Faucher: Capturing the captive market

A U.S. literary publisher once showed me a query letter from a prospective author who also happened to be a professor in a master’s of fine arts program. The pitch seemed fairly standard, following the usual formula of a punchy synopsis, an eye-catching quote and an indication of the ideal readership. All seemed above-board until I came upon the author’s biggest selling point:

“I make my books required reading in my courses, and so therefore can guarantee X number of sales per semester.”

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FAUCHER

The tone of the sentence called to my mind the image of the shrewd, unscrupulous opportunist. The promise of steady sales may be music to a publisher’s ears, but herein lurks the question: Is it appropriate for professors to assign their own books as required reading in their courses?

I began asking around to other publishers if this was a common or outlier scenario. One publisher told me, “It is not an uncommon practice, especially in creative-writing programs where the faculty members are also seeking to establish or enhance their literary careers.”

On one hand, for a professor to make his or her book required reading seems immodest and a bit parasitic. Yet, on the other hand, it may be justified if the professor has written a scholarly text on a unique subject that has not been sufficiently covered by another scholar, thus filling a gap.

In making one’s own book required reading in a course, this might present a borderline issue, for one could say it is not acceptable to take advantage of the academic institution for self-serving purposes. Perhaps a more scathing indictment would be in doing so, this artificially creates a captive market of students who have no choice but to buy the book if they are to progress in that particular course.

Getting a little profit from one’s book sales may simply be considered an honourary perk of the profession, or it might be an abuse of power and privilege.

An internationally recognized expert in a particular field might be able to justify assigning his or her book, but even this might prove daunting for students who – if required to produce an essay on the book’s content – might be judged on how closely their interpretation matches that of the author’s intention.

Can there be a fair and objective assessment of the text under these circumstances?

It might be evident the professor endorses the views held in the assigned book, but it might prove awkward and uncomfortable for students to even think of critiquing it. However, those who rely on this argument leave themselves open to the objection that the same can be said of the professor’s lecture content as well.

It may be too simplistic to embrace the image of the professor generating massive profits from the sales of his or her books when, in reality, the real profit is being made by the publishers. Despite the optics of a professor ‘profiting’ from assigning his or her books, a reality adjustment is needed.

Unless one’s book has been massively adopted, the royalties may be insignificant. It might also be the case the professor had noble intentions, noting the current selection of books on the subject were perceived to be deficient somehow, and the professor made the effort to rectify the situation in writing his or her own book. What is frequently obscured from view when this debate boils over is the possibility the professor has assigned a single text that sufficiently covers a range of material that would otherwise require a student to buy several books.

To take the charitable view, we might assume most professors who assign their own books do so ethically and with good intentions. It might be assumed said professors have done their due diligence in ensuring of all the books available to use for a course, theirs was the best fit.

And, to be fair, there are plenty of more lucrative means of making money than in leveraging the syllabus as a book sales driver.

If the reason for assigning one’s own book is for the benefit of the students and not strictly self-serving, then it is not a ‘self-dealing transaction.’ However, there is no doubt a slim minority of professors have less noble motives in assigning their own books, but such individuals do so by risking their own reputation; I have faith students and colleagues have a keen sense of smell when it comes to detecting the ethical legitimacy of any who assign their own books.

The problem is far from epidemic, and certainly the right to assign our own books is an important part of academic freedom – just so long as this freedom is balanced with responsibility.

Kane X. Faucher, a Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor, is the author of several novel, most recently The Infinite Library.