E-Readers, and Going Beyond the Current Publication System for Scholarly Law Books

In earlier posts on this chain, I started by discussing the first phase of the migration to e-books: whether people will start reading the same content electronically that they’ve long read on paper. I then began considering the “second migration,” in which people take advantage of features of the new technology — for instance, the malleability of e-books, and the relaxation of size constraints — that don’t just emulate the old technology but go beyond it.

But there’s another aspect of the second migration: It opens the door to publishing structures that don’t now exist, making possible both further cost reductions and the distribution of books that can’t be distributed cost-effectively today. Let me speculate briefly and tentatively about that here, limiting myself to the two fields I know best — scholarly books and textbooks — and omitting treatises, other legal practitioner references, and student study aids.

To start with, consider scholarly books about law (i.e., books of original scholarship, rather than textbooks). If you’re a professor who wants to publish an academic legal book, you face a problem. Your primary goal is to get more readers. Secondarily, you’d like to get some money, though you might well be willing to trade off that money for readers. After all, unlike most authors who don’t have academic appointments, you’re already being paid for your time.

Expense limits readership: The trouble is that the book will often be priced at a level that will alienate many potential readers. Let me give as an example a book about which the author guest-blogged on my Weblog: Richard Painter’s Getting the Government America Deserves: How Ethics Reform Can Make a Difference, published by Oxford University Press. The book has a list price of $65, and Amazon sells it for $59.14, though one affiliated store sells it for $52.15+$3.99 shipping. Surely this price will dramatically reduce the number of readers that Prof. Painter will get, compared to what he’d get if the book were priced at, say, $10, or were distributed for free.

Of course, if the book were distributed for free, the author wouldn’t make any money from it. For most law professors, the revenues from an academic book are a small fraction of our salaries: If Prof. Painter makes a 10-20% royalty, that will amount to $6 to $12 per book; and if the book sells 2000 copies (not bad for an academic book, even one that is accessible to a larger audience), the revenues will be nontrivial but not great, either. If his book sells about 300 copies (the number that Prof. Painter reports to me have been sold so far, since February 2009), the revenues will be still smaller.

We routinely spend a lot of time writing articles, which don’t directly make us any money. It seems likely that even if we couldn’t make money from writing books, but could get readers and citations — and books do seem to be more cited than even the most heavily cited articles by the same authors — we’d keep writing.

But if we could cut out the middleman, at least in large part, we might be able to get both more readers and more money. Say, for instance, that authors could find a way of pocketing 80% of the sale price rather than 10%. Then if the book were sold directly by the author for $6 rather than $60, and sold only twice as many copies as a result (not unlikely, given the vastly lower cost), the author would make more money as well as having more readers.

Expense Limits Book Topics: Because existing books are fairly costly to produce and distribute, publishers have to consider the likely market for a book. They may therefore reject a book or a monograph simply because it will have only a modest number of readers.

Some nonprofit academic presses may be willing to pay less attention to such circumstances, because they see their mission as spreading scholarly knowledge, even when the market is small. And many presses do now publish books that ultimately sell only 2000 copies or fewer. Still, the worry about recouping printing, distribution, and promotion costs necessarily remains a constraint that will keep some valuable but narrow-market books from being published. [Footnote: Existing books have another, related, drawback: They are not searchable on Lexis and Westlaw (with the exception of treatises that those services choose to include), so that researchers might often miss them. It turns out that books are still generally more often cited than articles by the same author, despite their not being on the electronic services. But if they could be made available on Lexis and Westlaw, presumably the citations would increase still further.

I won’t discuss this further here, because in principle publishers could remove this drawback even without the shift to electronic publishing: They can presumably work out deals with Westlaw and Lexis through which those services can include the books in their databases, much as they include law reviews. Scholarly books on legal topics are about as useful (or not) to paying Westlaw and Lexis subscribers as are articles, so there’s little reason for Westlaw and Lexis to balk, if the royalty payments to the publishers are set low enough (or even waived altogether). Still, the law review book publishing proposal I lay out below might ease the transition to Westlaw and Lexis availability, by piggybacking on existing contractual relationships between journals and the electronic databases.]

Publishers’ Diminishing Value Added: So the bulk of the problem I describe stems from the fact that books cost a great deal, both to buy and to produce; and the great bulk of the money goes to publishers and book stores. I don’t begrudge them this money as a matter of principle. They have historically provided a needed service without which the authors’ ideas could never have been distributed. But to the extent this markup can be reduced, both academic authors and their readers would generally benefit.

Historically, a publisher has had multiple roles. In roughly chronological order within the book’s lifecycle, they have been:

  1. selecting good books, so that the publisher’s name serves as a signal of quality to readers;
  2. editing;
  3. typesetting;
  4. printing;
  5. physically distributing copies to books and libraries;
  6. physically distributing free copies to prospective reviewers, and (for textbooks) to prospective adopters;
  7. persuading people to buy the book.

Modern word processing has already made the publisher’s typesetting function — once very significant — into something dispensable. I provide my textbook publisher, for instance, with camera-ready copies of my textbook drafts. Other authors might not, but they easily could if they had to, especially with only a few hours’ worth of help from a research assistant. The advent of e-readers will likewise eliminate the need for the publisher’s printing and physical distribution functions.

As to editing, my sense from friends who write books related to law is that many publishers don’t provide much substantive editing. (That has also been my personal experience with my textbook publisher.) Moreover, any substantive editing that authors do want could equally be provided by experienced freelance editors, which the Internet makes increasingly easy to find and communicate with. Of course these editors need to be paid. But they could be paid by the author’s academic institution — perhaps with some recoupment from the incoming royalties, or perhaps not — much as the institution already provides funding for help from research assistants and reference librarians.

That leaves publishers with two main functions: selecting and signaling (1), and marketing (7).

Publishers’ selection of a book is a (necessarily imperfect) signal of the book’s passing at least some threshold of quality. First, readers know that academic publishers generally have panels of scholars vet books for publication. Second, readers know that publishers have an incentive to reject bad material, since the publishers’ money and reputation is riding on the success of the books.

And publishers also help promote the book in various ways. They may (a) buy ads in various publications (such as the New York Times Review of Books), (b) place the book in bookstores, where browsing readers may come across it, (c) identify leading experts in the field to whom to send review copies, (d) try to line up reviews in leading publications (such as newspapers and magazines), (e) identify professors to whom to send review copies of textbooks, (f) display the book in their booths at academic conferences, (g) list it in catalogs from which libraries may make selection decisions, and so on.

More to come on a possible solution to the authors’ problem, which involves institutions that could compete with the established publishers.

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