Monday, April 28, 2008

Ethics of Selling Textbooks

As you may know, academics receive throughout the year unsolicited copies newly published textbooks from academic publishers. The books are sent for review for possible adoption in courses. The hope is that upon receiving a free book, one will look it over and assign it to one's students. A few adoptions of a given textbook apparently offsets the cost to the publisher of giving a few thousand copies away.

Around this time each year, an elderly couple appears, unannounced, at my office door. They ask if I have any textbooks that I'd like to sell. The couple apparently lives in a mobile home, traveling the country, making money in the used textbook market. I usually sell whatever texts I've received that I've had the time to look at. Since I nearly never use textbooks in my classes (I use primary sources and journal articles), it doesn't much matter what I think of the texts I am sent anyway.

The question is whether it's ethical to sell complimentary review copies of textbooks. Some thoughts: Copies sold in the used market do not yield revenue for the publisher, and so no royalties are paid to the author or editor of the book. On the other hand, the copies are unsolicited, and take up space in my office. And used books save students money. But, again, textbooks are so expensive precisely because publishers need to offset losses due to the used market. Yet I like the elderly couple that shows up at my office, and would like to seem them succeed in their little business.



Imipolex_G-Unit said...

I sell the review copies sent to me. Frankly, I do it without much regard for whether it's ethical. Like eating meat, I'm more prepared to admit that I'm evil than to change my habits. But once in a while I take the time to cook up some half-baked ethical reasoning. Like now.

1. If the book was given to you then you own it.
2. If you own the book then you are permitted to sell it.
3. The book was given to you.
Therefore, it is permitted to sell it.

My guess is that if this argument is unsound, then the most likely problem is with premise 2. But I've got too much bourbon in me to think of any counterexamples. Spiros?

729 said...

Just to thicken the broth a bit...a couple of points...

1) There is a strong rumor going around that some of the textbook buyers may be requesting copies of textbooks be sent to instructors through the publishers' website request forms. This rumor is unsubstantiated, but a colleague of mine and I checked out some of the websites, and determined that insofar as a textbook buyer can enter a valid academic email address (which are public), address and course listing (also public), this *could* be happening sometimes. I'm not sure that it is, but it looks like publishers leave themselves open to this sort of situation.

2) My department just got blanket bombed with textbooks from a certain publisher. That's a lot of textbooks. And it's reasonable to suspect that my department is one of many. A lot of textbooks are being sent without request. It can't be the case that this publisher doesn't know about textbook selling. So flooding departments with textbooks like this seems against their own interest. Yet, the more textbooks are being sold to book buyers, the lower the price of the resold books. (You'll notice that certain titles are NEVER sent out in blanket bombing. Their price remains high both as new and as used, comparatively). My pet pseudo-theory is that with textbook titles that they send out in mass quantities, the publishers expect selling, and undermine high-priced re-selling by the sheer volume they distribute for free. Those who do order these textbooks new for classes are all the publisher depends on for profit, and they keep in reserve the textbooks that are most expensive. It seems to me, that the continuous stream of (usually) lower quality textbooks can't be happening without publishers recognizing all the textbook selling that happens--not just by professors, but in every college bookstore buy-backs and online. I suspect that all this is now figured into managing profit as it has become a stable situation--stable to the extent that people all over have established small businesses buying complimentary textbooks from instructors. (We have three people, like your elderly couple, who come by regularly to buy them and have done so for years.) Maybe I've been hanging out too long with the economists, but I'm finding that the business model at work in textbook publishing has actually accommodated book selling and re-selling. This doesn't make it right, but does make me wonder about how the business model is party to the very problem, especially when it comes to author royalties (last in line for profit in this whole setup).

At the same time, I don't think much about royalties from the textbooks I have out. Those days are long-past. If I were a publisher I would start marketing my textbooks electronically directly to schools' Blackboard learning systems, so that student fees for courses included the textbook material. This way, no matter how many textbooks get sold and resold, students taking a course pay for the material (at a reduced but stable cost) just by registering for a course. Call me crazy, but that's gotta be the only way to do this now.

Anonymous said...

Fuck it dude.

I say that if they give you the book unsolicited, then you can do with it what you like. What's the difference if you sell it, or toss it out the window? Either way the publisher isn't getting and money. And if they bitch about publishing costs, then maybe they shouldn't give away books unsolicited.

Spiros said...


I own my organs, but can't sell them.

Spiros said...


Interesting analysis.

Spiros said...

Doesn't anyone have a word to say on the other side?

Try this: I own a copy of book X. I teach a course in which X is required. I request an *additional* copy of X from the publisher, saying it's a "desk copy." I receive the free copy and then sell it to the used market.

Anything wrong there?

Anonymous said...

Man, I'd say that calling for another book, which will be sent free of charge, then turning around and selling is fraudulent.

Here's a possible twist, what if the books have been around for awhile and outdated?

Spiros said...


You say: "calling for another book, which will be sent free of charge, then turning around and selling is fraudulent."

The question is why. What makes it fraudulent?

Anonymous said...

By stating that *it's a desk copy*, which I'm concluding that it would be for use at some institution that clams to be educational.

That would be hoodwinking the publisher.

bones said...

I say, as long as you're using the proceeds to pay for the filming of the stations of the cross porn, then you are all good.

Santa said...

As someone who is given copies of books on a regular basis as "reference materials" of what is hip and new in the marketplace, I am contractually proscribed from re-selling such books into the marketplace as it:
a) damages the marketplace for fist print books
b) damages the re-sale value of the book in the used market under the guise of "more used copies available devalues the cost of the used book can command in the marketplace."
c) makes books already allocated as a marketing expense are then competing against the first print copies.
d) defeats the purpose of sending out marketing copies of a book under the guise of "try it and maybe you will adopt this book" if most of the copies then end up on the resale market.

The novel approach I have to the situation is to donate the books to a charity where the disadvantaged can avail themselves of the books such as AMVETS or Shelter Our Sisters or other such organisations where people down on their luck may be able to gain a bit of knowledge to better their predicament.

As an aside, I knew of an editorial assistant who got fired for selling bound galleys of pre-publication books (that everybody discards) to the Strand for $.50/copy. The reasoning was that it was a threat to the author's ability to make a living through royalties if uncorrected copies were allowed to compete with the final book in the marketplace. The textbook "promo copy" argument seems to be applicable in this same realm.

Most trade publishers tend to make a profit on the title in the second or third printing of a trade title, before that the title is an actual loss for the company. With the smaller print runs for academic texts, I can't imagine an academic publisher being able to recoup all overhead, plant costs, and advance in the first printing alone.

Spiros said...


I can see the point from perspective of the publication industry, so I understand why someone working in that industry would be acting immorally in feeding the used market.

But what about 3rd parties, like professors, who get copies as "encouragements" to force others to buy?

729 said...

I wish I was getting some of the better reference materials! How do I get on that list?

All we get, in mass quantities, are the yet-another intro to blah, with only contact information on how to order the book. With any of the textbooks I actually use, I need to pay a fee for my desk-copies, and any of the (very good) books I order as potential course textbooks, I get for free only if I actually order them--otherwise I agree to send them back or send a check to buy the book. These publishers usually send a bill, if I've forgotten.

I think we're talking about different sorts of textbooks and reference works, and the publishers don't market these in the same way. And not all publishers are the same. Christopher Shield's new, massive guide to Aristotle (from a university press), for example, isn't being sent around to every instructor of ancient Greek philosophy, and you only get a free copy if you order it for your course. Shields is being protected to a large degree. Prof. X's yet another "Philosophy for the Ages: An Introductory Guide," is another story. I think we're actually talking about different kinds of companies/publishers, and it looks like the massive corporations that now own the Introduction to X markets handle their marketing very differently than the smaller publishing companies. The difference is pretty dramatic. Smaller publishing companies that used to publish whole series on topics geared to many different levels of students, once bought up by one of these massive educational publishing corporations, no longer publish anything but Introduction to X and standard textbooks in fields with set curricula. This is a reason to suspect that they must in someway take into account the overall selling and re-selling--and not be so worried about that they they cease to send out massive amounts of free textbooks unsolicited. With giant world-wide educational markets, the picture of profit changes.

Spiros said...


I get unsolicited books of all kinds-- mostly textbooks ("intro to x", but also upper-level readers and single-authored researchy books. I sell everything but the latter, and use the money on booze and karaoke lessons.

729 said...

Spiros: Not only do I want to get on whatever list you're on someday, but will enthusiastically contribute to a karaoke night.

Exparrot said...

Bones said "stations of the cross porn"

I just spewed coffee all over my laptop.


Spiros said...

Exparrot: And it's no joke.

Santa said...

Spiros: The third party perspective is indeed puzzling to me. The more i think about this, the more I think it is OK. It is no different than say getting a book as a gift and reselling it. Ostensibly the books you recieve are a no strings attached "gift" from the publisher, so you should be free to do whatever you wish with that "gift".

Richard said...

there is nothing wrong in selling those copies, in fact you are helping many students who cannot buy new copies , so they can by these used ones..

many sites like these Sell Books Online which pays premium prices for the widest variety of new and used textbooks online , sell these used books back to those who need them it's a free shipping book buyback process.

in a way it is putting the book at it's right place , from a person who don't need them any more to a needy guy who wants it desperately

Spiros said...


"No strings attached "gift" from the publisher" seems right to me.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that if you request the book in order to sell it, that's unethical. If they send it to you without your requesting it, you've no obligation to them and can do whatever you want.

Anonymous said...

Did it ever occur to you that the textbooks are not your personal property, but rather the property of the university? The publishers don't send these to you at home; they send them to you as an agent of a university. Selling them and keeping the proceeds is no more ethical than selling your office desk.

Biz Prof said...

You guys are the epitome of self-rationalization. Donate your books if you don't want them.

I think selling free books that you received because of your position with the university is as ethical as copying something from Wikipedia and submitting it as a conference paper.

Anonymous said...

Did it ever occur to you that the textbooks are not your personal property, but rather the property of the university? The publishers don't send these to you at home; they send them to you as an agent of a university. Selling them and keeping the proceeds is no more ethical than selling your office desk.

No, dude, that had not occurred to me. Speaking just for myself, I don't really have a mailing address apart from my university address at the moment. So, I get lots of stuff there. I'll sell some of it. Now, it's true that even if I had a mailing address the publishers would send the books to my work address. That's because they don't have my home address.

Also, selling these books is not like selling your desk. (I'm assuming your university provides you with a desk. Mine didn't. I bought my own. Fuckers.) It's like selling a desk you receive in the mail from a desk manufacturer when you did not ask them to send you a desk. I'd be cool with that. I'd be cool with that even if the desk came with a letter saying that they were sending it to me as a representative of the university. If the university didn't want me to sell these things, they'd ask. (And, if they asked, I'd demand that they provided me with a desk.)

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I have to disagree with Biz Prof. If you copy work from Wikipedia and submit it to a conference, that's stealing. If you are given something you didn't ask for and sell it, that's selling. Selling is not stealing. Also, if I was paid what Biz Profs were paid I'd be more inclined to donate stuff. Try living on a philosopher's salary and then talk to me about selling books.

Anonymous said...

I run a mid sized Exec Search firm and met a Bookstore owner that uses book buyers and became somewhat fascinated with the entire market and its creation.

In my spare time I decided to research the industry and have interviewed many Publisher Representatives and Directors (some layed off), Professors, Book Buyers and some Book store owners.

The problem came around approx 35 years ago when MASS marketing hit the minds of some publishers.

The publishers realized that a Sales Rep with travel/benefits/etc could only see a minimum amount of professors within a time frame and was not cost effective. Hence....Professors get spammed with numerous books.

The Publisher can send approx 10,000 review copies (printing and shipping) for the cost of 1 Sales rep.

Multiply that by a minimum 2% new adoption of sent books per 10k (i.e. going from abc publisher to xyz publisher) at an average cost of $90 per book x # of students for 1st 2 semesters (before sufficient used book market available)= Significant ROI.

I will use the 200 adoptions x 400 min books sold new x $90 cost to book stores avg= $7,200,000 revenue. (You can cut in in half and still the $ is significant!)

1.They try to run 24 month to new edition to help make the used books obsolete.
2.Publishers only need the books to stay in the Professors offices for the 1st 2 semesters (used market firmly established then and new edition books have lost significant market value)
3. Bookstores only have a 20-24% markup for new books plus responsible for all the overhead regardless of oncampus or off.
4.Many small publishers have been gobbled up and are public companies. (Quarterly earnings and profits don't come from selling the books cheaper)
5. I spoke with a dept head that a professor passed away over 2 years ago and still received 8-13 review books yearly!
6. Selling books you specifically asked to review with intention to resale might not be illegal but does bring up concerns.
7. The books that buyers get will end up in the USED market at another school so when a student comes into purchase the new edition they are not forced to swallow the $150 price tag but have the option for the $90-110 price for the same book.
8. I have also recently discovered that some professors that received a Dinners, Golfing, Trips or $$$ from the publisher and magically adopt the publishers books for required reading. *This is a whole different can of worms.

The publisher's have had 35 years to come up with a solution for the review copies getting into circulation. I have only been researching this for 30 days and already have multiple solutions.

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Anonymous said...

My husband's office is inundated with textbooks he has never requested. For many years, he kept them on his office shelves, which had to double and triple in quantity to keep up with the ever growing collection. Eventually, he had so many that there was no room for any more (and, several of his shelves were beginning to bow). Now, he keeps the copies of the books he uses - including all of the older editions - and he loans them out to students who cannot afford to buy a book. The rest of the unsolicited books that show up at his door are sold, by me, to students across the country for an affordable price (usually 25% of the retail price or less). The money is donated to a great many worthy causes, including the Sandy Hook fund, the Hurricane Sandy relief fund, various women's shelters, and several funds dedicated to educating the youth of our country. Some of the money goes into my husbands classes in the form of textbook "scholarships", so that a student each semester in each class can purchase a NEW copy of the book from the bookstore. These student can contact my husband privately and let him know of their financial need for the book scholarship.
So, is it ethical to sell a free book? Perhaps not. But I ask; it ethical to let them sit on shelves collecting dust when they can instead be turned into something good? Certainly not. As an added bonus - my husbands office is MUCH less cluttered.

Anonymous said...

There's a difference in my mind between asking for a copy for the sole purpose of selling it and selling a copy that has been sent to one unsolicited. The former seems unethical to me but not the latter.