Guest Post: Marc Sher on the Nonprofit Textbook Movement

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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40 Responses to Guest Post: Marc Sher on the Nonprofit Textbook Movement

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Marc Sher on the Open Textbook Movement – - ScienceNewsX - Science News AggregatorScienceNewsX – Science News Aggregator

  2. macho says:

    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)?

  3. Marc Sher says:

    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.

  4. Chris says:

    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.

  5. Sean Carroll says:

    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.

  6. Maia Miret says:

    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…

  7. Ron Seadler says:

    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.

  8. max says:

    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.

  9. Steuard says:

    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!

  10. Brett says:

    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.

  11. Thomas says:

    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.

  12. AnonymousSnowboarder says:

    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.

  13. PJM says:

    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.

  14. Len Ornstein says:


    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.

  15. Marc Sher says:

    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).

  16. PJM says:

    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….

  17. liuyao says:

    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.

  18. Timothy says:

    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.

  19. Eli Rabett says:

    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.

  20. “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.

  21. bob says:

    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?

  22. 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”.

  23. Mark Weitzman says:

    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.

  24. Len Ornstein says:


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

  25. Colin Bisset says:

    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.