Sunday, August 23, 2015
Let's close the book on the re-selling of review textbooks!
One of my grandson's high school graduation requirements is to successfully complete two college-level courses. His school pays the tuition, and if he gets a good enough grade, the course credits might transfer to whatever college he attends.
It's a great deal on many levels. His high school doesn't pay for the textbooks for these classes, however. The business course he took required books that ran more than $300.
The high cost of college textbooks is no surprise. It's an issue I keep in mind when I create course syllabi and decide what readings to require of my own college students. I've even created texts from materials available online or from databases to which students already have access through the school. This helps keep textbook costs down.
Still, for some courses that still require textbooks, students pay staggering amounts.
Before each semester begins, college professors are solicited by book buyers seeking to purchase textbooks. The most recent email I received offered to pay me "in cash" for "new editions, instructor's editions, exam copies, desk copies..." Such books are often sent to professors for them to consider assigning. Sometimes these copies are unsolicited. Sometimes professors request copies.
If the textbooks are unsolicited, then the professor is free to do whatever he/she wishes with the books. If, however, the professor requested a review copy with the sole intention of reselling it, that crosses an ethical line. It's also not right to resell any review copy you've agreed you won't resell. (As a rule, I don't sell examination copies to book buyers visiting campuses, whether I requested them or not. Occasionally, I will give a copy to a student, but rarely for use in a specific course.)
Previous columns I've written about the ethics of reselling review copies of a textbook triggered a strong response from readers. An argument repeated by many is that reselling used books contributes to publishers jacking up textbook prices, since neither they nor the authors receive any income from the resale of review copies.
However, the writer of the latest email soliciting my books told me that any books I sold him would "all go to an affordable marketplace for students, helping them avoid tacking on additional debt to their loans."
Does this book buyer's expressed commitment to reducing student debt by paying me for books I received for nothing, then turning around and making a profit by selling them for more than he paid to students, change my position on selling review copies?
No. The book buyer isn't buying books for altruistic reasons. He's out to make money by reselling books he buys cheaply from someone who didn't pay for them at all.
The right thing to do is for professors not to request books with the sole intention of reselling them. It's also the right thing for them to explore options for class materials that are more affordable for students, as long as the quality of the material is as strong as possible to reach the course objectives.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.