Cons profit from buying profs’ textbooks

Although there is no U policy against it, the practice may violate Minnesota law.

James Nord

On Dec. 5, University of Minnesota journalism professor Dr. Amy Sanders received a cryptic e-mail asking to buy her instructor edition or review copy textbooks. It was one solicitation in a multi-million dollar national problem for publishers, professors and students âÄî a problem that may also violate Minnesota law.
Publishing companies often provide professors with these special editions to entice them to use the textbook for a class. In most cases, the company also includes return postage if the professor isnâÄôt interested in ordering the book.
But some entrepreneurs buy instructor editions at 20 cents on the dollar and re-sell them to distributors at more than triple that price, said Richard Hull, executive director of the Text and Academic Authors Association.
The Dec. 5 e-mail to Sanders, signed âÄúEric Christensen,âÄù stated, âÄúThis is just a note to remind you that I will be in your area Wednesday, December 8 buying textbooks.âÄù
He offered to pay between $20 and $75 per book, adding, âÄúOff-campus appointments are available.âÄù
Sanders said she has received the message several times in recent semesters. After each communication, sheâÄôs asked Christensen to remove her from future e-mails.
In Minnesota, textbooks are exempt from the statute prohibiting state and University of Minnesota employees from receiving gifts.
But a law governing the code of ethics for executive branch employees doesnâÄôt allow using a personâÄôs position âÄúto secure benefits, privileges, exemptions or advantages for the employee âĦ which are different from those available to the general public.âÄù
Following their interpretation of state law, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system explicitly prohibits professors from selling complimentary textbooks, MnSCU spokeswoman Linda Kohl said.
âÄúThatâÄôs the interpretation we have in our code of conduct,âÄù she said.
The MnSCU policy states, âÄúFree course materials are provided by publishers as a way of informing faculty members about available resources, rather than to foster the sale of such materials for individual gain.âÄù
The University of Minnesota has no such policy, University Office of Institutional Compliance Director Lynn Zentner said.
âÄúHowever, if [selling the textbooks] violates state and/or federal law, that would indeed conflict with code of conduct and some policies,âÄù University spokesman Dan Wolter wrote in an e-mail.
University administrators and professors in at least six departments spanning the College of Science and Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts have been approached or e-mailed by these âÄúbook bandits,âÄù who are looking to buy complimentary textbooks at a reduced price.
âÄúI think thatâÄôs very explicitly unethical,âÄù Physics and Astronomy Department Head Ronald Poling said. âÄúI have always ignored it and I strongly expect my colleagues have.âÄù
Chemistry Department Chairman William Tolman said he had âÄúkind ofâÄù heard of professors in his department engaging in the practice, but could not definitively confirm sales.
Hull called conduct like ChristensenâÄôs a âÄúuniversalâÄù problem that affects authors and publishers around the country.
Christensen denied multiple requests for comment, ultimately writing âÄúplease do not contact me again,âÄù in an e-mail.
Queries into ChristensenâÄôs identity, or âÄú[email protected]âÄù and a phone number registered in Austin, Minn., where he directed inquiries, returned few details on his identity.
In 2008, publishing companies lost an estimated $3 million to re-sellers in Florida âÄî though itâÄôs hard to quantify the exact amount. Book resale is much like digital piracy, said Bruce Hildebrand, Association of American Publishers higher education division executive director.
The college textbook publishing company Pearson makes âÄúevery effortâÄù to collect unused instructor review editions, spokeswoman Susan Aspey wrote in an e-mail.
Many professors consider re-selling the textbooks to be unethical, and publishing associations say the practice raises textbook costs for students.
Ultimately, the price is passed on to students because it hits publishing companiesâÄô bottom lines. It also shortens the shelf life of a current edition, prompting companies to create a new one, Hildebrand said. That can cost millions of dollars and raise prices even more.
The most recent edition of the Pearson textbook âÄúBiologyâÄù took at least 27,665 man hours to finish a first run of 75,500 copies.
âÄúIt just blows my mind how much work goes into these books,âÄù Hildebrand said. Unethical textbook sales have become âÄúa huge, multi-multi-million dollar business, and it hurts faculty and students.âÄù