On Campus

The curse of free books

Samples not only pile up, they also cause ethical dilemmas

To those in any other job, free books probably sound like a perk. In my job, they’re more of a curse.

Yes, we professors get free books. The publishers just send them to us. We don’t have to ask, and we don’t have to pay for them. They just show up in the mail from time to time. To a book loving lay person, I know, this must sound like paradise: manuscripts from Heaven.

But, of course, there’s always a catch. The catch is that the vast majority of these free books are plain old textbooks. Publishers’ representatives see that you are teaching, say, Introduction to Literature, so they send you the new Intro to Lit textbook that they’ve just published, hoping you will order it for your students the next time you teach the course. Sitting on my desk right now, in fact, are three tidy volumes of poetry, fiction, and drama, from the good folks at Nelson Education. In other words, the free books  are not books one has been dying to read; they’re mostly the latest version of books one has already read.

The problem then becomes what to do with all these books. I suppose I could just throw them away, but trashing a book outright feels wrong to me. I’ve given a few away to students, but most students don’t want extra textbooks any more than I do.

Or I could sell them.

Believe it or not, whether to sell one’s sample copies is actually a minor controversy in university circles. On one hand, selling such books is easy because book dealers come right to your office door, offering cash on the spot. From the prof’s point of view, the deal is nearly perfect: get rid of something that cost you nothing, that you don’t want anyway, and you get paid for it. It’s like someone coming to your house and giving you twenty bucks to clean your basement.

Publishers, of course, hate this practice. When I worked in publishing, I heard constant complaints about professors who sold their sample copies. The books, they said, are provided as a professional courtesy, and professors who turn around and sell them are betraying the good will of the publisher who sent them. This is why, I often heard, publishers have to keep bringing out new editions, and why textbooks are so expensive. Because the used-book market — driven partly by sold sample copies — drains away the profitability of  any book after a couple of years. From this point of view, selling one’s sample copies hurts students because it ultimately makes new books cost more.

I take a middle position. If publishers don’t want me to sell the books, they shouldn’t send me books I haven’t asked for. It takes time for me to collect the parcel, open it, and then find a place to put it. In short, if they are going to inconvenience me with heavy junk mail, I don’t see a problem cutting into their bottom line. But I make exceptions. I never sell a book I’ve specifically asked for, for one thing. And I try to avoid selling books from smaller publishers who have a  hard enough time competing as it is.

I hope the good people at Nelson Education understand.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.