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People, businesses making money off books Dolly Parton gave away for free

An investigation found people and businesses selling the books, some charging outrageous prices for first-edition books from the Imagination Library.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A News4 I-Team investigation from NBC affiliate WSMV in Nashville found a widespread practice of people and businesses selling the books that Dolly Parton gives away for free.

Parton’s Imagination Library has become a staple for Tennessee families, providing free books each month to more than a million children ages birth to 5 years old.

On the website for Imagination Library, there is a disclaimer that the books are not to be resold, and in each book, there reads another warning that they are not for sale.

Credit: Jeremy Finley

But the I-Team found people and businesses selling the books, some charging outrageous prices for first-edition books from the Imagination Library.

Credit: Jeremy Finley

David Dotson, CEO of the Dollywood Foundation, told WBIR selling the Imagination Library books is the least preferable option they recommend for people who have received them. But in terms of it being a “problem," you have to keep in mind the scope and scale.

He said if you walked into a used bookstore in Davidson County and found a large number, say 1,000, of Imagination Library books for sale, that would still represent 1/4th of one percent of all the books gifted, about 350,000 per year in Davidson County.

The only way to get the books is to sign up for the free program for children.

It means people are selling the books online or are trading them in to used bookstores, who are then selling the books.

“It's not right. And that's what I would tell someone who is selling it,” said Jennifer Edwards, a Murfreesboro mother whose son receives the free books.

The fact that people were taking Dolly’s free books and selling them, some as low at $5 and others as high as $199 for first run editions, is disappointing to United Way CEO Brian Hassett. The United Way administers the Imagination Library books in Nashville.

“I had no idea that was really happening,” Hassett said. ”Maybe let them know that this is something that really defeats the purpose of the program."

Another issue for Tennesseans is that tax dollars pay for half of the cost of the program, so your money is ultimately paying for books that are intended to be given away to children for free.

The News4 I-Team was able to purchase what were once free books on Amazon, eBay, and at the Nashville location of McKay's, a used bookstore, which had rows of the books for sale.

Once we pointed out to a manager at McKay's that the books were not intended for resale, a representative with the store emailed to say they were re-evaluating the sale of the books.

We also reached a manager with Jennings Books, an online used book retailer, that was selling the Imagination Library books.

“This is obviously a beloved program in Tennessee. Were you aware that these books weren't supposed to be sold?” The News4 I-Team asked.

“Not at all,” said Devin Mahrt, a manager with Jennings Books.

“Shouldn't this have been flagged as something in the system as something that shouldn't have been sold?” asked the I-Team.

“Definitely. I guess your question is: who should have been the one to flag that? And that's where it's a little bit trickier for us because our whole system is based on Amazon's algorithms,” Mahrt said.

Mahrt said that Amazon usually flags books that are not to be sold, and that when Jennings purchases books from used bookstores to then resell, they scan the bar code and the international book number, to see if they are books that are available to be sold.

The News4 I-Team also contacted Amazon with questions but did not hear back by our deadline.

Hassett said instead of selling the books when their families are finished with them, people should donate them to charities or to other families.

Dotson said the Imagination Library doesn’t know the reasons why some people might resell the books, but they know the number of people who do is insignificant. Nationally, Imagination Library gifts 1.4 million books a month, more than 16 million annually.

The News4 I-Team is donating the books we purchased to the United Way.

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