Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Winthrop Jordan, my (potential) co-author, and the Great North West Scam

Winthrop Jordan, professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Mississippi, died last week. He was author of the prize-winning White over Black: American Attitudes towards the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968) and other scholarly works. He also wrote, with Leon Litwack, a popular textbook, The United States. It was on this last project that he and I could have been co-authors.

The textbook, published by Prentice Hall, went out of print some years ago. A new publishing firm, North West, picked up the rights to it and offered professors $2,500 (that’s what my letter said; I later learned that some were offered considerably more) to adopt the book for their classes. Well, it wasn’t quite that blatant; the letter offered that huge amount in return for reviewing the book. The publisher’s web site is no longer up, but I cut and pasted parts of it at the time:

“Q: Is adopting the textbook required for this review program?

“A: No, absolutely not. There are many reviewers who are not using the textbook in their classes. However, the application process is competitive and it is often the case that the reviews that come from spending an entire semester using the textbook in class contains more in depth detail and familiarity with the content which best serves our editorial team.”


Well, out of curiosity, I sent in my name as a potential reviewer and received an exam copy of the textbook. It was very cheaply produced. Most of the illustrations--maybe all of them, I don’t recall, and I no longer have the books--were black-and-white illustrations from the Library of Congress, which means, again, cheap. According to the publisher’s web site, the book was $55 for the bookstore, so the price to students would have perhaps $75--a lot of money (this was about five years ago) for what was likely the cheapest-produced textbook around.

Another thing: With other textbooks, the campus bookstore can return unpurchased copies of books and receive a full refund. But North West’s policy said:

“Returns are subject to a 20% restocking fee. Credit will be issued upon receipt of returned books--credit only, no cash refunds.” Neither of these provisions--the restocking fee or the credit instead of cash refund--is typical of reputable publishers.

I realized this was a terrible scam, but I filled out the form to “review” the book for $2,500. To one of their questions (yes, they actually asked this), I honestly replied I would not use the book in my class. I wasn’t surprised when I wasn’t chosen for the review process.

But that’s not the end of the story.

I then received another letter from North West, this time offering me the opportunity to co-author a U.S. History textbook! My co-authors would be Jordan and Litwack.

Here was the deal. I could change up to 20% of the Jordan/Litwack textbook, tailoring it to my approach, leaving out what I didn’t want, switching chapters to fit my syllabus, even adding some of my own material. I would be listed as co-author on the title page! For every copy sold to my students, I would receive $15.

Since it might take a while to do my revisions of the textbook, North West offered me a two year “research and development” period to write my share of the book. During that time, I would use the current edition of the book and receive $15 per copy sold to students. And if, after that two year research and development period, I still hadn’t completed the volume, well, they would just put the contract on an indefinite hold, no problem.

I didnt take them up on this, hence missing the chance to co-author a book with Winthrop Jordan and Leon Litwack.

Jordan and Litwack had nothing to do with this. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (reproduced here), they were dismayed by the whole affair.