June 21, 2003

'An Interesting Amount of Money:' Textbook Kickbacks and Payoffs

James Williams received his letter last fall. 'Dear Professor,' it began. The form letter went on to offer him $4,000 for reviewing an introductory history textbook. 'I thought, "That's an interesting amount of money,"' says the associate professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University.

Mr. Williams filled out a form online, as the letter requested. A few days into the application process, however, he began to feel uncomfortable. When it became clear that in order to receive the money, he would have to require his students to buy the book, he backed out. He had 'several ethical issues' with accepting money to adopt a textbook, he told the company.

-- Thomas Bartlett, "Selling Out: A Textbook Example"

Four thousand dollars to review a college history textbook certainly is "an interesting amount of money." While James Williams -- much to his credit -- had "ethical issues" with accepting payment from the publisher in exchange for requiring his student to buy the book, for some of his colleagues this quid pro quo apparently represented an offer they couldn't, or wouldn't, refuse:

His colleague, Amy Staples, received the same letter. The assistant professor of history had similar reservations. But the lure of the $4,000 -- 'twice what I make in a month take-home pay,' she says -- was too strong. 'I bought a house in June, and I needed a washer and dryer. I had decided to use a textbook and -- poof! -- all the stars aligned and I got this letter in the mail.'

When asked whether she understands that she was adopting a textbook for money, Ms. Staples pauses for a moment. 'Yeah,' she says.

Well, major household appliances are expensive, so I suppose there was not enough money left over to hire a media consultant who might have advised Ms. Staples not to make the above admission to a reporter from the Chronicle. Anyway, the Chronicle reports that "most of the professors who accepted money from North West, including Ms. Staples, say they now wish they had not."

Meanwhile, North West Publishing

denies that the payments are tied to textbook adoption. As proof, Jason James, the textbook-review manager, said he could provide the names of professors who were paid for reviews but did not adopt a book. Despite repeated requests, he never did turn over such a list. The company has refused to answer other questions about its business practices.

They make the same denial on their website, where North West Publishing's "US History Reviewer's FAQ" explains why the compensation is so high:

Q: Why is the reviewer's compensation so high?

A: In the past we offered less compensation for our textbook reviewers and found that the reviews did not reflect an in-depth knowledge of the book's actual content. In many cases it was apparent that the reviewer hadn't spent enough time with the book and his/her review was not much help to our editorial team. As a result we've increased the reviewer's compensation which affords us the opportunity to be more selective during the application process and ultimately receive more useful feedback in our steady commitment to create the highest quality course material available.

Indeed. We all know how difficult it is to get an academic to write a decent review for anything less than 4K. But if professors are going to accept bribes generous compensation from publishers in exchange for textbook adoption, shouldn't their students be informed of this practice?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 21, 2003 11:57 AM

I agree that the practice is dishonest. I was offered a couple of opportunities to participate in such paid "surveys" and declined.

I will say, having both been a professorial reviewer of textbooks and now an editor with a publishing house, that getting quality reviews is difficult. Oftentimes, the standard review forms are rather vague and encourage answers that are relatively worthless. There were times when I got like $150 or $200 to fill out a review on a book and spent maybe an hour looking through the book for my impression. I even asked the textbook rep if my rather broad comments were adequate, and was always told they were. Of course, most profs probably spend less time than that looking at a book to decide whether to adopt it, so that may indeed be a fair "review."

Posted by: James Joyner at June 21, 2003 12:29 PM

Yet another inequity: adjuncts never get kick-back offers like this! Or maybe I am doing something wrong...

Posted by: Ghost of a flea at June 21, 2003 12:42 PM

"Yet another inequity: adjuncts never get kick-back offers like this!"

Actually, the article cites one adjunct who took the 4K. You're probably in the wrong field: switch to US history and you may hear from North West.

In fact, my experience with textbook publishers suggests that they don't dicriminate against adjuncts. To the contrary, some of them make a point of stressing their accessibility to the adjunct instructor (eg, at least one -- can't remember which one at the moment -- has a lot of adjunct-related articles and "resources" on its website). Makes sense, given that adjuncts often teach large, survey-type courses, which is where the textbook publishers make their money.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 21, 2003 12:55 PM

Yeah, $4000 is unreasonable. But I'm not sure I dislike the idea of being paid not even to "review" (i.e., comment to a wider audience) but simply to become acquainted with a book. I very rarely use text-books: I think most are overpriced and boring, but if they want to pay for my attention long enough to decide whether to adopt, more power to them. Why should doctors get all the free lunches from pharmo dealers; I want on the gravy train.

So, here's a question: Last year I proposed setting up an Amazon account for the department so that we could recoup the 5% they offer. This money would have been used directly for student enrichment (to attract outside speakers, most likely), and, naturally, students could choose to buy the book wherever they wished. But with 1000+ students each semester buying around $200 worth of textbooks, 5% is not small change. (We abandoned it because Amazon choked on the volume!) Is this evil? The students didn't seem to think so, since Amazon often offered better prices than our own (eFollet run) campus bookstore.

And, how is profiting from an adoption really that different from assigning your own book to a class, a fairly common practice. I TAed for a professor who used his own book every year. It was, I think, one of the better texts in the field, but it was pricey (~$80), and his annual update rarely exceeded a thousand words. The royalties were relatively small, but he certainly got a kickback for assigning his own book. Some of our adjuncts take this even further, by selling bound versions of their written notes at a mark-up.

I've suggested to the campus Starbucks that if they give me free drinks, I'd place them prominently on the podium during lectures. I'm currently seeking other endorsement deals.

Posted by: Alex Halavais at June 21, 2003 01:10 PM

"Yeah, $4000 is unreasonable. But I'm not sure I dislike the idea of being paid not even to 'review' (i.e., comment to a wider audience) but simply to become acquainted with a book."

But where is the publisher who would pay a professor $4000 to become acquainted with a book? (out of business is where the publisher would be, I suspect, if it adopted this practice). The $4000 is directly tied to making the book a required purchase for students (though the publisher denies this, the professors interviewed for the article make it clear that this was the deal: if you don't choose the book for your own course, you don't get the check from the publisher).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 21, 2003 01:29 PM

*snicker* You'd have to buy super-deluxe-top-of-the-line Maytags to spend $4K on a washer and dryer. Jeez. In many parts of the country, that's a down payment on a house.

Yes, the business stinks (and, my God, that woman isn't tenured; what is she thinking going on the record like that?). I seem to be altogether in the wrong profession for large, expensive textbooks, so perhaps it's easy for me to say that -- but while I would take money for a review (my time is damn valuable), I wouldn't take it in exchange for requiring students to purchase a book. That's clearly an ethics violation.

Now that I think about it, the publishers are probably trying to cut their losses from professors switching to the sort of password-protected electronic-reserve readers I usually assemble for my classes. "Custom publishing" without anyone getting any royalties whatsoever, except that I then have to deal with students who are incapable of using Adobe Acrobat.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at June 21, 2003 06:28 PM

Naomi: This is mostly what I do, and the real problem is dealing with campus computing in the libraries and elsewhere. Since our U doesn't charge for printing, everyone tries to print out the readings for the semester during the first week, yielding a mess.

IA: Wasn't suggesting $4000 was the number--I'm not sure I understand how they can do that and stay in business, even if it is pure payola--but I am suggesting that there is a sweet spot publishers could hit that might make sense. The textbook I used last semester yielded just over $10K in sales. As long as I am complicit in fleecing the students ($90 for a text book? Get real!), I should at least be reaping the rewards. I want my kickbacks, darnit.

Posted by: Alex Halavais at June 21, 2003 07:02 PM

Ethics? Did someone mention ethics? Poohey on your ethics. Take all you can when you can.

Posted by: E. Levinas at June 21, 2003 07:34 PM

Yes--it's hard for adjuncts to maintain a high standard of professional ethics when the entire profession looks like a scam, when you've been lied to and cheated and treated like rubbish. Why not take what you can get when you can get it?

But where do we stop? Why not take bribes from students for higher grades? Why not sell advance copies of our exams to student intermediaries? I don't want to sound like a Pollyanna, but don't most criminals use self-pity to rationalize their behavior? "I've been screwed all my life. What chance did I ever have?"

I wonder what other kinds of legal but unethical activities can be devised to help us all make more money? Lots of Swiftian potential here . . .

Posted by: Thomas Hart Benton at June 21, 2003 09:56 PM

"Why not sell advance copies of our exams to student intermediaries?"

Ah, Mr Benton, you've got a genius for evil. But why stifle your esprit with these unnecessary and unwarranted scruples? I'll bet you were an altar boy, weren't you?...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 21, 2003 11:19 PM

Well, there was a class where the teacher said "Look -- I don't want to teach this class except for the money, you don't want to take the class except for the grade." So how about we all go home and at the end of the term everyone gets an A?" But it's not satire, it really happened some time ago. In New Jersey.

Posted by: zizka at June 22, 2003 12:45 AM

Zizka, I'm not familiar with this story. Details?..

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 22, 2003 08:51 AM

Yes, details, please. Did the person get away with it? Did they get re-hired the next semester? Can I do it? Oh man, that would be beautiful!

Posted by: Chris at June 22, 2003 10:07 AM

It was about ten years ago, and they didn't hget away with it because it got national media. It was a teacher-certification course.

I'm racking my brains, but I don't THINK that the college was located in "Urban Legend, N.J."

Your zero level of certification is just that, and when recently the failing students sued to graduate, that's the way they were talking -- as if it was a $ for certification deal and the school had to deliver. Market education, you know.

When I was an undergrad I took three ed courses (ESL), and they were pointless, make-work, do-what-you're-told classes. They were not easy because it was hard to see the point.

A friend of mine with a PhD is going through the same program, and is having the additional problem of prejudice against PhD's. Ed. PhD's do NOT think that they are second rate; they think that they know something practical, real, and scientific, whereas liberal arts PhD's have their heads in the clouds. In my non-ed classes you could sort of tell the ed majors because they were budgeting: "At PCC you can fulfill this requirement for $60 less and only buy one $30 book and write one 5-page paper".

Posted by: zizka at June 22, 2003 10:45 AM

Given that every semester I am inundated with *free* sample copies of textbooks to consider and hopefully order for my classes, I have to say any textbook that its publisher has to bribe me to adopt is bound to be crap.

That said, I have often wondered by academic book reviews are not offered any more compensation than that "line on a c.v." (I'm currently reviewing a book that is useful and informative but somewhat boring, so I may be prejudiced about this at the moment.)

Posted by: Rana at June 22, 2003 02:23 PM

That should be "wondered _why_" Erg.

Posted by: Rana at June 23, 2003 01:14 AM

hello.i am an instuctor at Penn State University. i am interested ingetting involved in doing textbook reviews. where would i begin to learn about such opportunities?

Posted by: gz at October 24, 2003 06:22 AM