'Custom' Textbooks Raise Money -- and Questions of Ethics

July 10, 2008

The market for custom textbooks has taken off — it accounted for 12 percent of all new college-textbook sales in 2006 — and publishers aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits. Academic departments at some colleges can get as much as $3 to $10 per book in royalties, according to today’s Wall Street Journal. Some bigger departments score deals that earn them tens of thousands of dollars in royalties on textbooks they help assemble.

Promoters of custom textbooks say they provide students with a better-tailored set of materials and give departments a handy source of extra income. Royalties can help foot the bill for otherwise hard-to-finance activities: sending graduate students to conferences, for instance, or giving awards for undergraduate teaching.

For students, though, there’s a big catch. Custom textbooks can cost as much as regular textbooks do, and they’re harder to resell. That makes them more appealing to publishers, who don’t like seeing their sales undercut by the used-book market.

Some departments and universities — as well as state and federal lawmakers — have begun to question the ethics of the practice. Pennsylvania State University recently ended a deal with Pearson under which it got $10 for each copy of a custom economics textbook its students bought. The university didn’t feel comfortable “making money on students like that,” Susan Welch, dean of the college of liberal arts, told the Journal.

Such deals are likely to get far more scrutiny in coming months. The Journal noted that legislation in Congress would require fuller disclosure of how textbooks in general are priced. And New York’s attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, fresh off the student-loan scandal, has begun a conflict-of-interest investigation into the relationship between colleges and their vendors, including book publishers. —Jennifer Howard