Should College Professors Sell Books They Get for Free?

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There’s no easy answer to this question of whether faculty should sell books that publishers give them for free. I base my “no” answer on experience. I am a university professor. I sold several books I received free from publishers and felt a little slimed.

I can’t put my finger on why, but I think I took advantage of publishers’ honest attempts to market their books and cheated authors out of their royalities. I sold something I did not earn. I also think my unease had to do with missed opportunities to do something good for someone else.

Maybe the book buyer felt a little sleazy, too, and we affected each other. Because of that slimy feeling, I will never sell free books again.

When publishers give away books, I believe they are making an honest attempt to market their books. They want me and people like me to take at look at their products and buy them for courses I teach. They may also hope that I’ll tell other instructors about the book.

Book authors hope that giving away copies will increase sales. Not only does this affirm the worth of their efforts, but they also earn money from royalties, two big boosts to morale.

Selling something freely offered feels dishonest. Sure, publishers don’t lose money when they give me a book. The price of the books they sell takes into account the copies they hand out. Authors lose money, though. Writing books is hard work, harder than I ever would have thought until I started writing them myself. It seems out of whack that I would make money on a free copy and the authors who put in hard labor do not. If feels as if I am taking advantage of both authors and publishers. In short, the book is not mine to sell.

Now, I give free books away when I don’t need or want them. For example, this summer, a publisher sent me two copies of a text book that I already had and had ordered for a course I was teaching. I told a colleague about have these two extra books. She said, “I want one.” I gave it to her. She is teaching a pre-requisite for the course I teach. I was glad she now is familiar with the book I use that builds on the course she teaches.

I gave the second book to a social service agency whose work is in the areas that the book covers. The case managers in that agency now have an excellent reference. The next time another professional diagnoses a child with oppositional disorder, for example, they can refer to the text to see descriptions that professional groups have endorsed.

In the future, I will also give these free books to libraries, set them out on a table in the departmental lobby and label them “free,” or will hold a lottery for students.

I don’t like feeling as if I profited from someone else’s labor. My position as a faculty member and potential buyer does not entitle me to do this. I like feeling as if I have done something for other people.


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