Some Thoughts on Physics Textbook Prices
by Dan Schroeder
[The opinions expressed here are those of the author, not of
his department or
Everyone knows that physics textbooks are expensive. For instance, a
student in the U.S. currently has to pay:
(These prices were obtained from Amazon.com
in February 1998, and seem to be consistent with what most university bookstores
are charging.) As you can see, most of the commonly used texts are now priced
$80, although a few, such as the last two on the list, are significantly less
than this. Beginning graduate-level textbooks are similarly priced.
University presses (especially Cambridge,
tend to sell books for more reasonable prices, but only
rarely publish textbooks at this level.
- $81.00 for Introduction to Electrodynamics by Griffiths
- $90.80 for Classical Dynamics by Marion and Thornton
(Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1995)
- $83.40 for Introductory Quantum Mechanics by Liboff
- $83.33 for Modern Physics by Taylor and Zafiratos
- $85.55 for Optics by Hecht
- $82.38 for Introduction to Solid State Physics by Kittel
- $84.80 for Heat and Thermodynamics by Zemansky and Dittman
- $59.95 for Thermal Physics by Kittel and Kroemer
- $55.00 for Principles of Quantum Mechanics by Shankar
In this document I would like to address the reasons for these high
prices and what we can do about them. Most of the information below comes from
informal discussions that I've had with colleagues, authors, and editors.
I will focus on standard hardcover
physics textbooks at the sophomore through beginning graduate level.
(Further complications apply to introductory books and to very advanced
books.) As a first step, let's look at
what's happened to prices over the last 40 years.
Recent History of U.S. Textbook Prices
In 1960, the typical price of a physics textbook was about $9. But
the U.S. Consumer
rose by a factor of 5.5 between 1960 and 1998, so in 1998 dollars, the typical
price was more like $50. This figure, interestingly enough, did not change
significantly until the mid-1980's, when it began to rise steadily to the
present value of around $80. The graph below shows some data that I've
collected in a semi-scientific way, mostly from colleagues who bought their
textbooks at various times.
Caption: Prices of selected physics textbooks, sophomore through first-year
graduate level, adjusted to 1998 dollars based on the U.S. Consumer
Price Index. The horizontal axis shows the year of purchase. Most
data were collected by asking colleagues to report prices of books for
which they have a record. A few chronological gaps were filled in by
consulting book reviews and "books received" lists in the American Journal
Based on this data, the average price of a textbook from 1960 to 1984,
expressed in 1998 dollars, was slightly less than $53. In 1998 the
average price is about $80, so there has been a real increase, above
inflation, of about 50%. This increase seems to have occurred steadily
since the mid-80's, and shows no sign of leveling off yet. Similar trends
can be found in the prices of individual books (such as Classical
Electrodynamics by Jackson or Classical Mechanics by
Goldstein) that have been around long enough. There seems to be no
significant difference in price between brand new books and books that have
been around for decades. Similarly, revisions to a book seem to have
no discernible effect on price. Long books tend to cost only very slightly
more than shorter books.
What Determines the Price of a Textbook?
A number of factors go into determining the price of a textbook:
- Paper, printing, and binding, or "ppb". This is the cost of
physically producing each copy of the book, once it has been typeset. The ppb
cost is paid every time more copies of the book are printed, and is somewhat
lower (per copy) for large print runs when many copies are printed.
For upper-division and graduate physics textbooks, a typical print run
might be 1000 copies, and a typical ppb cost might be $3 per copy.
(There is no significant reduction in cost for a paperback book.)
Obviously the ppb cost is a negligible fraction of the total cost of a book that
retails for $80. (If you're surprised by the low ppb cost, just think
of what it would cost to photocopy a book.)
- Authors' royalties. Royalties are generally paid as a
percentage of the "net" or wholesale price, which is about 75% of the retail
price. A typical royalty rate is 12%, so for an $80 book the royalty might be
12% of $60, or $7.20.
- Editing, typesetting, illustrations. These are costs that
are paid only once, when the book (or edition) is first produced. In paying
for this work, the publisher is making a significant investment and
taking a significant risk. If the book flops, the publisher must absorb
the loss. If the book sells well, however, it will repay the investment
many times over.
- Marketing and distribution. These are ongoing costs
incurred by the publisher as the book is promoted and sold. For upper-division
and graduate texts, however, most publishers do very little marketing.
Publishers' representatives are constantly pushing introductory textbooks,
but usually can't even remember the names of their companies' upper-division
books. More significant, perhaps, is the practice of providing free
"examination" copies to instructors upon request. Although the cost of
producing these copies is not high, and no royalties are paid on them,
they do constitute a large fraction of all the copies printed, especially
for undergraduate books.
- Bookstore markup. Publishers sell books to bookstores at
what they call the "net" price. Bookstores can then mark this up as much as they
like, but the most common rate seems to be 33%. In some large cities there
is significant competition among academic bookstores, so the markup is
a bit lower.
- Publisher profit. Of course there has to be some money left
over for the company executives and stockholders. Although many of the
individual employees of a publishing company may be interested in serving the
needs of students and scholars, the purpose of the company itself
is to make as much money as possible.
- What the market will bear. If the price of a book is too
high, students will find a way to get along without it. (More rarely,
instructors might decide to switch to a less expensive book.) But the usual
principles of competitive pricing do not apply very well to textbooks, because
students hardly ever have a choice of which book to buy, while many students pay
for their textbooks with someone else's money (parents or financial aid).
Why Have Textbooks Gotten More Expensive?
I'm not sure, but I don't think there's a good reason.
It's important to remember that these books tend to be quite expensive
to edit and typeset, and that relatively few copies are printed.
The cost of a physics textbook will always be more than that of a
New York Times bestseller. Still, the market for physics textbooks
hasn't gotten any smaller since 1960, while improved technology should
have brought production costs down somewhat since that time. Instead,
costs have gone up, while the physical quality of books has probably
have suggested to me that changes in tax laws in the early 80's forced
publishers to keep less inventory on hand, and thus to print fewer copies
at a time. This would increase the ppb cost slightly, but even so, the
effect on total expenses should be pretty negligible. Besides, the
trend of increasing prices still continues today, more than a decade after
Perhaps it is significant that introductory textbooks
have gotten more expensive to produce over the last
decade. These books now have full color on every page, with ever-increasing
costs for artwork, design, and printing. The prices of these books have gone
up too, though I think one could argue that here the product is worth it.
Now technically, all this should have no effect on the prices of more
advanced books, which still have simple line drawings, simple page layout,
and no color. But the advanced books are almost always published by the same
people (same companies, same editors, same production staff, same marketing
staff) that publish introductory books. As the "overhead" at these companies
increases to handle the big, complicated introductory books, the cost of
producing the more advanced books has also gone up, "accidentally".
Furthermore, today's students, who are used to purchasing introductory books for
$90, may now suffer less sticker-shock when they see the $80 price of an
Whether this is the reason or not, it seems likely that today's high textbook
prices are not inevitable. The past history of textbook prices, and the
existence, even today, of textbooks that cost significantly less than average,
indicates that textbooks could be produced and sold for
about half the current average of $80.
So What Can We Do?
- Don't buy a book until you're sure you need it. First try to borrow
a copy from the library or a friend. Get recommendations from other students
who have used the book. Some books are worth their weight in gold, while
others aren't worth the paper they're printed on.
- If you decide not to buy a book, write a note to the publisher and explain
that price was a factor in your decision. (Links to some major publishers
can be found at the top of this page.)
- Be aware of what your students are paying for textbooks. Always ask
publishers' representatives about the prices of the books they're pushing.
If necessary, check prices with your university bookstore or with
- When you choose not to use a book, write a note to the publisher
explaining that price was a factor in your decision.
- Make sure your library has a copy (on reserve) of each textbook you use, so
students who cannot afford to buy the book can borrow it instead. Also encourage
students to borrow books from other students, or to share books.
Let publishers know that you're doing this.
- Don't abuse the system by requesting free "examination copies" for
your personal reference use.
- Choose a publisher with a past history of charging reasonable prices.
- When you negotiate your contract, insist on including a clause that
limits the price of the book to a pre-agreed amount (plus increases based
on the Consumer Price Index). Publishers won't want to do this, but if
they want your book, they may come around. It helps immensely to go to more
than one publisher, and let them bid against each other. If you can't
get a price clause into the contract itself, at least get it in a separate
written letter. (The agreement will probably be on the "net" price, so
be aware that the retail price will generally be 33% higher.)
- Offer to produce electronic "camera-ready copy". Standard word processors do
not give the high-quality output usually expected in books, so learn a
professional typesetting system like TeX, and learn it well. (Read The
TeXbook.) Pay attention to typographical details, and you can produce
results that are every bit as good as what the publisher would produce at huge
- Offer to accept a lower royalty rate on the first few thousand
copies sold. This will minimize the risk to the publisher, but still allow you
to make money over the long term if your book does well. Publishers, being
used to the big introductory books, expect to make a lot of profit
quickly. You can be more patient.
- If you've already signed a contract, don't make any further concessions
unless the publisher gives you a written agreement on the price. If all
they'll give you is vague reassurances that they mean well, don't trust
them: although your editor may be sympathetic with your concerns over
price, s/he still works for a corporation whose only reason for existing
is to make a profit. Remember that tomorrow your friendly editor could get
downsized, or the whole company could merge with another.
- Don't treat upper-division books as if they were high-budget
- Encourage authors to provide camera-ready copy, to cut down on
- Realize that the lifetime of an upper-division text is much longer
than that of an introductory text. Don't expect to recover all costs
within the first year.
- Promote single-copy sales as you would for a trade book, rather than
relying solely on course adoptions by instructors.
- Expect instructors to pay for promotional copies, or return them,
when they do not adopt the text for their course.
Your Comments are Welcome
If you have further information or further thoughts on physics
textbook prices, please let me
know! I hope to update and improve this document as I learn more about this
Last modified on December 30, 1998.