Friday, August 15, 2003

Sharing my inbox again
NB: I tend to think that an email to a blogger has roughly zero assumption of privacy, unless there is horribly personal data in it and/or blackmail photos. This one had neither, so I'm posting it with the name redacted, because I liked some things in my reply. However, if the author has objections to being so spotlighted, I'll rectify the situation posthaste, and apologize. In that order.

> Recently employed as an Administrative Assistant (phone answerer)
> by a bureaucratic state agency, I have found myself fastly
> embittered by the 8-5.
>
> Having hid in academia for WAY too long, I reluctantly entered the
> real world (with the coveted medical benefits) but I never imagined
> that I could ever take on such an apathetic role - a role that
> violates my own personal code of ethics. Unfortunately, sheer volume
> of calls necessitates apathy - that or insanity on my part (which I
> am beginning to realize is a distinct possibility.)
>
> But working for a college textbook wholesaler? Over-inflated prices,
> "new" editions (usually encompassing the difference of a few words)
> that come out EVERY year disallowing the possibility of a) selling
> back the textbook for the mere 10% of the original $150 it cost, and
> b) buying a used copy at 90% of the original $150 cost. How do you
> sleep at night? Shame on you!
>
> Other than that, Love the site. Keep up the good work.
> Signed,
> _________


I'll start off by responding to something you didn't write: I reject outright the idea that there is something unethical about making a profit. There are lots of ideal systems that might, in an ideal world, work better than capitalism and keeping soul and body together while maintaining a certain base level of personal liberty (the baseline for which seems to be rising rather than falling). But in the real world, a capitalistic system with an appropriate (a magical weasel-word that allows infinite equivocation) level of market regulation really seems to work best. Now that the straw man is dealt with, we can move on.

I'll skip over the usual "where the hell do you get off" stuff, and I'll assume you're relatively familiar with the Mirror Principle.

I'll skip it because you've inadvertently pulled one of my strings, and so the rant that's coming will probably hurt you more than it'll hurt me.

Yes, college textbooks are expensive. But there are fixed costs with printing any book, and when you're dealing with a small marketplace, there are fewer consumers to share those fixed costs. If it costs $2,000 to set up the printer, then $5 a copy, then the per book costs will be higher when there's a 10,000 copy run than a 100,000 copy run. Also, textbooks tend to have more color printing in the internal pages, which, again, costs more.

In the last few decades, there's been a lot of consolidation among college publishers and an accompanying increase in the emphasis on profit. Publishers have tried to increase their profits by 'encouraging' you to buy new books by whatever means necessary. So there are packages (with CD, with Study Guide, etc.), online supplements, and my personal favorite, the shortened edition cycle. Rather than coming out with a new edition every four years, they make one every three, or even two, and so increase their sales.

And then there are the used books. Let me walk you through a typical buyback from the perspective of a wholesaler doing the buy (yeah, I've been the guy handing you your $2). In the old days, a textbook buyer would come onto campus, set up a table, and do "stack buys", meaning he'd look over your stack of books and name a price. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess, depending on your politics), girls in lowcut blouses and guys on the football team tended to get better prices than the rest of us. My company was actually the first to start computerized buys where everyone in the country got the same price for the same book in the same condition, regardless. As recently as five years ago, we were awarded the buyback at a major school because the company that had been doing it was ripping off students. So I sleep pretty soundly.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Buyback. The first thing we do is check if the store is using it again locally. If it's on that list, you get more. Sometimes as much as half, but that figure is set by the store, not the wholesaler. If it's not on the list, then what you get depends on how likely it is that we'll sell it again. This part is Economics 101. If it's popular and rare, it's worth more. If it's unpopular and common, it's worth less. There's a wrinkle in that the value also goes down if there's a new edition due out soon. No point in paying a bunch of $$$ for the 7th edition when the 8th'll be out before school starts up in the fall. But even if you're using the number one textbook in the world (The Little Brown Handbook, by the way), you still won't get close to the full value because we have to pay to ship the book back to Columbia, pay somebody to shelve it, pay to store it, and then if we sell it to a store in the fall, we'll have to pay somebody to take it off the shelf and put it in a box, then we have to pay to ship it to the store, who will probably sell it for something like 80% of what you paid for it. Of course, that's assuming we even sell it. As a booklover I hate to see it, but a lot of books get pulped because nobody wants them.

There's other stuff you never see, of course, like a programmer far enough outside the usual demographic he probably couldn't have gotten hired anywhere else, or the time a local church called our human resources director and said, "I've got a bunch of women coming in from Bosnia. They have no technology skills to speak of and know little if any English. Have anything for them?" They're taking English classes on their lunch hour now.

And then there's my job. I've created tools to help faculty research textbooks, built a site that lets publishers research the marketplace so they can make more intelligent decisions about their edition cycle and cut down on waste in their print runs (as well as prevent shortages that hurt students), and worked on projects that are changing the way people learn in colleges and universities, spare bedrooms, and aircraft carriers. I've never once been asked to do anything that violates my personal sense of ethics. Even when I'm doing marketing, it's all about finding the truth that sells the product, not about hiding its flaws.

Yes, my company makes a lot of money. But we also do a lot of business, and I'm very comfortable with the percentage we take off the top. We're the big dog in our field, but we got here by doing things fairly, intelligently, and creatively. We don't do everything right, in my estimation, but I'm more comfortable working here than I was working for MU, where the university got 18% of our federal grants just for signing a cover sheet on our grant applications, and academic stars pulled down six-figure salaries and taught two classes a year while adjuncts did the work that kept their department alive.

In every job, and in every company, there is good you can do and evil you can do. Answering phones, you're in a position to ruin thousands of days each and every week. But there's a flip side to that as well. A few years ago, I called our Department of Natural Resources to ask about areas in my part of the state that allowed camping. The woman I talked to was friendly as could be, took my name and address, and in two days I received an envelope containing maps to every nature preserve within a two hour drive of Columbia that allowed overnight camping. It's been years, but she still stands in my mind as an example of the good we can do in what might otherwise be mundane work. I've seen some very beautiful places thanks to her.

Have you read any Jon Kabat-Zinn? He's a medical doctor and mindfulness teacher who's done some very interesting work with folks in careers where it would seem impossible to maintain a sense of engaged compassion (like emergency medicine). You might find him a nice antidote to apathy.

Mike

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