Some Thoughts on Physics Textbook Prices


by Dan Schroeder

[The opinions expressed here are those of the author, not of his department or university.]

Everyone knows that physics textbooks are expensive. For instance, a student in the U.S. currently has to pay:

(These prices were obtained from 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 over $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, Oxford, and Princeton) tend to sell books for more reasonable prices, but only rarely publish textbooks at this level.

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 Price Index 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.

graph of textbook prices,  1960-1998 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 of Physics.

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:

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 deteriorated slightly.

Some colleagues 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 this change.

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 advanced book.

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?


Instructors: Authors: Publishers:

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 issue.

Last modified on December 30, 1998.