What are Complimentary or Preview Textbook Copies?

By: Wade45

Complimentary, exam, or preview copies are new editions publishers send university professors for review and possible adoption. Publishers often send out thousands of these sample copies hoping that academic departments will adopt the new edition as course material. That would mean a lot of sales, especially if it is a large university with tens of thousands of students.

Why Preview Copies Exist

The textbook publishing company business model relies on endless, rolling updates to existing books. This does two things.
First, they render all previous edition used copies practically worthless because there are major downsides to using old edition textbooks for class. Students must purchase the new book, and that's how the publisher gets paid - only on first sale. Campus bookstore and other used book buyers benefit from the used market, but the actual publishers get nothing. In order to stay in business, publishers continually release and market new editions.
Secondly, and this is a legitimate reason to publish a new edition, research progresses and sometimes there is novel information that warrants a completely new edition. For most people not familiar with the industry, this is what they accept as the rationale for new editions. But in reality, this is much rarer. Consider a chemistry course - a lot of the information doesn't change, ever. Elements like carbon, iron, gold, etc. are the same today as they were one hundred years ago, with the exception of some synthetic elements. Calculus has not changed much in the past hundred years either. The point is clear - information in many subjects does not warrant new editions as often as publishers release them. Faculty is aware of this, yet they continue to placate the publishing industry.

They Spur Adoption

To get a university to adopt new course material, there is no better way than to get it to the people that teach the classes. Professors are on committees that decide what new textbooks the school should adopt. This makes sense because they have the expertise and will be teaching the classes.
Adopting new course material is also no easy task. It involves re-tooling study material and lecture format. This is a lot of work for professors, so it is imperative that they are onboard.

Publishers Release New Editions Every 3-4 Years

Most publishers release new editions of the same book every three to four years. Most of the changes have little to do with content and often involve changing the order of chapters, swapping out diagrams, or adding minor changes to wording. Publishers are also known to change page numbering to make it hard for students to use older editions. For example, the professor might assign reading for certain page numbers, but if that doesn’t match up with an older edition, the student is forced to purchase the new book.
The cost is significant - new editions cost upwards of sixty percent more than the previous edition used copy.
Complimentary Copies are Essential
Because of the perpetual release of new editions every few years, complimentary copies have become essential marketing tools for big publishers. It’s hard to see how the industry could function without them - it is the prime marketing tool.

How to Request Free Textbook Copies

Major publishers allow professors and instructors to go on their websites and order complimentary copies for review. 
MacMillan - You must search a book in their catalog and submit a request.
McGraw-Hill - Just fill out this form and enter the ISBNs
Cengage - This company requires you to send them an email request.
Norton - Fill out this request form and one of their partners will send you an exam copy.
Pearson - Here is some information on how to request a copy.
Thompson - Fill out this form on their website.

What Should I do with Free Copies I Don't Need Anymore?

Let's say you order sample copies from several publishers for the same class - you are only going to select one for adoption, so what should you do with the others? Complimentary/preview copies almost always come with wording that says, "Not for Sale", "Do Not Sell", or something to that effect. If you are wondering what do with them, here is a great post on the legality of selling free or instructor edition textbooks.

Publishing Companies are Important

Someone needs to aggregate and publish knowledge, and there needs to be an economic incentive to do it. I do not think anyone has a problem with the big publishers making money, but the problem is that many of their practices are aimed at obscene profits at the expense of students. That's what people have a problem with.