The Price of Jackson

The chance conjunction on this blog of a post about the death of Professor  J.D. Jackson with another about the greed of academic publishers caught the attention of one Ian Jackson (son of the aforementioned Professor) and prompted him to forward me some correspondence between his father and the publisher of the famous textbook, Classical Electrodynamics (published by John Wiley & Sons).

I won’t copy it all here, but here is an excerpt:

The Letter of Agreement of 1996 stipulates that Wiley should not increase the net price more than 5% in any two year period with the author’s permission. A month or so ago I found out from the physics Editor that the US net price was $87, a big jump from the last number I knew. By knowing that the list price is closely 1.3 times the net, I could look at my records of the single copy list price on Wiley’s web site to find that they had increased the price by 5% at least once and probably twice beyond what was permitted by our agreement. I wrote a strong letter, citing chapter and verse about their obvious violation.

John David Jackson was obviously a generous man: the royalties for this book were divided among his four children (including my correspondent Ian). He goes on to add in a letter to all four of them, after the publishers agreed to reduce the list price:

Sorry to be keeping your royalties in check, but I was thinking of the poor students who are paying 1.3 x $82 = $106.60.

They do keep the book for the rest of their lives, so perhaps it is an OK investment.

I don’t remember how much I paid for my copy, but I don’t begrudge the amount because it’s an excellent book. You should always remember, however, that the author of a textbook typically only gets a small percentage (usually~10% ) of the net receipts.

The correspondence sent by Ian includes this hand-drawn graph by the late Professor Jackson:


It seems Professor Jackson shared my (low) opinion of academic publishers!

For the record, my textbook on Cosmology (co-authored with Francesco Lucchin) was also published by Wiley. A representative of the publisher explained to me that their pricing strategy involved trying to keep the revenue constant in time, so that as sales went down the price went up. My book is now very much out of date so I can understand why the sales have fallen off, but I find it hard to believe that the same is true of an enduring classic. Professor Jackson seems to have agreed; he described Wiley’s pricing strategy as “gouging”…

17 Responses to “The Price of Jackson”

  1. Academic-book publishing is quite different from academic-journal publishing.

  2. “You should always remember, however, that the author of a textbook typically only gets a small percentage (usually~10% ) of the net receipts.”

    The word “net” might be confusing here. It doesn’t mean that the author gets ten per cent and the publisher gets 90 per cent. Typically an average author might get 10 per cent of the cover price. The other 90 per cent covers not only profit for the publisher but also the costs involved, which for a properly produced paper book are considerably higher than for an online journal (or one which is accessed mostly online).

    If “net” means “income minus costs”, then the author gets considerably more than 10 per cent. (Of course, in terms of tax, this is gross and not net.)

    • Most authors of academic books don’t earn near enough from sales to live on, because not that many are sold. One has to write many books and/or have some high-selling books, to make a living as an author. Hence, most authors of academic books have a day job (or, in the case of observational astronomers, perhaps a night job).

      There are exceptions, of course, such as Peter Atkins’s Physical Chemistry. The advantage of writing books about things one knows is that one can do it anywhere. Isaac Asimov famously wrote in his attic, wearing only underwear (why not even less, I don’t know), with all windows darkened. Arthur C. Clarke moved to Sri Lanka in 1956. Peter Atkins said “One can write books like mine on a desert island. In fact, I do.”

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I paid 17.25 pounds for my copy of the 2nd edition (red) sometime around 1980. That sum was written in pencil at the top of the first right-hand page, and I did not erase it.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    JDJ was optimistic re inflation…

  5. I bought a red copy of Jackson in the late 1980s. My guess is that it cost about CDN$60. At that time textbooks were much cheaper in the UK than in North America — I remember buying a (softcover) copy of Goldstein in London for half the price I would pay in Canada.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      If ever a book went downhill between first and second edition it was Goldstein’s Classical Mechanics.

  6. Paul Stevenson Says:

    In Blackwell’s in Oxford about a month ago, I chanced to pick the copy of Jackson that they had off the shelf to check the price. They were selling it for the UK list price of >£200. Ugh.

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