February 17, 2015

More dispatches from textbook sales, a.k.a. the Deadwood of publishing


“”Bama Bilked By Book Bandit” (image via Wikipedia)

The Hunstville Times reports on an instructor recent running afoul of the authorities at the University of Alabama.

Charles Christopher Horton was indicted on a felony ethics charge for requiring that students buy a textbook which he himself was publishing.

Horton allegedly profited $378,022.99 by requiring students in his computer sciences classes to purchase their textbooks through a company he owned, according to a grand jury indictment filed in the Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court in October 2014.

Horton was arrested Thursday, Feb. 5, and released from the Tuscaloosa County Jail on a $10,000 bond.

Horton, who stopped teaching at UA in Fall of 2013, was in violation of an anti-graft state law. The Times doesn’t mention specifics on the text, though a Bookwire search shows three books published by Horton’s erstwhile publishing concern, The Josserand Company LLC.

Professors are often the authors of their assigned texts, but if Horton indeed was double-dipping by publishing it too, it’s a very clear conflict of interest well outside the law. Horton taught at UA for almost a decade and was well-liked by his students; The Josserand Company, meanwhile, has only existed as of 2011.

This adds Horton to the long list of parties with a vested interest in college textbook sales who aren’t concerned with cutting ethical corners. We previously covered the story of Bob Armstrong, who began scamming the school system in which he used to each, not to mention Amazon’s latest power grab on college campuses.

College textbook prices are a problem. Senators Al Franken and Dick Durbin put a bill before Congress in late 2013 that would subsidize “open education resources”, i.e. free digital textbooks. Unsurprisingly, the bill’s just been bobbing in committee ever since. But this is the why colleges partner with Amazon, and why B&N College is seeing minuscule but actual growth, which is that demand for textbooks is relatively inelastic. OERs are a logical but highly uncommercial approach to this problem.

When you decide to go into business and take a shot at the American Dream, book publishing is certainly a gamble. This is a business with with relentlessly low profits, and you’d be making a product that doesn’t slot nicely into the fashionable disrupt-first-address-ethics-violations-later mindset so popular amongst entrepreneurs

But if you’re looking closely, maybe you notice that college students are still buying textbooks; quite a lot of them, in fact. Elementary education creates constant demand, and college enrollment is on the rise—as are textbook prices. If you’re fortunate enough to carve out a foothold on that demand, even if it’s not technically legal, it’s got to be tempting to continue until you can’t.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the continued intersection of criminality and academic publishing for as long as those on the supply side with the power to resist digitization and open content continue to do so. It’s worth noting that on the week of Horton’s indictment, the UA Student Government proposed a resolution that the college begin using OERs.

Keep an eye on educational publishing, folks, because there’s a lot of people trying to get a piece. It is, and it’s going be, dramatic.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.