I'm asking just about textbooks that are sold for profit, not free ones. I know journal authors can email their papers or articles free, but textbook? Is Reddit comment wrong?

I ask all subjects like finance, economics, law, not just science.

Science textbooks. When a scientist gets published, he/she doesn't get any profit if the schools use it. Every textbook I've had hasn't been free, so I just email the publisher and find out one of the names (of whom was published) to email them. Since they get no money, they'll be glad to email you back the entire book, to which you can print off yourself. It's a life hack people should know instead of having to pay thousands for college textbooks. Edit: I did this with my Calculus/Geometry professor in ISU (Indiana State University) and he said that he only got one overall pay for being published with other professors, and that he would be glad to give it to me, as he would all of his students. I'm not lying.

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    "... he/she doesn't get any profit ..."; that's not (always) true, at e.g. Cambridge University Press, all authors get a small share of each book being sold.
    – Bart
    Aug 30, 2019 at 7:38
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    This will strongly depend on the exact licensing deal between the author and the publisher.
    – TimRias
    Aug 30, 2019 at 8:16
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    is it illegal in the US to download the epub and books by E-mule and Torrent ? i get some books from torrents and Emule Aug 30, 2019 at 17:25
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    @JoseJavierGarcia - With torrents, you usually download from some people and upload pieces to others. The uploading part would be illegal. I'm not sure if downloading is illegal, but it is probably against university policy for their students.
    – Justin
    Aug 30, 2019 at 20:29

6 Answers 6


I am the author of a textbook. The book retails for $50. I get 50cents for every copy sold.

I do not own the copyright on the book and it would be illegal for me to sent you a copy, even if I had a copy to send (I mean, I have the original word documents, but the final PDF looks nothing like that).

The book has been scanned, and when it was not so old I know that copies of it did float around Pirate Bay. I wasn't particularly upset.

  • 37
    One cent on the dollar? Ouch... Aug 30, 2019 at 17:29
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    Your better off firing them and selling it for $2 as an ebook. Everyone wins.
    – cybernard
    Aug 31, 2019 at 14:55
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    I’m quite perplexed in the licensing deal established between you and the publisher. I’m asking as someone outside the academic world of publishing, is this the norm? You authored an entire textbook and only 50 cents is remitted for your efforts? Why is this the case? Sep 1, 2019 at 17:23
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    I'm the co-author with one other author. We each get the same in royalties. The book was the third edition and I was only and author on that third edition. I didn't write for money. The book was commissioned from us by the publisher, we didn't go to them with a book and ask them to publish it. The book is over 10 years old now and was written in a time when e-textbooks weren't really a thing and typesetting, printing, binding and distributing was a big deal. I don't think our deal was particularly unusual. Sep 1, 2019 at 21:18
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    1% royalties sounds really poor and well below industry standards. Is it a typo for $5 / copy? That (10%) is much more common.
    – Allure
    Sep 1, 2019 at 21:51

Textbook authors can be classified into two groups:

  1. Authors who don’t wish for a free PDF of their book to exist online, available via a simple google search.

  2. Authors who wish for an easily searchable, free PDF of their book to exist online.

For the record, I belong to group 2, so I make my book available for download for free from my webpage (with my publisher’s permission) - you don’t even need to email me. But if I belonged to group 1 I would never email someone I don’t know a PDF of my book, even if I were okay with just that one person getting it, since I could not trust them not to share it with others, who would share it with yet more people, essentially guaranteeing that a bootleg copy would end up on the web somewhere.

It may be that some authors belong to group 2 but for one reason or another haven’t made their book available for download for free as I have. Such an author might be okay with emailing a PDF of their book upon request.

It may also be that some authors belong to group 1 but don’t agree with my reasoning that emailing a PDF of their book to a stranger is the same as essentially expecting it to be made available for download online. Such an author may also end up emailing a student the PDF.

But I suspect that the large majority of authors in group 1 wouldn’t grant the email request, for the reason I explained (and/or other reasons, such as respecting their contractual obligations to the publisher, not wishing to forego royalties, and moral disapproval of the request for a free copy).

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    Getting publisher permission: is that something you have to ask for in advance when you sign your contract with the publisher? and are there certain publishers who typically grant it and others which typically don't? Just curious how it works... (I do know I've seen free pdfs of out-of-print textbooks where the author says he "got the rights back from the publisher" - and I always appreciate that when I see it.)
    – davidbak
    Aug 30, 2019 at 21:28
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    @davidbak I can’t speak to which publishers will let an author distribute their book for free online, but some publishers, under some circumstances, will be okay with it. And yes it has to be agreed to by the publisher and written in the contract.
    – Dan Romik
    Aug 30, 2019 at 22:03
  • To make it even worse, some authors in group 1 don’t even want the books in libraries or the table if contents being made available,
    – Stevetech
    Aug 31, 2019 at 18:53
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    @Stevetech that sounds very strange, do you have any examples of authors expressing such sentiments? I cannot imagine why an author would object to those things.
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 2, 2019 at 7:35
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    @IanKemp People are in the academia business to give away information (for a salary, not entirely for free; but certainly not for a premium on extra information). That's what academia is about. If you want to profit from information differentials, go to industry, law, or the army. Jan 16, 2020 at 12:00

That quote is somewhat wrong.

When a scientist gets published, he/she doesn't get any profit if the schools use it.

The typical book published by a for-profit publisher will generate royalties for the author when sold. (I say typical because there are books that work differently, e.g. they're given away for free or are open access.) These contracts typically tie the amount of royalties to the sales generated. If the publisher offers a discount, the authors get less. If the book is pirated, the authors get nothing. If you're interested in how much, see my answer to that question.

But this statement doesn't say the book is sold, it says "... if the schools use it". In this case, strictly speaking, they indeed don't. If a professor starts using so-and-so textbook for their class, the authors of the textbook indeed get nothing. However if the professor does that, then we can expect the book to sell more copies, in which case the authors indirectly get more royalties too.

Every textbook I've had hasn't been free, so I just email the publisher and find out one of the names (of whom was published) to email them.

Why would anyone need to do this? The names of the authors are not just public knowledge, they're generally on the front cover.

Since they get no money, they'll be glad to email you back the entire book, to which you can print off yourself.

Chances are the author cannot send the entire post-production book (usually - they can if it's open access, a special case, etc). They might be willing to send the draft, however. It will come down to each individual author. They might be happy if they just wanted to be read; others might react as Taylor Swift did when Apple tried asking for her music for free.


In the vast majority of cases: No. It's conceivable that a publisher might allow an author to give away their commercial assets, but unsustainable and rare.

The author's contract assigns the publisher the exclusive right to the text, for use in the book, which is a creation of the publisher. The author is no longer free to give the text to anyone else for the duration of the contract.

Other elements of the book, such as images, or chapters written by others, plus editorial alterations and the typeset design, will not be the author's intellectual property.

With regard to pricing, a typical academic text book breaks down as follows:

50% of the recommended retail price (RRP) goes to the bookseller. Large book chains with clout can negotiate up to 60%. They can discount the retail price from their end, if they wish. Booksellers usually get books 'sale or return', so they can return any unsold stock to the publisher without loss.

Royalties are payable to the authors, usually 8-12% of the retail price, depending on the type of sale and book, and as pointed out in other answers, a team of authors have to share the fraction available. Royalties are usually paid as an advance on the first print run's quantity, so if the book doesn't sell, the authors still get paid.

Royalties are also payable on images used throughout the book: in a large illustrated textbook, these can be considerable.

From the remaining 30% or so, the publisher must pay for printing, distribution, warehousing. The publisher must also pay the editors, designers, salespeople, marketeers and others who work on the book, plus all the overheads of running their business before any profit is collected (probably less than the author's royalty). A publisher 'invests' in the creation of a book and takes the risk of it not selling.


There is no unique answer, as there are dozens of subtleties.

However, in the standard situation on a non-open-access book, if the authors distribute their copies, they are likely to reduce the profit of the publisher and, by the law of most countries, may face legal claims of lost profit from the publishers.

Still, some authors send their PDF on a case-by-case basis (simply to ensure high visibility or because of a personal relationship with the recipient) upon getting an ok from the recipient that they won't distribute the PDF further. I got several books via e-mail this way, and I never distributed any book further.


That sounds like someone conflated a few mechanisms that are unrelated.

If you are working on your own paper, you are expected to cite any relevant work, and being cited improves your own standing, so authors will happily send you a copy of their papers if your university for some reason doesn't have access to the journal it was published in.

Generally if you need access to a paper you'd talk to your local librarian first, and they would check if they have a subscription for the appropriate journal, and emailing the author is a last-resort option. In some universities, that is also handled by the librarians, who will archive a copy in the local library as well then.

For textbooks, that mechanism doesn't work because you are not working on your own papers yet, so there is no direct incentive for authors to bypass the publishers. Some still do that, because having textbooks available to all students streamlines the lectures quite a bit, which produces better evaluations.

  • Er, who told you that people stop reading textbooks when they start writing papers? And why would a textbook author care about my students' evaluations of me? Sep 2, 2019 at 21:40

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