A cheap, self-published (but still excellent) ecology textbook: why not?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend.


The textbook I use for my undergraduate class in plant ecology now costs about $150 (it used to cost <$100).  I was alerted to this by the instructor who will be teaching the class for the next couple of years (while I have a fellowship to focus on research), and it immediately got me thinking again about ecology textbooks (see old DE posts here and here).  I have never much liked 500+ page books whose weight (>2kg) immediately doubles the shoulder strain of my backpack.  And $150 is an awful lot to more-or-less force students to pay. No wonder that students often don’t love them either.

To summarize my opinions on the downsides of textbooks, I find them:

  • Too long.
  • Too expensive.
  • Too heavy.
  • Overly packed with details (related to ‘too long’ and noted by several commenters on previous DE posts).
  • Temporally “inflexible” (big lag time between book written and book published; then the book is “set in stone” for at least the next 5 years).

To be clear, this is not a criticism of textbook writers, for whom I have immense respect and admiration (writing a good one is a massive accomplishment and contribution).  And of course textbooks have major upsides.  Textbooks can be:

  • Off-the-shelf course content for time-pinched teachers around the world (although there are typically many parts of any one book I want to teach differently).
  • A reference to consult when you need a refresher on a particular topic.
  • Markers of the state of a field for a given era.
  • Providers of a common template of understanding of what the field is about (i.e., they can help make ecology a coherent discipline), and so shapers of the field itself.

In short, I find big fat traditional textbooks very useful as a teacher, and I can also see great value for advanced (e.g., grad) students.  But undergrads?  I’m not so sure.  (And note that undergrads are where the money is made.)

And so my thoughts proceeded as follows:

  • Just with my own students in mind to start with, I could convert the content and structure of the plant ecology course I’ve developed into a formal package of course notes, which would essentially constitute an informal book of sorts. (Many real books begin this way.)
  • But then there must be many others who might be interested in such a “book”, so why not go ahead and publish it as a traditional book: “A primer of plant ecology”?
  • Except that via the traditional publishing model this would still end up too expensive (<$50 is almost unimaginable) and inflexible as described above (I think I could avoid the problems of being too long, too heavy, and too detailed).
  • So, given that we’re in the information/internet age, why not just format it all nicely myself, self-publish (lots of guidance online for that), update with a (slightly) new edition each year, and sell for next to nothing (maybe $5; more on cost below)?

I haven’t been able to come up with a good answer to that last ‘why not?’ question, which is why it seemed like an opportune time to write a blog post and see what others think.  Clearly I am thinking about what action I myself might take (so much for focusing exclusively on research!), but there’s also a broader topic to discuss here (e.g., a book for all of ecology, not just plant ecology), and some alternative models and ideas to consider:

  • There are definite advantages to the traditional route via a major publisher, including true professionals who do the layout, formatting, etc., their “stamp” of validity and prestige, a formal marketing effort, some money to be made, and a contract to focus your mind and effort. For the monograph I wrote, mostly for advanced students/practitioners, this seemed the right route.  But if the motivation is to produce a learning aid for dozens of undergrads at a go, I’m less certain that’s the right route.
  • Maybe I’m way, way underestimating the work involved in formatting things nicely. But maybe we also way, way overestimate how much student learning is improved by the graphic artist’s lovely rendition of photosynthesis vs. my half-decent drawing.
  • Why not just go ‘all the way’ with the Wikipedia-type model, which has already produced an ecology Wikibook? To me, I suppose this just takes the train of thought beyond where I want to go: no coherent ‘voice’, things evolving out of your control, etc.
  • Don’t authors deserve to make money? Certainly if a publisher will make money off your book, you deserve your cut.  But as Stephen Heard said about reviewing papers, for many of us (me included) one can view producing educational materials as an “implicit part of our vaguely-defined jobs”.  It certainly doesn’t feel right to make money from books I told my students to buy for a course I’m already paid to teach!
  • Why not just put course notes online and call it a day? Is self-publishing really different than that anyway?  Why charge anything at all?  As far as I know, there’s not much precedent for self-published textbooks in ecology, so all I can report are Google-informed impressions and personal reflections.  First, the idea of a book as end product would provide me with more motivation to produce something that other teachers and students would find useful, and that might have enduring value.  Second, self-publishing is usually done in a way that isn’t 100% “self”, in that authors use a service (several to choose from) that deals with purchases, producing different formats (e.g., epub), and printing paper copies if anyone wants one of those.   So, the cost of doing it isn’t zero.  Charging something lets you at least recoup costs and keep track of purchases.  One can even do a little extra work and get an ISBN to make it all more official-like.

Anyway, why not?

Maybe a group of ecologists should follow economists’ lead and produce a free textbook for the whole field.


44 thoughts on “A cheap, self-published (but still excellent) ecology textbook: why not?

    • Thanks for pointing me to this. Having precedents helps a lot (if the project ever gets off the ground), especially with “complexities” that might be easy to underestimate in a wave of enthusiasm.

  1. Via Twitter:

    I’m struck by the passing remark here that a textbook should represent the consensus. Why shouldn’t a textbook teach the controversy, if there is one? (example: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/zombie-ideas-in-ecology-textbooks-now-teach-the-controversy/) Or why shouldn’t a textbook represent one person’s views? As an instructor, I’d rather have a book with a point of view (that I mostly agree with!) rather than a wishy-washy consensus.

    • Important consideration for sure. To me, this relates to the recent post about whether ecology is a coherent discipline. The balance of topics in textbooks will always reflect the interests of the author(s) in terms of what they feel is more/less important. For some topics, textbooks just need to get across the non-controversial basics, such as how different types of photosynthesis represent adaptations to water/heat stress (if there’s controversy there, I’m not aware of it). For others, I would lean towards teaching the controversy, but also leaving room for author(s) to emphasize their interpretation of the evidence. I like books with personality.

  2. Thanks Mark. The topic of your post calls for a more general question: How do we learn ecology? Personally, I never found a single textbook to be enough, not even close. When I want to learn about something, I crawl through a pile of white and grey literature, in which I include discussions with colleagues, and, of course, textbooks. Then, I scribble words and equations somewhere, I make sketches if needed, so that I can refer to it later and use it for teaching. If I was to publish a compilation of all these teaching-to-myself events, my guess is that I would only add up to the pile. I have been teaching conservation ecology for (only) seven years, and the examples and references I use are still evolving. Learning ecology is a matter of time, place, background and motivation. I am not saying that textbooks are useless (we need to start somewhere!), but that there is no such thing as “the big book of ecology”. However, I fully support the publication of freely accessible material whenever possible. I also noticed that more and more ecology-related questions were being asked (and answered) on Researchgate, which is perhaps a good way to kick-start the learning process.

    • Thanks for this feedback. How we learn depends on whether we’re an undergraduate, graduate student, or established scientist. For undergraduates, I do think there is some value in having one main source the the core material, although I certainly agree that as teachers we’ll want to be well immersed in the primary literature on the topic. I think many teachers draw on a variety of sources, exactly as you describe, while also using a textbook as a pillar for a given course.

  3. Very interesting post. In general (be it textbooks, academic books, or journals) the academic publishing industry is clearly in flux. I don’t personally think anybody has a very good crystal ball. So we can all agree it will look very different 10 years from now, but its kind of anybody’s guess where it will end up. I feel like innovations are sort of like passive dispersal. You could end up somewhere really fertile and wide-open. Or you could end up in the ocean. There’s not much way to tell. So its risky. But standing still likely has even higher risk. Its a hard environment to steer though. I’ve watched several people pour a lot of work into publishing area innovations that didn’t succeed. But I think many of them would do it all over again. Guaranteed success isn’t the only reason to do things.

    I think one thing to think about is the reason textbooks end up at 2kg. Why they cost $150 is whole other issue I applaud you for taking on. But why they end up at 2kg is every teacher has their own little version of “this absolutely has to be taught”. So the authors get that feedback and put it in. And they get different feedback from somebody else. You end up with a strong drive towards exhaustively comprehensive if you care about the market size/volume of sales. You would think teachers could just suck it up and drop their little pet topics. But: a) academics are not well known for losing their individuality, and b) they don’t have to with commercial publishers feeding their desire.

    So I’d love to see you do this. And would refer my grad students to read your book. And would use it if I was teaching an appropriate course. But of course it is your time that is at stake (and it would be a bet with uncertain outcome).

    • Well, that comment was a roller coaster ride making me switch between “hmmm…too risky” and “got to do it” ever couple sentences! I would definitely place a priority on _not_ insisting on covering every microtopic exhaustively. Even exhaustive books cover some topics in ways that don’t work for all teachers, so either way we end up supplementing our teaching materials. I try to get students thinking conceptually about most of the major sub-topics, without worrying that they’ve heard about every nook and cranny of the discipline. Maybe there’s a cost in terms of book adoption, but it’s a cost I’d be comfortable with. I guess the big question is just how much work is involved in converting what you have to do anyway (construct a course) into a resource that can be used more broadly? That’s the cost in the cost:benefit ratio, and I don’t yet have a strong sense of how big it needs to be.

      • ” I guess the big question is just how much work is involved in converting what you have to do anyway (construct a course) into a resource that can be used more broadly? ”

        Yep. My total outsider’s impression (never having written a textbook myself) is that it’s a lot of work. I know my own slides and lecture notes are a looooong way from being a textbook (or any sort of useful resource) for undergrads. There’s just too much that’s not spelled out in my notes and slides.

      • Following up on Jeremy’s comment, I suppose another benefit is that writing things down more formally forces more critical thought about things like (in)consistency between different parts of a course, so I suspect it would feedback to make the course itself better.

      • There’s little doubt its a public benefit to do this.

        Whether its a personal benefit is I think very hard to calculate because of the uncertainty. But I think there is real risk. In those scenarios I think the key questions are:
        1) How much reward will you get out of the journey as opposed to some possible but uncertain big reward outcome?
        2) How much can you explore this avenue with low investment until it starts to prove itself. Is turning lecture notes into a book a lot of little work? Given that you just successfully wrote a book, you probably have a better measure of this than most people.

        Obviously just my two cents. Its a very personal decision. I can say that at my current career stage I find cranking out a few more papers less exciting than I used to and am looking for other ways to impact my field. And we are of course at roughly similar career stages. I am myself involved in textbooks (albeit traditional publishers) and my editing at GEB is part of that same thought process. FWIW many people advised me against doing both things and I did both anyway* and am enjoying both (way too early to know the impacts of either but I am enjoying the process).

        *Probably more accurate to say committed to both since my textbook work is nowhere near done.

      • @Jeremy: “my own slides and lecture notes are a looooong way from being…any sort of useful resource for undergrads”

        Doesn’t that sound weird? Shouldn’t they be? One thing I didn’t mention explicitly was my slight embarrassment in handing to a sessional instructor my teaching materials, a bunch of which are hard to make sense of without me there giving the lecture or leading a discussion. In other words, I’m in the same boat, but started wondering whether that in itself was something that needs fixing. Doing so (i.e., creating a package of things someone else could use) is one step closer to the textbook…

      • “Shouldn’t they be?”

        Why should they be? They’re my notes, they’re for my use. If it’s material I’ve taught often enough, I don’t even really need them, except for visuals I can’t (re)draw. And there’s plenty of research that says students are best off taking their own notes rather than just reading the instructor’s notes (ok, taking their own notes in addition to doing assigned background readings and in-class problem-solving exercises and answering clicker questions and all the other good things that help students learn.)

      • I don’t know – you get sick, go on sabbatical, get released from teaching…then what? Seems inefficient for a sessional to develop their own whole set of things for a one-off, or to need a hands-on field guide to your notes. I’m just musing really, but it seems that with the efficient functioning of the university in mind, a course should exist independent of who gives it. (Again, it doesn’t in my case, so I’m not saying ‘others should do what I do’, but rather asking myself the same questions.)

      • To be clear, I do think my notes would (and should) be useful to someone who had to teach one of my courses in my place. But that’s very different from my notes being useful to the students taking the course.

  4. There is a push at our school to use OER’s (Open Educational Resources – teaching and learning materials that are freely available online for everyone to use). I have been using Concepts of Biology by OpenStax for my non-majors biology course and LOVE it! OpenStax (Rice University) has ‘textbooks’ for all the major disciplines and the are continuing to grew in disciplines with the most demand (https://cnx.org). It is so nice to have a free online version, or if you like the traditional textbook physical copy it is very inexpensive. I think with the rise of student debt, keeping college affordable is important.

  5. I think the future of “textbooks” should be something more like a GitHub repo than wikipedia. The content could be controlled by the authors and updated periodically. The content could include lectures, notes, tutorials, blog posts, activities/labs, data and code. There could be different lead authors for the different “chapters”, but there should also be an overall common structure and vision for the content. For an ecology “textbook”, it could have content at the intro level and then at the “advanced ecology” level for upper year undergrads and starting PhD students. I think it should be free and freely available, totally online and somewhat interactive. There could be top-down content control from a team of “authors” with opportunities for anyone to contribute additional content after review and space for commenting and feedback from the users. This sort of model for teaching resources would make our lives easier as university instructors too, as we would have a common place to go to get teaching content that we could contribute back to and I think it would make life much easier for the student learning ecology in the modern day! Check out our start at this sort of a model as a student-staff collaboration at the University of Edinburgh for teaching coding in R: http://ourcodingclub.github.io/

    • Thanks, Isla. I think the balance between a “common structure and vision for the content” and freedom for contributors to craft it to their liking, is a really important but tricky consideration. Again following up on the recent “cohesion” post, even like-minded colleagues might have very different visions for the overall thrust. I think R coding is a great candidate for this kind of effort (thanks for the link), although perhaps easier to break into independent bits that a conceptually oriented ecology book.

    • I can’t help but leave one more comment. One of the interesting behind the scene bit of writing a commercial text is that there is a ton of feedback that goes into crafting the content … including soliciting (for $) paid comments from other instructors. For every chapter of my 23 chapter book, I would get 8-15 very long responses. With no exception there was never any uniform agreement on what is important, what should be cut, etc. The brief caricature was typically a split between large Universities wanting more theory and math, and smaller Universities wanting more specific examples. On top of this … the pressure is for books to decrease in length, for lots of reasons (not the least of which is students should pay for books only partly used by instructors) … meaning even with a small pool of reviewers, there was no way to satisfy the group.

      At the heart of this all is an issue of academic freedom, in how individual instructors feel it most effective to communicate with the specific students in their classroom. I am comfortable betting that at best, efforts to ‘standardize’ content through a global consensus text book will be a colossal time sink with limited impacts; at worst, it could be an effective way to eliminate minority (and potentially paradigm-shifting) view points.

      • “efforts to ‘standardize’ content through a global consensus text book will be a colossal time sink with limited impacts”

        I agree. Like Mark, I don’t really want a “consensus” textbook. I want a textbook with an authorial voice and point of view. Of course, if I don’t like the voice and disagree a lot with the point of view, I won’t use the book, but that’s fine, that just means there’s room for more than one textbook. (leaving aside considerations relating to audience size/sales. Obviously a publisher won’t try to sell a book that they think won’t sell. And you might not be motivated to go down the road Mark’s considering unless you were confident lots of people would download your cheap book. You or the publisher might not have that confidence if the book is too distinctive.)

    • Following up on Isla’s comment: writing online technical books just became a lot easier with the new Bookdown package for R (https://bookdown.org/yihui/bookdown/). I think it’d be pretty straightforward to get a simple draft going by basically copy-pasting course notes into a text file, and writing with Markdown (which is what Bookdown is based off of) is actually pretty easy to get started up (unlike, say, Latex).

      • Don’t make me poll readers on whether they think writing a book using an R package would be “straightforward”. 🙂 “Easier than Latex” is not the same thing as “easy”!

      • True, but I would say Markdown is no harder than Word (it’s just that people have used Word, so they’re familiar with it). We’ll put it this way: I’d feel comfortable teaching someone the basics of Markdown in 2 hours, to the point where they could starting writing actual documents. I would definitely not say the same thing for R.

  6. The answer is “Yes!” We are always hearing how cash strapped students are. And in a typical semester at my place, I calculate that students will drop $800 – >$1000 on text books, many of which will be used only for a semester.

    In three of the courses that I teach, including forest ecology, I long since gave up on textbooks, and now get readers spiral bound at the university print shop. So, from $100 – $150 down to $20 in one easy move.

    In answer to the question Don’t authors deserve to make money, I say Yes! again. Though I suspect you’ll never make much of it. My own pet project, if I ever get time to do it, would be a short (100 – 15 page) introductory textbook for forest ecology. Collaborators???

  7. IMO “free” textbooks are a bad idea, bcz they aren’t free. Someone has to do the work to put it together. If that work is unpaid then it displaces other responsibilities that in turn get shoved somewhere else until eventually new – probably public – money is needed to cover the displaced work.

    What would be really interesting is for you to figure out the actual cost (hours, equipment use, pay rates etc) then offer the book as a subscription at cost.

    • As an academic not paid by the hour (but working probably more hours than a “normal” work week), there is tremendous flexibility in terms of how time is spent on research and teaching, and activities that involve both simultaneously. I quoted a comment from Stephen Heard’s blog about work of this nature (preparing educational materials) being something we could very well consider “paid”, for an academic scientist. I am paid to be an educator and a researcher, and with some constraints (e.g., teach courses X and Y, get grants, publish papers), there’s lots of room to personalize time allocation. Although it is certainly true that time spent on one thing can’t be spent on another, the time an academic spends writing a book is nonetheless mostly “work time”. An interesting comparison came up over lunch: 25 years ago many specialized stats packages were sold as products, whereas now they are mostly created and distributed freely (R packages). I see educational materials in a similar light.

      • Freely distributed stats packages is a good example. What happened? We have moved from 2-3 proprietary softwares that would all implement the same OLS regression algorithm, to an undefinite number of R functions, each proposing a slightly different way of measuring the relationship between two variables. Back again to the “cohesion” issue.

      • @ Jeremy re. Multiplicity of R packages … textbook sources, or scientific papers. I have mixed feelings about this. What I had in the back of my mind really is the conclusion of this “Many analysts, one dataset” experiment: https://osf.io/tp4rw/

        21 research teams were given the same dataset and asked the same research question. Analytic approaches varied widely across teams, The authors concluded that “Variability in results could not be accounted for by differences in (statistical) expertise. Analysts with high and comparatively lower levels of quantitative expertise both exhibited high levels of variability in their estimated effect sizes. Further, analytic approaches that received highly favorable evaluations from peers showed the same variability in final effect sizes as analytic approaches that were less favorably rated.”

        I wonder what would be the result of a similar experiment; asking 21 active ecologists what should be the table of contents of the big book of ecology?

  8. When I started working on the text I eventually coauthored, I approached my chair, thinking they would want to know. Her advice … ‘well, writing a text likely won’t hurt you’ in the context of raises/evaluation. There was no sarcasm or irony, she was genuine. In no way was working on this considered part of my job, such that at best it would be neutral to my promotion/reward within the institution. Of course, I am sure all other R1 Universities have progressed in their thinking, and tenure is regularly granted for non-research related activities. Note, that last bit was sarcastic.

    my 2c.


    • Thanks for the comments JC. Interesting story about contradictory kinds of feedback on a textbook. Once full prof, I guess I think less about what garners promotion points (there’s nowhere to be promoted to!), but even with that in mind, I think being author of a well known and widely used book feeds back in many ways to generate the kinds of success that do matter in that context. It’s a fascinating discussion to consider what really constitutes the job of an academic. For example, as best I can tell my superiors couldn’t care less if I review 5 or 50 papers a year, as long as I can say I contribute to that activity. Are the 45 “extra” papers not part of my job? Lots of other examples…

  9. It is a great shame that the old Institute of Biology Studies in Biology series no longer exists. They were very slim books encapsulating specific topics in typically less than 60 pages, written by authorities in the field. They were ideal for undergraduate doing ‘minors’. I had to do a Botany subsid (as we called them in the UK then) and I owe my success (I passed the course) to Plants & Mineral Salts, Chloroplasts & Mitochondria, Translocation in Plants, Plants & Water, Photosynthesis, and How Grasses Grow. They were inexpensive, easily digested and easy to sell to students in the year below – unless of course you are a book hoarder like me, who still has them all 🙂

  10. (starting a new thread…)

    Re: Mark’s example above of how it used to be that everyone use proprietary statistical software, but nowadays most people use R and R packages that people write and share for free: how much work is it to write and maintain an R package, vs. write a good textbook? I’m guessing the latter is a lot more work, which might be a barrier to textbooks going the same route as statistical software. Unless the textbooks had many authors, each doing one chapter or something. But that comes at some cost to authorial voice and coherence.

    • Depends heavily on the R package… something like ggplot2 or lme4 are likely close to full-time job levels of work (take a look at the list of commits and issues for lme4 on its Github page (https://github.com/lme4/lme4). Very simple packages that just do one thing are likely less maintenance.

      I’d guess there’s less variation in the amount of time it takes to keep a textbook updated, although there’s likely variations due to how cutting-edge or specialized the topic is.

  11. Oxford Univ Press has a book series …”XXXXXXXX, a very short introduction’ that sells for about
    12$ each; they are ~ 150 pp.
    Here is the EVOLUTION book, by Deborah and Brian Charlesworth. ; https://global.oup.com/academic/product/evolution-a-very-short-introduction-9780198804369?facet_narrowbypubdate_facet=Next%203%20months&facet_narrowbybinding_facet=Paperback&lang=en&cc=us#
    There does not apperar to be an ECOLOGY book.
    Anyone know if these work as Texts?

  12. This post made me think of Odo Dieckmann’s ‘Beginner’s Guide to Adaptive Dynamics’. Not really book length (it’s 40 pages), but is available as a PDF for free online, provides a really nice coherent introduction to adaptive dynamics, and we used it as a text for part of a mathematical biology course I took on modeling evolutionary dynamics.

    Perhaps developing something at this level could become common. If there were enough of them, you could combine several into a customized ‘textbook’ for a course.

    • That’s sort of the R package model. Lots of people develop lots of little bits of material, often mostly for their own use, but they make it available in case anyone else wants to make use of it. And then it’s up to others to sort through all that material to find the bits that best meet their own needs.

      Much of the value added by a textbook is that someone has already sorted through a massive amount of material and produced a selective, coherent, organized synthesis for you. But of course, to the extent that you don’t like somebody else’s selections or organizational framework, their textbook doesn’t add value for you.

  13. I am considering doing exactly this for some of my introductory courses. I found self-publishing through Amazon CreateSpace very easy when I did it for my MSc thesis, and the selling infrastructure is there too. Took only a few hours to go from Word doc to book.

  14. I’ll repeat some of the above but…..
    As a student in c2014 I ended up cutting up my $40 copy of Andy Field’s ‘R’ statistics book and taking a chapter at a time to the cafe to work through! I’d do the same with my copy of Begon-Harper-Townsend if it weren’t for the fact that my Kindle is now full to the brim with narrative natural history books that are far more engaging – you can find an ebook on just about every subject in ecology these days! I’ve also since purchased a copy of Field for my Kindle and the R code looks fine to me on a Kindle Paperwhite. I have Kritcher’s new Tropical Ecology, Song of the Dodo, those sorts of books – not really academic but they give a great intro to ecology. My home library is full to overflowing with printed ecology and natural history books, and the only ones I lift off the shelf are those without an ebook option!
    So, please, please, write Kindle (i.e. Mobi) ecology ebooks.
    To get the formatting sorted with ease, use Scrivener – it’s a word processor designed for book writers without all the Word hidden code that screws things up when you’re trying to format. It costs $40. Don’t use Word.
    Price at between $3,99 and $9,99 as that way you, as the author, get royalties of 70% when sold on Amazon. A publisher will pay at most 15% royalties and will always price way, way above what I suggest.
    Remember, every student on the planet has a smartphone and most have or will have the Kindle app – students read books on their phone these days!
    Students don’t care who the publisher is – no-body searches for publishers on, say, Amazon – they search by author or title and usually go for whatever the lecturer sticks on the reading list.
    You can use the same freelance editor as the Big 6 publishers use but you’ll get their services at reasonable cost. Either design the cover yourself or pay for a freelancer to do it.
    Sell via Amazon (search for Kindle Direct Publishing) and also via Smashwords (for print on demand – owned by Amazon – as they’ll distribute to libraries etc and buyers can go onto Amazon and find both the Kindle and print version of your book and buy whichever. No need for you to get a load printed and stored in the lab!
    Google search for The Creative Penn podcasts if you want to hear how other’s are doing this.
    I know all this because I’m writing a book!

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