Where the money for your calculus book goes


You too can own a massive house if you sell enough calculus books.

There’s a new, five-story, 18000 square foot, $24 million house in Toronto that is built of curves and glass and boasts its own professional-quality concert hall. The owner? Not a billionaire financier, head of state, movie or sports star, or anything of the sort — it’s James Stewart, author of the Stewart Calculus franchise of books.

From the Wall Street Journal article:

As visitors descend into the house, the fins disappear and the views widen. On the first floor, push a button and a 24-foot wall of glass windows vanishes into the floor, opening the pool area to the outside. Curves are everywhere, down to the custom door handles and light fixtures. The architects are even working with Steinway to create a coordinating piano. […]

An hour before five friends arrived for dinner, Mr. Stewart ambled around his kitchen, marinating some pork tenderloin chunks and tossing chopped leeks, red peppers and corn into a deep soup pot to simmer. He laid some ready-made sushi on a large red platter and then leaned back against a green-hued quartz countertop to relax.

Mr. Stewart say he isn’t overwhelmed by his home. “I just enjoy wandering around it,” he says. “Even now I’m still discovering details, and I’ve lived here for more than a year.”

Go to the article and look at the slideshow for more. It’s indeed a beautiful home (in a way it reminds me of St. Procopius Abbey near Chicago, which I visited last year).  I’m certainly not going to be down on Prof. Stewart for building his dream home, for which he apparently saved up money for 60 years. But it certainly destroys the old idea that professors never make money off of textbooks they write. And it also makes you wonder, if you recently spent $150 on a Stewart Calculus book, what part of that house you have a legitimate claim to. If you’re a Stewart Calculus book owner, I’d say you have a right to stop in at his place for sushi unannounced at any time.

A proposition for Prof. Stewart: Now that you’ve built your dream home and established your legacy, take all of your calculus books and make them available as free PDF downloads under a Creative Commons license, so students who are spending down to their last dime on textbooks can have a shot at saving for their dream houses, too.

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Filed under Life in academia, Textbooks

22 responses to “Where the money for your calculus book goes

  1. We don’t ask famous singers or sports stars to take only what we consider to be “fair” compensation after they have made “enough” money. Cash-strapped students continue to pony up hundreds of dollars to the music and sports industries, while simultaneously complaining that books cost too much. I would be more sympathetic to the “poor student” plight if students weren’t generally driving newer cars than me, carrying newer (and flashier) phones, laptops, and iPods than me, and going to more entertainment events than me.

    Writing a textbook is so much work that very few of the textbook writers I know ever find the time to enjoy the money they may have made. Very few textbook writers ever really make a significant amount and many spend thousands of hours writing books that don’t catch on. I think that Stewart is an example of an exception rather than the rule.

    This article does not explain how much of the $24 million was royalties and how much was money earned through interest and investment. A good mathematician might also just be a good investor.

  2. notthedroids

    Sloppy logic [“If you’re a Stewart Calculus book owner, I’d say you have a right to stop in at his place for sushi unannounced at any time.”] is merely wrong.

    But envy is one of the seven deadly sins.

  3. Kevin Patton

    I’m not a mathematician but I can answer how much of each $150 math book went into Stewart’s home: approximately 15% of the net price ($150 x .7), or $15.75 . . . hardly enough to expect a dinner invitation.

    Actually, to be accurate, I’d have to subtract permissions costs born by the author, contributor’s fees, office expenses, and other deductions. And (for accuracy) we should consider that none of Stewart’s books cost anything close to $150 sixty year ago. Whew, this is becoming a complicated equation now, isn’t it?

    Bravo to Stewart for having such a wildly popular series of texts. I wonder how many other math authors have been as successful? Would it be reasonable to assume that they ALL enjoy this level of success?

    It would seem to me that a better directed target for venting one’s wrath at textbook prices would be consider that bookstores (often owned by or under license by the college/university) makes at least twice the author’s cut for the sale of each new book. Then they buy back the book at half-price and sell it again, with another 30-40% markup. Then buy back/resell again. And again. And again. As many as 6 or 8 times during the life of an edition. I’ll leave that calculation to you math fanciers.

    I wonder how many students know how much of their textbook cost goes right back to the school? Perhaps in some cases this college income keeps tuition from rising even faster than it already is.

    For each resale of a used book, the author receives nothing. So Stewart’s possible $15.75 per new book sale might translate to about $2-$3 per student who uses that same book (each for a whole semester). Perhaps we could see a comparison of that $2-$3 to the per-student cash amount represented by a typical professor’s salary . . . now THAT would interesting.

  4. Gary Musser

    Here is some simple math for the author who is complaining about the cost of Mr. Stewart’s book. When I was a student at the University of Michigan, one of my Calculus books was printed in black and white and was likely about 500 pages. It cost me $10. My tuition was $75. Mr. Stewart’s Calculus book is over 1100 pages long and is four color. The current undergraduate tuition at the University of Michigan $5,424. Had Mr. Stewart’s book been priced to match the current cost of tuition, it would cost over $700! Most folks don’t realize that college textbooks are not only much better than in the past, they are a relative bargain. Moreover, inexpensive used books are readily available on campuses and over the web. As with most complainers about book prices, the author of the article is misinformed.

  5. If you put in the time and effort that Professor Stewart put in on his calculus book, I think you would feel differently about asking him to put PDFs of his book online for free. His calculus book could be the best calculus book ever written. Millions of students have benefited from his hard work. All of us in that teach mathematics at the college level are better off because of what he has done. Why write anything negative about him at all?

  6. I don’t “envy” Stewart for his money. As I said, he’s entitled to it, and he’s saved his money and (as Maria suggests) probably invested wisely over the years. If he’s worked hard and produced a product — as pedagogically impaired, IMHO, as it may be — that sells and he’s made money off of it, then hats off to him. I’m a capitalist and I don’t begrudge anybody making money off of something they produce, no matter how I feel about the product. (How I feel about Stewart’s calculus can be explored by using the search feature on this blog.)

    But I do think there’s something eye-opening about someone making this much money off of textbooks, and when I showed this article to my students today — we use the “Early Transcendentals” book — they were shocked. Many of them are not the students Maria describes — although I believe Maria’s comment, and she made a valid point — they are students who are struggling to make ends meet, and for them to spend even $50 on a textbook is asking a great deal of them financially. That the author of their textbook has just built a mansion the size of the building in which we are holding our class is not morally wrong, but it does make them wonder — out loud, in the case of my classes today — if the book they are using is worth the money they are paying, Gary Musser’s argument about the cost of books relative to tuition notwithstanding.

    No doubt Stewart has put in a lot of work on his book, but if you look at the way the book has evolved over time — I used the first edition of Stewart when I was an undergrad, and the sixth edition we used now is virtually the same thing — it’s clear that he, himself, finished working on the book somewhere around 1990. I’m not asking Stewart to give up his income stream (he still teaches, right?) , but I do think that it would make a nice addition to his legacy (which he discusses in the WSJ article) to take his book and give it away — at least in some monochrome, no-frills version — as a lasting gift to calculus students.

  7. Frank Wilson

    Writing textbooks is hard work and the business is highly competitive. Many first edition books never make it to a second edition. However, every once in awhile, an author comes along with a book that resonates with education market. Demand for the book drives the author to write more books. Over time, some authors accumulate great wealth from their efforts and they should be applauded.

    One wouldn’t ask Apple to give away free iPods just because the product has been a market success. Why ask a textbook author to give away his product for free just because it has become a success?

    We live in a free market economy. If the product isn’t worth what it is priced, don’t buy it. If Stewart’s wealth bothers you, adopt a different book (preferably a first edition that is struggling to reach sales goals). 🙂

  8. Some clarifications:
    1) I suspect Stewart cannot give away his calculus under the Creative Commons License even if he wanted to. Most textbooks’ copyrights are owned by the publishers, who invest a considerable amount of money in a textbook – from development, design and production to sales and marketing. I’m pretty sure that his publisher own the copyright for his books. I know mine does for my texts. And not every book that’s invested in makes it to the million dollar club.

    2) In another blog post on differential eqns., you mentioned choosing a more expensive diff eq. text over a Dover book because you were teaching a lot of courses and didn’t have time to create computer labs. Fair enough. Textbooks like Boyce/Diprima incur development costs to include computer labs and whatever other stuff it comes with. And that affects the cost of textbooks – big time.

    Nowadays, publishers cannot just publish a book at the calculus level and below – they must publish a “program” – student’s edition, Instructor’s edition, Instructor solutions manual, DVD’s, online web homework with tech support etc. Colleges and instructors do not pay for any of the instructor resources. How can any organization be expected to produce all this without a profit incentive? Do other vendors who routinely provide services to the college such as administrative software and telecommunications maintenance do it for no profit?

    3) By the way, Gil Strang’s Calculus textbook is available for FREE through MIT’s open courseware program :


    So why aren’t faculty flocking to this?

  9. Marko

    Wow, Prof. Talbert, you’ve certainly gotten some fierce reactions here!

    As both an artist and a financially limited student (of mathematics), my first instinct is to hop on board the free textbook notion. I’m a big believer in initiatives like textbook exchanges, the Creative Commons, and the tiny but immeasurably helpful collective of academics who have allowed the public free access to their textbooks. I’d like to think that, Lord willing, if I ever produce any kind of work that fares as well as the immortal Stewart text, I’d find it in my heart to give back to society in the way those same initiatives do, at least once I had reached some sort of pinnacle of achievement.

    However, for reasons I won’t bother to echo (but I’ll throw in some “given the current state of the world economy” gobbledygook as well), it’s hard to fault people for not being so altruistic when it involves their own blood, sweat, and tears. Without being overly optimistic, it’s a beacon of opportunity for the rest of us to know that creativity and ingenuity can still be so amply rewarded.

  10. You might also want to know that James Stewart donated a large (but undisclosed) sum of money to McMaster University in Toronto to create the James Stewart Centre for Mathematics. Stewart is no longer a full-time instructor, he is now an emeritus instructor at McMaster University.

  11. And, to be fair to him, if he was concertmaster of the orchestra, that’s certainly a paying position as well. I now realize why there was always the violin on the cover…

  12. Elsa Peterson

    I’ll just add to the excellent arguments that have already been posted by saying that if Dr. Stewart’s textbooks are like any other successful texts from a major publisher, they involved years of work by many editors, reviewers, and ancillary writers, some of whose names are probably listed in the preface acknowledgments. The publisher paid these people’s salaries and honoraria, and without their help the book’s quality would not have been as high as it is.

    People who think it’s easy to write a textbook usually don’t realize how many hundreds of thousands of dollars have to be invested just to bring a viable product to market, and how many manuscripts never make it. Achieving success at Stewart’s level only happens to a very few authors, and it happens because of a combination of hard work and superior authoring skills, careful and supportive editing, dedication and faith on the part of the publisher, and plain old good luck.

    Oh, and I have to ask: did the Casting Out Nines blogger get permission from the Wall Street Journal to quote such a major chunk of the article? If not, watch out, because the last time I checked, WSJ wasn’t giving out their content as free downloads under Creative Commons License, either.

  13. Folks,

    I appreciate your comments, but many of you are missing my point and in some cases inventing things that are not in my post.

    (1) I am not envious or Stewart or bothered by his wealth. As I said, I have no problem with people making money off of things that they produce, even if I myself don’t care for the product. I think that Stewart’s Calculus books are a long, long way from being “the best calculus book ever written” and if you want a survey of my pedagogical beefs with his book, do a search on this blog. But that doesn’t matter – if he makes money, then fine. I think the Backstreet Boys stink, but I’m not going to suggest the wealth they’ve amassed from sales of albums is morally tainted or that they should stop charging for their songs or concerts. (That is, if they *give* concerts anymore. Or maybe they could give one at Stewart’s house.)

    (2) The comment about students stopping in for sushi unannounced, or that students have a legitimate claim to pieces of Stewart’s house, is snark, not logic.

    (3) I’m very aware that the vast majority of textbooks make next to no money for their authors. The sheer magnitude of Stewart’s exception is what I am trying to highlight here.

    (4) I am also very aware that textbook authoring is extremely hard work. I was the author of a test bank — only the test bank — for the liberal arts math book co-authored by Gary Musser who chimed in above. It was almost a year of taxing, monotonous, error-filled work that I was very glad to have done, and that was just writing multiple choice tests. It gave me the sense that people who write the actual books really are doing it more as a labor of love than anything. So please let’s stop with the “If you only knew how much time it takes, you wouldn’t suggest giving it away” arguments.

    (5) And anyway, I am not suggesting that Stewart SHOULD make his books available for free, as if he were morally obligated to do so since he made so much money off them. I am in no position to hand out moral instructions to anybody (except my kids) and tell them what they “should” or “should not” do. And Frank, I am not saying that he “should” give the book away “just because it has become a success”. I said nothing of the sort. I *am* saying that it would be a very cool thing if he did give it away, though. Just like it would be very cool if your favorite musical performer decided, VOLUNTARILY, to give a free concert or put u his/her next album for a free MP3 download. And at this stage of Stewart’s career — now that he’s written his book and built the house, and established his legacy — it would be a great philanthropic thing to do and would help countless thousands of students, particularly those from low-income families or those in cash-strapped high school AP programs, to acquire what is already the de facto industry standard textbook. He’s clearly financially stable enough to afford to do this, at least in part — i.e. make the text without the problem sets available for free, or make only the problem sets available for free, or make the first edition from 1988 free. That is, he’s financially stable unless he’s built such a big house that paying for the property tax and the electric bill is going to require that he sell millions more calculus books.

    I think Reva has the #1 point here — Stewart probably does not have the creative control over his product that would allow him to make the choice. If that’s so, then I would modify my proposition to say that perhaps Stewart could talk to his publisher about making this happen.

    (6) Gary, I am not complaining, nor did I complain anywhere in my post, about the cost of Stewart’s book. What I said was, if you paid $150 for the book, you probably are wondering how much of that went towards paying for Stewart’s house and the lavish parties thrown within. I would be asking the same question if the cost were $20.

    (7) Elsa, the link to the original article suffices as attribution. This sort of thing goes on in blogging all the time. And if for some reason WSJ comes emailing tomorrow asking me to take the quote down, I will gladly and apologetically do so. Also, Elsa, I did not say anywhere in my post — nor do I think it’s true — that it’s “easy” to write a textbook. Where did you read that?

  14. faith_in_algebra

    The price of $150 for a Calculus textbook is excessive. Back 25 to 35 years ago, a good Calculus book bought new was about 30 to 40 dollars. DVD’s and websites for the book were not available and not needed. I have a copy of the 3rd. edition of the Stewart Calculus book, and it is worth certainly NO MORE than maybe ~$45 dollars. A CD came with the book, possibly a website is given with this. The only purpose for these new modern items serves nothing more than to increase the price of the book. Actually, I found this copy of the book at a used book sale and the copy cost about $1 dollar. Is my copy now obsolete since the latest edition of Stewart’s Calculus book?

    • @faith_in_algebra: Up until last summer, I would have said that your 3rd edition Stewart would have sufficed. But there were some major reorganizations of the central material in Chapter 2 last summer, when changing from 5th edition to 6th edition, that make using a 3d edition in place of a 6th edition difficult. I wouldn’t say your 3rd edition is “obsolete” but you would almost have to own a 6th edition copy, or have 24/7 access to one, to be able to know just exactly what had changed and how to adjust.

  15. Jonathan

    $150 for Stewart’s Calculus! On our campus it costs $245 (bundled with WebAssign)! We are considering changing texts because of the out-of-control skyrocketing of these prices.

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  18. amca01

    Well, lucky James Stewart for having such an expensive house! I seriously doubt, though, that his house would be financed only through royalties of his books. There are plenty of other similar books on the market (all big and horrible, as far as I’m concerned – I much prefer to use my own notes), and his book’s income, while perhaps good, would not necessarily be plethoric. Also, he probably does not have copyright over his text – his publishers do. So even if he wanted to release his book as open source, his publishers might not allow it.

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  20. Leviathan

    Generally, the author’s royalty on academic texts and books is between 1%-8% of net sales profit. Not gross revenue. Net sales profit. With that kind of profit ‘sharing’, the number of academics who ‘get rich’ from writing textbooks–as noted above–is incredibly small.

    As a writer of academic material, you also have zero say over how your book is priced or if it is produced in less expensive forms (e.g., paperback or electronic).

    If Prof. Stewart has done well from his textbook, it is because other academics recognize its value as a teaching resource. A high volume of students therefore buy it because it is listed as a required text in their syllabi. In other words, he has earned it.

    Therefore, many people are going after the wrong part of the equation. Blame the publishers who both determine recommended selling prices and the insane practice of yearly edition changes, even in disciplines that are relatively static–like calculus.

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