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Is there any dataset that look at how much revenue academic authors make on their published books?


I am aware of the question How much do Springer-Verlag authors make per book sold? but answers there focused on royalties (i.e., data on number of sold books is missing), and the question was on Springer-Verlag only.

I am most interested in the computer science field (machine learning and natural language processing in particular), but I am curious about other fields as well. I am most interested in the United States but curious about other countries as well.

  • What type of books are you interested in? Stephen Pinker makes loads of money from his popular science books, while publishing an edited collection may not make anything. – jakebeal Feb 18 '16 at 20:34
  • @jakebeal most interested in books related to their work as researcher or teacher. – Franck Dernoncourt Feb 18 '16 at 21:27
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    It depends completely on the book. Most books make little or no money for their authors. A few books make a lot of money for their authors. A typical example of the latter would be a $200 freshman calculus textbook that is adopted at hundreds of colleges and universities. – Ben Crowell Feb 19 '16 at 0:20
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  • I signed a contract with a large academic publisher to produce sort of a lab manual and I may be the only person who ever uses it unless I get really lucky. Going with a big publisher is a way to get as many eyes as possible looking at your book and hope that they adopt it. However the revenue is totally based on the agreed royalty on the price of the book so I'm not sure why you weren't happy with the other post. – Rick Henderson Feb 25 '16 at 1:41
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It varies, but often, nothing. I have three experiences with academic books:

  1. As a postdoc, I was signed up with Springer to write a book together with my advisor. According to the terms of the contract, our only recompense would have been one copy each of the finished book. The book never got finished anyway.

  2. More recently, I wrote a book chapter. Springer again. I don't know whether the editor received any royalties, but I received only a copy of the book.

  3. I was also asked recently to contribute a chapter for a book to be published by a university press. I declined when I realised that they were asking authors (including the editor) to pay a hefty publication fee, even though they had a guarranteed market (two profs would be using it as a text) and would also be charging students for the finished book, with no royalties back to authors.

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    Gee... bad luck. I made $76 in royalties on the chapter I wrote. Total. Over the useful print life of the book. – Bob Brown Feb 19 '16 at 0:09
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    Considering the unfair - to put it politely - terms for authors, I'm wondering why one would prefer to publish a book or a chapter by using traditional publishers, when nowadays we have a lot of self-publishing and on-demand publishing options. Some presumably valid reasons include formal peer reviews and scientific publisher's brand. While the latter is, unfortunately, part, ingrained into current academic culture, the former can be easily reproduced by asking independent experts to review one's manuscript and publicly share the feedback. – Aleksandr Blekh Feb 19 '16 at 0:32
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    @AleksandrBlekh as someone who recently published a book (graduate level math textbook), I don't really see what you mean about the terms being unfair. I get royalties for however many copies my book will sell. Granted, it won't be many, but I knew that when I started writing the book. Can you elaborate what exactly you see as unfair? – Dan Romik Feb 19 '16 at 22:58
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    @AleksandrBlekh I think you're failing to take into account the fact that my and Bob Brown's (and other academic authors') "business model" is very different than the publishers' business model. In my case, I actually did get paid for writing my book - by the university I work for, and by the NSF. The little royalties I get are extra money that if you think about it probably ethically should belong to my employer (the fact that it doesn't is arguably an unfairness in a reverse direction to the one you're talking about). ... – Dan Romik Feb 20 '16 at 1:02
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    @AleksandrBlekh regarding journals, I agree that there is unfairness, but the people who are treated unfairly are the readers not the authors. Authors are academics who are paid by their universities to write and publish research. With a few exceptions, they shouldn't have an expectation to make a profit from publishing papers. What is unreasonable is when publishers manage to capture an exorbitant amount of profits at the readers' expense, while providing a fairly low value service that is easily replicated. But that's a different story and has nothing to do with what we're discussing here. – Dan Romik Feb 20 '16 at 4:48
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I co-authored a research monograph in a rather specialized area of applied mathematics. I have received about $300 in royalties over several years. I think this is typical.

For most authors, the important consideration is not how much money they will make, but how effectively the publisher will be able to distribute the book. This usually means going with a well-established publisher. I know some highly-respected authors that also shop around to find the publisher that will distribute their book for the lowest reasonable price.

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    I've earned about $800 per year on average for my share of the royalties on a graduate-level textbook that has been moderately successful over the last 13 years. The money certainly isn't sufficient compensation for the time that has gone into the project. – Brian Borchers Aug 26 '18 at 22:02
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From http://ndsuspectrum.com/textbook-scam-14-billion-industry-robs-students-professors/ (mirror):

According to the National Association of College Stores, out of every dollar spent on a textbook, about 77 cents goes back to the publisher. Publishers make 18 cents in pure profit. The writer takes home about 12 cents. This does not consider the gravy bookstores take in on buying and selling used books, where they keep all the difference, and can sell a used book for $30 until the binding falls apart. Then, they can sell it for $25 as a loose-leaf edition.

As a side note, from the same article:

Four publishers control 80 percent of the $14 billion textbook market. They are Pearson, Cengage, Wiley and McGraw-Hill. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, textbook prices have risen 800 percent since 1978, which is way beyond inflation. For comparison, health care has inflated 575 percent and home prices have gone up 325 percent. From 2002 to 2012 the cost of textbooks rose 82 percent. The textbook market is a $14 billion industry.

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Personal experiences here: the authors/editors generally get 10-15% of sales revenue. Note this is sales revenue. If the publisher e.g. offers a discount, authors also get less royalties. If the book is pirated, authors get nothing. Royalties are split between all authors/editors.

Monographs: A monograph probably won't sell more than 500 copies at best (last I saw 300 is more common). Order of magnitude estimate: if each book costs $100, then the author of a monograph might get $3000.

Textbooks: An undergraduate textbook can sell tens of thousands of copies or more if it's widely adopted, but if not then 1000 copies or fewer is common. Graduate-level textbooks have sales more in line with monographs (albeit somewhat higher).

Review volumes: Chapter authors can receive something too during contract negotiations - my experience was that chapter authors get a copy of the book but that's it. Review volumes don't tend to sell many copies - definitely not more than 1000, and closer to monographs than to textbooks.

Popular-level books: These can sell 1000+ copies if they're reasonably well written, but the median is lower at maybe 500-600. There's a long tail as well - a book can sell millions of copies (c.f. Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time). Note popular level books usually have a significantly lower retail price compared to the more technical books.

Caveat: popular level books have a bigger potential market, so with a dedicated publicist one can increase the number of books sold by an order of magnitude or more.

  • Textbook sales vary a lot depending on the discipline and level- a successful graduate textbook in a specialized field will sell fewer copies than a successful lower level undergraduate textbook for a general education course. – Brian Borchers Sep 1 at 21:53
  • @BrianBorchers edited to distinguish between the two. – Allure Sep 1 at 21:55
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At the risk of self-promotion, I can offer one more data point.

I self-published an undergraduate computer science textbook through Kindle Direct Publishing, which pays 60% royalties minus printing costs. I set the list price of my book at $27.50, and Amazon's printing costs are $6.51, so my royalties are ($27.50 × 60%) – $6.51 = $9.99 per copy.

I sold 139 copies of my book in August 2019, for which KDP estimates I will receive $1,382.63 in royalties at the end of October. (There's a tiny discrepancy from currency conversion of royalties from non-US Amazon sites.)

Like Hadley Wickham, I give away my book for free.

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    Self publishing works for those who have a way for potential users to actually find your book. You don't have anyone but yourself promoting it in most cases. But if you have sufficient reputation in the field that people can easily find you then it can work out well. And if a publisher did have control over your book, the cost to the buyer would be much (much) higher. – Buffy Sep 1 at 21:49
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Hadley Wickham recently posted on Twitter that he makes $1.68 per copy of _R for Data Science. The book currently sells for ~$20 on Amazon.

Granted, he gives away the book for free online and the purpose of his tweet was to tell people to not feel bad about getting the book for free.

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    I don't think this is a good answer, since the main variable - how many copies are sold - isn't mentioned. – Allure Aug 26 '18 at 21:27
  • And how many copies were sold? This is the question? As I know, publishing such technical books by famous publishers can provide a remarkable revenue. – Eilia Sep 2 at 12:38

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