Perhaps I have been asleep at the switch, but I did not realize that the U.S. State Department is buying copies of various books authored by President Obama. Let me rephrase that. They are buying books for which he claims authorship and on which he collects royalties. The books are indeed his—their authorship is less clear. However, whether or not the president used ghost writers is not my issue. My concern is books being purchased by agencies that are part of his administration, a questionable practice from an ethical perspective, and possibly from a legal perspective.

This might be a bigger issue for me than it is with readers, so I will explain my concerns in due course. First, though, a brief review of the facts. The president or his ghost-writing surrogates have authored several books for which he receives royalties ranging from 15 percent to 7.5 percent (hardback sales receive the higher royalty—paperback the lower). These royalty rates are fairly common in the publishing business, although as President of the United States one would think Barack Obama could have negotiated a better deal. Big name authors often receive royalties as high as 25 percent—an elite few even higher. On the other hand, if the president is splitting royalties with a ghost writer, the rates he is receiving make sense (i.e. the president gets 15 percent and the ghost writer gets 10 percent, or more).

So how much does the president earn from book sales each year? According to The Washington Times of July 14, 2014, “Mr. Obama’s income as an author has been on the decline. On tax forms, he reported $104,000 last year compared with more than $250,000 in 2012. In 2009 the Obama’s reported making more than $5 million thanks largely to book sales…In 2011, when The Times reported on more than $70,000 in book sales to the State Department, officials said they had purchased other books by presidents, though no reference could be found to books by either President Clinton or President George W. Bush in purchasing records.” If the State Department purchased hardback copies of the president’s books, his share of the $70,000 sale was $10,500. I know this is not a lot of money to a president whose net worth is in the $10 million range, but it is a lot to the taxpayers whose pockets it comes out of.

Now a few words about why this might be a bigger issue to me than to my readers. I wrote my first book in 1982—a textbook. Many additional textbooks followed. Some of my textbooks were adopted for use in classes at the college where I was employed first as an instructor, then professor, department chair, director, dean, provost, and finally vice-president. In all of these positions, I was in a position to use my influence to if not force at least encourage professors to adopt my books for their classes which, in turn, meant that students would be required to buy them. In my state, as in most, for a college professor or administrator to use his position in this way to inflate the sales of his books is considered an ethical breach, as it should be.

But, on the other hand, college professors are encouraged to conduct research and write books, monographs, papers, and articles based on their research. This is the publish or perish aspect of higher education. How, then, is publish or perish reconciled with the potential for undue influence? It’s simple, actually. Most institutions of higher education require that faculty committees select the textbooks that will be required in various courses. This approach cuts down somewhat on the potential for undue influence from the author who is also a professor or administrator, but not completely. Consequently, many colleges and universities require professors to turn over any royalties earned from their textbooks sold through their institution’s bookstore to the institution for use in worthwhile endeavors such as funding student scholarships or charitable causes.

Even this approach is not perfect. The college can provide authors/professors with an accounting of how many books are sold each year in its bookstore as well as the wholesale cost of the books (royalties are paid on the basis of wholesale rather than retail costs of books—even to presidents). This approach works well provided that students purchase their books in the college bookstore; something fewer and fewer of them do these days. Technology allows students to bypass the college bookstore and make their textbook purchases on-line, often getting a better deal by doing so. Authors/professors get a pass on these kinds of purchases because there is no way—at least not yet—to secure an accounting of on-line book sales. With all of this said, here are some pertinent questions for the president:

  • Do you return the royalties earned from your books that are bought with taxpayer dollars to charity?
  • Why do you not prohibit agencies that fall under your administration to from purchasing your books when this would be the ethical thing to do?
  • Do you not understand that agency heads in your administration might purchase copies of your books in bulk as a way to curry favor with you?
  • Do you really think it is appropriate for taxpayer dollars to be used to purchase books for which you receive royalty payments?

Government was never meant to be used by elected officials to fatten their own wallets. In fact, our Founders paid a heavy price in loss of personal income to serve in government. Now we have Congressmen and women, Senators, and even the President of the United States using taxpayer dollars to line their own pockets. What a sad state of affairs.