Interview: Michael Spinella of TAA

Members of Textbook & Academic Authors Association are important translators of scholarship and science

Interview: Michael Spinella of TAA

Textbook authorship is an area of scholarly publishing that isn’t much talked about. Somebody conceptualizes textbooks, writes them, illustrates them, edits them, and keeps them current. Many of the expert authors and editors involved in writing and editing textbooks belong to the Textbook & Academic Authors Association (TAA).

Michael Spinella is the Executive Director and CEO of TAA, a non-profit founded in 1987 to serve authors of scholarly and educational works, educating them about the business and practice of academic publishing, and advocating for author rights as well as quality standards in scholarly publishing.

Spinella began his career at a regional lifestyle magazine before switching to non-profit scholarly publishing as a senior manager at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of the journal Science. At Science, Spinella quadrupled the international presence of the journal and of AAAS membership, and developed the first institutional business model for Science Online.

Spinella then served as Executive Director of JSTOR during a period of expansion and growth. During his tenure, JSTOR’s digitized journals grew from about 17 million to over 40 million pages of content. In addition, the organization digitized specialized collections of 19th century pamphlets, started a new business serving current journal contents, and signed up its first publishers for its move into ebook collections.

The following interview was conducted via email.


Q: TAA is an organization that’s not often talked about in scholarly publishing. Can you talk about TAA’s history and mission?

Spinella: I sometimes refer to TAA as a well-kept secret! We’re not trying to keep it secret, but it’s true we don’t specialize in blowing our own horn. For its almost 33-year existence, TAA has focused on providing aid and advice to academics about the loneliest part of their career path: the desire and expectation to publish.

Our mission is “to support textbook and academic authors in the creation of top-quality educational and scholarly works that stimulate the love of learning and foster the pursuit of knowledge.”

TAA began primarily as an advocacy organization for textbook authors, and later expanded to include all forms of academic writing. We publish a newsletter, hold an Annual Conference, publish books about contractual and copyright issues authors need to be aware of, run a series of webinars, and also conduct in-person writing workshops on campuses around the US. We don’t endorse candidates or lobby for legislation, but we do occasionally participate in amicus briefs when a case will affect the interests of authors.

Q: The members of TAA seem to represent people living at a critical interface in scholarly communications. What kind of jobs do the members tend to hold? What kind of people and professionals are they?

Spinella: TAA members are on the front lines of the educational publishing industry in a time of evolution and disruption resulting from new technologies and emerging instructional paradigms. The majority of our members are active academics, currently engaged in their publishing/authoring career (along with their other professional responsibilities, of course. For example, some, in addition to being authors and instructors, devote time to tracking the educational publishing industry to identify trends and practices that affect not only authors, but also instructors and students).

Our membership includes not only a wide range of academics at different career stages, but also doctoral candidates working on their dissertations, early-career faculty striving for their first academic publication, and a variety of industry professionals — publishers, lawyers, freelance editors — who serve and work within the academic publishing ecosystem. There are also independent scholars who may have left their academic career to devote full-time to their writing and research. We have authors that publish primarily or solely within traditional academic publishing as well as authors experimenting with OER or self-publishing. So, as you can imagine, the range of advice needed is extraordinary. TAA works especially hard at encouraging networking among authors, so that they can benefit from one another’s expertise.

Q: What are some of the bigger issues for the TAA today? What are its members grappling with?

Spinella: Authors are facing many of the same issues being engaged by publishers today. Digitization and open access present many opportunities for wider dissemination of scholarly works to publishers and authors alike, and authors are eager to embrace those opportunities. But at the same time, these trends upend our customary understanding of pedagogical and writing excellence, as well as the business models that have supported publishing activity for some 400 years. Business models may not matter to the author in some forms of academic publishing — most journal articles, for example, are not an economic transaction for the author — but they matter a great deal to authors of monographs and textbooks. These long-form works require exponentially greater effort and time to produce at a high-quality level, so any diminishment of the ability to compensate that work adequately presents a danger that such works will be left to the independently wealthy or otherwise subsidized few, rather than focused on expertise . . .

Some current trends in publishing are much on the minds of our members as well. For example, Pearson’s recent decision to move to a “digital first” production strategy has implications not only for business model, but even for the revision process, which is a focus of much energy and effort among authors. Cengage and McGraw-Hill have recently announced a merger that looks like it could have implications for author royalties, not to mention Cengage’s prior announcement of a major pricing model restructure called “Cengage Unlimited.” Authors are often portrayed as at odds with their publishers, and sometimes painted as the cause of high prices affecting students…in my experience, neither is true. Authors recognize common interests with publishers, but have little or no influence over the pricing of end products. In fact, many are aware of the financial challenges faced by today’s students due to their own roles as instructors. They do have concerns about maintaining a publishing industry that is diverse enough, and financially robust enough, to continue producing works of the highest pedagogical and academic quality. Everyone should have this concern, in my view, but authors feel the dilemma perhaps a bit more keenly (and personally) than most of the other stakeholders.

Q: TAA is a relatively small but clearly important non-profit organization. What organizational challenges are you facing today?

Spinella: We might prefer to say we are “small but mighty!” I’d say our challenges are not greatly different from most other non-profits, though the specific variations we face may be unique to us.

One challenge is keeping up with the rapid changes in the publishing industry so that we can be of service to our members. Staying up-to-date on changes to business models, technology, open access efforts, writing practices, and pedagogy requires no small effort, and assessing the likely impact of any of these trends on our members keeps us busy. We are lucky to have a devoted staff that works hard to stay informed. If only we could clone them . . .

The next challenge is balancing our efforts to grow membership against the values and needs of the current members. With publishing still a core element of academic life and the publishing industry more challenging than ever to navigate, the TAA community is poised for growth. We want to expand our mission impact by enabling more authors to access our resources, but we also recognize that a benefit of being small is that we are able to engage in more meaningful networking and personal interactions with our members.

The final challenge I’ll cite is our engagement with the “no money . . . no mission” problem faced by many non-profits. We hold member dues well below what might be considered ‘market’ rates, and we deliver far more benefit than can be covered by our dues. That’s possible today because dues are supplemented by fees collected outside the US for copying mainly print-based US copyrighted works. As you might imagine, those kinds of payments are in a slow but steady decline. A central challenge, therefore, is to continue delivering useful membership benefits and supporting our community’s mission goals, while developing new income streams.

Q: How does TAA view its strategic options going forward?

Spinella: Sometimes it’s important to step out of the fast-moving stream of change, opportunity, and threat that carries publishing along today and ask ourselves what is most important, and how can it be preserved amidst change. For me, the underlying critical observation is that peer-reviewed, evidence-based, scholarly writing remains crucial to the advancement of knowledge in every field. These values and practices must not and will not cease to exist.

Excellence in authorship and in the underlying research and thought will, we believe, continue to shine through and to garner an audience. Yes, there have been and will continue to be changes to the business models that support the system, but there will need to be some reasonable form of accountability and compensation in any imaginable future for scholarly publishing. Strategically, we must defend those core principles of scholarly communication while remaining open and neutral to transformations in techniques and business models. Our task is not to pick the winning innovations, but to help members be aware of the pros and cons of new approaches, and point them toward opportunities to advance their publishing career.

Discipline expertise and authorial skills are essential but not sufficient to navigate the publishing landscape . . . we try to provide authors with the crucial skills they need to understand the challenges publishers face, to negotiate effectively with them, and to deploy pedagogical techniques so that their works will get published, read, and adopted.

Q: How have changes in pedagogy changed how TAA and its members approach their respective roles?

Spinella: The best textbooks today are less encyclopedic and more learner-centered. TAA plays a role in educating authors in pedagogy. Textbooks are the last segment of academic publishing to embrace digitization and begin to grapple with the changes to business models and production practices that it entails. With electronic textbooks, as with journals and other media, we are exploring new capabilities that didn’t exist in print. Pedagogically, digital textbooks allow faster, on-the-spot, personalized assessment so that teachers can better monitor which exercises need further explanation, or which particular students are falling behind. There are also more adaptive learning tools available that adjust to an individual’s own pace. And, of course, as with journals, online publications enable more dynamic illustrations, audio or video supplements, and the promise of faster and cheaper revisions or updating of examples to keep material relevant and tailor it to specific types or levels of students.

The role of “author” has been evolving as quickly as the technologies that affect how content is composed, delivered, and revised. It is rarely sufficient to be an expert in the field and a competent writer anymore when writing a textbook. While the publishers work to master the technology to support these digital works, the authors often find their responsibilities for developing content have expanded to include creating new graphics and illustrations (or acquiring them and getting the necessary permissions), thinking through the assessment capabilities teachers will need, or imagining other uses of the technology to enhance the educational value of their product…all in an increasingly competitive market with downward pressure on pricing!

And, finally, it is worth noting that pedagogical advances continue apace quite apart from any technological innovations. A wealth of findings in the cognitive psychology of teaching and learning — called “learning science” — is having a big impact on pedagogy. These emerging clarifications of how we learn most effectively are impacting the traditional and virtual classroom and, by extension, also influence the nature of learning resources created by TAA members. Authors need to have a working knowledge of learning science to include successful pedagogy into their materials and TAA plays a role in keeping members up to speed on these matters.

Q: If you could tell the main body of scholarly publishers one thing about TAA, what would it be?

Spinella: It may sound like a cliché, but we truly are stronger together as we work to preserve a robust, diverse, and financially stable publishing ecosystem to support the development and communication of educational and scholarly works.

Publishers contribute to TAA by providing their expertise to our Conference sessions or online webinars. Many attend or sponsor TAA events as a way of demonstrating their commitment to continued excellence in content development, and to network with current and potential future authors for their works. Some are there building name recognition and brand for their publishing enterprise or new initiatives. We are strong believers that scholarly publishers and authors have much more in common in their goals and purposes than they have differences, though no one diminishes the issues, such as royalty accounting and intellectual freedom, where authors may sometimes clash with publishers. Even where there are conflicts, the best remedy is communication, and TAA stands as a locus for open and candid exchanges.

Many publishers are already welcome members of our community and/or sponsors of our events, but we’d like to work with even more of you!

Q: Any special message to readers of “The Geyser”?

Spinella: I would like to address a comment to any “Geyser” readers who might themselves be academic or textbook authors:

We know you are busy and we can help you cut through the noise to get up to speed on today’s publishing environment. Our community represents a network that can be valuable to you as you navigate your publishing opportunities and requirements. Our Annual Conference is beloved by attendees for the programming and networking opportunities, and we provide an array of resources through the newsletter, online webinars, and our “Presentations on Demand” benefits that you can take advantage of in your own time to learn about nearly any aspect of academic publishing you are puzzling over. Join our community and let your voice be heard!

If anyone has questions about TAA or how you can become involved, don’t hesitate to send me an email at michael.spinella@taaonline.net.


Give a gift subscription