Charlie and the textbook factory

“In this guest post by Cristina do Vale you will find all you need to know about the complexities of textbook production from planning to production. Cristina is one of the most competent project managers I’ve ever dealt with. I particularly admire her text editing skills, so it felt a bit awkward to have to edit her text for this post. But I can say for sure – if in the past I felt I had found a golden ticket when I worked with her, this time the golden ticket goes for everyone who reads this detailed yet clear description of what textbook production entails.”

Denise Santos
Photo by naomi tamar on Unsplash

It is undeniable that textbooks remain as the most resourceful tool in classrooms all over the world. Behind this such familiar object there is a complex operation that requires tremendous teamwork effort. As the content creation coordinator in the Brazilian hub of a world-wide publishing company, I regularly take part in welcoming new employees from other teams by telling them a bit about the editorial team work routine and they often feel astonished when realizing what it takes to put together a textbook series.

When my dear friend Denise Santos invited me to write a post to her blog, I thought it could interest her readers to have an inside view of textbook making. Somehow, thinking about it, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came to my mind as a funny reference of this “behind the scenes” post. I won’t focus on the pedagogical aspects of this production but rather on the different stages and aspects of the project management involved in it. Needless to say, it is a huge industry and naturally there will be differences from country to country, and even in Brazil, a country of continental size with a very active textbook market, there will be many specificities in textbook production depending on whether it aims at the private or the public market, on the school subject, on the more specific market targeted within a segment… I’ll talk from my 12-year experience working in this field in Brazilian publishing houses and especially from my last three years in the field, working with English textbooks for the private market and, most recently, with bilingual textbooks for private schools’ students in the Primary and Secondary segment.

Scope and sequence, page plan, budget, schedules, branding, design, sample unit

The project begins with the definition of the scope and sequence of the series. In a very simple manner, it refers to the themes / contents / abilities / skills to be addressed in each level / unit, and in which order. Different kinds of input help us in this task: official learning standards, textbooks from the competition, information from the commercial team. It’s essential to know which kind of schools we are targeting. If the publishing house has an established catalogue, the development of a new series is usually planned as a replacement to a previous one, so it is important to map the main successful features to be pursued and the elements of innovation to be added.

The definition of the target market will also influence decisions such as how many units, how many pages, how many sections and pages per units, how many extra sections of projects, whether there will be a separate workbook or a combo edition of student’s book and workbook together, among other things.

The page plan is the document in which we define, page by page, what each level of the series will bring. That’s correct: all the content of those 216 pages from your textbook were planned ahead of the content writing. Of course, we can have some flexibility to change it (slightly) in the middle of the way, but some of the main aspects of a project management, such as the budget and the schedule, rely on this initial plan.

In order to create a design to the series, as well as to test-drive the ideas for the sections, we usually develop a sample unit. It’s like a pilot of the series which allow the content writers, the text editors, the art editors and the designer to combine their ideas concerning the amount of text per page, types of fonts needed, style of illustrations, design concept for openings and special sections, among others. It is worth spending some time in this initial stage because the subsequent steps tend to work better if the kicking-off is well executed.

And, of course, we need to think of a title to the series (the design is usually developed taking this title into account). If you believe you have had an incredibly innovative idea, it’s time to ask for a branding lawyer to do some research and find out if this “brand new idea” has not been already used by someone else. If they give you the green light, you will need to officially register the brand – this process will take around two years to be completed and cost some thousands of US dollars between taxes and lawyer fees.

Content development, content editing

With the sample unit finished (or sometimes even before that), the content writers begin to work. I call them “content writers” rather than authors because a series can be either the result of authors’ initiative or conceived by an editorial team, who will then invite collaborators to write parts of it, or adapt content from other series.

The manuscripts are delivered by the content writers in word format and it’s the text editor’s role to read them critically and to improve them having some guidelines in mind: Is the material coherent to the scope and sequence and the page plan? Is the amount of text and images suitable to the space in each page? Is there a good balance between text and images? Are the concepts and information correct and updated? Is the language level right for what’s expected for each level of the series? If the concepts presented in the unit depend on previous knowledge, was it already explored in previous levels or units? Is there enough context and input for the student to activate this previous knowledge?

Text editors look at issues related to not only content, but also format: they ensure the page numbers are correctly indicated, that the titles of the sections will be on the top of the pages, that the required photos and illustrations are duly described and identified (otherwise the art team will get lost among the around 400-500 photos used per book) and that there is a briefing about how the page should be made up.

Page make-up, photo, research, illustration development

Once the manuscript is edited, the text editor passes it on to the art team for the page making-up process together with a list of the illustrations to be created and the photos to be researched. The art team usually take care of the page-making before requesting the illustrations, because by doing so they can find whether there are pages that are too busy to include illustrations, and it will be the text editor’s prerogative to decide if they will sacrifice some written text or the illustrations! The art team usually create a design to the page considering the photos and illustrations planned by the text editors (they make so by outlining the areas in the page where these images will be), so if there isn’t enough space for everything, they’ll create an extra page with everything that didn’t fit the page space. It helps the text editor to have an idea of how much of the text they will need to get rid of (5 lines? 9 lines?), or if the problem can be solved simply by having fewer photos and illustrations on the page.

The photo researcher begins to look for options to the list of photos briefings created by the text editor. Bear in mind that they will present around five options of photos for each of the items briefed on the editor list – so they will have researched over 2 thousand photos per level!

From this point on, the content of the book begins to follow different paths and it is the text editor’s responsibility to make them all converge again at the end of the project.     

Proofreading, text edition, art edition

There is a sequence of stages that is repeated around three or four times from the handover of the manuscripts by the text editor to the completion of the book, which we call “proofs”. Every time the manuscript completes one of these cycles (being amended by the art team, proofread by the proofreader and edited by the text editor), we have one “proof”. In each proof, the teams focus on specific aspects. For example, during the first proof, the proofreader is responsible for checking if the text in the pages made-up by the art team matches the manuscript doc file (sometimes one word, or even a whole sentence, can be missing). The text editor’s main concern at this point, besides confirming the changes made by the proofreaders (something that has to be done in every proof), is to adjust the content to the space in the pages: if the page is too busy, they may decide to cut some written texts, a photo or an illustration; if there is blank space left, they may decide to create an extra information box, add a new image or include a new exercise). The art team are in charge of making all the changes asked by the proofreaders and the text editors. Once the amount of text and images is adjusted to the space on the page, they can start working on the art edition, creating some special features to a text, to an information box or an image. At this point, they may also include the “rough” illustrations – the sketches, still in black, to be approved by the text editors.

The second proof goes again to the proofreader. The main responsibility of proofreaders in all stages is to check if all the changes marked on the previous proof were duly made by the art team. But if you work with languages textbooks, the second proof is usually the one that goes to a native speaker proofreader, so the focus here will be the language.

Once again, the text editor will approve the changes suggested by the proofreader and/or ask for new changes. The editorial team usually have a style guide that is updated every time a new standard is decided. Unfortunately, these decisions often happen during the approval of the proofreading and there is not enough time to inform the proofreaders about the changes before the next proof. Well, that’s part of the job!

During the third proof, it is expected that the pages already present all the photos and illustrations in high resolution, so the focus of the proofreader at this point is to see if the pages are working as a whole. Text editors usually work with checklists to ensure all the details are taken care of.   

Audio recording, digital content development

Let’s go back some steps. After all we have seen that from the manuscript handover the book parts will follow different paths and then come together again at the completion of the work. Once the native speaker has proofread the material, we can start working on the audio scripts in preparation for the recording of the audio tracks. We usually do this at this point to minimize the need of changes after the audios have been recorded.

Text editors or editorial assistants create the audio scripts. Those are documents especially organized to brief the audio producers on the making of the audio tracks. They bring the description of all the speakers needed for the tracks, what will be spoken by each of them, the pauses, the sound effects, the soundtrack. We try to have all the tracks recorded before the book is finished, so that we can listen to the tracks at least once and find out mistakes that we will be able to amend whether by re-recording the tracks or by changing the text on the printed book.

Tonnes of audio-related to-do’s checked by text editors. Photo by © Cristina do Vale 2016

For some time now, the need for digital content has added this new component to the making of a series. We usually decide in advance what the digital offer to the series is going to be, but we need to wait until the content is close to its final version before starting to develop the digital components, otherwise there is a great chance there will be discrepancies between the printed book and the digital content.

Digital components usually require content developers, text editors, proofreaders, photo researchers, audio producers and web producers, which is why there usually is a digital editor or a digital team in charge of this process.

Cover design, ISBN, index card, back cover text, credits, plotter checking

The book is almost ready! The third proof has already been proofread, the text editor has approved the proofreader’s suggested changes and used their checklist to take care of the final details; the audio tracks were also checked and the amendments were made. Well, this is the time to look at the cover design, request the ISBN number (an international number identification that all printed books must have) and an index card (in Brazil they are mandatory).

An example of a Brazilian index card (kindly provided by Eliana Araújo Nogueira do Vale)

It is also when you create the text for the back cover (you might have already written a draft for the marketing team for inclusion in the catalogue).

Once the last proof has been approved by the text editor, the art team can inform all the photos credit list and then it is the time to create the credits page (make sure to check with all the professionals involved in the process of making the book if they actually want their name to feature on the credit page and, if so, how it should be written). It’s therefore important that you remember all the people who have contributed to the process (content writers, text editors, page make-up studio, art editors, proofreaders, photo researchers, illustrators, audio producers, digital editors, editorial assistants…).

If you think the work is finished once the last PDF file is created, you might be surprised… There is also the stage called “plotter checking”, in which the art team and/or the text editors check a “pilot print” of the book. At this point, besides finding out any problem in the final PDF (a missing or misplaced photo, for instance), we can also find out typos and have the blessed opportunity to correct them before the book is printed.

Teacher’s books, extra resources

The whole process of creating a 5-book series takes about a year (by now I hope you have an idea of how little time we have for so many stages and parallel demands). We usually spend around six to seven months working on the student’s books and workbooks, four to five months working on the teacher’s books and one to two months working on the extra resources we need to create in order for our series to be chosen among a whole universe of textbooks series launched every year.

The teacher’s book’s production is usually simpler than the student’s book and the workbook because it has no images. Nonetheless, it is during the teacher’s book’s edition that we find out some mistakes in the student’s book (believe me, you can work with the BEST team and you will ALWAYS have some mistakes in the student’s book – there are just too many spoons mixing the same bowl of soup!).

The extra resources (flashcards, extra activities, suggestions for tests, etc.) are usually decided at the beginning of the project depending on the demands of the targeted market. And they will also need content developers, text editors, proofreaders, photo researchers and sometimes audio producers, which is why it is so important to plan ahead of the production which resources you are going to offer, how many pages they will require and so on. It’s also important to start working on these extra materials when the core of the printed book is developed, in order to avoid work done that will eventually be discarded.

Oompa Lompa greetings

Well, I hope this post has given you an accurate overview of the making of a textbook series. I also hope you have realized it means LOADS of work! Making textbooks require project management skills that go way beyond educational/pedagogical knowledge. It is a complex production that requires committed people and an intense teamwork effort.

In Brazil, the field for textbook professionals is broad and eclectic. In spite of all the hard work involved in this activity, I must say I’m absolutely passionate about my profession! It’s just fascinating to have the opportunity to see it all coming together into a whole new series. It’s a pity that they don’t last much: after three or four years, it is time to come up with a new edition for the series, or to decide to replace it by a new one. And then it all starts over again…

Cristina do Vale has been working in the educational field since 2000 as a teacher, teacher trainer, educational consultant, content developer and textbook editor. She holds an M.A. in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature. For the past 12 years, she has been working with language textbooks with a focus on Portuguese as a first language and English as a foreign language. She currently works as Content Creation Coordinator at Macmillan Education Brasil.

8 thoughts on “Charlie and the textbook factory”

  1. When I first read the text this morning I was so excited that I decided to post a comment, which I did but apparently did not. I think it was good that it did not register because it was an explosion of emotions of one of the proudest fathers in the world, perhaps a bit too much to go public. This is a work of art.! Well written, logic, clear, practical and “funny” at times when the author allows herself to play with the readers with colloquial expressions that makes the reading light, yet dense, with depth. Congratulations my dear “little daughter”! You took after your mother and should be proud of it. From your proud dad!

    • I love your comments, Coaraci! I join you in the celebration of this post. I absolutely love it – when I first read it it brought a smile to my face from beginning to end of my reading! Glad you’ve left your thoughts here, all the best!

  2. Cristina’s text, besides having the qualities of being comprehensive and objective, has also clarified some aspects that helped me in a work I’m currently involved with.

    The proud mother and grateful pupil.

  3. Wonderfully explained, Cris.
    Same as you, I am still excited about my job after all this time and, as you said, in spite of all the hard work involved.
    One of my favorite aspects of the job is the sheer amount of teamwork involved in it. To me it is always so inspiring to see so many talented people come together to produce a new course book (whether a new edition or a brand new series, to me they are all like new “babies” we are sending out into the world).
    Thank you for sharing this and reminding me – as we start a new year (though we are technically in the middle of our editorial year aren’t we?) – of how much this job inspires me to learn everyday. And thank you personally too for everything you’ve taught me about it as well.

    • Carol, many thanks for your comments. As a writer/author/content producer I deeply admire the work of good editors, designers, proofreaders and all the team members that contribute to give life to my ideas. A new life, I’d say. Better, stronger, with wings.


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