COLUMN: Don't worry about professors requiring students buy their books

Monday, February 8, 2010 | 12:15 p.m. CST; updated 6:31 p.m. CST, Monday, February 8, 2010

This semester, 24 or more MU professors required students to spend what I estimate to be about $158,557.44 on textbooks which those professors themselves had written. This is one conflict of interest about which I couldn't be less concerned.



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The American Association of Publishers estimates that 2 out of every 3 textbooks sold are new, and that on these new textbooks, about 11.6 percent of the price is paid to the authors as royalties. Based on those numbers, students bought 1,992 of their professor's own books this semester, earning them a collective total of $13,375.31 in royalties.

(Even that number's a little high, because royalties and proportion of used book sales vary, as does the amount of income that's split with co-authors and whatnot, but unfortunately I'm not able to subdivide it any further without breaking into the offices of the world's major academic publishers and stealing confidential accounting data.)

Why do I know all this? Because I walked into the university bookstore and compared the assigning professor's name with the author list of every single book on the shelves. I only counted required books, and I didn't count course packets or other non royalty-generating materials.

Ten hours, 3,000 books and 17 awkward responses to "sir, are you sure I can't help you find anything?" later, I emerged with a decent list. What I didn't emerge with is any sort of righteous indignation. 

In between writing titles in my notebook, I had plenty of time to think about the issue. Especially in sections like "ancient Greek philosophy," where I could put my eyes on autopilot and skip across author names like "Plato" and "Socrates," as I was fairly certain that if they were lecturing at MU this semester, I'd have heard about it. Somewhere between Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, I decided that while it may sometimes look a little sketchy, assigning your own books just isn't a huge deal.

MU's conflict of interest and disclosure regulations require that, in such cases, "royalties arising from the purchase of the assigned materials are returned to the University of Missouri, another educational institution, a charitable organization, or a not-for-profit foundation."

Unfortunately, we have no idea if that's happening. The university does not have any formal system for tracking these royalties and relies instead upon individual departments and the honor system. Professors are good, well-educated people, and I have no doubt they're doing the right thing. And even if they aren't, it's not like they're going to be able to afford to reanimate an army of giant prehistoric beavers on their private island or anything.

Those 25 professors who assigned their own books? The 24 of them for which information is publicly available earn a combined 2.24 million in 2008, for an average of $93,376.92 a year each. Actual pay ranged from $46,331 to $177,706. Split 24 ways, the puny $13,375.31 in royalties would barely move the needle.

Those royalties wouldn't even make or break students, the one group of people who make more "we're so poor we can't even afford secondhand dirt" jokes than professors do. MU estimates the average in-state undergraduate spends about $20,600 per year. That includes $8,500 in class fees and $1,080 for textbooks.

Even if every professor pooled their royalties from this semester into a single scholarship fund, they'd barely cover the $10,300 a single in-state student will spend during the same time period.

Under Gov. Jay Nixon's proposed budget, MU's going to lose $10 million in state funding for the next fiscal year. That means that, even in the unlikely event that all 29 professors poured their royalties straight into the general fund, the university would still be $9,986,624.69 in the hole.

And, putting aside the numbers (which is pretty easy to do, given their size), there's the simple matter that many professors are perfectly justified in assigning their own books. Many classes in which professors self-assign are the sort of specialized grad offerings only given because the professor is a leader in that field. And as the leader in their field, that professor has presumably authored its defining text.

Epilogue: I e-mailed every MU professor who appeared to be assigning their own texts; replies ranging from "thoughtful and amusing" to "defiant" have already started to come in. Once they've all said their piece, I'll try to address it in a future column.

Andrew Van Dam is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. His wife is applying for PhD programs now.

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Ellis Smith February 9, 2010 | 11:39 a.m.

Interesting article. My knowledge of the subject concerns one introductory mycology text, multi-authored and published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The fourth edition is currently being sold and a fifth edition is in preparation.

None of the authors is associated with MU, therefore no "give back" provision applies. From what I know of the financial arrangements and profits for the first four editions, none of the authors is about to get rich, even though the textbook is widely used in teaching mycology. Preparing each new edition requires much time and a great deal of work.

There are definitely non-monetary reasons for authoring a textbook. Peer recognition is certainly one of them.

(Report Comment)
Barbara Leonhard February 9, 2010 | 8:09 p.m.

Thank you for the time spent on the research, but how did you figure the royalties? Authors don't get royalties on the list price; they get paid royalties on the distributor price of the book, which is around 40% lower than the list price. [The publishing companies pay the authors royalties; bookstores don't]. It sounds like you figured the royalties on the list price. If the math in the article is wrong, then the authors' profits are much lower than the figures you reported.
Moreover, the bookstore has to return books that are not sold, so any royalties that would have been paid to authors are subtracted from the total [based on new books sold].
Another factor you don't consider is the used book trade, which is quite healthy for obvious reasons. Authors don't get any royalties off used books sold. In fact, they lose money.
Furthermore, students can resell their books, getting some of their money back. Thus, the cost of textbooks is actually less than the amount stated in the article.
The university realizes that having professors author textbooks enhances the universities reputation, attracts students, and thus offsets by far the meager royalties authors earn on their textbooks.

(Report Comment)
Brian Heffernan February 13, 2010 | 12:19 p.m.

Good article. I'm just upset that I somehow finished my schooling without ever taking Wayne H. Brekhus' "Peacocks, Chameleons, Centaurs" course.

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