Chief Investigative Reporter

Jeremy Finley is the chief investigator for News4 Investigates. His reporting has resulted in criminal convictions, legislative hearings before the U.S. Congress, and the payout of more than a million dollars to scam victims.

A News4 I-Team investigation 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 five 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.

Restrictions on selling Imagination Library books

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

Imagination Library books priced at $199

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 who donate them to charities or to other families.

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

David Dotson, chief executive officer of the Imagination Library, wrote in email that he feels the scope of this problem is small compared to the vast majority of families that receive the books keep them or appropriately re-purpose them.

For example, he wrote that the number of books that we discovered at McKays makes up less that one percent of the total books gifted to children in Davidson County.

While it's impossible to tell how many of the books have been sold in the past or are for sale, our check on Ebay this week showed 190 posts of people selling books from Imagination Library.

Copyright 2019 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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