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Graphic novelist, professor Jeremy Short Q&A on TEDxOU conference

by Matthew Price Modified: April 22, 2013 at 2:50 pm •  Published: January 23, 2012

University of Oklahoma professor Jeremy Short will speak on textbooks he’s created in graphic novel format at Friday’s TEDxOU conference on the University of Oklahoma campus.

Short is the Rath Chair in Strategic Management at OU’s Price College of Business. He also co-authored the first Harvard business case in graphic novel format. He’s written textbooks in graphic novel format including “Managing to Succeed,” the sequel, “Atlas Black: Management Guru,” and co-authored“Tales of Garcon: The Franchise Players” and “University Life: A College Survival Story.”

He talked about the ‘graphic’ approach to education and what he sees in the future of textbook publishing in a Q&A with The Oklahoman.

Matt Price: Tell me about the talk you’re giving at OU.

Jeremy Short:Education is a constantly evolving realm. Educators now have the ability to conduct online delivery of courses, create elaborate PowerPoint slides with interactive video clips to illustrate content, and engage students through service and/or hands-on learning activities that apply their learning to the world beyond classroom walls.

Jeremy Short , University of Oklahoma professor and graphic novelist    ORG XMIT: 1110201600569103
Jeremy Short , University of Oklahoma professor and graphic novelist ORG XMIT: 1110201600569103

But textbooks remain the same dull, expensive tomes they’ve been for decades. Until now.

So, I’m speaking on the ‘graphic’ approach to education that I’ve developed by writing several graphic novels on management, entrepreneurship, and college survival. I also co-authored a number of graphic novel journal articles, as well as the first (and perhaps only) Harvard Business School Case in graphic novel format. Most recently, I co-authored a free online textbook that incorporates a graphic intensive approach to teaching key concepts in my primary area of study – strategic management. What’s new about all of these works is that they are graphically interesting and convey what we’ve known for years – individuals lean better through memorable visual storytelling. What might surprise some is that textbooks don’t have to be boring.

Matt Price: What’s the focus of the conference?

Jeremy Short: TED conferences focus on ‘ideas worth sharing.’ Previous TED events have featured talks by Bono, Bill Clinton, Dave Eggers, Bill Gates, and Malcolm Gladwell. This conference is part of a locally organized TED event featuring ideas worth sharing from creative minds with Oklahoma ties.

Matt Price: Tell me about your plans to launch a free version of your textbook on the iPad.

Jeremy Short: The book is available now, online, for anyone to read as many times as they like. 100% free without ads. The lead author, Dave Ketchen at Auburn worked with me on several of the graphic novels as well as some journal articles in graphic novel format. The book reads great on the iPad, but fortunately it looks great on any computer. Here’s a link to the book:

Matt Price: How do you see textbook publishing changing in the coming years?

Jeremy Short: I think the market has to change in two key ways.  Fortunately it is already making the metamorphosis.

First, the prices of most textbooks ($100+) are a complete rip-off. I’ve taught my class without a book at times, and now I’ll use our free book. But I think costs must come down and that’s starting to happen. Apple’s big announcement about education last week shows that lots of folks are interested in more affordable options. The good news is that there has already been a lot of movement in this area with companies like my publisher, Flat World Knowledge.

I think the second important change is that textbooks have to become more approachable and engaging. Falling asleep shouldn’t be the default behavior when a student opens a textbook. To say this another way – textbooks in my area of study (strategic management and entrepreneurship) convey valuable knowledge of interest to a wide audience. So, they should be written in a manner where anyone would be interested in buying the books (not just students taking a class)

To make that transition between student only and wide-audience interest one approach I’ve used is the graphic novel text. So, instead of having a book with many unrelated examples, our books apply content using characters and a storyline. And, these books are only around $20 each so they are still much less expensive than traditional textbooks. Used books on are even less expensive. Our first book, “Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed” focused on two college students considering starting their own business. In the sequel, “Atlas Black: Management Guru?” we see the business being opened.

Our most recent book “Tales of Garcón: The Franchise Players” tells the story of a family business that is considering franchising. This book has as much content as any ‘Dummies’ book on franchising or family business, but at a lower price and with more memorable examples. And, given that all the authors I’ve worked with are leading scholars, we include more current and important research findings. So, while you might tend to think of graphic novels as dumbing down content, as in “aren’t comics for kids?”, we actually provide a richer narrative than many books that summarize concepts.

Another approach that illustrates how the textbook industry is transforming itself is found with the new strategic management textbook, “Mastering Strategic Management” that Dave and I wrote. It includes graphic pages that are visually more interesting to summarize key concepts. We also profile a different company in each chapter to help apply material in a more digestible manner that avoids information overload. We also include a ‘strategy at the movies’ segment in each chapter. Most people can recite memorable lines from movies, but very few of us quote textbooks. So we wanted to show how this material is relevant, entertaining, and memorable. The average person thinking about starting their own business can use our book now, for free, to think through important issues. I think this is great because academics like myself often struggle for ways to be relevant to a broader market and this provides a resource to reach out beyond the classroom or the pages of journal articles we publish.

Matt Price: Tell me how this works from a business point of view — how are you and your collaborators making money by putting the book out for free?

 Jeremy Short: We don’t make any money with free viewings, but many folks still prefer the print version (where we receive royalties). There are also options to purchase extras such as flashcards and pdf versions of the book, and we draw royalties on those types of purchases. But, since those options are still around $30-$35 part of the hope is that we will be able to recruit multiple adoptions since we’re making less on each unit. Personally, I’m fine making less money on the books as long as I can get a useful tool into the hands of students and make an impact — something I’m already compensated to do as a professor at OU. I will of course donate all royalties from books sold to OU students back to the university.

 Matt Price: What other graphic novels do you have in the works?

 Jeremy Short: We just finished “Tales of Garcón: The Franchise Players” this summer. We also completed “University Life: A College Survival Story.” Both of these books are fun because they really target a broader market than students or academics. For example, approximately 80% of businesses worldwide are family businesses, but few resources speak to the needs of these kinds of organizations. And, franchising is a form of entrepreneurship considered by a broad range of individuals. Our college success book targets first-year freshman, but it would also provide a lot of insights for high school seniors or graduates who want a glimpse into some of the challenges of college life. Reading reviews on our books has probably been one of the most rewarding results of these efforts.

Right now we’re in the process of pitching two more books. The first focuses on the Garcón character as he helps folks to master challenges of strategic management. We envision something of a hybrid between a young version of our main character in the first book (a charismatic patriarch something like J. Peterman from Seinfeld and the guy from the Dos Equis ads) and the TV show ‘restaurant impossible.”

The other book we’re pitching focuses on a venture capital firm who hosts a competition to find the next great entrepreneurial idea. Think “The Amazing Race” meets “Shark Tank.”

Matt Price: Anything else you’d like to share? 

Jeremy Short: I think the idea of graphic interaction is here to stay. We are becoming hardwired to see an icon of an envelope and think ‘email’ to ourselves, and this movement to incorporate these notions into higher education is exciting. Perhaps next time we talk I’ll have developed a PC or iPad interactive game that uses the characters from the graphic novels.

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by Matthew Price
Features Editor
Features Editor Matthew Price has worked for The Oklahoman since 2000. He’s a University of Oklahoma graduate who has also worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern for the Dallas Morning News. He’s...
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