Free textbooks: It can be done

The last time I taught abstract algebra, I used no textbook but rather my own homemade notes. That went reasonably well, but in doing initial preps for teaching the course again this coming fall I realized my notes needed a serious overhaul; and since I’m playing stay-at-home dad to three kids under 6 this summer, this is looking more like a sabbatical project than something I can get done before August. So last month I set about auditioning textbooks.

I looked at the usual suspects — the excellent book by Joe Gallian which I’ve used before and really liked, Hungerford’s undergraduate text*, Rotman — but in the end,  I went with Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications by Tom Judson. I would say it’s comparable to Gallian, with a little more flexibility in the topic sequencing and a greater, more integrated treatment of applications to coding theory and cryptography. (This last was something I was really looking for.) There’s even a free companion to the book which incorporates Sage, which I am sorely tempted to use as well because learning Sage has been a pet project of mine.

But what’s really different about this book is that it’s free, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. I am having the bookstore prepare print copies for the students — I asked the students if they wanted a print version in addition to the free PDF’s online, and they said “yes” — which the bookstore will sell for a whopping $16.95, just enough to cover the costs of copying and 3-hole punching the 400+ pages of the book. I’m happy because I found a book that really fits my needs; the students are happy because they get a good book too, for a tremendous bang-to-buck ratio.

In the long and contentious comment thread for my post about James Stewart’s new $24M mansion, I suggested that Stewart should consider topping off his impressive (and apparently lucrative) teaching and writing career by making his Calculus book freely available online for anybody who wants it. That suggestion was met with shocked incredulity: “If you had any idea how much work it was to write and maintain a textbook, you’d never consider making it free.” Well, I’m happy to report that hard work and good writing need not necessarily be mutually exclusive with giving it away.

In fact, as more well-written textbooks appear for free online — and there were even more free abstract algebra e-books I did not end up selecting — the commercial market might find itself in trouble.

* Actually, I requested the Hungerford algebra book, complete with a crystal-clear note that I needed to have it in hand by April 10 in order to be able to adopt it in time for our bookstore. To this date I have not received it. Another problem with commercial textbooks: the distribution model for review copies is dreadful. I’m always receiving multiple copies of books I neither need nor am interested in, and not getting the books I do need and am interested in.

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Calculus, Education, Teaching, Textbook-free, Textbooks

14 responses to “Free textbooks: It can be done

  1. Brian Borchers

    Note that there are services that will produce soft cover bound copies of a book like this for about the same price as your bookstore is charging for an unbound photocopy. Check out

  2. amca01

    A good place to start is – lots of good stuff, ranging from course notes to complete texts – and all free!

  3. Well, I’m happy to report that hard work and good writing need not necessarily be mutually exclusive with giving it away.

    As someone with very low funds, I am sympathetic to the desire to make textbooks free.

    But still, it worries me greatly that textbook writers may now be expected to start only working as a “labor of love”. I find arguments about tenure and so forth unconvincing.

    I recall reading one author claim all books (both fiction and nonfiction) should be free. He makes his funds from … motivational speaking. Really? All authors should become motivational speakers? Is there a market for that many? And those are the same people who write quality books?

    • @Jason: I think the expectation you refer to in your comment is, and has always been in place in the minds of textbook writers. I don’t think any textbook author works on his or her book seriously expecting to make anything more than a pittance from doing so. The main benefit of writing a book, it seems to me, is professional rather than financial. As someone who’s spent the last three years overseeing the promotion and tenure evaluations on my campus, I can definitely say that writing a textbook that gets adopted even somewhat widely is a serious act of scholarship, at least in a place like ours.

      I think free instructional material is the wave of the future. The real question is whether the business model of traditional textbook publishing can adapt before it gets overwhelmed. I might write something about Flat World Knowledge to that effect some time.

      • I suppose I am also biased in that I work K-12, and if I wrote a textbook it would not affect me professionally in the slightest.

        Flat World Knowledge gives royalties. That’s substantially different than expecting work for no pay.

        I’m mainly worried about another situation developing like we have now with no-pay referees for mathematics journals. (The refs for economics journals get paid, by the way.)

        If the expectation is textbooks are free (or at least there’s enough free competition nobody would touch paid stuff) someone on the publishing end still would probably find a way to cash in, but now the professors have something else they are supposed to do for free.

  4. I’m also not believing low-probability financial incentive somehow nullifies it — plenty of other areas only have a few make real money, but that’s enough to create a larger supply of labor.

  5. Also also (sorry for comment spamming!) I really would like a free textbook system to work, but the economic repercussions of kicking out an income stream need to be thought over carefully.

    For example, universities earn a lot of money with the current system — they get a big chunk of initial profits plus used books are huge earners — so they would need to replace that income stream. By raising tuition?

    There’s also the possibility of a perverse incentive where textbook writing shifts (statistically) to less experienced grad students as tenured academics care less.

    Also, are editors supposed to start working pro bono? Or do we do away with editing? Will that really work in fields like medicine?

  6. @Jason: I never implied that FlatWorld Knowledge authors don’t get paid. They definitely do. The reason I bring them up is that their business model allows authors to get paid AND maintain very low, or free, costs on their textbooks at the same time. I.e. having free books and having paid authors are not mutually exclusive goals.

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  8. Estella von koln

    I know lots of students are a bit annoyed that it’s still hard to find many publishers that offer proper free textbooks for students like me. I just found this site a few weeks ago though, and these guys publish a huge range of textbooks and every single textbook is made available to download free of charge in a compatible pdf e-book format with no registration. It’s a totally 100% free textbook solution perfect for new Kindle owners like me looking for good and free academic content!

    They actually just put up a new accounting series, really good used the ones on Liabilities and Equity and Balanced Scorecard this year as prep for my acca exams. There is also a facebook app with all the books on, Check it out guys…

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  11. Mary ACaragliano

    I:M looking for free textbooks &workbooks like ged and science abd biologyand more .So you will be able to mail them to me.
    Mary A Caragliano
    190 Wood AVE
    Woonsocket ,RI 02895