comments quite personally so it’s fortunate that mostly I hear good things.”
Ongoing Improvements and Enhancements
Most successful textbooks go through multiple editions, and each edition will include new and improved features. However, few have the feedback available to them that Field has through his social media contacts, in addition to published reviews and other indicators. However you define success, Field’s book in its various edition has sold more than 250,000 copies worldwide. He has won a variety of teaching awards including local and national teaching awards (University of Sussex, 2001 and the British Psychological Society, 2007), a prestigious U.K. National Teaching Fellowship (2010), and the British Psychological Society book award (2006).
For Field, his quest for perfection goes on. “I just wanted my students to have a better experience than the rather dry way that I was taught Stats,” says Field. “One obvious way to do that was to conjure up some daft examples, so that’s what I did, and what I continue to do.”
Despite his wry sense of humor and often self-deprecating comments, Field remains bullish on statistics and highly engaged with his audience and his peers. “I do lots of events for the Higher Education Academy in the U.K., who do training days for academics, and they always go well, so I guess at least some of my U.K. colleagues think I’m OK. My own University (Sussex) is incredibly supportive of everything I do, and I know that they really value the book and allow me the time outside of my research to work on that side of my career. As for my colleagues at Sussex, I think a lot of them probably do think I’m a bit strange, but in a nice way.”
SAGE MobileStudy is a strong step in the right direction but not truly game-changing. Not yet. However, with the media-savvy Andy Field in control of his brand, SAGE has an excellent partner to continue to move ahead. If only all subject areas were in such good hands.