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 – 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 isn’t 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 “Eric Christensen,” stated, “This is just a note to remind you that I will be in your area Wednesday, December 8 buying textbooks.”
He offered to pay between $20 and $75 per book, adding, “Off-campus appointments are available.”
Sanders said she has received the message several times in recent semesters. After each communication, she’s 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 doesn’t allow using a person’s position “to secure benefits, privileges, exemptions or advantages for the employee … which are different from those available to the general public.”
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.
“That’s the interpretation we have in our code of conduct,” she said.
The MnSCU policy states, “Free 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.”
The University of Minnesota has no such policy, University Office of Institutional Compliance Director Lynn Zentner said.
“However, if [selling the textbooks] violates state and/or federal law, that would indeed conflict with code of conduct and some policies,” 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 “book bandits,” who are looking to buy complimentary textbooks at a reduced price.
“I think that’s very explicitly unethical,” Physics and Astronomy Department Head Ronald Poling said. “I have always ignored it and I strongly expect my colleagues have.”
Chemistry Department Chairman William Tolman said he had “kind of” heard of professors in his department engaging in the practice, but could not definitively confirm sales.
Hull called conduct like Christensen’s a “universal” problem that affects authors and publishers around the country.
Christensen denied multiple requests for comment, ultimately writing “please do not contact me again,” in an e-mail.
Queries into Christensen’s identity, or “firstname.lastname@example.org” 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 – though it’s 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 “every effort” 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 companies’ 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 “Biology” took at least 27,665 man hours to finish a first run of 75,500 copies.
“It just blows my mind how much work goes into these books,” Hildebrand said. Unethical textbook sales have become “a huge, multi-multi-million dollar business, and it hurts faculty and students.”