The hidden costs of unsolicited textbooks — a view from the mailroom

April 14, 2014, 2:57 pm

Back in January I posted an article calling for an end to unsolicited review copies of textbooks being sent to professors. Interestingly, on Reddit a student at my university who works for the mail services department did an AMA, and I had the chance to ask: What kind of impact does it make on the university, from an infrastructure or mail services point of view, to have all these unsolicited books being sent in? Keep in mind that we’re a public university of 24,000 students and lots and lots of faculty. Here are some highlights from his response, which I thought was pretty interesting though not totally surprising:

Ugh, I HATE those! Nobody wants them, nobody asks for them, and they take up valuable space in our truck and our holding area.

As far as the cost it passes onto us, it’s definitely hard to quantify, but I can tell you all the different ways we waste time on those packages.

First, we get the packages from UPS or Fedex and start the receiving process. That means identifying the name and department of each package so we can scan it in. Some of the publishers seem to think that Math, Statistics, and Computer Science are all one department [ed.: These are three separate departments at our place], so that means looking people up and sometimes calling a few departments to find out where to take the package that nobody wants. I’d say that when the mailings come (it’s usually in waves), we spend 20–30% of the receiving time on them, depending on how much other mail we have that day.

After being scanned into our own tracking software, the books get moved into our holding space. They’ll sit there for an hour or so, until whoever’s delivering packages loads them into the truck. Each one adds 5–10 seconds to our loading time, so they add up pretty quick when we’re getting 5 or more for each department. It’s worse with the ones that are packed in that heavy paper as opposed to an actual box. We have to find a space to wedge them in securely, because they don’t stack well.

The delivery phase isn’t heavily affected by the books, unless there’s a lot of them or they sent books for several departments. Usually, we’ll get one or two departments’ mailings at a time, and there’s often other things going to the same department or building, so the extra stop isn’t a huge factor on a normal day.[…]

As far as solutions go, there’s not much hope. We could refuse shipment when we get them, but if we mistake a wanted package for a book (not easy, but it does happen), we run into problems. They don’t put packing slips on the majority of the boxes, and even if they did, the carriers and we don’t have time to check each one we suspect.

So these unsolicited textbooks are expensive not only in terms of shipping costs alone, but also in terms of the resources spent by the university in handling them, and either way the costs are going to be passed on to the students. I don’t think I had realized before just how costly, time-wise, these packages are for the mailroom people. All the more reason to scale this stuff back.

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