Faculty Books Recycling is a company that takes the complimentary copies of textbooks that publishers send professors, resells those comp copies to students, and makes a profit on the transaction.
Faculty Books does everything possible to make professors feel that selling - or giving away - comp copies is an ethical thing to do. In their emails soliciting textbooks from faculty (sample below), they remind potential donors of the good that textbook recycling does. It puts textbooks into students' hands at a low price. Those professors who choose to sell rather than give away their comp copies are told, "the money could sponsor a student event, be donated to charity, or spent however you like."
I don't sell my comp copies - I lend them out, put them on reserve in the library (if it's a text I'm using), give them away, or just keep them on my bookshelf. This feels to me like the right thing to do (and, truth be told, I don't get sent a lot of comp copies anyway).
But is refusing to participate in the market the best choice from a moral point of view?
This article in the Journal of Business Ethics examines professorial perceptions of the morality of textbook selling, and the circumstances under which professors think it's right to sell textbooks. The folks at Faculty Books must have read this article, because they do everything they can to frame textbook selling as a moral choice by, for example, pointing out that the money can be used to fund student activities. But what I'm interested in here is an ethical debate, the underlying moral principles, not mere perceptions.
The New York Times' Ethicists column recently debated the morality of selling freely given hand-me-downs, and came to no firm conclusion. One ethicist argued that selling gifts violates social norms of generosity, and thus is unethical. This argument, it seems to me, confounds social norms and morals - moreover, I am not sure that the relationship between textbook publishers and the rest of the world is governed by a norm of generosity. Another ethicist argued that a gift is a gift, to be disposed of by the recipient as he or she so chooses. However textbook publishers not uncommonly print "examination copy, not for re-sale" on complimentary copies - the "gifts are unconditional" argument hardly seems to apply either.
Another discussion board takes up the question here. The consensus seems to be that the morality of textbook selling is governed by the answer to one question: is it good for students or bad for students? Does the professorial practice of selling comp copies lead to higher prices for students overall, or not?
My intuition is that reselling comp copies would tend to lower the price of textbooks, not increase them. The presence of a vibrant second-hand textbook market tends to increase the elasticity of demand for new texts. Publishers can't charge as much for new texts if second texts are readily available. Anything that strengths the second-hand market - including reselling comp copies - would be expected to decrease the price of new texts.
What about the argument that sending complementary copies to professors increases costs, and those cost increases are inevitably passed onto students in the form of higher prices? Prices are determined at the margin, by firms balancing off marginal revenues and marginal costs. Marketing and promotion is a fixed cost of textbook production, so does not affect marginal costs, thus should not effect prices (unless marketing and promotion costs are so large that they prevent firms from entering into the market). Moreover, if professors start reselling their comp copies, publishers might think twice about sending out so many - and that would tend to lower costs, not increase them.
As Hayek (and Rowe) point out, markets are a way of transmitting information, and conveying goods and services to those who value them the most. Surely the sum of consumer surplus and producer surplus - and thus social welfare - is maximized the books are put on the market, and sold to those who were willing to pay for them.
So - there it is - the ethical argument for re-selling your comp copies.
I still won't do it.
p.s. here's the relevant email from the book resellers.
You may or may not already be involved in our text book recycling program.
If this is the first time you hear from us; Faculty Books Recycling redistributes
These are texts that publishers often send unsolicited and sometimes remain
In the next few days I would like to set up a time for ____ to visit
Professor donations of these shelf copies provide the students with the lowest
Please propose a time and date which is convenient to meet with you, and we