By Chris Richardson
When sociology professor Joanne Naiman hands out her required reading list, How Societies work is always on it. She thinks it’s the best textbook on the market for her first-year students. She should know — she wrote it.
Since 1996, Naiman has made approximately $30,000 from having her sociology textbook assigned in classes at Ryerson and other universities in Canada. With the recent release of her text’s third edition, questions arise as to whether there is a conflict of interest when professors assign their own textbooks to students.
Naiman is one of many professors at Ryerson who use their own textbook as required reading for their courses. She says professors who want to use their textbook in class must first get permission to do so from their faculty chair. On certain occasions, a course committee will vote on whether the text is appropriate for the course.
“[We have to ask permission] to make sure that we’re not just doing it as a financial scam … like we write some piece of crap and then we make students read it and pay some huge amount of money,” says Naiman.
The textbook industry has become a lot more competitive — and increasingly lucrative — in recent years. In some cases, professors are collecting seven figures royalty sales from textbooks.
According to a sales representative for Nelson Canada — the publisher of Naiman’s textbook, authors generally earn 10 per cent of a textbook’s cover price.
Naiman says one of the bestselling sociology textbooks is by John Macionis. “He made probably a million dollars from his book,” says Naiman.
Macionis, a sociology professor at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, currently has two new editions of his Canadian sociology textbooks for sale.
Ryerson Faculty Association President David Checkland says that although it is not as common in Canada, professors north of the border do have an opportunity to make a good chunk of change.
“The whole field of academic books is occasionally very lucrative for some people,” says Checkland. “The people who got rich off of writing textbooks tended to do it when they were writing the first classic textbook in their discipline … there was a period where that happened in a number of fields.”
While the majority of published professors at Ryerson insist their textbooks are more of an accomplishment than a moneymaker, not all of their colleagues are comfortable with selling their own material to students.
“The student becomes the client, the buyer,” says John Cook, chair of the English department. “That’s a line that you don’t want to blur.”
Although Cook says there is “the appearance of a conflict of interest,” he often leaves course reading choices to his faculty members.
“I think it’s really important as a chair to be an absolute supporter of academic freedom … freedom to choose the text and the way in which you’re going to approach a course.”
Cook says that the only time he will step into a situation is when a professor strays from the course curriculum.
“I’ve heard rumors about people whose book choices don’t quite fit the diameters of the course,” says Cook.
William Glassman is a psychology professor at Ryerson who assigns his own textbook to between 150-200 students every semester. The third edition of his textbook, Approaches to Psychology, costs $47.95 at the Ryerson Bookstore.
To date, there have been approximately 50,000 copies printed of his various editions. If he received 10 per cent of the cover price, then that would be about $240,000.
Taking into consideration that he is not the sole author of all the editions, Glassman would still receive close to $120,000 at five per cent commission.
“I didn’t write it with the intention of making money and I still encourage students to buy the latest copy, which makes it hard for senior students to sell their outdated copies.
Glassman doesn’t believe there is much money to be made by writing textbooks.
“It’s not an activity that a rational person would go into [for money],” he says.
According to Naiman, she also wasn’t trying to get rich, but rather enrich her students by writing a textbook with a distinctly Canadian point of view.
“When I wrote the book, I wanted a book that was affordable for students,” Naiman says. “[The royalties] are peanuts to the time and energy I’ve spent writing it.”
Despite some concern from students and faculty about the practice of assigning one’s own textbook. Diane Schulman, the secretary of academic council at Ryerson, says it’s a common routine.
“It is not against university policy in any way,” says Schulman. “That’s standard practice in universities everywhere.”
Checkland says a large percentage of textbooks are written while professors are on sabbatical — an allotted amount of time during which professors are paid 80 per cent of their salary to either write a text or do research in their field of study.
Ryerson President Claude Lajeunesse doesn’t see anything wrong with the practice at the university.
“I think faculty members are honest and I am sure that they would not assign their own book if they thought it was the worst book ever written on the subject,” says Lajeunesse. “[Besides] if I’m learning from my professor, I probably want to read his damn book.”
– With files from Paige Magarrey