Recently, I became aware of a Java programming textbook Introduction to Programming Using Java, Seventh Edition which is to my surprise, free as in:

The most recent version of this book is always available, at no charge, for downloading and for on-line use.

Question: Why would the author (David J. Eck) make this textbook free?

I have found that almost always, authors of academic textbooks prefer to make money from sales of their textbooks, rather than writing a textbook which is available freely without cost. (I don't have any statistics to back up this assertion. However, throughout my undergrad and my PhD studies, in about 95% of the courses which I took, the prescribed textbook was published by an academic publisher such as McGraw-Hill, Pearson or Springer.)

Closely related question: Massimo Ortolano claims in this comment that most authors would not be able to make much money from sales of academic textbooks they have written. Can someone give me an estimated amount of earnings per textbook sold?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jul 11 '17 at 13:20
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    Your "closely related question" should belong in its own question. But it is a hard number to assess. – Mindwin Jul 12 '17 at 13:19
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    Three other closely related questions: why would people write open source software for free? Why would people give tutorials in conferences for free? Heck, why would people write journal articles for free and they will be sold by the publisher for high amounts of money the author will never see? I'm sure if you figure out the answer to these three closely related questions, you will realize what the answer to your original question was. – juhist Jul 12 '17 at 17:52
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    @juhist Why would people give advice to strangers about working in academia for free? – KSmarts Jul 14 '17 at 16:49
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    This is actually reasonably common with more advanced mathematics texts. Plenty of authors (Allen Hatcher, Anders Kock, Ravi Vakil etc.) put their textbooks online for free, and even those who don't put up a final version, still often put a close-to-final draft online for free. – ಠ_ಠ Jul 17 '17 at 4:59

As the author of this particular free textbook, I can say that the previous answers have covered things pretty well. "Introduction to programming using Java" started in 1996 as a set of class notes written in HTML with embedded Java applets -- which all seemed pretty exciting in the heady early days of the Internet. I had published an earlier textbook in the usual way, and made not much money from it, which is true of the large majority of published textbooks. I had recently been promoted to full professor, possibly the most secure job in the world where the only further promotion available to me would move me into (shudder) administration, so it would make little difference to my career if I self-published a book instead of submitting it to a regular publisher.

I lost creative control over my regularly published textbook. The copyright was assigned to the publisher until it goes out of print, which it will probably never do in these days of print-on-demand. There has never been a second edition. My Java textbook, on the other hand, has gone through seven versions and has been updated fairly regularly. I get the ego boost of hearing from people all over the world who have read it (something I can never seem to get most of my own students to do). The web site still gets hundreds of visits every day. It has certainly had more impact on the world than if I were selling it. And if someone doesn't like it, I can politely point out that they can write their own textbook, or even make a modified version of mine.

So, my main motivation was to write a textbook that I could use in my own courses. Selling it would make me very little profit. And since I use free software all the time, it's also a way that I could give back something to the open source / creative commons community.

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    I never expected to get an answer directly from you, the author himself! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. – I Like to Code Jul 9 '17 at 16:40
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    +1 for copyright issues. With traditional publishing, you lose control over your book for pennies. It's almost worth just giving the book away to help people – Shantnu Tiwari Jul 10 '17 at 15:09
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    Awesome answer! You may want to consider registering your account, to enable more site features, including voting. – Shokhet Jul 10 '17 at 21:00
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    If I may ask: given the poor revenue of published books, may the revenue you get from your website traffic be higher in the long run? years of advertisement and being linked from all over the internet must bring back some money, and maybe more than the published alternative... – Shautieh Jul 11 '17 at 2:33
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    @Shautieh He hosts the book on his universities .edu server. It doesn't appear to have any direct monetization on the pages (my blockers give it a clean bill of health). I can't rule out indirect income (eg speakers fees related to the book) but the page doesn't appear to be generating any income itself. – Dan Neely Jul 12 '17 at 18:59

I don't know why Eck made his book freely available, but I can tell you why I make my course materials freely available, and will continue to do so even if I ever take the final step of turning them into a book.

Because I want as many people as possible to use what I've written.

As others have pointed out, the expected profit from publishing a textbook is minuscule, especially a textbook in a well-worn topic like Java programming or algorithms. By making my notes freely available instead of selling them, I potentially lose a small amount of money, but I gain a significantly wider audience. And that wider audience justifies, in my mind, the thousands of hours that I have put into writing, polishing, illustrating, rewriting, and maintaniing them, far more than any monetary compensation would.

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    And even from a totally economic/selfish standpoint, you can probably obtain much more benefit from the prestige given by your book being widely used (and it's possible effects on your career) than you would earn from publishing it. – Al-Khwarizmi Jul 8 '17 at 12:05
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    In addition to the reasons given in this answer, I can think of a few other reasons why I've gone this route with my own books. (1) I feel that the textbook market is extremely exploitative toward students. (2) My license is compatible with Wikipedia's, so I can use images from WP and Wikimedia Commons. (3) I can express my own point of view and didactic approach, rather than having to conform to a publisher's expectations about what is marketable. (4) I'm ideologically in tune with open source and free information. (5) There are ethical problems with requiring my students to pay for my book. – Ben Crowell Jul 8 '17 at 16:47
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    @Ben Crowell Images in Wikipedia have a different license than Wikipedia text. You can use them even if your license is not open, as long as you properly attribute the image and publish it under the right license (details may vary according to each image license). – Pere Jul 8 '17 at 17:03
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    (Thanks for the link to your materials, and making them available! It looks like great stuff and appreciate it very much!) – BruceWayne Jul 8 '17 at 18:55
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    As soon as I saw the name Jeff I immediately knew the link is linking to algorithms.wtf :) Although I didn't take CS374 with you, your name still appeared everything in the lecture notes. – Derek 朕會功夫 Jul 9 '17 at 19:34

Other answers are right but I would add about the selfish economic point. Authors get about 10% of cover price, and most academic books aren't likely to sell more than a few hundreds of issues. Therefore, a single author can't expect to get more than a few hundreds of euros or dollars in the whole lifetime of a book.

In the other hand, academics need citations, since most promotions and grants are directly or indirectly linked to citations. In fact, a large part of academic work is writing papers that aren't paid, mainly to get more citations. Publishing a book and making it widely used by distributing it for free can attract more citations than journals. Furthermore, the prestige boost that a widely known textbook produces may lead to collaborations and citations that promote the author's career, which can lead to larger income than the one lost by giving away the book for free.

Furthermore, self publishing a book in Internet is easy compared to trying to find an editorial wanting to risk their money publishing the same academic book.

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    10% of net, not gross, and for a paper book, net is half of gross or even less. Also, it is literally easier to write a textbook to use in your course than to choose someone else's and plan the course around it. So why not give it away, you never wrote it for money anway. – Kate Gregory Jul 8 '17 at 16:44
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    @KateGregory: Don't know if there's a typo, but the assertion "it is literally easier to write a textbook to use in your course than to choose someone else's and plan the course around it" is very false IME. – Daniel R. Collins Jul 8 '17 at 18:27
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    I've done it. I did it because I was fed up of trying to find a book and the students always hating it. I've written over a dozen books. The effort of working around a flawed textbook is huge. Writing one came very easily to me. – Kate Gregory Jul 8 '17 at 18:34
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    Authors need citations -- Yeah, but citations to (computer science) textbooks don't really count. – JeffE Jul 8 '17 at 22:51
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    @JeffE Citations, unlike dollars, have no particular universal value. That is you can find promotion committees or even people in charge of hiring that will literally look up your citation count or h-index without considering it any further. A book cited 1000 times will then be worth a lot to you at that particular institution. As a side but related note, many academics fear the day that Google implements a "remove self citations" feature from Google scholar. – Lembik Jul 9 '17 at 11:59

Because in many situations it is part of their job, or at least should be part of their job. In addition, it rarely costs them anything to write the book.

If John Grisham does not write a book, he does not have an income. In most cases, Prof. X does not write a book, he/she still has sufficient income. Academics are already paid to advance and spread knowledge by teaching courses and doing research, so they are expected to produce and prepare for their classes relevant and current material. Promotion and tenure is helped by publishing, and is certainly helped by publishing books.

Of course, this is not a mainstream opinion and there are deep cultural differences between disciplines: people will argue (not incorrectly) that if Prof. X might be paid by University Y, but he/she is not paid by University Z so why should students of University Z get free access to the expertise of Prof. X, and that if Prof. X chose not to write book everybody would be intellectually "poorer". Also, academic textbook and journal publishing is an industry with hefty profit margin (see this recent article in The Guardian), so why should parts of the profits not go to those who produce the raw material for this industry?

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    The parts of the profit from an academic book that go to the author are so minuscule (with few rare exceptions, such as popular textbooks) that the question at the end of your answer is far more rhetorical than you seem to intend it :) – darij grinberg Jul 8 '17 at 15:03
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    Because in many situations it is part of their job, or at least should be part of their job. You lost me at this first sentence. I'm not aware of any educational system in which writing a textbook is part of an academic's job. – Ben Crowell Jul 8 '17 at 16:42
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    Promotion and tenure are helped by publishing research; in a research-intensive university those prospects are not helped, and may even be hindered by publishing textbooks (see ‘don’t write a book’ in ‘how to get tenure’ – Norman Gray Jul 8 '17 at 16:46
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    I personally attended a large research university in the United States, and have many friends who attended similar top tier research universities in the USA as well, yet I have seen a professor produce lecture notes like the ones you cite maybe once ever. It was in physics, and it was because this person was convinced that no one else who had ever written a textbook understood physics as well as they did. In other words, one of those people that occupy the zone somewhere between genius and crackpot. So the claim that it's "part of the job" to produce these notes seems specious to me. – Cody Gray Jul 9 '17 at 11:31
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    @CodyGray, I attended a well-known university in the UK. Only one of my lecturers taught from a textbook, and she was the author. A few of them left it to us to write notes, but the majority provided us with detailed handouts they had written specifically for the course. I'm not sure whether it was "part of the job", but it certainly seemed to be part of the departmental culture. – Peter Taylor Jul 10 '17 at 15:48

Also for the same reason that underlies much of the work of initiatives like open-source software, Wikipedia, Doctors Without Borders, OpenStreetMap, Open Science... and even StackExchange: to give something back/advance the field/help others...

  • Someone who is entering a situation where money is no longer a significant priority... perhaps an aging professor who is monetarily comfortable but wants to leave a larger mark on his field as sort of a final legacy... or someone facing new health issues who is suddenly very aware of having limited time.
  • A professor who is frustrated that many people (either those in or coming into their field, or even those in the general public) don't have a better understanding of some important principles in their discipline, and who hopes to change that.
  • Someone who believes that furthering the field by simplifying information will eventually result in growth or advancements in the field that results in greater opportunity for them (probably most pertinent in relatively small/nascent fields).
  • Those passionate about seeing information and opportunities better available to those with less resources, such as inner-city kids or developing nations.
  • Those doing so out of some sort of religious conviction to give to/serve others.
  • Someone moved by a sense of gratitude from all the benefits they've reaped from their years in the field. You see this a lot in sports... people talking about "giving back to the game". No reason you wouldn't see the same in computing subjects or sciences.
  • Someone frustrated by some other reality... perhaps an overall lack of intellectualism in society... or political policies that they see as against their field or education in general... or being pigeonholed into work or research that they don't feel is very useful... or a company/university that blocks wider endeavors (and so they put out such a textbook with their free time).

In the end, many of these alternative motivations seem to boil down to one principle: be the change you want to see in the world. And hooray for that!

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    I upvoted your answer because it so exactly describes why my forthcoming book will be free. – E. Douglas Jensen Jul 11 '17 at 17:07
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    Or with a lot of the Free software - I need this tool/program/whatever. It really has no commercial value, or would need too much work to give it commercial value, so here it is. Only hard part is picking an appropriate license – ivanivan Jul 12 '17 at 1:49

I recently started reading a great freely available textbook named "Operating Systems: Three Easy Pieces".

Remzi H. Arpaci-Dusseau, who wrote the book together with his wife Andrea C. Arpaci-Dusseau following a shared experience teaching the Operating Systems course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offers a well-written explanation about what led them to create the book in the article The Case for Free Online Books (FOBs): Experiences with "Operating Systems: Three Easy Pieces". This article concludes with the following bullet points:

  • Linkability. Classic textbooks trap their material inside of expensive volumes, making it difficult to link to or learn from unless you are dedicated enough to buy the entire (expensive) thing. FOBs make their content available to all, enabling linking to chapters from other sites; Google searches will find your materials.
  • Broader Readership. As related to the previous point, classic textbooks are (usually) bought for class. FOBs can be perused by anybody interested in a topic that the book covers, and thus more likely to be read by more people. This type of casual usage broadens the audience. If your goal is to deliver information to as many people as possible, free and online works better.
  • Partial Usage. Classic textbooks almost mandate usage of the entire book; it would be cost prohibitive to require students to buy three different books, much less one. FOBs enable usage of subsets of many books, perhaps pulling together a whole that is better than the sum of the parts. While there are reasons to use just one book (style and tone, for example), there could also be reasons to pull together materials from various different sources.
  • Frequent Micro-Revisions. Classic textbooks are revised with great effort, and often for the wrong reasons (e.g., to force students to buy new books instead of used ones). FOBs evolve as they need to, and when they need to. Indeed, we update chapters regularly thanks to feedback and comments from random people on the Internet.
  • Just Feeling Good. Making a free book simply makes you feel good, like you are doing the world a (small) service. Every email you get saying "good job!" or "thanks!" makes you smile. We've received hundreds of said emails, and appreciate each and every one.

Why would an author distribute his textbook for free? Almost always, authors of academic textbooks prefer to make money from sales of their textbooks.

Multiple kinds of "non-economic" incentives would make an author still write and publish for free: enjoying the experience of writing and publishing, generating discussion, leaving a legacy, altruism, etc.

If we restrict ourselves to economic incentives though, it has long been the tradition that a reader would pay for a book and that a part of the money would trickle down to the author. This changed with the internet. It is now really easy and convenient to find any popular data for free, whether it be books, music, movies, or anything of the kind.

Cory Doctorow wrote a great book about the subject "Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age". Long story short, in the current environment, creating new information is similar to being a street performer: anyone can enjoy the show, anyone can choose not to pay. While authors used to enjoy more direct economic rewards, nowadays the rewards are pushed more towards donations and gaining social capital and recognition.

It's no surprise that you mention a programming textbook. Computer people are at the forefront and are more aware of this reality, as exemplified by free softwares and websites such as StackExchange.

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    "enjoying the experience of writing"... you misspelt "the experience of having written". – darij grinberg Jul 9 '17 at 0:40
  • "enjoying the experience of writing"...tenured professors are already being paid to do the research and write the books. Unless they write those books in their free time......... – Pieter B Jul 13 '17 at 21:09

Just another echo of other answers and comments: I write to communicate. For the moment, at least, there is an amazing low-cost internet, which allows me to offer up whatever I write. Really, in the context of academe from 30-40 years ago, this is unimaginably wonderful. Not so many of us wanted to make money, but we did want to be able to tell other people what we'd thought-of.

Yes, to be able to think in terms of communicating ideas, rather than in terms of some variant of profit, is a luxury.

(There is too much to be said here... It disturbs me that more senior academics so fail to communicate... or that young people so disregard... or... Dangit.)


Arguably, writing books for profit/ promotion/ prestige is a violation and corruption of the scientific method. Descartes, Discourse on the Method, Part 6:

And so I have had to give up the idea of completing physical science all by myself; how far I get in the knowledge of nature will from now on depend on how many of these crucial experiments I am able to conduct. I was going to make this known in the book I had written, and to show there how generally beneficial such experiments could be, presenting this so openly and plainly that virtuous people would be obliged both to report to me the experimental results they had already achieved and to help me to work on the experiments that remained to be made. I mean really virtuous people — ones who desire the general good of mankind — not ones who merely claim to be virtuous or are merely thought to be so.

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    The quotation doesn't support your claim. – JeffE Jul 8 '17 at 22:54
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    I disagree. Or I wouldn't have quoted it. – Daniel R. Collins Jul 9 '17 at 1:51
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    "… so ... that virtuous people would be obliged both to report to me the experimental results they had already achieved and to help me to work on the experiments that remained to be made." There is as much a promotion/prestige aspect here as there is a "furthering the general good" aspect. Why report to him? He's clearly positioned himself as an authority in the field. Of course, that's not surprising for Descartes, a man who refused to accept the authority or relevance of any philosopher who had ever come before him! – Cody Gray Jul 9 '17 at 11:38
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    The answer is good and could be better if it had an additional argumentation of why such quote is relevant and what other section supports the main idea. Also it resembles a famous short text by Richard Stallman. Science must push copyright aside. – nilon Jul 15 '17 at 20:03
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    @CodyGray my reading is that the truly virtuous would be obliged to report to him, not because he is an authority, but because he had "[presented his results] so openly and plainly". He is stating there is a cycle of virtue in which people are morally obligated to donate the results of their scientific endeavours to each other for the "general good of mankind". – Chan-Ho Suh Jul 16 '17 at 23:26

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