Guest Post: Marc Sher on the Nonprofit Textbook Movement

By Sean Carroll | May 21, 2012 10:28 am

The price of university textbooks (not to mention scholarly journals) is like the weather: everyone complains about it, but nobody does anything about it. My own graduate textbook in GR hovers around $100, but I’d be happier if it were half that price or less. But the real scam is not with niche-market graduate textbooks, which move small volumes and therefore have at least some justification for their prices (and which often serve as useful references for years down the road) — it’s with the large-volume introductory textbooks that students are forced to buy.

But that might be about to change. We’re very happy to have Marc Sher, a particle theorist at William and Mary, explain an interesting new initiative that hopes to provide a much lower-cost alternative to the mainstream publishers.

(Update: I changed the title from “Open Textbook” to “Nonprofit Textbook,” since “Open” has certain technical connotations that might not apply here. The confusion is mine, not Marc’s.)


The textbook publishers’ price-gouging monopoly may be ending.

For decades, college students have been exploited by publishers of introductory textbooks. The publishers charge about $200 for a textbook, and then every 3-4 years they make some minor cosmetic changes, reorder some of the problems, add a few new problems, and call it a “new edition”. They then take the previous edition out of print. The purpose, of course, is to destroy the used book market and to continue charging students exorbitant amounts of money.

The Gates and Hewlett Foundations have apparently decided to help provide an alternative to this monopoly. The course I teach is “Physics for Life-Scientists”, which typically uses algebra-based textbooks, often entitled “College Physics.” For much of the late 1990’s, I used a book by Peter Urone. It was an excellent book with many biological applications. Unfortunately, after the second edition, it went out of print. Urone obtained the rights to the textbook from the publisher and has given it to a nonprofit group called OpenStax College, which, working with collaborators across the country has significantly revised the work and has produced a third edition. They have just begun putting this edition online (ePub for mobile and PDF), completely free of charge. The entire 1200 page book will be online within a month. People can access it without charge, or the company will print it for the cost of printing (approximately $40/book). Several online homework companies, such as Sapling Learning and Webassign, will include this book in their coverage.

OpenStax College Physics’ textbook is terrific, and with this free book available online, there will be enormous pressure on faculty to use it rather than a $200 textbook. OpenStax College plans to produce many other introductory textbooks, including sociology and biology textbooks. As a nonprofit they are sustained by philanthropy, through partnerships, and print sales, though the price for the print book is also very low.

Many of the details are at a website that has been set up at, and the book can be downloaded at As of the end of last week, 11 of the first 16 chapters had been uploaded, and the rest will follow shortly. If you teach an algebra-based physics course, please look at this textbook; it isn’t too late to use it for the fall semester. An instructor can just give the students the URL in the syllabus. If you don’t teach such a course, please show this announcement to someone who does. Of course, students will find out about the book as well, and will certainly inform their instructors. The monopoly may be ending, and students could save billions of dollars. For decades, the outrageous practices of textbook publishers have not been challenged by serious competition. This is serious competition. OpenStax College as a nonprofit and foundation supported entity does not have a sales force, so word of mouth is the way to go: Tell everyone!

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  • macho

    Interesting idea Marc. Is there a model for how new texts could be written (i.e. how to support the time and effort of the authors)?

  • Marc Sher

    Macho—-good question. If you ask most physicists who write books, the amount they make per hour is laughably small. The only really profitable texts are the big intro texts (with the occasional exception, i.e. Jackson). But does one really need new texts for most of those? And many will do this for the prestige and recognition.

  • Chris

    I’m curious Sean, from your $100 book, how much do you actually get? I have a feeling it’s pennies on the dollar.

    Also many of the uber expensive textbooks can be found online as a pdf. Technically illegal to download, but about 5 minutes of googling and downloading can save you hundreds. Also what gets students angry is the low buyback price we get from the bookstore. (I was a student before Amazon) You buy a book for $150, get $30 back and they sell it for $100 next year.

    • Sean Carroll

      I’m not sure how much I get, once all the hoops have been jumped through; it’s not that much. You don’t get rich writing graduate textbooks; like Marc says, there are much higher dollars-per-hour ways to spend your time.

  • Maia Miret

    Very interesting. I also think that mainstream textbooks are too expensive. But as a publisher (not of textbooks) myself I can’t help to think what this means for the future of publishing houses. Are they usefull at all in the publishing process? Do editors contribute to the quality of the book in some way or they just mess things a bit to mantian their books’ market? If not, off they go! I know other kinds of books benefit from having a publisher, but maybe this is not the case…

  • Ron Seadler

    I will never forget the day my physics teacher happened to ask one of us how much we paid for our textbooks, which he had authored. He was so stunned he had difficulty teaching class for the rest of that day. This happened around 1990.

  • max

    Is there a similar move afoot for high-school and grade-school textbooks? It seems like that’s where the low price would matter the most, and where a non-profit could do the most good.

  • Steuard

    One way to pay authors to release books like this is, a new venture using crowdfunding to obtain books for release under a Creative Commons license. It’s neat stuff!

  • Brett

    I’m glad someone is at least putting a dent in the increasingly shady practices of higher education. I would like to mention, some books are very hard to find, and are almost collectable because of it; which is kind of enjoyable in some aspects to say I have this rare piece of printed knowledge, which actually contains knowledge. I have a few myself, and one day they’ll probably be worth a great deal once we move away from paper all together. My favorite possession is a book on PDEs written by Arnold Sommerfeld. One thing that has already helped with this problem is various torrent sites and the efforts of some very cool people who have put their entire collection of mathematics and physics books online for download. I have a “friend” who just downloaded 12 gigs of .pdf files containing out of print and rare math & physics texts covering just about every topic you can imagine.

    Anyone can do it for any book. So if you find yourself bored one day, looking to become a member of the rebel alliance; feel free to upload some books to a bit torrent website of your choosing. Two really good ones…well, I probably shouldn’t mention them in full. begins with a D, ends with an oid. Another is quite the “kick ass torrent”.

    Of course if you really admire the author and what they have to say, a popular science writer perhaps; then you should support them by paying the miniscule price for the actual book in printed or ebook form. But that’s if you would like them to continue publishing material. Do you know why movies and music increasingly suck? because nobody wants to get swindled $14 a person to see a movie with a crappy audio track and the theater lights left on through the entire movie with some horny teen couple gettin’ down a few seats over. So people download the movie, studios loose money and are scared so they start playing it safe, and movies become mediocre and unoriginal. Don’t let the same thing happen with popular science books.

  • Thomas

    I got your book at a discount, so only paid $87.35! Some of these books are worth the money, I just wish the authors got a higher percentage of that sum though.

  • AnonymousSnowboarder

    Sorry, I have to call BS on this $200 introductory text book. It may be the case that some publishers will try to stick a list price on it near that level but the reality is nobody except a dope would pay list on any high volume text book, even new. The current Samuleson, used by countless students, is $140 new in hardcover vs list of $190 and is available used for far less.

    And while it may be true that some books only get cosmetic changes, many others do have significant revisions to material or new additions. Errata are fixed and problems may be added or changed.

    As to upper level or graduate level works where the audience is quite small you are up against a limited run with a high fixed cost for editing (not spell checking!) and review of the material. The cost of the actual physical book is often only a small part of the cost of a graduate level text much to the chargrin of the e-reader market (never minding any format constraints).

    I would also point out that many businesses rely on certain portions of their product line to help carry others which may be less profitable and which would not stand on their own. Without the profits from lower level text books it is quite likely graduate level texts would become prohibitively costly.

    Also add that the example used is in fact a subsidized book and further, there is a limit to the amount of ‘free’ editing that knowledgeable individuals are willing to do. Will everyone be happy when there are two “free” books to chose from because publishers have given up on the market (no profit) and nobody else will be bother to spend their valuable time on a free project (both writing and editing?) Careful what you ask for, you just may get it.

  • PJM

    One of the problems with this is that most universities will not give transfer credit for courses that use “non-standard” textbooks. If you’re at a community college and want your courses to apply for transfer credit, unless the courses you take use one of the canonical textbooks, the chances are the universities won’t accept the courses. The University of California system is VERY strict about exactly what must be on the syllabus (including what textbook is used) to allow the course to apply for transfer credit. The big state schools run the show, and until they change their standards, nothing else can change.

  • Len Ornstein


    I just downloaded “College Physics” from OpenSTAX.

    It’s an excellent text – as far as it goes – but has almost NO discussion of margins of error or confidence intervals – and the central role of such measures as THE method for distinguishing ‘just so stories’ from science!

    It’s bad enough that high schools do so poor a job in this respect. Let’s hope OpenSTAX quickly fixes this.

  • Marc Sher

    AnonymousSnowboarder: Accusing someone of BS is not very polite, especially when they are telling the truth. The current price for the standard college physics text by Giambattista at the William and Mary bookstore this summer is $231.50. It is available for $173.65 used (if available). In many cases it is unavailable, and for the fourth edition of the book, which comes out in August, there will be no used books. Yes, one can save 15-20% on Amazon, if you can wait a week (very bad in a summer course). Some students on scholarships are REQUIRED to get their books at the bookstore. This is not atypical. This does not include the additional $35-40 for using webassign. Also, I have seen the 4th edition, and the changes are cosmetic – yes, a few errors fixed, a few new problems, an occasion subsection in a chapter added, but that’s it.

    PJM: You are correct, but the OpenStax text is a standard textbook–the third edition of Urone. I can’t imagine any school not accepting it — the standard is usually adoption by webassign or sapling learning.

    Len: You are correct, but there will be some Appendices, and I believe one of them will cover that. The book is not yet complete. But your point is well-taken—too few texts discuss errors and confidence intervals (sometimes that is in the lab part of the course, but that isn’t enough).

  • PJM

    Marc: Would that it were that simple. The universities require exact ISBN’s for every textbook assigned, and, sadly, it’s faculty there (along with administrators) that often reject anything that smells of being non-canonical, or even anything that is an “old” edition. I’ve heard of courses that were refused transfer credit if they did not use, by default, the current edition of a given textbook! Everything has to “articulate.” Of course it would be great if this could change, and “open source’ is probably the way to go, at least for lower-division science texts, but it will take a long time for minds to change at both the bottom and top of the food chain… On another note, which Physics student hasn’t lovingly kept his or her copy of Goldstein or Jackson or even Halliday & Resnick, and would accept no substitute! Some of these books are classics for a reason – they’re beautifully written, and the publishers know it and aren’t about to let them go into the public domain. There’s a deeper question of how capitalism and learning (and art, for that matter!) should and shouldn’t intersect….

  • liuyao

    Over on the math world, a good example has been around for quite some years. Allen Hatcher’s book Algebraic Topology has become the standard introductory text at the graduate school level, and he maintains an electronic version up to date, and of course free, on his website (along with a few other books or drafts). The printed version is available through Cambridge University Press at a low cost.

    He manages to do this partly because mathematicians in general are more versed in LaTeX. I’m guessing Sean did not do all the editing himself.

  • Timothy

    While we’re at it, let’s start a not-for-profit program—perhaps a government program?—that could issue college credit by passing qualifying exams in various subject areas. Many people are autodidactic, or otherwise too busy with their lives to attend college classes (or, they may not even have a college or university nearby where they could take college courses) and could benefit from such a program.

    Ideally, the tests would be rigorous and NOT multiple-choice (no notes, books, or other resources could be used during the exams). You would take the exams in a proctored setting. The test would be far more difficult than AP or CLEP exams…something on par with what you would see at a respectable college or university. Since a human being would have to grade the exams, the tests themselves might not be cheap—a couple hundred bucks, perhaps? Still cheaper than paying college tuition. And it would create jobs for the thousands of underemployed/unemployed PhD holders in our country.

    The program should be the antithesis of the high school GED program, and more like the International Baccalaureate program, but applied to college. It should be challenging, and earning college credits through the program should earn the participant some prestige or respectability. It wouldn’t be looked down upon by those who earned their degrees from brick-and-mortar schools or future employers. In short, such a degree would actually mean something.

    Students could use whatever textbooks they wanted to learn the material, whether an older edition text they buy off Amazon, or a 10 year old book from their local library. For most subjects, it wouldn’t matter too much. The student could find the book that works for his/her learning style. Just as long as they could learn the material.

  • Eli Rabett

    Several years ago Eli posted on this issue. What this really is is a market failure, the people who specify the book, get it for free. For those who are interested Rabett Run has two excellent rants on the topic (Rant 1, Rant 2).

    So what can be done? As Marc Sher says use alternate textbooks, but even here we see that the perfect is the enemy of the good. No chapter on a favorite subject, no sell back (rational faculty want students to keep their books), etc. The Rabett has had screaming arguments with an otherwise rational colleague who was so fixed on the sell back issue that she somehow missed that it really was the net difference that was the issue.

    To solve the problem faculty need to have some skin in the game. The first step is to refuse to accept desk copies. Check the book out in the library or on line.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Do you know why movies and music increasingly suck? because nobody wants to get swindled $14 a person to see a movie with a crappy audio track and the theater lights left on through the entire movie with some horny teen couple gettin’ down a few seats over. So people download the movie, studios loose money and are scared so they start playing it safe, and movies become mediocre and unoriginal. “

    I call BS on this. Almost all pirating is because people want something but don’t want to pay.

  • bob

    Sean – Do you know about the CaltechAUTHORS site ? Many books are hosted there, including a number of technical monographs
    Have you looked into the possibility of having your GR textbook there?

  • Curious Wavefunction

    I wonder how much money Halliday and Resnick made off their textbook. There are very few authors who have become millionaires from best-selling textbooks, one of the most prominent being Peter Atkins who wrote “Physical Chemistry”.

  • Mark Weitzman

    By the way graduate textbooks in physics are a bargain as far as I am concerned. Sean’s GR book, Srednicki QFT book,Weinberg’s QFT and Cosmology books, Polchinski String Theory books are all beautifully constructed and cost around $70 on average. I have recently started an education program to become a high school physics teacher. The education books average $150 softcover and weigh about 1/3 of the above mentioned physics textbooks. The real shame is that books like Halliday and Resnick used to have very few editions – one every decade – now its a joke what they do to incoming college students.

  • Len Ornstein


    PLEASE do not leave the centrality of the empiricism of science and the nature of inductive inference and of its quantitative measures – to “Appendices”!

  • Colin Bisset

    So far there are no comments from publishers. I guess I’m up.
    The principal costs of making a text are these:
    1. Time. Editors, designers, and compositors, unlike the mythical authors mooted in the comments, do not work for “glory”‘ because they don’t get any, and because they need compensation for the time they contribute to the work to stay alive. My experience is that their salaries are all significantly lower than those of professors, but it takes a lot of time from many people to develop a high-quality text.
    2. Art. Artists also need compensation, for their time and their intellectual property.
    3. Photos. Intellectual property again.
    4. Royalties. IP again.
    5. Reviews. Reviewers are also averse to working for glory.
    6. Overhead. Basically the cost of being in the business, which includes marketing and sales.
    Finally, there are the costs of printing and distribution, which, for a high-volume text, are only a small fraction of the overall costs. We also need to do research to determine what should be published and how it should be packaged, i.e., pay the publisher.
    For e-books, there are the added costs of the various interactive elements. (Yes, that’s right, e-books should cost more than paper. Publishers are eating the loss right now.)
    Making a text is hard. The return, contrary to the views expressed above, is not great for most texts because the marketplace is competitive — the comments here completely ignore the texts that are not adopted, which cost just as much to produce.
    It may be that in the future authors who are content to work for glory will be the source of all texts, but everyone should realize that publishers don’t have any unnecessary employees. Maybe students will be happier paying non-profits for their texts, but I can guarantee they won’t pay any less.

  • http://Publisher Eric

    I work for one of those “evil”, “price-gouging” textbook publishers you dislike so much. Let’s take a look at my side of the story.

    What’s the cost of printing a book? You mention $40. That’s typical for printing one copy at a time. It’s a little high for printing in quantity, but let’s use that. Assume the bookstore price is $150. Subtracting the bookstore markup, the publisher gets about $100 to $120. The author gets about $10 to $15, depending on the contract. Overheads (fixed costs) of operating the business, paying rent or mortgage, taxes, selling and marketing, etc. typically cost about $20 to $30 per book (wages are included in the development costs below). Let’s assume the publisher earns a gross margin of $40.

    Most authors are terrible writers. Significant editing efforts are required. You would not believe the amount of plagiarism I see from college professors writing a book. I have received content from authors with the Wikipedia URL links still embedded! The development costs for a new book for the publisher can be anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 per book. With a margin of $40, you have to sell about 1000 to 6000 copies per edition to break even.

    Most upper level college textbooks sell about 500 to 1000 copies a year. Introductory books may sell more. They may not, depending on the subject and the competing products available. In addition, every publisher occasionally comes out with a book that bombs in the marketplace and doesn’t sell very well. All the development costs are lost.

    Therefore, it takes about 2 to 6 years to pay the production and overhead costs of an average book before the books earns a penny for the publisher. Development costs for revisions are less expensive, but certainly not free. A low-volume book may never pay for itself. Many other books don’t cover their costs until into the 2nd edition. I would love to come out with fewer editions. We would make more money. However, colleges will not buy a book if the copyright is more than about 4 years old. They require the publisher to come out with new editions that often. Blame the schools for that, not the publisher.

    A few of the ways the publisher adds value are by organizing the material, verifying the accuracy of content, copy editing, ensuring that curriculum standards are followed, ensuring trademarks and copyrighted material are used properly so the author doesn’t get sued, bringing out new editions so the colleges will continue to use the books, and making sure the author gets paid.

    Don’t like my numbers? Insert your own. Then ask yourself why publishers are filing for bankruptcy or laying off thousands of people. It’s because they are not making any money.

  • Neil S.

    We all know, I hope, that there are some BAD textbooks out there. Hopefully the free textbooks won’t be that bad but unless they are pretty good I think the responsible prof. will have to use a commercial book that is good, thus starting the course with students ticked off that they had to pay money for their texts.

    So if this spreads I hope a lot of people will be willing to do that work to provide a variety of free texts.

  • Jeff

    Why do classic courses need new textbook editions at all? I can see frequently updating textbooks in active areas of study, but Newtonian physics and calculus haven’t changed much in recent years. Rudin’s “Principles of Mathematical Analysis”, 3rd edition (1976) is still in print and used in many mathematica curricula. And I’ve always loved the bargain-priced Dover republications of classic textbooks such as Messiah’s Quantum Mechanics. And of course, there’s no room for improvement in Landau & Lifshitz (imagine the heresy of a reversioned L&L, with glossy pages, shaded sidebar text, and stock photographs of jugglers and soap bubbles).

  • Brett

    Jeff @#28; I’ve been asking that for the past 2 years.
    Dover books are great for the value. I have a few Calculus books from Rudin and Courant that can’t be beat. The only reason I can think of is to add illustrations and try to put the material in a modern format for younger generations. Dover / Springer / Wiley, make great and useful books; but they are extremely dry, and intimidation is really what makes math & physics hard in the first place. I think a lot of students taking a math or physics course are really only taking it because they are required to get the credits; they want to know the bare minimum of what they need to know in order to get by…like most physicists with math.

    #20; my point is that it’s a self propagating cycle. Most people I talk to like the experience of going to see a movie in the theater, BUT, if you don’t get to the theater in the first two weeks then you really aren’t getting the experience you pay for. So yes, the point is that people don’t want to pay for something that’s not worth it. The same thing applies to a book. Wiley publishing has some great books, but they are insanely overpriced. Artin’s Geometric Algebra is an interesting book; but it’s 224 pages paperback with no pictures of any sort other than the rare and crudely hand drawn pictograph, it’s horribly printed with hyper and sub texts usually too light and faded to read (on a new copy) and costs $160. There’s no way I’m recommending buying that book up front, just like there’s no way I’m going to go see Men in Black 3. In simpler times, you could say “this movie was horrible, and it was because of technical errors by the theater; I want my money back”. You can’t do that anymore.

    my apologies for comparing the work of Emil Artin to Men in Black 3.

  • David A.

    Eric writes: “However, colleges will not buy a book if the copyright is more than about 4 years old. They require the publisher to come out with new editions that often.”

    This is a new one on me; I am curious what the motivation might be for Colleges to make this rule (or is it the College Bookstores, since I cannot imagine that the faculty requested such a rule?). Can someone verify/explain? It is certainly not the case at my own university. In fact, in other fields, there are certain textbooks that have been canonical for decades (I think of the “Riverside” edition of Shakespeare, 1st edition 1974, 2nd edition 1996, standard when I was an undergraduate, still
    in most University bookstores…). How many years have bookstores sold Jackson’s Electrodynamics in one of its just three editions (1962, 1975, 1998)? Certainly not “updated” every 4 years!

    Eric’s arguments about why low-sales volume, upper-level undergraduate or special topics
    graduate level texts are expensive are well taken, but largely beside the point. The question under
    scrutiny is the practice of publishers producing new editions of “standard” introductory textbooks every few years, when the core content is largely unchanged, the pedagogic approach is standard,
    and the typos or corrections required could easily/inexpensively be handled with some
    erratum sheets, or online errata.

    I have had quite a few publisher’s reps try to persuade me to consider writing a “University Physics”
    or “College Physics” book, despite the wealth of similar (almost identical in some cases) books
    on the market. When I mention that I might be interested in writing a book that would serve
    a more pressing need (but intended for a smaller market), such as an advanced undergrad physics book, their enthusiasm has been, how shall I say, muted.

  • T. Stuck

    This will help but it is only the beginning of the scams Universities use on students to get their money. Universities for years try every trick to make students go longer than the traditional four years. Offer required courses only one semester and making sure it conflicts with other popular or required courses. Having one or more classes especially hard (for no apparent reason) so a few kids will always fail and then have to stay on to take it again. It is time the whole college institutions are looked at. Get back to teaching students and not worring about making money for our non-profit University.

  • Marc Sher

    Here is a reply from the editor, David Harris.


    “I’m the editor in chief for Connexions and we are the publisher for the OpenStax College texts. There have been a few comments in these posts that warrant a response.

    The OpenStax College texts carry a CC-BY license meaning that they are open to adopt, use, and adapt. The pdf and ePubs can be downloaded for free and never expire. The open license is important because we envision a future that is analogous to the Red Hat/Linux model. We hope that the community takes and improves this content over time. The beauty of an open license is that a user can adapt the content to meet her own needs. In fact, our platform allows a user to add his own content and then a new version will be dynamically generated in which the new content is seamlessly integrated. Furthermore, we expect commercial entities; including publishers, to provide services around this content. The best service providers (on line homework, high stakes assessment, and tutoring) should do well in this new ecosystem.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the publishers who state that producing a high quality work that meets scope and sequence requirements is a tremendous effort for both the author(s) and the publisher. We believe that there is room in the market for both publishers and open source providers. For example, At OpenStax College we are not the solution for faculty looking for transparencies or simulation CDs or in need of dozens of desk copies (though we do offer print versions of our projects).

    At OpenStax College our projects are peer reviewed, authored by professors, and professionally developed. They meet the scope and sequence requirements of courses; therefore, matriculation should not be an issue whatsoever. One of our goals is to enhance academic freedom by providing more choices to faculty and students.

    In the final analysis the quality of our content will drive usage. We believe that learning, rather than free, is the priority.

  • James Caras

    I am the President of Sapling Learning, and thanks for the mention of our support for OpenStax.

    Introductory science textbooks are not bad — in fact quite the contrary. The issue is that they have been efficiently optimized for the market over the last 30 years in terms of format, layout, topic order, level of presentation, etc., to the degree that they are commoditized educational resources. Publishers have done a great job meeting the needs of the introductory science course. In fact, in general all of the textbooks are excellent references for students in STEM courses, supplementary to lectures and problem-solving practice. However, *which* textbook reference you choose to adopt for introductory level science courses simply doesn’t matter in terms of learning outcomes for your students. Therefore OpenStax books offer your students great value.

    Textbook prices:
    It is very common for an introductory science textbook to be $200 or more, the price of an inexpensive mountain bike. Publishers will offer “custom” books and “binder-ready-print” loose-leaf stacks of shrink-wrapped paper for what appears to be a decent discount, bundled with software, but these options just remove inexpensive textbook purchase options such as used textbooks, previous editions, sharing textbooks, and purchasing from other suppliers such as Amazon and Chegg and in the end cost students more money over an edition lifecyle. Many faculty fall for these gimmicks, however. The price inflation for textbooks is many-fold higher than normal consumer price index. The price typically paid by large publishers to print a quality introductory science textbook is $7-$8 at most for large printing volumes. OpenStax books cost more because they are doing print-on-demand, which is much more expensive to do, but also necessary if you want faculty to be able to customize the book.

    Editors at publishing companies are talented individuals dedicated to working with authors to make textbooks approachable and clear to 18-year old science students who are increasingly less prepared coming out of high school. They are essential to producing good textbooks, and they don’t work for free. And yes, art and layout/production costs are incredibly high. Students and faculty demand high production value. For an introductory science textbook the costs of bringing it to publication are typically around $500K-$1M. Remember the market demands more than text material and art, and also insists upon PowerPoint slides, test banks, and multimedia. These ancillaries cost a great deal of money to produce. Don’t tell me that is unnecessary fluff – there are huge sales consequences if you don’t provide it. If you don’t need these ancillaries, that is even more reason to consider less expensive books offered by smaller publishers and OER textbooks.

    Add to this the costs of online homework content to go into the online homework platform, which is valuable. This all adds up to huge publication costs to make the book ready for the sales push. On top of the costs to bring a textbook to publication, publishers spend huge amounts of money on large sales forces and well-oiled marketing engines, and a good portion of the cost of a textbook is going towards getting faculty to consider it and be convinced they should adopt it. Again, it is hard to judge this, because if publishers don’t invest in sales and marketing, their competition will, and faculty are just as susceptible to sales efforts as Joe Public, despite their education.

    Without the “free ancillaries” and sales expenditures it is very difficult to recoup the costs required to bring the book to publication. Yes, the model is broken, but there it is. OER content coupled with digital learning platforms and an API-driven ecosystem can fix it, but faculty are slow to move.

    Edition cycles:
    It is absolutely not true that faculty or departments want 3-year edition cycles. For introductory science and math textbooks these cycles (now moving to 2-years in some cases) are designed to erode used textbook sales, period. New editions cause work for faculty and expense for students with no significant learning outcomes gain.

    University business models:
    I am not an expert here, but I do not believe that universities are not trying to keep students paying for classes by failing them. Universities are bursting at the seams, trying to accommodate ever-increasing enrollments in a time of 5-years of budget cuts. They want to graduate successful students as fast as possible so they don’t have to build new buildings and graduates have high earning potential and can donate back to the university quickly.

    OpenStax and OER textbooks:
    OER textbooks might be free to your students, but they certainly aren’t free to produce. I waited a long time to find an organization such as OpenStax to partner with because they understand what it takes: they take considerable resources from the Gates, Hewlett, 20 Million Minds, and Maxfield Foundations, put it in the hands of David Harris, a former Publisher at Cengage and Editorial Director at Wiley, and let him run a well-thought-out and fairly standard textbook publication and production process involving paid editors, artists, design and production (using professional outfits like Words and Numbers), do market validation, etc. Finally: an open textbook that doesn’t look like one. OpenStax knows that a Physics textbook would be DOA, free or not, without online homework, which is why they looked for partnerships to fulfill this. The foundations supporting OpenStax cover the $millions in “plant” costs for a high production value book so students can afford to stay in school, with the end result that we might graduate more scientists and engineers and have better-educated problem solvers to solve the challenges facing our society (net gain, $billions). This is the calculus behind well-funded OER.

    The textbook price/value disparity:
    We are a textbook-independent online homework provider for the problem-solving disciplines (chemistry, physics, engineering, economics, etc.). We also have a science eBooks platform that is integrated with our online learning system and homework-style problem-solving activities. One problem Sapling is trying to solve is providing educational value in terms of learning outcomes compared with cost. Students value online homework as the most valuable element of an introductory science course. When asked to rank and rate 20 elements of a general chemistry course in terms of “contribution towards success in the class” students ranked online homework #1, compared with the textbook being rated #8 (Butler University study, presented at ACS conference 2010). Studies at Purdue show 1.3 letter grades higher when using online homework (organic chemistry study), and studies at the Colorado School of Mines show that using online homework for Mass and Energy Balances doubles the As, increased the number of Bs by 50%, and dramatically increased retention of chemical engineering students as they made their way past this difficult “weeder” course (Liberatore, Journal of Chemical Engineering Education April 2012). OpenStax appreciates the value of online homework to learning outcomes, so has partnered with companies to offer it with their book. Contrast this with studies from the Utah Open Textbook Project and experiments at the University of Detroit which show no grade or performance benefit with students using a publisher-created science textbook vs. an OER textbook or collection of links to open Web resources, respectively. Yet the textbook costs $200, and the online homework $50. There is a significant disparity in terms of price/value ratio, for the thing that students value most costs 4-5X less than the commodity resource they do not value.

    Saving students money:
    Sapling Learning publishes a couple introductory science textbooks of our own within our eBook platform, but we don’t think our textbooks will fundamentally change your student’s outcomes for the class. We acquired the rights to excellent books and revised them to meet the changing needs of a market moving digital, and they are more engaging. We also reset the price/efficacy value equation by charging $20 for our eBooks and more than that for the homework. Sapling also works with universities publishing their own books at little cost to their students (popular in Canada), and Open Education Resource textbooks such as those OpenStax provides to facilitate free and low-cost textbook alternatives for students.

    In the case of OpenStax, you can use their Physics book for free with Sapling Learning’s homework as independent resources. However, we do allow faculty to choose to adopt the OpenStax Physics textbook completely integrated with online homework and media using our platform. In this case, we do charge $5 for the OpenStax content, and give revenue back to OpenStax as a way to sustain their efforts financially. We also serve as the sales force that puts feet on the street to sells the OpenStax book in direct competition with Pearson’s sales force. We support university faculty as they switch to OER books with dedicated PhD Physicist-Educators. Sales, implementation and support services, and digital ecosystem — in a sense, we hope to become the RedHat to OpenStax’s Linux.

  • Phillip Helbig

    There are very few authors who have become millionaires from best-selling textbooks, one of the most prominent being Peter Atkins who wrote “Physical Chemistry”.

    Indeed. He once said “One can write books like this on a desert island. In fact, I do.”

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Perhaps this is a silly question but…aren’t we getting close to being done with “textbooks” as we know them? At least, shouldn’t we be? My last class nominally had a textbook, but nearly everything of pedagogical use was in the form of electronic content, esp. animations and video tutorials. In an earlier class the text was supplemented with e-media available online to purchasers, but I must say it was quite inferior compared to much of the content being generated by academic departments, and even individual professors. If that’s the best traditional publishing houses can come up with, they’re going the way of the dodo anyhow. This is 19th century technology we’re talking about, here. So why don’t creators of non-profit educational content really leave the for-profit world in the dust by fully taking advantage of technology that’s been more than up to the task for years now?

  • Jim Harrison

    As the comments show, the textbook problem is anything but simple. There is one fact, however, that explains an awful lot: textbooks are not paid for by the people who chose ’em.

    Of course, there’s more to it than the anomaly of a market where those who chose are not those who pay. Profs not only don’t have to pay for student books, but get free copies for themselves, along with a variety of other benefits. Everybody knows about the various teaching aids—transparencies, software, websites, etc.—that sweeten the deal but an ever greater benefit is the way that textbooks serve as a low-energy solution to the political problem of how to manage the content of intro courses taught by multiple profs. For teachers who care to devote the time and effort, the ability to customize textbooks is a plus; but avoiding the need to make choices is a big part of the value added by traditional textbooks. Textbook publishers and authors hugely benefit from the Law of Least Hassles.

  • Eli Rabett

    Eric the publisher is completely wrong. If you want to see how wrong, price a textbook on or, half the price or more.

  • Andrew

    In a similar vein at the high school level: the Siyavula project ( has allowed the South African government to print 2.4 million textbooks at a fraction of their usual cost. provides more details.

  • Pingback: Another Week of GW News, May 27, 2012 « Random Information()

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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