It’s a well known fact that textbooks are expensive and that writing a textbook earns you very little in royalties (e.g. https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/167367/11353 ). At the same time self-publishing is becoming a bigger and bigger deal in non-academic circles. This sounds like an ideal solution for academic textbooks.

Are there any examples of popular self published textbooks?

I am not looking for any type of (exhaustive) lists. I am either interested in even a single example of such a textbook or alternatively answers that explore the main issues with this approach. Going through my collection of books from the time when I was ‘in academics’, I cannot find a single book that looks like it wasn’t published through an (academic) publisher.

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    Harvard lecturer David Morin has many self-published books which are popular among physics students. The main benefit is that this keeps the cost low.
    – knzhou
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 19:34
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    It's asking too much for a textbook to be "popular". The vast, vast majority of students take only basic college courses such as algebra or pre-calculus. These are taught out of joyless, artificially expensive, bloated books from big publishers who have a contract with the university. If you're thinking about writing a book that requires, e.g. calculus or linear algebra, then you are aiming at only the top 1% of students, and would be very fortunate to get even three-digit sales.
    – knzhou
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 19:37
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    Again, if you are aiming at the generic "required book for average introductory course at average university" market, you have a lot more obstacles than getting a book published. There is an economic arrangement here you have no power to change.
    – knzhou
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 19:48
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    To be honest, it won’t make much difference to him. He’s not going to make any money on it either way. If he really cares about accessibility, he should simply post the PDF online!
    – knzhou
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 20:00
  • 2
    What about really well written lecture notes made available by the professor? Commented May 11, 2021 at 13:06

13 Answers 13


Michael Spivak's "Comprehensive Introduction to Differential Geometry" was published through the Publish-or-Perish Press he founded, probably for just that reason.

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    Ah, the bad old days of typewriter publishing :) (Loved the approach of the books. Never worked through them, though.)
    – Carsten S
    Commented May 11, 2021 at 18:08
  • +1 @CarstenS: Ugly as sin, but each page was golden. I'm thinking of the thick paperback version. Commented May 11, 2021 at 18:48

Not sure if this counts strictly as a textbook but Paul's Online Notes by Paul Dawkins on pre-algebra and calculus appears quite high in search engine results and I have used them as refreshers for calculus concepts, so I guess they are quite popular.

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    Paul's notes are excellent!! I was just reading through some parts to refresh my memory. Commented May 10, 2021 at 21:30
  • Khan Academy has quite a lot of staff. If you have a lot of staff, you are regular publishing, not self publishing. Commented May 11, 2021 at 5:14
  • @AnonymousPhysicist true, I still imagined Khan Academy as a small team. It was a stretch anyway so I'll remove it from my answer.
    – qwr
    Commented May 11, 2021 at 7:42
  • David MacKay's quite famous textbooks Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms and Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air were (and are) made available to read free of charge on his research group website in parallel with being published in hard-copy by for-profit publishers.
  • Genick Bar-Meir has written a couple of decent thermofluids textbooks and made them available free of charge online.
  • Press et al. make old editions of Numerical Recipes available free of charge online, although the latest edition at any given time is available only through the for-profit publisher.
  • Are all (any?) of those self-published though? Or have the authors just negotiated the right with the publishers to distribute them?
    – BrtH
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 21:12
  • @BrtH Bar-Meir's are purely self-published; and the website on which MacKay's are distributed is not administered by the publisher. Commented May 10, 2021 at 21:18
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    Your first and third examples are of authors making their books available for free on the web in addition to publishing with a mainstream publisher, and with the publisher’s permission. This is not particulary uncommon these days, and is not what the question asks about - e.g., my own book follows this model, but I will never think to say that that means that I “self-published” it.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 21:21

I keep on recommending Forecasting: Principles and Practice (3rd ed.) by Athanasopoulos & Hyndman, which is available for free online. The 2nd edition also has a paper version. Both are published through OTexts.com, which was pretty much founded by Rob Hyndman for this express purpose.

As to how "popular" it is... it's definitely one of the most commonly used introductory textbooks on forecasting, written by two of the biggest names in the community.

  • @RichardHardy: he's the President of the International Institute of Forecasters, it doesn't get much bigger than that. Prior to that, he served as Treasurer. Admittedly, the IIF is a little smaller than the ASA or similar, but still. Here is his page at Monash. I personally follow especially his work on hierarchical coherent forecasting. Commented May 11, 2021 at 18:40
  • @RichardHardy: and Rob Hyndman is, of course, Rob Hyndman, he of the 21 gold badges (among them time-series) on CrossValidated, which he co-initiated, although I don't know how he found the time, considering that he served as Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Forecasting for ten years, during which time page count, submissions and citations exploded. When he stepped back two years ago, we pretty much had to find three people to fill his shoes. (I was in the board and involved with the search for a successor.) Commented May 11, 2021 at 18:50
  • @RichardHardy: feel free not to be impressed by IIF positions. I would say that you do need to have a certain standing in the community to be elected. And I personally find Athanasopoulos' research output sufficiently impressive. YMMV. Commented May 11, 2021 at 19:53
  • Thank you for your explanation! Commented May 12, 2021 at 5:16

I'm pretty sure Operating Systems: Three Easy Pieces is self-published, and it's a widely used operating systems textbook from what I understand. https://pages.cs.wisc.edu/~remzi/OSTEP/


Turbulence Modeling for CFD by David C. Wilcox. The publisher is called D C W Industries, so I am pretty sure he is self-publishing his book. It is one of a handful of the leading books regarding this topics (mathematical engenieering).


The many books of the pretty famous MIT professor Gilbert Strang on linear algebra and other aspects of mathematics are self-published. Just he came up with a fancy quite familiar sounding publisher name so many didn't notice it was self published. http://www.wellesleycambridge.com/


Elementary Calculus: An Infinitesimal Approach, by Jerome Keisler

From the download page set by the author:

This is a calculus textbook at the college Freshman level based on Abraham Robinson's infinitesimals, which date from 1960. Robinson's modern infinitesimal approach puts the intuitive ideas of the founders of the calculus on a mathematically sound footing, and is easier for beginners to understand than the more common approach via epsilon, delta definitions.

The First Edition of this book was published in 1976, and a revised Second Edition was published in 1986, both by Prindle, Weber & Schmidt. When the Second Edition became out of print, the copyright was returned to me as the author. In September 2002 I decided to make the book available for free in electronic form at this site. These PDF files were made from the printed Second Edition, and are continually being revised with minor corrections.

A Third Edition of this book was published by Dover Publications, Inc. in 2012, with the agreement that this online version will continue to be freely available. This gives you the choice of downloading this free version or purchasing the printed book.


Measure Theory by D. H. Fremlin vol.s 1 to 4 and 5 Part I & II.

This is both a popular and controversial book in 'measure theory' (mathematics).

It is popular because it encompasses the theory to an extraordinary level of both generality and detail (the six volumes amount to over 2500 pages I believe). Together with Measure Theory by V. I. Bogachev, Fremlin's manual is the modern go-to reference in the field. It is probably the unique textbook reference containing highly technical results otherwise scattered in a series of relatively old (and thus difficult to access), possibly unpublished and/or obscure works in the field.

It is somewhat controversial because the level of technicality of volumes 2 to 5 is considered extremely high (even at the postgraduate level), and the lack of a formal review make some experts skeptical about citing it. It is however generally well-received as a complete source of further references and it has been partially reviewed by the community over time.

Trivia: it is published by Torres Fremlin, and "dedicated by the author to the publisher".


I think if you look at materials dedicated to specific technologies that are widely used, there are many examples of popular self-published books. I know there are many programming languages that have popular self-published books that likely are used as official course textbooks. Off the top of my head, The Rust Programming Language is a good example of this. It is first and foremost an online free book maintained by Rust's developers, and is probably used by everyone interested in the language.

Another example is Hadley Wickham, who has self-published multiple books on his website for the R language. He's extremely involved in the R community and is behind some of the most widely used R libraries, so almost anyone using R to a significant degree will at least have heard of him and his books.

In both of these cases, the authors have taken their materials and produced print versions as well. Since self-publishing a print version is generally impractical, they do go through actual publishers for this. But they are both cases where the online material was self-published first (I'm not 100% sure that is the case for Wickham's older books).

  • It appears I'm getting equal number upvotes/downvotes? If people are going to downvote, please explain why you think this isn't an acceptable answer.
    – anjama
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 15:59

I think this may be sort of an oddball answer, but the very popular (Google Scholar lists more than 7,000 citations at time of writing) ion-material interactions software SRIM has an associated textbook that was/continues to be self-published through LuLu. It's not clear to me how popular the textbook itself is, but it is occasionally cited directly, as in this paper.


[This seems to be a list-style question/answer so here's one to add to the list.]

Vector Calculus, Linear Algebra, and Differential Forms: A Unified Approach by Hubbard and Hubbard - now in its 5th edition - is from Matrix Editions (along with other math books), which is their own publishing house. (And they do a very good job as publishers too: The books are beautiful and the service is personal.)

I don't know how popular it is in general but it's been mentioned quite a few times here at Stack Exchange.


I'm not aware of any popular self-published books. However, I want to point out several alternatives that you can consider. First, even if you publish with a "real" publisher, often you can share a manuscript of the book online. In a lot of ways, this seems like the best of both worlds. For example, "Reinforcement Learning: an introduction" by Sutton and Barto, originally published in 1998, has not only been totally free to download for some time; actually the work-in-progress of the second edition was free to download before the second edition was officially published!

Second, the model of having class notes, which can be shared publicly, and eventually turning those class notes into a book. For example, Bernard Deconinck has several sets of class notes which are basically self-published textbooks in progress. Oskendal's textbook "Stochastic Differential Equations" originally started out as class-notes, and now it's published with Springer, but the full pdf of the most recent version is available free to download on researchgate.

In summary, if your objective is to keep cost low, this doesn't seem like a reason to self-publish, since you can still post the full book pdf online even after publishing. You can also post your book pdf today, and let people read it, and then still publish the book officially in the future.

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