Sunday, March 14, 2010

SOUND OFF: ON-CAMPUS BOOKIES

It's a common practice on many college campuses for professors to receive review copies of textbooks from publishers who want them to consider using the books in a class they teach. Sometimes they are marked "for examination and not for resale," sometimes not. Such copies pile up quickly. There are also armies of used-book buyers who regularly approach professors in person about buying any surplus textbooks they might have.

If a textbook came unsolicited from the publisher, is it OK for a professor to make some pocket change by selling the review copy? Or should he or she discard it or keep it for personal use, but not resell it? Does it make a difference if the book is stamped with a no-resale message?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

13 comments:

Bill Jacobson said...

Jeffrey, if the publisher sent the book unsolicited then under several different theories (gift, federal mail rules) it is yours free and clear. You are only bound by terms of a contract (the no resale term) if you agreed to the terms upfront. It doesn't sound as if you did. Courts tend to disfavor terms that restrict dispossession of a material good anyway, so the term may well be void anyway.

I would see another issue that might arise. The book was probably only provided to you because you are a professor at the university. I could easily see an interpretation that makes those books university property.

I only see this being an ethical issue for the professor if he purposely agreed to receive these books for review with no intention of reviewing the books but only with resale in mind, but since many elements of this scenario are not present here, I think you are free and clear.

I think it might be more appropriate, however to pass the book along to a student who can use it rather than get raped by the same publishers to purchase the same book. I'd be happy to see a question on whether it was ethical to use textbook publishers that charge outrageous prices for their textbooks. :)

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Carroll said...

I get books as an adjunct professor. these books do NOT belong to the school, they belong to me. I have checked on amazon to see what they sell for (not much) but I have usually marked mine up too much to sell.

But William is right, if someone sends you something it is yours.

Morgan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M.E.. Yancosek Gamble said...

It is wrong to sell back a book you did not buy. I see it as stealing.
I tell the book buyers not to stop by my office. Most do not use the proper procedures to solicit in the Town or on the Campus.
The best one can do with free copies after viewing them is to send them back (EX: www.peasonhighered.com/returnlabel )or gather the books in the common area so students can use them.
M.E. Yancosek Gamble, Bethany College.

Bill Jacobson said...

Carroll, I said that an argument could be made that they are university property, not that they necessarily were so. The acceptance of the books can be seen as bribery and the acceptance of profits from the sales as illicit gains. Many industries view the receiving, keeping and selling of review pieces as bribery and forbid it outright. Many vendors include requirements that the review piece be returned post-review but are also rather lax on enforcing return of the review units so they are often kept but that does not change the fact that the reviewer's opinion has been bought.

As to selling review copies, if it is not unethical to accept the books in the first place (and I can make a strong argument that it is) then it really isn't unethical to sell them. Once it is yours you are free to dispose of it any way you choose.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

I am surprised by some of these commments, and saddened as well. I am not a university staff member but attended university many years ago as a struggling single parent student. I remember so clearly the horribly expensive books required for each class. A simple fix could be to forbid these types of "donations", "samples" whatever you wish to label them as, but the bottom line is - they are accepted. The kindest and "right" thing, as we are speaking ethically and not legally here, would be to share something which you received for no cost, unsolicited, which you cannot use anyway, to another. This is the morally right thing to do. Not legally required to do so, perhaps, but the nice and right thing. A common area for students or in a "free pile" or however dispursed, but given as freely as accepted. Ethics here. That is what this is all about. Received and given ... freely.

Coupon Connoisseur said...

I agree that accepting the book may hinge upon violating a no gift acceptance policy that may be in place with (your) respective university. Clearly a book marked not for resale should never be sold.

I think that unless a university has a clearly defined policy about distributing text books at no cost, this should not be done either. A professor who may provide one of these copies to a student (even if it is a genuine gesture to help a student who is struggling financially) that could potentially set them up as a target to be accused of favoritism amongst their students.

Review copies are also not always the final publication. Distributing a "review" copy of a book which has not yet been officially published opens another can of worms should revisions be made in light of reviews before publication actually occurs.

MikeatCltLaw said...

I am a law student who bought, and is now selling, a professor review copy. I am under the impression that the cover does not create any privity betwen me and the publisher or the person who provided it to the professor (who presumably either gave it away or sold it to someone else in the first place). One can argue that the condition, if it is binding, only applies to professors and not others: "If you are a professor, then you must use this copy only for review and not sell it; if you are not a professor, then you may dispose of it as you wish." The actual language of the condition isn't clear. It could also be seen to be an impermissible restraint on alienation. And we haven't even gotten into priority of security interests. Is my purchase-money security interest in the goods (either stolen or wrongfully negotiated) as good or better than the publisher's? The University's? Absent a statute specifically on point, such as would make review copies a controlled substance, I think any subsequent purchaser (at least, with certainty those past the initial subsequent purchaser, holds the property free and clear of any encumbrance.

Dave Yates said...

Kudo’s to Professor Seglin for positing his inquiry in a refreshingly bias neutral manner.

This is a 2 and a half year old thread... and my experience in the textbook industry (34 years) could turn my remarks into an essay. I'll try to be brief as I can. I could literally write a book about this industry.

I've worked in just about every area of the textbook industry, other than publishing, during the 34 years of my career, including being one of those “roaming textbook buyers”.

Despite what some academics may think of “those book buyers”, I am pretty open minded and have a fairly developed critical thinking ability, despite not having a formal education. (Which will be evident from my marginal writing skills :)

I can honestly say that a majority of faculty know extremely little about the publishing industry, and academic publishing specifically. I find this true even among published authors. That’s not an attack... it’s just not their bailiwick. Why should they know about it? I can also accurately state that a majority of publishers representatives, know even less than faculty do, about their industry. As faculty know, most publishers reps don’t last very long... largely because they are so poorly trained... and extremely misguided about what constitutes “a good publishers rep”. (The stories I could tell...)

So... in order to have an informed consideration about the ethics of selling textbooks, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to presume that a debate about the merits/demerits of selling desk copies would be better informed if those participating in the discussion based their positions on facts... rather than “beliefs”.

First, let me say, that the facts on their own should be considered for what they are... not as a justification for whether it is or is not ethical to sell books.

Despite publisher rhetoric to the contrary, the number of actual desk-copies that get sold into the used book market are typically in the mid to low single digits. If you look at some of the different versions of the “warnings” on samples, they typically say “Selling examination copies contributes to higher textbook prices for students”.
Okay... so is that why student book prices seem to be pegged to the spot price of gold? Not even maybe. For titles with high adoption rates, the percentage of desk copies in the market is VERY low... 1 to 3 percent... and those adoption rates are typically reflective of textbooks that are well liked by faculty.

Academic publishing, and it’s business model are very much like the music recording industry of 15 or 20 years ago... except they have a semi-monopolistic market access, and outside funding for their high prices (easy student loans). In the late 90’s early 2000’s when many industries had to tighten their belts and become more efficient, academic publishing was just business as usual.

If I put the stopper in my tub, and then dump a shot glass of water into the tub... I am absolutely “contributing to the higher water level of the tub”. It does NOT explain how most tubs get filled.

Academic publishing, historically, has been the second most profitable industry in the U.S., coming in below the profit margins of the pharmaceutical industry. (as a segment of publishing... many publishers publish a wide catalog into the general consumer market. I’m speaking of the “College Division” of these businesses. There have been, over the years, publishers whose sole focus was academic publishing... although they have mostly been bought up by “the big boys”)

Dave Yates said...

The statement, “the publishers provide examination copies as a valuable service and courtesy to faculty”, in regards to why the industry does what it does, is nothing more than a fallacious piece of propaganda and a belief unsupported by the facts. (See above) Let me add, I think it is imperative and completely moral and ethical for publishers to make a decent profit, and maintain a viable business model in so doing. The courtesy aspect of desk copies has far more to do with how good a job the publishers rep is doing. The publishing industry is in business to make money... and the ire of faculty towards the selling of desk copies, itself, as an “un-ethical” practice is nothing more than a litmus test for whether they really understand what the academic publishing industry is about. I mean no offense, but given the facts, to think otherwise is at a minimum naive... and leads to a “don’t confuse the issue with the facts! I’ve already decided what I want to believe!


Contrary to popular belief amongst publishers reps, and many “anti book selling” faculty, faculty that order books for the sole purpose of selling them are greatly in the minority. Even amongst folks that always sell me books, even when those books are unsolicited... faculty will look through the desk copies before they decide what books to dispose of.

Unsolicited books are not a waste of money for the publishers, even when they end up sold into the used book market. Faculty that are “enamored” with getting free books from the publishers often don’t see it this way, but that is far more about their individual reverence for books generally, than the realities of the work load for busy faculty members. Every couple of years the publishers roll out a scheme to reduce the number of desk copies being recycled into the used book market. Remember those one page “glossy flyers” printed on card stock, with the perforated tear off request postcards? Reviewing textbooks is not a high priority item on the agenda of most faculty. Most faculty would look at those flyers, and either throw them out, or if the book looked interesting, set them aside to be filled out and mailed in later. Until, of course, the perennial e-mail from the bookstore manager shows up telling them their adoption selections are LATE, and they need to send the adoption information NOW. That postcard is still sitting in that safe place to be filled out “soon”, and the publishers that sent books unsolicited are the only titles that even got a look.

The publishers are largely disconnected from the needs of the faculty who they are supposedly trying to serve. Think about it. The good reps are the ones who are well informed, and provide good service without giving a lot of grief to their customers. It is certainly a very tough job. Reps are basically trying to sell a product to a client who knows FAR MORE about what constitutes a good product, than the sales staff peddling it.


Un-ethical publisher practices masquerade behind “straw man” arguments leveled at the used textbook industry generally, and at the desk copy recycling industry specifically. It is just a fact that the publishing industry has been scapegoating book-buyers for the high price of books. They wouldn’t have it any other way. The academic publishing industry has made almost no effort to streamline their business model in ways that would make it possible to prevent the outrageous annual price increases which are passed onto students.

Dave Yates said...

The exact same American editions (not International Editions... which are a lower quality book) of textbooks used in western european nations, sell for HALF the price they sell for in the U.S.

These are just a few points of fact. There is a side to the business practices, and rank propaganda posited by the publishers that publishers really don’t want faculty to have awareness of.

There are faculty that have been sufficiently fascinated by the dynamics of the industry and the facts behind it, in regards to general ethical considerations as well as the ethics of selling textbooks, that they dig in and take an “academic look” at the issue.

 Every one of them I’ve encountered sell their books. Often they sell books as a creative way to generate funds for the purpose of funding charities, scholarships, department petty cash...etc... but they have divested themselves of the jaundiced "beliefs", unsupported by the facts, that are so wide spread in the circles of academia.

It is a fact, in accordance with Federal law, that textbook samples are the property of the individual to whom they were sent, irregardless of whether than individuals address is at the institution of their employ.

Simply put... the ONLY reason textbook prices are so high, is because the publishing industry wants to reap big profits without having to do the work of lowering the "slop" in their business models.

This will continue until something "disruptive" takes place in the academic publishing industry. This disruption WILL happen eventually.

Remember when Napster caused all the ruckus in the music industry? Rightly so, the recording industry fought back against piracy... and when asked why THEY didn't come up with a way to monetize a download model of music distribution the industry response was "Downloading music isn't a viable way to sell music... it's for pirates, not music fans."

15 years later... iTunes is the largest retail seller of music on the planet.

FYI... Apple recently put forth a free application called iBook Author. Books published for iBook distribution earn 70% royalties for the Authors, and 30% for Apple.

The seeds of "disruption" have been sown! It's only a matter of time now.

Stuart said...

If you give them to a student, THEY will sell the books.

Squatch925 said...

Except publishers write off the full retail value of that book when they send it to you. When you send it back. They send it out again and write it off again. The only stealing occuring is these publishers robbing student pockets with exorbitant book prices that only began to level out with the advent of used book buyers.

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