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I have recently been receiving number of visits from "academic book buyers" that are looking to buy books that I no longer want. It is never stated outright but they seem to be looking mainly for evaluation copies of textbooks. At least 2 of the cards that I have been given indicate that they are "recycling" the books, although what this means is not clear.

Are these book buyers benefitting or exploiting academia?

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    I do not know, but I treat them suspiciously. I have a colleague who believes that they are buying books from you and then marking them up and selling them back to students. I don't know. – Ben Norris Sep 6 '12 at 1:17
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    @BenNorris: What else would they plausibly be doing with them? – Nate Eldredge Sep 7 '12 at 13:28
  • @NobleP.Abraham thank you for your feedback but I don't feel like the current crop of answers really do answer my question. Two of the answers don't really address my question at all and the top-voted answer, while plausible, is highly speculative. I continue to hope that a SE user familiar with the practice of book-buying will encounter the question and provide a more detailed and specific account of how it affects academia as a whole. – DQdlM Sep 25 '12 at 2:17
  • @KennyPeanuts: Two of the answers don't really address my question at all The statement of your question is pretty nebulous: "Are these book buyers benefitting or exploiting academia?" Its interpretation depends on questions like whether the benefit/exploitation is economic or educational, and whether academia includes both professors and students. Are you simply asking whether the books are being recycled for sale to students? If so, then the answer is trivially obvious, but language such as "legitimate" is misleading, since there is nothing obviously or objectively wrong with recycling. – user1482 Nov 8 '15 at 15:50
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I agree with Yves that they are selling the books back to students. Then I think the economics works out as follows:

The faculty selling the books and the book buyers benefit a lot. The publishers stand to lose some money, since reselling the books hurts the market for new ones. They presumably pass some or all of this cost on to students through price increases, so the students also lose money in aggregate. Now the question becomes what price the books are being resold at. If they are resold cheaply (used book prices), then the students who buy the resold books benefit (they get near-new copies at cheap prices), at the expense of the other students. If the books are resold at new prices, then no students benefit.

  • As explained in my answer, I think there's a crucial flaw in your economic analysis, which is that the incremental cost of production is negligible. – user1482 Sep 9 '12 at 1:04
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    I don't think it's the cost of production that's relevant, but rather the elasticity of demand as a function of price. The question is what determines the price of a textbook. If the price isn't extraordinarily outrageous, many faculty won't take it into account when choosing a textbook. In that case, the only limitation is that the higher the price becomes, the more likely students are not to buy the book (they can use library copies, share with friends, etc.). The publishers do their best to choose the price that maximizes their profits after taking this into account. – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 9 '12 at 2:34
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    Now suppose the recycled evaluation copies amount to 1% of the market. If you assume these copies are sold below list price and end up in the hands of the 1% of the students who are most price-sensitive, then the publishers can neglect these especially price-sensitive students in their calculations. They can then slightly increase the price and still sell to the other students. This won't make up for all their lost profits (so I shouldn't have added the "or all" in my answer), but it will increase the expense for the students who don't get the recycled books. – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 9 '12 at 2:38
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    This model may be oversimplified, and I don't know how textbook publishers actually set prices. Maybe they rely more on intuition than economic analysis, in which case all bets are off... – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 9 '12 at 2:39
  • Your thoughts on economic modeling of the situation are interesting, but I would question a lot of the assumptions. I think it's typical that something like 25-75% of students in a college course simply don't buy the book at all, in any form; this depends partly on money, but also on how heavily the professor emphasizes use of the book. So the most price-sensitive 1% of students simply aren't in the market for a book. I don't think it's a perfectly efficient market, since there are obstacles like shipping costs and poor availability of information. – user1482 Nov 8 '15 at 15:53
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Paper, printing, and binding (PPB) are typically a small fraction of the retail price of the book. It depends on a lot of factors, but as a ballpark figure, if you take the total cost of PPB for the nth edition of a big-selling 3-color college freshman textbook, and divide by the number of copies sold, it's probably ~$10, or ~ 1/10 of the ~$100 retail price.

Not only that, but the incremental price is even smaller. In traditional printing (not print on demand), printing costs are almost all setup costs. Once you have the print run going, the cost of producing one more book is nearly zero. Again, it depends on a lot of factors, but a ballpark figure would be about $1, or ~1% of the retail price.

This explains why publishers are seemingly so wasteful about sending out these unsolicited copies so indiscriminately to professors. It's not wasteful at all, because the incremental cost of printing a book is so low.

I always just pass the books on to students for free. This is good for the student who gets the book, and the money spent by the publisher to produce the book is so small that essentially no cost gets passed on to students. If I give it to a student, and the student then turns around and resells it, I think that's fine, too. It has the effect of undermining the $&%^#& evil publishers' exploitative pricing by helping to maintain a healthy market in used copies, while the nth edition is still in use. Part of their reprehensible scheme for maintaining exploitative prices is to kill off the used marked for edition n by rapidly bringing out edition n+1. The evaluation copy they send me might get out on the used market early enough to get some use before then.

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    Giving away the books to students is worthwhile. Even if this practice does slightly increase the list price, the net effect still favors students (as opposed to faculty or textbook resellers). – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 9 '12 at 2:43
  • Thanks for your thoughts on the subject, but this doesn't shed any light on the practice of the book-buyers that are coming to my office. – DQdlM Sep 9 '12 at 12:41
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There are good chances that they are selling the books back to students. Given the price of academic books, this is is the most profitable way of "recycling" a book.

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I would refrain from doing any business with these buyers, mainly because I find their solicitations annoying. I wouldn't want to encourage them to continue bothering me or my colleagues.

If you want to ask whether it is ethical to resell evaluation copies at all, start a new question.

  • thanks for your thoughts but this doesn't really answer my question. I also find them kind of annoying but if they are benefitting academia as a whole then it might be an annoyance I can tolerate (I find flossing annoying too but I do it). – DQdlM Sep 7 '12 at 14:29
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I would say that these book buyers are legitimate from personal experience, as a student, from Kerala, India. May be the perspective is different in different parts of the globe.

I have seen a lot of second-hand book sellers and street vendors, selling used academic books. I don't think they are making much profits by selling them. They acquire books at no price or at very low prices directly from the users, students or faculties, and sell at one-fourth or even one-sixth of the original price of the book. They manage to do so, because they do not pay taxes to the government (either they are not bound to pay or they simply do not pay). They usually do not have permanent shop for selling the books. Sometimes they acquire books in exchange; the customer exchanges some of their books with the seller, for more useful ones, without money transaction. This is the kind of recycling that happens.

The reason why I argue that they are benefiting the academia is; they market their books, saying that they are used by scholars and has lots of annotations, side markings, simple explanations on the margin etc. I have even heard one fellow saying 'this book was used by a famous rank holder of the university'.

As the demand of used books is large, they are actually fulfilling the customer interest.

The reason for giving away of the books vary; having an extra copy, or the book is too old (some like new books), or the area of interest has changed or one has moved to higher class.

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