June 24, 2013

How to turn textbooks into scuba gear


“Take a deep breath. Now, steal those textbooks!”

It’s not often that one feels sorry for a textbook company. Every year, they rake in big profits selling expensive and fairly tedious books that students are required to buy. And they defend their turf ferociously—witness last year’s lawsuit by three of the biggest textbook publishers against a online startup called Boundless that offered free downloadable college-level textbooks. But Wiley & Co. has been having a pretty brutal year, and the heart twinges…. if only slightly… for them.

First, the Supreme Court rules against them in Kirtsaeng vs. Wiley, upholding the right of consumers to re-sell textbooks, regardless of where those books are made or bought. And then last week, the news came out that one of Wiley’s own salesmen has been stealing and re-selling Wiley textbooks, and pocketing the profits himself.

Christopher J. Brock, of Tampa, Florida, had figured out an ingenious way to make money off the company: as a salesman, he was permitted to send free copies of the textbooks to professors who wanted to consider using them in their classes. John Ambrosio of the Jersey Journal reports that, in his internal records, Brock claimed he was sending sample copies—more than 16,000— to real and invented professors, but instead he had the books shipped to his own home and to other designated addresses. Then he sold the books himself and collected payment through accounts on PayPal. In this manner, he managed to defraud Wiley of over $2.8 million. Which is somewhat less than Wiley’s $1.8 billion annual revenue, but still a nice chunk of change.

Textbook theft has been on the rise in past years, as students, postal employees, football players, and the occasional ring of heroin addicts see an easy source of income in every dorm room, library carrel, and campus bookstore. Recent cases have included Stephen Thomas Lambert, who stole $20,000 worth of textbooks from the University of Virgina bookstore and sold them on Half.com, and Darren Warren, a Scott Community College student in Davenport, Iowa, who stole over $60,000 worth of textbooks and sold them to pawn shops around town.

But the Brock affair stands out from other recent snatch-and-grabs for the numbers of books and the amount of money involved, and the element of betrayal from within. Perhaps most satisfying of all? According to the FBI complaint, Brock apparently used the money to buy “high-end home furnishings and scuba diving equipment.”



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.