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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Friday, January 21, 2022

Writing the book, teaching the class: The difference in how instructors use their earnings

At the first lecture for Political Science 103, before explaining the United Nations or mentioning Greece’s economic troubles, Professor Jon Pevehouse announces that he donates the royalties he makes off of UW-Madison students who buy new copies of his textbook to the Red Cross.

While instructors like Pevehouse who require their own textbooks say the book is ideal for their class, they differ on what to do with profits they make off their students.

Faculty members must disclose outside earnings related to their work on campus, but UW-Madison has no overarching policy telling instructors who use their own textbooks how to use their profits, giving UW-Madison professors a relatively flexible reign.

This differs from other Big 10 schools like University of Minnesota, which, according to a statement by the American Association of University Professors, does not allow professors to profit off their students unless it is certified by their respective department chair. There are similar policies at Virginia Tech and Cleveland State University, among others.

Still, UW-Madison’s College of Letters and Science outlines suggestions for instructors who require students to purchase their material, such as donating royalties to charity, or keeping copies on reserve for free at campus libraries.

The policy also emphasizes that it is in the students’ “best interest” for professors to require their own material, provided it is the best available.

Pevehouse’s book, which cost $130 this fall, is used in 30 countries and many experts in the field consider it the premier International Relations textbook written after the end of the Cold War.

While he recognizes the advantages of knowing the book front to back, Pevehouse wrestled with the thought of benefitting financially from his students.

To offset this, Pevehouse donates all the profits from UW-Madison students, currently at $6 to $7 per new book, which he thinks helps justify using his book for the class.

“You’re requiring students to spend money on something that’s going to end up in your pocket … I do the best I can to figure out how many books are bought by students here at UW,” Pevehouse said.

As students increasingly bear the burden of rising tuition each year, textbook prices have also risen over the last decade, which Pevehouse attributes to publishing corporations buying out other companies and consolidating the textbook market.

The Financial Aid Office estimates that on average, students spend $1,190 per year on textbooks and materials. That number is approximately one ninth of yearly tuition for Wisconsin residents.

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But profits for the textbooks’ authors are meager at best.

While each book is different, most authors earn approximately 8 to 12 percent of their book’s total price, though that varies depending on the author’s name recognition and experience.

Professor Kristin Hunt, who teaches Theatre 120, received a $200 check for the custom reader she created to save students from purchasing multiple books. But rather than pocketing the money, she used it for a teaching assistants’ party.

According to the National Association of College Stores, a non-profit trade organization that represents the college retail industry, slightly more than 21 percent of each book’s list price goes to the store selling it. The rest largely goes to the publisher.

But Pete Anderson, the lecturer for Nutritional Science 132, Nutrition Today, keeps the royalties he gets for his custom textbook. He has reissued the book six times since publishing the first edition in 2006, adding chapters every summer.

The print book costs around $140, and is currently only used at UW-Madison. He said the book is finished unless he can convince his publisher to produce it for other universities to use.

Anderson said he does not find fault with keeping the royalties, currently sitting between 10 and 12 percent, because he writes it over the summer when he is not earning income from the university. Since he is a lecturer, he only works nine months out of the year and brings in a smaller salary than a professor would.

“The book is kind of an extension of my teaching … I think it supports my class better,” Anderson said. “It benefits me more than if I used some other book, but it’s all the same to the student. It’s more or less the same dollar amount to students so I don’t really see a problem.”

But some students, like sophomore Nicole Lyons who took his class, found his text troublesome.

“I think it’s overkill that every year a new book comes out,” Lyons said.

Because it is updated yearly, students such as Lyons typically cannot sell the book back to the bookstore at the end of the spring semester. She said she would have felt better about buying a textbook if Anderson donated the royalties.

While some “instructor authors” differ on what to do with royalties after requiring their books, Professor John Hawks, who teaches Introduction to Biological Anthropology, has done away with textbooks all together.

At the beginning of the fall 2011 semester he restructured his class format to a more customized one by switching from using a textbook to posting lecture and lab readings, 80 percent of which he wrote, to a free online blog.

“I don’t like the idea that students are really paying so much for texts when you can make free material available to them when it is almost as good,” Hawks said.

Lyons, who also took Hawks’ class, said his class format was affordable and simple.

“You didn’t have to buy anything but you still got his knowledge,” she said. “It’s more to the point of what they really want you to know instead of having to wade through all of the extra stuff.”

In 2002, Hawks tried writing a textbook on human evolution, but the more specialized book he intended to write was too narrow for the more marketable and introductory book his publisher wanted. He said publishers often ask authors to add extra components to the text which drives up the cost.

“There has been a lot of textbook bloat, publishers adding bloat, just to justify high prices,” Hawks said. “They have a marketed mind.”

Authors and publishers can have a shaky relationship as authors have limited control over their book once it is mass produced. Pevehouse said one year he and his co-author withheld the manuscripts from their publisher because they thought the publisher was increasing the price too quickly.

While Hawks said his publisher pressured him to write books that are more introductory, and therefore sellable, others, like Professor Karen Strier, were pressured to come out with editions more frequently.

Strier, the author of her textbook for Primate Behavioral Ecology, an intermediate Anthropology class, writes a new edition every four years. She said she wrote new editions when changes within her field made her old editions obsolete, although her publisher wanted her to write more frequently.

But she said she was motivated to write it as a service to a field that was low in literature.

“It was never about making money,” Strier said.

And the royalties she receives from UW-Madison students are next to nothing because her class is offered every two years, meaning the newest edition has already been on the market. UW-Madison students are typically able to buy used versions.

Strier said, as a researcher for a small field, writing a necessary, more-focused text makes her book a “big fish in a small pond.” She did not want to write a more introductory book that already existed but find a “niche” that more specialized classes could use.

Strier said the book helps keep her lecture organized, and it challenges her to think of new material to make sure lectures are “value added.”

Strier is currently completing a new edited volume she hopes will be used nationally. All profits will go to conservation efforts, the book’s topic.

For Hawks, it comes down to the best way to give students the material they need.

“I would like to find a way to make [class material] cheap or free for their students. I have the power to assign it to them,” Hawks said. “It’s really a question of what’s the best way to get things out there.

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