Steve Slavin: The Managed Textbook
When I began writing my doctoral dissertation, I applied for dozens of full-time teaching jobs, but all I could find were a couple of part-time jobs that barely kept me alive. A few chairmen told me to come back when I had my degree in hand.
Then I saw an ad for an economic researcher in The New York Times. It was a freelance job with one of the city’s oldest and most venerable publishing houses, Collegiate Press of America. But sadly, the company had fallen upon hard times, and had become primarily a textbook mill.
During my interview, Doreen, the editor with whom I would be working, explained that they now were publishing what were euphemistically referred to as “managed texts.” Fairly well known professors at major universities would be the nominal authors, but the writing and research would be done by hired hands, such as me.
My job would be to find background articles in financial periodicals, update statistical tables, and suggest new topics. One day, I asked Doreen about a photograph she had on her desk. There she was with a huge stack of pages she had torn out of a book. She was grinning at the camera, while merrily tearing out still another page.
She explained that it was quite OK to recycle material from old texts the company had published. “Who’s going to sue for plagiarism – the authors?” We both laughed. Then I asked why all their books were ghostwritten.
“Because economists can’t write.”
“Hey, I’m an economist and I can write! Or at least I’ll be an economist when I get my PhD.”
“Then you can’t write! Trust me, Nora: we don’t even let our ‘authors’ write the acknowledgments for their own books.”
“Why? How bad can they possibly be?”
“Bad! You want to see bad? I’ll show you bad!” She stood up and reached for a book from the shelf of textbooks above her desk.
“Here: just look at this acknowledgment.”
As I started reading, I must have been shaking my head in disbelief. I heard Doreen giggling. This poor soul had written something like this: 'Writing this book was like coaching a football team. Doreen Spencer was my captain and quarterback. My running backs were so-and-so and so-and-so.' He went on fill his entire roster, position-by-position.
That afternoon she asked me to check the outline of the book we were working on to make sure it was up to snuff. You teach the introductory course, right?”
“Yeah, I’ve been teaching it for a couple of years.”
“I need you to make sure that this outline includes most of the same topics that are covered in the other standard texts.”
That evening I read through the outline and sensed something very familiar about it -- maybe a little too familiar. So I put it side-by-side with the table of contents of the bestselling introductory text. And voilà! All the odd-numbered chapters covered identical topics.
Then I checked the outline against the table of contents of the second bestselling text and – you guessed it: all the topics in the even-numbered chapters were also identical. Whoever had written the outline had taken quite a shortcut. Worse still, since we would be plagiarizing the books of other publishers, we could be sued.
When I brought in the outline along with the two texts and showed them to Doreen, she was just amazed. After a few minutes she looked at me and said, “Nora, I need you to write a new outline. We’re already behind schedule.
A few days later, when I brought in the new outline, Doreen had it photocopied. While she was waiting for the copies, she called up a couple of her ghostwriters and asked them to come in to pick up their assignments. Then she turned to me. Nora, can you write chapters 7 through 9?”
A month later I delivered the chapters. After glancing at them, she asked me to write another three chapters. When I mentioned my economics background she replied, ‘No, you’re not an economist. Economists can’t write. And since you can, then you can’t possibly be an economist. Nora, you are a writer!”
One day I got a call from Doreen. Could I come to the office tomorrow afternoon to meet someone very special? She wouldn’t tell me who it was, but just that it would be a big surprise. Later, another ghostwriter called to ask if I knew who we would be meeting. But it was all a big secret.
The next afternoon Carol, Frank, and I were sitting around in Doreen’s office. None of us knew for sure who it was we would be meeting, but we agreed that it must be someone who didn’t work for Collegiate Press. Or maybe someone very high up in the company who wanted to meet us because of the great job we were doing. As outside contractors, we were not privy to much of the office gossip; so we really had very little to go on.
And then Doreen walked in and announced that today we would be meeting with our book’s author, Professor Jackson.
"So how come he’s the author?” asked Carol.
“Well,” we needed someone from a prestigious school with a large economics enrollment. Someone with an Ivy League background, a person whose name sounds familiar to other economics professors. Personally, I had never heard of him before he was signed. And just between you, me, and the lamp post, the man can’t write his way out of a paper bag.”
This sounded nuts to me. “Doreen, why did he agree to become the author?”
“Three reasons: First, he is being paid very well. Second, he gets to show how important he is when he’s promoting the book. And third, it’s great for his academic reputation.”
“And he actually agreed to not write a word of the book?” asked Frank.
“Well, let’s just say that the man is well aware of his limitations.”
“What about his ethical limitations?”
“Now Carol, we don’t want to get into that kind of discussion right now,” answered Doreen.
“So he’s really OK with not doing any of the writing of a book that has his name on the cover?”
“Carol, he seems to be. After all, he is getting the big bucks.”
“Just for a name?” I asked.
“Well, he’s here today to give us some guidance.”
“Guidance!” Frank blurted out.
“You know: he’ll tell us about a few things he’d like us to put in the book. And speaking of the devil…”
Professor Jackson knocked on the open door and then strode into the room, greeted Doreen, nodded to the rest of us, and sat down.
“Carol, Frank, and Nora, I’d like you to meet Professor Jackson. Professor Jackson, this is Carol, Frank, and Nora.” Each of us stood up and very solemnly shook hands with Professor Jackson.
The good professor was as academic as you can get, complete with tweed jacket, elbow patches, a pipe, and even an ascot. He was from one of the Big Ten schools where he was a full professor.
We sat there in awkward silence for about thirty seconds. I noticed that he wouldn’t or couldn’t make eye contact with the rest of us, as Frank, Carol, and I exchanged glances.
Then Professor Jackson pulled out his pipe, filled it with tobacco from his pouch, lit the pipe, and began to draw on it to keep it lit. In those days smoking was still legal almost everywhere, but it would have been nice if he had asked us if it was OK to smoke. Well, I thought, nobody’s perfect.
Finally Doreen explained that Professor Jackson had been anxious to meet with us so we could talk about his book. And that he would be very happy to provide whatever guidance we needed.
We glanced at each other, and I noticed Frank trying not to smile. In fact I began to grow afraid that we might all burst out laughing.
OK, what could we ask him? 'Professor Jackson, how do you feel about meeting the real authors of Jackson’s Economics? How much are they paying you? Do you have any ethical concerns about this enterprise?'
No one spoke. The silence grew increasingly awkward. Finally, Professor Jackson put aside his pipe, began to clear his throat, and with all eyes upon him, he spoke. Each of his words was very carefully enunciated. “Equity … and … efficiency.”
The four of us looked at him, waiting for him to continue. Surely he had more to say. But he had no more. Wait! He looked at each of us and then he said once more, “Equity … and …efficiency.” And then, perhaps because we might be hearing-impaired, or maybe because his words were so profound that they bore still more repeating, he said it two more times.
We sat there dumbfounded. The good professor smiled at us. We scratched our heads, looked at each other, looked at Doreen, and then looked back at Professor Jackson.
“Any questions?” asked Doreen.
We shook our heads no.
I mean, what was there to ask? Clearly Professor Jackson had managed to distill the entire contents of a two-semester book into just three words. Surely no one had ever managed to come anywhere close to having done this.
Again there was a long silence. The professor sat back, relit his pipe, and was soon puffing away. He was at peace. He would look back at this moment as perhaps the peak of his illustrious academic career. And who knows, maybe he could get still another book out of those three magic words.
Then Doreen said, “Professor Jackson, I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy day to meet with us.”
“And thank you Doreen, and thank all of you for your help in writing this book. Together, I believe we can write what may turn out to be the greatest introductory economics text… well, the greatest introductory economics text since Samuelson. And I truly believe that I could not have done this without you. So just remember, … ‘Equity and efficiency.’”
Then he stood, shook hands again with each of us, and walked out of our lives. DSS
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