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Creating a new textbook is a complex process, requiring collaboration and commitment by everyone involved. It is clearly different from writing a fictional work where you often don’t have co-authors and you don’t require citations and references. It is also very common to have multiple tables and images in every textbook chapter, along with a table of contents, foreword, preface and an index. For many authors, the only consideration is finding a commercial publisher to review, edit, print and market the textbook. However, there are other options out there.

For my first textbook Health Informatics Practical Guide, I opted to self-publish at for the following reasons:

  1. The editors and authors are in full control regarding the look and feel of the textbook, along with the ability to set the price, determine future editions and decide on format choices (print, e-book, rental, site license, etc.)

  2. With self-publication you receive a majority of the profit, the opposite of the experience with commercial publishing. In our case that allowed us to return the profits to universities, faculty and students in the form of grants and scholarships.

  3. The time it takes to publish your work is very short compared to commercial vendors. When we submit a final PDF, we generally get a hard copy book sent to our house for review in under 2 weeks. Having an up-to-date textbook in any technical field is very important. Commercial publishers often take 1-4 years to publish a textbook with multiple authors.

  4. Correcting errors is not difficult, as you simply make the corrections and re-publish the textbook as, e.g. the first edition (version 2).

  5. Readers can interact with editors and authors, which provides valuable input that might help direct the next edition of the textbook. Response time to answer questions and provide downloadable resources is very rapid which is generally not true of the experience with commercial publishers.

We used Microsoft Word for all seven editions of my first textbook and found it incredibly frustrating. Word works reasonably well with small documents with few tables and images. Most textbooks however are 200-600 pages long so controlling images and tables gets to be a major headache, occupying a significant percentage of your time. We did hire a book designer for the seventh edition of the first textbook and the first edition of the second textbook Introduction to Biomedical Data Science. The book designer did a masterful job of taking content from the Word document and placing it along with multiple tables and images into a two column format. He used Adobe Indesign and that was an option we briefly entertained. We decided that it was more practical to have an expert handle the formatting and design that included the cover design.

Both textbooks were written with multiple co-authors so we were looking for a platform for collaboration, along with the ability to edit the document asynchronously, upload images and create tables. Given the fact that most people use Gmail and have familiarity with many Google programs, it seemed to be a reasonable choice.

Google Docs was adequate in terms of the available word processing bells and whistles. The tables were very basic, but more options were available with a table formatter add-on. Importantly, with Google Docs tables and images stayed put. Previously, we tried a myriad of tricks in Word to lock in images such as pasting them into textboxes, etc.

Co-authors can work on their chapters simultaneously and have the option to directly edit or leave “suggestions.” An attractive aspect of this is suggestions are forwarded to the co-authors' Gmail. The email notice will let them know the other author has made suggestions and give the option to reply or mark resolved. The comments are then reflected in the Gmail and the Google Doc.

There were many Google Docs features we found useful to collaboratively write a textbook. Under the File tab you can attach the document to an email, search the version history, and publish it to the web by generating a public link. A newer feature “compare documents” makes it easier to see what changes have been made comparing two versions of the same document. Under the Tools tab there is a translation option, a dictionary and the ability to use voice recognition to create text. Under the Add-ons tab there is the ability to import a variety of extensions for bibliographies, table formatting, improved table of contents and so forth. For example, PaperPile creates citations in the format of your choice and then creates a bibliography or reference list at the end of the document. Sharing the document is relatively easy with the ability to send an email invitation or generate a hyperlink that can be shared. Invitees can be given limited or full editing privileges.

In our case, formatting did not have to be perfect because we knew the book designer would make the final formatting changes based on a template in Adobe InDesign. Images could be stored in a separate folder as the book designer would upload them separately and ultimately generate a PDF document we would send to the printer.

The Google Ecosystem has multiple programs, in addition to Google Docs that support collaboration that are essential to writing a textbook with multiple co-authors.

  1. Gmail and Gmail Contact Groups are helpful so you can label and keep track of all textbook-related emails.

  2. Google Drive for creating a collaborative project. We have a Master Project folder containing multiple other folders, such as “manuscript”, “literature search,” “images,” “instructor manual”, “PowerPoints”, etc.

  3. Google Sheets is a reasonable substitute for Microsoft Excel so spreadsheets can be saved in the same project folder system. Graphs created can be copied and pasted into the Google Doc.

  4. Google Slides are more basic than Microsoft PowerPoints but are easy to use and can be exported as PowerPoint slides if needed. A slide presentation on the new book is one more way to market the textbook.

  5. Google Calendar is a universal calendar for inviting people to a teleconferencing session to discuss the textbook.

  6. Google Meet is a free video conferencing avenue to discuss the textbook with co-authors

Our experience using the Google ecosystem to create a textbook was very positive and the end result was a self-published textbook of high quality, created with fewer headaches and fewer hours spent formatting.

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