How Might the Advent of E-Readers Affect the Creation and Distribution of Legal Textbooks?

I’m finishing up the The Future of Books Related to the Law? series, and I wanted to close by discussing what e-readers could do to the structure of the textbook publishing market. As before, I much welcome your comments, since I’m now editing my article on the subject (it will be coming out as the Foreword to the Michigan Law Review Books Related to the Law issue).

* * *

The legal textbook market differs in important ways from the academic book market.

First, most legal textbooks are probably written at least partly for the money. Textbook writing is generally less valued as intellectual activity than is writing original scholarship — less valued by tenure, promotion, and lateral hiring committees, less valued by colleagues, and less valued by the scholar-authors themselves. Many professors do create their own materials, with no payment, just to more effectively teach their own classes. But creating a book that others can use, with material that you might not use in your own class but that other teachers might demand for their classes — and with a Teacher’s Manual that beginning teachers have generally come to expect — is a good deal more work.

At the same time, the endorsement of an authoritative institution is probably less important for a legal textbook. The authors’ names, and the content of the book, will tend to be more important than the fact that West Publishing agreed to publish the book. The people selecting which textbook to use are themselves law professors, and tend to know who the important people in the field are.

Adopters are also, I expect, less likely to rely on textbook publishers’ selection processes as a real assurance of quality. A list of adopters or, for a new book, a list of other teachers who can vouch for the book’s quality, is probably going to be more informative to would-be adopters than the West Publishing trademark.

The marketing for textbooks is also quite different from the marketing for scholarly books. Because all the buying decisions are done by a small group of people — law professors deciding which books to assign — legal textbook publishers have salespeople who visit the schools, knock on professors’ doors, and offer to talk about the books.

Finally, if many students don’t have e-readers, professors would have to make sure that print copies of the textbooks are also available. But those will often be easily produced by campus printing services, which already produce coursepacks for professors. Such printing will eliminate much of the cost advantage of electronic distribution; but students could get back those cost advantages simply by investing in an e-reader.

My sense is that, once e-readers become common among law students, the textbook market can fairly easily move away from the established publishers and towards something like self-publishing (perhaps with some sort of blurbs from respected colleagues added to the author’s own reputation). Professor-authors can generally find effective ways to promote their own books to their fellow professors, for instance by mentioning them on discussion lists and on blogs, e-mailing academic friends and acquaintances, and the like. They can also realize huge cost savings for students while still maintaining or even increasing their royalty streams. This will be especially so if adopters end up being even slightly sensitive to student costs, so that faced with a choice between a $25 self-published book by a prominent scholar and a $100 West Publishing book by another prominent scholar they will — all else being equal — prefer the former.

Now of course once this begins to happen, textbook publishers will try to compete, likely by reducing their prices. As with the other markets, I don’t expect traditional publishers to entirely vanish. But we will likely see a move towards a much more mixed market, with prices likely considerably lowered by the presence of self-publishing authors who have very low costs (besides, of course, their time, which is already paid for by their universities).