Publishers Seek Blockbuster Economics Textbook

Article excerpt

"I don't care who writes a nation's laws _ or crafts its advanced treaties _if I can write its economics textbooks."

_ Paul Samuelson By Sylvia Nasar

N.Y. Times News Service

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. _ N. Gregory Mankiw, a dweeby 37-year-old economics professor who named his dog Keynes, was not counting on getting rich overnight.

Most academics, even at Harvard, don't. But a phone call from a Texas publisher changed all that.

Mankiw, who doesn't look a lot older than the freshmen and sophomores he teaches, was offered a $1.4 million advance by Harcourt Brace in Fort Worth to write a basic economics textbook.

That's about three times as big as any other in the college textbook market and rivals those of all but a few celebrity authors.

So what's going on? It's a race among once-stodgy textbook publishers to find the next blockbuster economics textbook, a book that will shape the thinking of the 1.5 million college students who sign up for Econ 101 each year. This introductory course is both the first and the last brush that most educated Americans have with supply and demand, marginal cost, comparative advantage and other first principles of the dismal science.

Such a book is long overdue. For nearly half a century, students have learned the essentials of economics from Paul Samuelson, now almost 80 years old, and a score of his disciples and imitators.

But Samuelson's "Economics" and its many clones reflect the mindset of a post-Depression generation of scholars who thought they understood the economy well enough to tell Washington how to manage the ups and downs of the business cycle.

Meanwhile, the world has changed. And so has what most economists believe. A new generation of scholars _ while still respectful of John Maynard Keynes, the British thinker who advocated government borrowing to end the Depression _ are far more skeptical of government fine-tuning.

They worry more than their teachers about the economic long term and they focus more on how the United States interacts with the world.

For all the shifts in thinking, though, previous attempts to sell a mold-breaking economics textbook have wound up costing publishers money. Most college students are learning from books that many in the field view as outdated.

"We're really not teaching basic economics," said Paul Krugman, an economist at Stanford University who is also writing an introductory textbook. "We're not getting it across at all."

That's where the wooing of Mankiw and other economics superstars of the baby-boom generation comes in.

These scholars _ some now writing or thinking about it _ include Krugman, John Taylor, Michael Boskin and Joseph Stiglitz, all from Stanford, and Lawrence Summers, formerly at Harvard and now under secretary of the treasury for international affairs. (Summers is the latest winner of the John Bates Clark medal as the best economist under 40 and just happens to be Samuelson's nephew.)

Textbook publishers, like other marketers in mature and overcrowded fields, are placing big bets that these people, who are among the closest in their field to brand names, will sell lots of books.

In the past, ambitious young economists like Mankiw (pronounced Man-CUE) left textbook writing to older or less distinguished colleagues. They concentrated instead on the kind of esoteric research that might win them a Nobel Prize.

But now some are jumping at the chance to mold the minds of the next generation of political leaders, executives, image makers and other members of the American elite.

"Every economics editor in the business has been looking for the new Samuelson since the 1970s," said Paul Shensa, executive editor at Worth Publishers in New York.

The new stars are seeking not just fame, but fortune. …