Journal of Academic Ethics

, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 19–31

Faculty Selling Desk Copies—The Textbook Industry, the Law and the Ethics


    • Department of Finance and Legal StudiesBloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
  • Mark Usry
    • Department of Finance and Legal StudiesBloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

DOI: 10.1007/s10805-011-9128-1

Cite this article as:
Davis, L.M. & Usry, M. J Acad Ethics (2011) 9: 19. doi:10.1007/s10805-011-9128-1


It is a guilty secret that many college professors sell the complimentary desk copies that they receive from textbook publishers for cash. This article attempts to shed light on the undercover practice by looking at the resale of complimentary textbooks by faculty from four perspectives. Part One provides an overview of the college textbook industry, the business reasons that motivate publishers to provide complimentary desk copies to faculty, and the economic consequences of the entry of the textbooks into the used book market. Part Two examines the legal characteristics of complimentary desk copies in terms of their ownership and any contractual duties that may arise from their receipt. Part Three looks at legislative efforts to curb the practice, and Part Four reviews university policies addressing the issue. In Part Five, the ethical implications of faculty selling desk copies are examined, with a special focus on this practice in a business school. The Conclusion considers the future of the sale of complimentary copies in light of the move to e-books and other initiatives by authors and textbook publishers to circumvent the practice.


Complimentary textbooksDesk copiesAcademic ethicsFacultye-books

Part One—The College Text Book Industry1

The post-secondary bookselling industry is a complex one comprised of authors, publishers, brick and mortar bookstores, online sellers, universities, book buyers and students. Each of these stakeholders is involved with the buying and selling of textbooks, both new and used, to the ultimate purchaser, the student. Some 8,000 publishers provide 262,000 different titles for sale in college bookstores across the United States each year (Schroeder 2006) and total sales for the bookselling industry were estimated in 2003 at around $6 billion annually (Bartlett 2003). More recently, the figures were estimated at just over $5.5 billion for the 2006–2007 school year (National Association of College Stores, 2010). Five firms (Thompson, McGraw-Hill, Wiley, Houghton-Mifflin and Pearson) account for 80% of all college textbooks published (Koch 2006). In their comprehensive study of the costs of college textbooks, Carbaugh and Ghosh (2005) state that this oligopoly is a result of mergers and acquisitions in the last decade wherein large textbook companies absorbed dozens of smaller textbook and educational media firms.

These publishers face considerable competition from used-book dealers. Used books make up about a third of the textbook market in dollar terms. The industry rule of thumb is that in the second year of an edition, a textbook’s sales are about 50% of what they were in the first year, and in the third year fall off an additional 50% compared with the second year. By the third year, more copies are sold of the used book than the new book (Carbaugh and Ghosh 2005). Used books enter the market mainly when students sell them back to college bookstores, which typically pay half the retail price for a book that they can resell on their own campus. If the book is not being used again on campus, it may be purchased by a used-book company that will pay a third or less of the original retail price. These books are then distributed to college bookstores on other campuses, where they generally sell for 75% of the original price. Another avenue through which books come into the used-book market is the complimentary-copy market. The market is supplied by publishers who furnish faculty with free sample copies of their textbooks to encourage sales (Carbaugh and Ghosh 2005).

The practice of publishers providing complimentary textbooks to faculty members has a long history in the industry. In fact, according to testimony by Patricia Schroeder in 2006, then president of the Association of American Publishers:

Free textbook samples have been a key part of publisher marketing for as long as anyone can remember. Faculty members want to insure that a certain text covers topics necessary in a particular course and to see how the topic is covered, something not readily determined by reviewing a table of contents. Faculty prefer to see, touch and review textbooks when deciding which ones to adopt (Schroeder 2006).

As in many other businesses, providing a sample is one of the best ways to sell a product. According to the Association of American Publishers, textbook publishers provide millions of complimentary copies to faculty each year to enable them to assess the quality and content of the texts (Association of American Publishers, Inc. 2006). It is estimated that at least 10% of any production run of a textbook is for free examination copies (Koch 2006). While faculty members who choose to sell these complimentary copies are paid usually 30–40% of the market value, the book buyers then resell the books for full price (Koch 2006).

If a professor has reviewed a book and decides not to adopt it for classroom use, the book has little further value to him or her. Thus professors often sell their complimentary textbooks. College professors are presented with two main opportunities to sell complimentary print textbooks. One option is via the book buyers who discretely make their rounds of universities, working usually as independent operators, and then selling the books to the wholesaler that offers them the best price. Some of these mysterious merchants appear to work for particular wholesalers directly (Job Advertisement 2010). Another option for faculty is an online company that purchases textbooks for resale. A number of online book buyers will ship faculty free boxes and mailing labels, providing them ‘the highest cash back for your textbooks’ and even offering ‘direct deposit your cash back into your account’. They advertise that they purchase “complimentary copy” and “free copy textbooks” (, n.d.). The authors submitted the ISBN numbers of the complimentary textbooks used in this article to five online book sellers and received purchase prices. The internet addresses of the book buyers and the purchase price quoted appear in Table 1.
Table 1

Title of complimentary textbook and ISBN


Dynamic business law ISBN: 9780073524917

Dynamic business law: The essentials ISBN: 9780073377681

Contemporary business and online commerce law ISBN: 9780136015000

Managers and the legal environment ISBN: 9780324582048

Introduction to law ISBN: 9781401834623

Total cash to sellera

Web address of line book buyer





Not found






Not found




















“Not accepted”


aPrice quotes obtained August 19, 2010.

bAll prices quoted were stated “used”.

cStates that 1% ($2.47) of proceeds to seller will be donated to a charitable cause.

The process of buying sample texts from faculty and reselling them ‘has a direct impact on publisher’s costs’ in an industry that, by some accounts, has mark-ups as high as 400% (Schroeder 2006). In 2003, this loss to publishers and authors was quantified in a study of fourteen public and private universities and community colleges. Faculty from these institutions were surveyed regarding the practice of professorial selling of examination textbooks to wholesalers (Robie, Kidwell, & King, The Ethics of Professorial Book Selling: Morality, Money and “Black Market” Books, 2003). The study determined that 30% of all faculty members admitted to selling complimentary copies of textbooks under a variety of circumstances. With one million faculty members nationwide (U.S. Department of Education, 2000) and assuming that a faculty member earns $80 per year in sales, faculty members earn $24,000,000 per year through this practice (300,000 faculty x $80.00 = $24,000,000) Using another formula, Robie calculates that for every $1 that a faculty member makes from selling complimentary copies, it costs the publisher $3 and the authors .50 cents in lost royalties. Total annual losses for publishers amount to $72,000,000 and authors $12,000,000 for a total of losses to the industry of $84,000.000 (Robie, Discussion thread, 2005). Robie cautions that his calculations do not include outright fraud which may occur from faculty taking samples belonging to other faculty members or ordering the textbooks in a colleague’s name and then reselling them. Robie offers anecdotal evidence of this practice (Robie, Discussion thread, 2005).

While it is clear the selling of complimentary copies results in a loss to publishers and authors, the economic consequences of the practice on students are less clear. Foster and Horowitz (1996) concluded that the sale of complimentary texts increases (or at least does not decrease) the time between new editions. A longer edition life combined with the direct increase in the number of used texts available may result in a lower average purchasing price to students (Foster and Horowitz 1996). However, Kamp found that that while the purchase price of a used text might be less due to faculty selling sample books, the buyback price students received at the end of the semester would also be reduced, resulting in an overall increase in textbook costs to the user (Kamp 1998).

Part Two—The Law: Ownership and Contractual Obligations

The question of ownership is central to the propriety of selling desk copies, because faculty can only legally sell books to which they have title. Print textbooks are legally classified as a type of personal property and title to personal property can be acquired in a number of ways, with little formality. These ways include purchasing the property from its owner (buying a book from, producing the property by intellectual means (writing a book), assembling raw materials into a new commodity (making a bookshelf), or acquiring the title by gift (“Happy birthday—here is the bestseller you wanted!”). Since complimentary desk copies are neither purchased nor produced by the professors who sell them, faculty are presumed to believe that they own the books because they were gifts from the publishers. A gift is made when there is a voluntary transfer of property without consideration, i.e. the exchange of something of value. It is the lack of consideration that distinguishes a gift from a purchase (Cheeseman 2009). There are three elements needed to acquire title to property as a gift. First, the property must be delivered to the intended recipient either physically or constructively, such as mailing a package. Next, the delivery must be made with the intent to turn over ownership of the property. This element distinguishes a gift from a bailment, (“May I borrow your book to read on my vacation?”) Bailments are discussed below. The final element necessary to acquire title as a gift is its acceptance (Kubasek 2009).

The typical practice of a faculty member receiving an unsolicited desk copy in the mail from a publisher arguably meets the criteria of a gift, and the professor becomes the owner of the book. The gift is delivered by mail, and absent any contract, license or other condition indicating that the publisher expects the book to be returned, the intent to transfer title to the book is established. Finally, although some faculty who are zealous about the environment or the rising cost of textbooks may return the books at their own expense, most accept the complimentary copy. The Federal Trade Commission has codified this common law rule by providing that any unsolicited merchandise received in the mail may be treated a s a gift by the recipient, who shall have the right to retain, use discard or dispose of it in any manner he sees fit without any obligation to the sender (Postal Reorganization Act, 39 USCS § 3900, 1971).

The Text and Academic Authors Association views the gift transaction differently. It argues that title to the book, delivered to a professor in their capacity as an instructor at their university address, is acquired by the institution and not the instructor. An analogy would be that sample office furniture provided by a supplier for an undetermined period of time may be used by a university employee but not sold by them. If ownership of sample textbooks is attributed to the university, an instructor selling a complimentary text may be technically guilty of theft and “fencing” the hot property (Hull 2010).

The legal theory of conditional gift would also diminish the right of a recipient of a sample text to sell it. A conditional gift is made when the giver imposes some condition or restriction on the use of the gift or as a condition to be met in order to obtain the gift. Simply put, until some future event occurs, the gift isn’t final. If the event does not occur, the giver has the right to expect return of the gift. The issue arises most frequently in cases of failed marital engagements, when a dispute arises regarding the ownership of the engagement ring. State courts that have considered the issue have reached different conclusions. Some jurisdictions have used the gift theory to allow the ex-bride to keep the ring. However, some jurisdictions have required her to return the ring, finding the diamond keepsake to be a conditional gift; the condition needed to complete the gift being the marriage itself (Kubasek 2009). It could be argued that publishers give the book on the condition that it will be either adopted for class or used as a reference by the instructor. This argument is the strongest when books are stamped “Review Copy—Not for Resale” by the publisher. However, it is more likely that such stamps are made by the publisher to distinguish complimentary copies from remaindered or returned books that can be returned by suppliers to the publishers for full cost.

A bailment involves the transfer of possession of personal property but not the transfer of its title. Borrowing a mystery from the library, or taking clothes to a drycleaner to be cleaned or stored are examples of bailments (Walston-Dunham 2004). The transfer or delivery of the property is made for a specific purpose with the understanding that it will be cared for and returned to the original party upon demand. Title to the property never transfers to the person in possession of the goods. The only legal right conferred is the right to possess the property for some, often unstated, amount of time. The person in receipt of bailed goods has no right to sell them. Applying the theory of bailments to the receipt of desk copies, bailments are likely created when the sample book is requested by a professor rather than received unsolicited; and most certainly created if the textbook publishers include a postage paid return envelope and a statement with the book that it was being sent for the purpose of being reviewed and returned, if not adopted. In such a case, the publisher would retain ownership of the book, depriving the instructor of any right to resell them.

Complimentary use of digital books raises more difficult legal questions regarding their ownership and use. Owning an e-book (or a complimentary sample of one) is more like licensing a piece of software. A software license generally includes a number of continuing obligations on the purchaser (or recipient of complimentary access). These limitations can include the right to make copies of the software, a limit on the numbers of computers upon which it can be installed, and prohibitions against sublicensing (Bagley and Savage 2010). Access comes with fine print terms of service and often digital rights management software that ensures users abide by the rules. Some e-books operate only on the seller’s own designated devices, e.g. Amazon, Sony Corp and Barnes and Noble. Deletion—or censorship—is the most extreme potential limitation to the e-book licensing model. How property law will evolve to address the ownership and use of digital books is unclear.

A contract can be formed either by expression or implication. An express contract is stated in writing or spoken words. An implied contract is formed by the conduct of the parties. To create an implied contract, the plaintiff must have provided property or services to the defendant, the plaintiff must have expected to be compensated, and the defendant failed to reject the property after being given the opportunity to do so (Cheeseman 2009). Past dealings between the parties may be looked at to determine if the expectation of the plaintiff to be compensated was reasonable. When a professor receives a complimentary desk copy from a publisher, the publisher hopes to be compensated through the adoption of the textbook. At the very least, the publisher does not expect the faculty member to be compensated by reselling the book. A case for an implied contract would be the strongest in cases where the book was solicited by the professor and a return mailing envelope was included with the copy. This would easily give the professor the opportunity to reject the property, if he or she chose not to adopt it.

A contractual obligation arises in the purchase of e-books, but the exact nature and terms of the contracts are unclear. used its wireless technology to reach into customers’ Kindle e-readers and deleted some e-books written by George Orwell when it realized that the publisher didn’t have the proper rights to sell the book in the U.S. Amazon returned the cost of the e-books to purchasers but was labeled as “Big Brother” by angry customers. Legal experts are divided on whether Amazon broke its own contract with consumers by removing the Orwell e-books. The fine print in the company’s terms of service gives consumers the “right to keep a permanent copy” of purchased titles, but also reserves Amazon’s “right to modify, suspend, or discontinue the service at any time” (Fowler 2009). Still, U.S. law generally supports the terms of service imposed by companies—so long as they’re listed up-front. Few terms of service challenges for digital media have been litigated.

Part Three—The Legislative Response

Several states have either banned the practice of selling complimentary desk copies by faculty or addressed the practice in the ethics provisions in their textbook laws. Oklahoma has the strictest provisions. Its statute prohibits faculty from demanding or receiving payment for the adoption of specific course materials, prohibits the faculty from the practice of profiting from the sale of their complimentary copies, and bans bookstores and vendors from engaging in the sale of these copies (Okla.Stat.70 § 3241.2, 2008). California bans bookstores from soliciting faculty for the purpose of selling unsolicited instructor or complimentary teacher editions. Bookstores are also banned from engaging in the trade of unsolicited instructor or complimentary instructor editions (Cal. Ed. Code § 66406.7, 2008). In Florida faculty and other public institution employees are banned from selling marked free sample textbooks for compensation, (Fla. Stat.§ 1004.085, 2008) as are public school employees in New York (N.Y. Education Law § 724, 2008) Virginia (Va. Code Ann. § 23–4.3:1, 2008), and West Virginia (W. Va. Code § 18B-10-14, 2008). Arizona law puts the onus on book sellers. While faculty members are allowed to accept free review copies not intended to be resold, booksellers are prohibited from soliciting faculty in public universities for the purpose of selling or trading sample copies (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 15–1891, 2008).

State ethics laws have also been found to prohibit the practice of selling desk copies. In Washington, all state employees, including employees of the University of Washington, are bound by the State Ethics in Public Service Act. (Wash. Rev. Code. § 42.52 (1994). The Act does not address the resale of textbooks directly, but generally addresses conflicts of interest, improper use of state resources, compensation for outside activities, and gifts. The Act is enforced by the Executive Ethics Board, who also promulgates interpretive rules and provides advisory opinions. When posed with the question of whether higher education faculty can sell complimentary textbooks without violating the ethics law, the Board issued an advisory opinion stating that “The Ethics Act prohibits higher education faculty from selling textbooks. The answer is no because the Ethics Act prohibits the use of official position and the use of any resource or property under official control for private benefit or gain” (Washington State Executive Ethics Board, 2007).

Recent federal legislation echoes the states’ interest in decreasing the costs to students and enhancing the transparency of the selection of college textbooks. Effective July 1, 2010, The Higher Education Opportunity Act attempts to make the cost of text books more transparent and affordable by requiring professors to post the ISBN numbers of all required text before classes begin; publishers to disclose pricing information to the professors considering the adoption of their texts; and that all bundled course items be sold separately (Higher Education Opportunity Act, 20 USCS § 1015b, 2009).

Part Four—The Universities’ Response

Some universities have instituted policies directing faculty on what they may and may not do with complimentary desk copies. The policies range from those which allow employees to accept complimentary copies, but not sell them; to those that forbid employees to sell to book-buyers; to those that do not allow the sale of the books for personal gain. An example of the latter policy is The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Employee Code of Conduct (the Code), that allows faculty to accept free samples of textbooks and related teaching materials but not to sell such materials for personal benefit. The Code suggests that if a faculty member receives complimentary materials and has no further use for them, she is encouraged to give the materials to the university for other use or proper disposition (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, 2008). Similar policies can be found at Rutgers University (Rutgers University, 2008) and Georgia State University Faculty Handbook (Georgia State University, 2007).

A common, but less direct, way to discourage the resale of complimentary books is for universities to discourage the presence of book buyers on campus. Many campuses have policies that prohibit unauthorized solicitors on university grounds, typified by those of Santa Fe College in Florida. Its policies state in relevant part: “… Commercial solicitation or sales are prohibited. ……. [C]ollege facilities will not be made available to persons from within or outside of the College for … activities . . . intended for the purpose of earning a personal profit…” (Santa Fe Community College, 2002).2

Other schools state their disapproval of the practice in their textbook policy. For example, Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee states

Rhodes College believes that the practice of buying and selling complimentary copies of textbooks contributes to higher book prices, denies authors royalties, and discourages the writing and publishing of new works. Therefore, the Rhodes Bookstore will not buy or sell textbooks marked, “complimentary copy, not for resale.” This policy also applies to books originally so marked and taped or bound over to conceal these complimentary copy markings. These markings include but are not limited to: “Complimentary copy, not for resale,” “Instructor’s copy, not for resale”, “Review copy, not for resale”, “Free book, not for resale.” (Rhodes College, 2011)

The consequence of a school failing to have a policy prohibiting the sale for sample copies was highlighted in a case involving a denial of unemployment compensation benefits. A long time instructor at a college in Ohio was terminated when it was discovered that he had received $1,325 for selling desk copies to the university book store during a 10 week period in 2004. The instructor admitted to selling desk copies and stated that the practice was approved by his former supervisor as long as the proceeds of the sale were used to benefit students. He kept no records of his use of the proceeds but claimed that he used the money to help students with transportation cost, personal hygiene items, food and other incidentals. The instructor was terminated from the college and denied unemployment compensation benefits because the state agency found that his conduct was inappropriate and provided just cause for termination. Overturning the agency’s decision, an appellate court in Ohio concluded that because the desk copies were free, that the college suffered no financial harm from the action and there was no rule or policy regarding the disposal of excess copies, there was not sufficient evidence to find that he was terminated for just cause. While the court’s decision did not reinstate him in his former job, it resulted in the instructor’s award of unemployment benefits (Jones v. Ohio Dept. of Job and Family Services, 2007).

Part Five—The Ethics

There appear to be three positions regarding faculty resale of complimentary textbooks: it is wrong, it is right, and it depends.

There are several ethical arguments against the practice of faculty selling complimentary textbooks. One venerable argument is that the authors are deprived of royalties, and it is disrespectful of their intellectual work (Warfel 1941). Another is that students do not benefit from the practice because complimentary texts are sold to them as new, either at, or only slightly below, the new book price. The practice also may inflate the cost of all textbooks, as publishers try to compensate for the lost revenue. Finally, faculty members receive the books as a result of their position at a university and these courtesy books should not be exploited as a source of income (Text and Academic Authors Association, 2008).

Faculty who sell complimentary textbooks engage in a wide range of behaviors that are motivated by diverse reasons. These behaviors range from donating all proceeds from the sale of the books to a student travel fund, to the development a complex scheme for obtaining textbooks from publishers and then reselling them for a profit. On this sordid end of the continuum, a professor at Seton Hall University and his secretary ordered about $150,000 in textbooks and resold them for between $20,000 and $30,000 in 1998. The scheme involved about 2,000 books that were resold at a profit between $10 and $15 per book. Based on e-mails they sent to each other as well as a middleman who sold the books for them, all three were charged with fraud. Both the professor and his secretary were fired when the charges were filed. The professor explained his behavior by stating that he was feeling financial pressure from a “messy divorce,” had contracted Hepatitis C and was concerned about the pressures of obtaining tenure (Anderson et al. 2003).

In a study conducted to identify the ethical beliefs and behaviors of psychologists teaching in higher education it was revealed that many educators simply do not know what is right or wrong regarding the resale of complimentary textbooks. The educators were asked the degree to which they engaged in each of 63 behaviors and the degree to which they considered the behavior ethical. The authors defined a difficult judgment as one in which at least 25% of the respondents indicated don’t know/not sure in terms of whether the behavior was ethical. There were seven items that met this criterion, one of which was selling unwanted complimentary textbooks to used book vendors (Tabachnick et al. 1991). A recent blog and comments posted to it demonstrate that the situation still poses a conundrum to faculty. “Prof. Hacker” blogged about faculty receiving more sample books than they can utilize, and sought advice about ethical ways to dispose of the unwanted copies. A number of possible solutions were suggested including selling copies that were unsolicited and requesting that publishers refrain from sending unwanted texts. The numerous and varied comments posted to the blog indicate that faculty either abhor the practice or embrace it (Jones 2010).

In his article titled “The Bookman Cometh” Daniel Ennis categorizes recipients of complimentary texts in three groups (Ennis 2007). The Purists are faculty members who would never sell texts. According to Ennis, the Purists’ position is almost impregnable: examination copies are to be examined, to be considered for potential adoption. The book buyer, to them, is part of the problem. Ennis theorizes that professors become Purists either because they truly believe that doing so would contribute to the rising costs of textbooks or because they view complimentary texts as temptations to be resisted.3 On the other hand, Profligates, another category coined by Ennis, would sell anything not nailed down, “from the anthologies on their desks to instructor’s editions pulled from the communal collections that accumulate in mailrooms across academe.” Profligates view any and all nearby books as potential cash. Ennis’s last and largest category is the Pragmatists. Pragmatists sell some books under some conditions. Usually, they believed that if the book was actually solicited and requested for review, it should be kept. If a book arrived unsolicited, it was destined for the book buyer.4

The Text and Academic Authors Association (TAA) has fought the practice of reselling complimentary texts for several years. In their brochure “Stomp the Comp” TAA asks faculty to think twice before they sell books and points out the reasons the practice is unethical and may lead to higher prices textbook prices for students. When complimentary textbooks are sold, the publisher receives no revenue and the author, the creator of the intellectual property, receives no royalty. The lost sales are treated as a cost of doing business that is ultimately reflected in new book prices. TAA argues that when faculty members sell complimentary copies to book resellers, they are inflicting more damage to the textbook industry than the sale benefits them. Each book sold to book buyers replaces the sale of a new book which pays royalties to authors and earns revenue for publishers, causing the publishers to introduce a new edition more frequently just to recoup some of the loss of funds from those sales (Text and Academic Authors Association, 2008). In addition to publishing a pamphlet discouraging the practice of reselling examination copies of textbooks, TAA makes available a sign for faculty doors informing resellers that the office occupant does not sell complimentary copies.

The sale of sample copies may be particularly bothersome in a business school that seeks accreditation from The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). One of the standards for accreditation states, “The institution or the business programs of the institution must establish expectations for ethical behavior by administrators, faculty, and students” (AACSB, 2010). AACSB believes that ethical behavior is paramount to the delivery of quality business education. Schools are encouraged to develop “codes of conduct” to indicate the importance of proper behavior for administrators, faculty, and students in their professional and personal actions. Additionally, the standards require that a business school curriculum includes learning experiences in ethical understanding and reasoning abilities and a demonstrated understanding of ethical and legal responsibilities in organizations and society (AACSB, 2010). While much research has been done on the effectiveness of ethics courses on increasing the ethical behavior of business students, studies show that course work has little impact on the development of ethics in students. Rather, it is more likely the students learn ethics by the personal examples provided by faculty. At least one study showed that 92% of business graduates believe that one of the most important influences of students’ ethical values development is business professors’ actions (Marshall et al. 1998). The study looked at student perceptions of ethical dilemmas facing faculty and compared it to the perceptions of faculty. Students were asked to rate certain conduct, including the “selling of complimentary textbooks to a used book salesman” and rated them using a five point scale with one being totally ethical and five being extremely unethical. Students rated the practice a 3.48 or moderately to severely unethical, while faculty perceived the same conduct as only a 2.32 or slightly unethical. Unless they ascribe to the long discounted adage “Do what I say, not what I do,” business school faculty may be lowering the ethical bar for their students when they sell sample books.


U.S. state and federal legislation, university policies, and ethical considerations aside, the days of ‘cash for complimentary textbooks’ as we know it may be numbered. Textbooks were once just that—books made from ink, paper, and cardboard. Not anymore. The word “textbook” now encompasses an array of printed materials, media, and technologies aligned to meet the standards and curriculum of the 21st century. Students are attuned to technology; they grew up with it, and they depend on it to study and learn. Ninety-one percent of current college students own their own computer. They want the flexibility to study online, at their own pace, 24/7 and expect state-of the-art technology for instruction and learning (Association of American Publishers, Inc., 2006).

Discussions of the future of digital course materials are now more often about “when” than “if.” Compared with traditional textbooks, the iPad and other devices for reading digital books have the potential to save on textbook costs, to provide students with more information faster, and to reduce the weight of the student’s back pack (Marklein 2010). E-reader devices are getting smaller, lighter and more affordable. The inventory of digital content is expanding. Business models are emerging to support the needs of students, faculty members, and publishers. People are getting more comfortable with new modes of information delivery and the pervasiveness of technology in our lives (Nelson 2008). A variety of publishers now offer more than 3,000 titles as e-books, and new titles are added regularly (Advisory Committee, 2007)., a division of Cengage Learning provides textbooks, eBooks, and eChapters at significant discounts; eBooks are priced 50% below list price and eChapters start as low as $1.99 each, providing students the ability to purchase ‘a la carte’ exactly what they need for courses (echapters, n.d.). When Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, stood at a news conference holding up a new, wider model of the Kindle, it was loaded with a biology textbook—marking the company’s official entrance into the e-textbook market and spurring speculation of an e-textbook revolution (Young 2009).

Many faculty, too, have less interest in traditional textbooks. The future is already here for many professors who are using electronic publishing by hosting classroom Web sites with discussion boards and electronic files (Bronstad 2008). In the past, many faculty supplemented course materials with library reserve items. Today, many more use the Internet to obtain additional materials through open educational resources (OER) and other data in the public domain. OER allow the sharing of digital learning resources at no charge over the Internet, primarily by faculty engaged in course development, collaborative teaching, and research. These resources rely upon open source applications, i.e., software programs that can be shared or distributed and allow professors to modify a textbook electronically. Some professors are asking for more changes in the traditional publication of textbooks by encouraging publishers to consider open-source software which would allow professors to mix and match in the creation their own casebooks. In such cases, the textbook would be free and open with no copyright claims. OER have become increasingly popular among faculty, students, and institutions both within the U.S. and internationally (Advisory Committee, 2007).

Faculty are not only driven by the educational benefits of e-books. Concerns about sustainability have prompted South Korea to aim toward having course materials at all levels of education be fully digital within the next 5 years. The IMS Global Learning Consortium Inc., which develops standards for technology and includes many institutions and companies as members, spawned an international group to develop standards that will help academic institutions, professors, students, and content providers find and exchange digital course materials (IMS Global Learning Consortium, 2011). Other significant national and international collaborative projects are under way on nearly every continent (Nelson 2008).

These legislative constraints, technological innovations and environmental concerns will present an obstacle to faculty who have long profited from the sale of complimentary hard copies. Whether the practice will be abandoned or adapted by faculty and publishers as higher education moves to digital course materials will be revealed in the next chapter that is yet to be written.


Whenever possible the authors used complimentary desk copies received from publishers as references for this article. They are identified in Table 1 along with their resale value.


Interestingly, the authors’ university prohibits solicitors and tradespersons from entering the grounds for the purpose of transacting business with members of the university community with an express exception for, among others, booksellers approved by the Provost and University Police who possess the appropriate ID card.


One of the authors is a Purist who will not sell textbooks under any circumstances, but readily gives them to students or donates them to third world libraries. Her rationale is different from those offered by Ennis and based on a conditional gift theory.


The other author is a Pragmatist. If he asks for the desk copy, he keeps it. If it arrives unsolicited and he does not want to use it as a reference, it is fair game for the next book buyer to come along.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011