So how much do you know about how textbooks are created? I thought you might be interested in having a mini walk-through of the process.
The subject area in which I've done the most work is social studies, so I'll describe that. (I've also edited literature anthologies.)
The first thing you need to understand is that, in terms of educational publishing, there are two kinds of states: adoption states and open-territory states.
An adoption state is one in which every public school district in the state will buy all the books in a subject area in a single year. They will buy all their social studies books in the same year. All math books will be bought in a single year, but a different year from social studies. Same for English. Same for science. Same for world languages.
In a social studies adoption year, no school district in the state can look at any prospective social studies programs until the state adoption committee reviews all the products and "adopts" them as being approved for that state. The approval depends on whether the programs meet the state's content standards for that particular subject. Many Southern and Western states are adoption states. The largest are California, Florida, and Texas.
Open-territory states don't have the adoption process. Individual school districts decide when to buy books, and the books don't go through a state-approval process. In other words, school districts are open to textbook salespeople.
At this point, you must be wondering what this has to do with writing textbooks. Well, the little-known truth is that adoption states have far more clout over what goes into textbooks than open-territory states do. Look at it this way. If in a given year, every single high school in Texas is going to purchase new U.S. history books while only 10 percent of Illinois high schools are planning to buy books, which state do you think will have the most purchasing power? And which state's standards do you think publishers will be more diligent about meeting?
Have you ever wondered why the Alamo gets so much coverage in U.S. history books when it was a relatively inconsequential battle except in terms of symbolism for a single state? Well, now you know. It gets a lot of play because Texans care about it, and Texas has a huge influence over what goes into American textbooks.
What publishers do when they are developing any program is to examine the standards of the states where they hope to sell a lot of books in the year after publication. Then they'll write chapter outlines that cover the traditional course content and also include everything the states want. (These are not always the same thing. I have at times seen state standards that call for historically inaccurate information. When that happens, you just do the best you can at meeting the standard while writing the truth.)
The editors then send the completed outlines to academic experts, who look for any thing that's inaccurate, overlooked, or over-emphasized. When the reviews are returned, the editors create final outlines and send them off to freelance writers.
And this is where I'm going to disillusion you. When your children bring textbooks home from school, they usually have author names on the spine. I'll bet you thought those people wrote the books, right?
Usually not. At one time, textbook authors did write books, but now they are most likely just part of the team of reviewers. (I'm talking about elementary and high school books here, not college books.)
Instead, uncredited freelancers like me write the chapters according to the specifications we receive from the publisher. Not only am I working from an outline, but I have a sample chapter and a set of writing guidelines I have to follow. I also know roughly how many words I have for each section of the chapter. Some publishers even send a rough layout that shows where every map, photograph, and chart will appear.
Currently, I'm working on a chapter of European history. It isn't for a history book; it is a history chapter that will be included as part of an entirely different subject. Because of that, the history I'm writing is very condensed. I have to cover the Renaissance, Reformation, Age of Exploration, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Age of Empire, two World Wars, the Cold War, and contemporary European history in 34 pages. These are pages that will also include visuals, so in reality I have roughly 7,600 words.
In that limited amount of space, I have to be thorough, complete, clear--and explain as much complexity as I can. (Yeah, right.) I also have to make sure the text reads at a middle-school reading level. To prove the accuracy of what I write, I have to submit photocopied pages of sources for every fact and statistic I use. When I finish writing the chapter, I also have to write assessment questions (and answers).
Once the editor receives my manuscript, she will probably send it to a number of in-house and out-of-house reviewers. These might include her managers, academic specialists in European history, and classroom teachers. Once she receives everyone's comments, she'll edit the material. At this stage, she will also need to cut any overruns. In textbook publishing, you can't just add another page or two the way you might with a novel. Everything has to fit in a certain number of pages, decided upon very early in the project.
After this revision, the editor will probably send the second draft to fact checkers, who will verify every fact and statistic by trying to find different sources from the ones I used. Once the editor makes her corrections based on fact checking, the third draft will probably go to a copy editor, who will review the grammar and spelling and punctuation. (I keep saying probably because the publisher may do any of these steps in a different order from the one I've indicated.) When the pages are in the final form, several people will read them one last time for any typos that might have been overlooked. (Do you know what a classroom disaster it can be if a reference to a public health program comes out as "pubic health"? It's happened.)
Now you have some idea of how U.S. middle school and high school textbooks are created. What I haven't covered is all the work that goes into the design of the pages, the researching of photographs and other images, and the actual physical production of the books. Those processes are every bit as complicated as the ones I've outlined here.
Textbook writers need a reference library . . .
and a knowledge of geography.