I am preparing to write the third edition of my first research methods book, and this has got me thinking about the companion websites that many publishers like authors to create for our books. There is very little information online about companion websites, such as how to create a good one or their pros and cons. I found one article on Google Scholar, but its central thesis was ‘don’t replicate material on companion websites which is also in the book’ which I would have thought was common sense. I searched my go-to resources, starting with the Research Whisperer, and found two mentions in passing, both in posts written by, er, me. Then I searched the Thesis Whisperer and found one mention in passing, in a post written by, guess who? Yep, me again. And Pat Thomson’s blog has no hits at all for “companion website”, but then I have never written a guest post!
It seems that writers don’t write much about companion websites. Though I did find two very helpful posts from the Textbook and Academic Authors’ Association blog, one by my friend and colleague Janet Salmons on what to consider when creating a companion website, and the other by the equally excellent Katie Linder on five questions to ask your publisher about their author websites. These posts are both well worth reading. But they don’t answer a question that has started to bug me: should we be producing companion websites in the first place?
One of the reasons for companion websites is to keep the size, and therefore the cost, of books down. In my view some publishers do this to the detriment of the books they produce. I have a great deal of respect for Colin Robson’s book on Real World Researchand have bought every edition. I was astonished when the fourth edition was smaller than the third, and even more astonished when I found that, unlike previous editions, it had no list of references or author index. I emailed the publisher, Wiley, to ask what had happened, and they told me those features were now on the companion website. The link was in the prelims and I had missed it. I find it incredibly frustrating to have to move to a website when I want to chase up a reference in a book. This is odd, as my next move might well be to find it on Google Scholar or an online book retailer, but it is so, and the net result is that I use the book much less these days.
Another reason for companion websites, ostensibly, is to be able to update resources between editions. I will hold my hand up and tell you right now that I have never done this; I’m too busy writing new books. And I often find dead or broken links when I’m looking at other people’s companion websites. According to Twitter, I’m not alone. I tweeted last week to ask for people’s thoughts on companion websites: whether they liked them or ignored them, and for recommendations of good ones. This generated several interesting discussions, but it was notable that many readers ignore or dislike them. Also, around half of respondents shared my experience of dead/broken links in companion websites run by publishers. Lauren Gawne and Dana McFarland both made the very good point that all companion websites should be added to the Internet Archive as soon as they are created, which would help to solve this problem.
Some authors set up and run their own companion websites. Examples include Petra Boynton’s website for The Research Companion, Helen Sword’s website for The Writer’s Diet (thanks to Inger Mewburn for alerting me to this), and Andy Field’s website for his Discovering Statistics books (thanks to Rory Beaton for the info). But this is even more time-consuming than creating a website for a publisher to host.
I asked Policy Press for page view stats for the companion websites I had done for them. Not surprisingly as it’s my best seller, Creative Research Methods scored highest. But to my astonishment, second highest was Creative Writing for Social Research which only came out in January. And Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners, my longest-standing research methods book, was trailing far behind the rest of the field. Which made me realise that if you’re creating a book for busy people, adding a website they have to go to for resources may be counter-productive.
However, there is the whole book size/price problem to consider. And some people love companion websites, especially teachers such as Beth Kelly and Karen Zgoda who like to find reflective or discussion questions, tasks for students, handouts, quiz questions, and even PowerPoints and videos based on the concepts in the text. Sandra Flynn is another fan and encourages her MSc research students to bookmark the companion guide to the core text (HE teachers, be like Sandra!). So evidently there is a place for them. And Mandy Shaw made an excellent point when she said that if they are hosted by a publisher, they need publicising by that publisher.
So, here are four good practice points for companion websites to academic books, and their creators and hosts:
- Only create a companion website when there is scope to include material which is supplementary to, and cannot fit in, the book you are writing. If there isn’t, don’t bother, even if the publisher pleads; refer them to this post – it’s a waste of time.
- If you want to be sure of the quality of your companion website, create and update it yourself – but be aware that this is time-consuming unpaid work which may benefit your publisher more than yourself.
- If you are considering creating content for a publisher-hosted companion website, ask them some searching questions first, including how they promote their companion websites, whether the website will be open access, and how they ensure the websites don’t contain dead or broken links. If you are not happy with the answers, don’t create the content for the publisher; consider making your own website instead, or setting up an alternative resource such as a YouTube channel. (You would probably be well advised to have these conversations when you are negotiating your contract, or you may find yourself signed up for a big job you don’t actually want to do.)
- If you do create a companion website, add all the pages to the Internet Archive at an early stage.
Steve Wright raised the topic of payment. He wrote some content for the companion website of a book he was not otherwise involved in. Steve argued for payment from the publisher on the basis that if they would pay him to do a proposal or manuscript review (which they would), they should pay him to write content for a book in which he had no commercial interest. He had to really push, but he did get paid in the end. And that got me thinking. Writing companion websites is very time-consuming and a big extra responsibility for a textbook writer. There is no flat rate for payment, so no incentive to create that content. Also, there is no royalty attached to page views, so no incentive for writers to promote their own publisher-hosted companion websites. Many academic writers – me included – seem to have accepted this unpaid extra work as something we have to do, without asking a lot of important questions of our publishers and ourselves. I hope this post will help to redress that balance.
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