Could the Advent of E-Readers Lead Law Journals to Move Into E-Book Publishing?

I argued yesterday that the advent of e-readers would reduce traditional publishers’ marginal advantage in publishing scholarly books. This makes it possible for others to compete effectively with book publishers. And the logical candidates for this role would be law journals.

Branding: Law journals have the sort of branding power that publishers do. If the Journal of Law & Economics decided to select books, readers could be assured of much the same things that readers of Harvard University Press books can be assured of: Some serious scholars in the field have read the book, and found it worth publishing.

If the Michigan Law Review decided to do the same, readers would have less valuable information, because the book will have been screened mostly by students. But they would still know that the book was selected through a competitive screening process. Between that and other factors, such as the author’s name, the cover blurbs, and the book reviews (now more accessible than ever, because of the Internet), readers will have a pretty good sense whether the book is worth reading.

Prominent student-edited journals could also institute some level of peer review for books as well, if they wish. The Harvard Law Review and the Stanford Law Review already provide some faculty review of their articles, though not as much as university presses tend to provide as to books.

Academic authors derive value from the publisher’s imprimatur, even independently of its ability to sell books: Placing a book with a publisher is important for promotions, and for professional respect. But we already know that the top law journals, both faculty-edited and student-edited, are also highly valued by authors, because their imprimaturs (whatever their faults) are also respected by the authors’ colleagues. Most law professors would be delighted to be published in the Michigan Law Review, and even more so in the law review at the school sometimes referred to as “the Michigan of Massachusetts.” They would likely be similarly happy to have their book “published,” or more precisely branded, by a hypothetical Michigan Law Review Books project.

The branding by a law journal might at first be less effective with international and interdisciplinary audiences, who aren’t as familiar with American law journals. But the important thing, I think, is that they’ll see that the book bears the brand of some impartial organization, which either has a name that sounds normally prestigious to people in all countries and disciplines find (e.g., the Journal of Law & Economics) or is visibly affiliated with a prominent university (e.g., the Michigan Law Review).

And if the book jacket includes blurbs by prominent academics praising the book and the author, that should further ease readers’ concern. After all, people who look for works from other countries or disciplines generally don’t put that much stock in the precise name of the publisher. They tend to be more interested in the book’s title, the author’s name, and the names of endorsers, and simply expect that the book is published by some reputable-seeming organization that has performed some sort of quality screening.

Nor should there be any major institutional barriers to law journals’ publishing books. From an editing and selection perspective, a book is in not much different from a very long article. Screening submitted book drafts, and editing them once they’re accepted, would be more time consuming. But presumably many fewer book drafts would be submitted than articles. And I suspect that many student editors would be pleased to help select and edit books, which are often seen as more meaty and more lasting than an article.

Faculty-edited journals might be reluctant to undertake heavy editing obligations for a book. But they might therefore just choose to select the books and provide big-picture editing suggestions, and leave line editing to the author, to any student workers on the journal, or to any research assistant that the author chooses to hire.

It’s not clear how much money law journals would expect to get from the electronic books they publish. They might conclude that they should get a share of the proceeds, because of the work they’ve put into the book, and because of the value of their brand to the book’s success. Or they might conclude that the revenue they customarily get from journal subscriptions is meant only to compensate for printing and mailing costs, and the editorial expenses are part of the journal’s service to the academy and of the journal’s education of its members.

But in any event, it seems likely that law journals will take only a relatively modest amount of the sales price, much less than publishers tend to do. Law journals are historically heavily subsidized in two ways: First, law schools are used to providing free office space to the journals, and often secretarial and management help from a staffer paid by the school. This is done because journals are seen as important educational tools, and not having at least a general-interest journal would make the law school look bad.

Second, law students are used to providing free labor to the journals, because of the educational and credential value of participating on the journal. With relatively few out-of-pocket expenses that they need to pay for, journals can thus afford to take little or no money in royalties. Nor are the subsidizing law schools likely to see the royalties as an important revenue stream that needs to be harnessed in order to reduce the subsidies that they need to give their law journals.

This gives law journals a substantial edge over professional publishers. In the abstract, it’s not clear that such subsidies are necessarily socially optimal. But they do exist, and they do create a possible benefit to authors and readers, because they make possible the distribution of books at much lower cost.

Marketing: The main downside for authors would be that law journals don’t have the marketing abilities of publishers. Yet much of that could be overcome.

To begin with, many authors could take advantage of the marketing services of think tanks or advocacy groups with which they’re affiliated, or which support the book’s position. The authors could then enjoy the credibility provided by an impartial journal’s imprimatur, coupled with the active behind-the-scenes help provided by a supporting organization. Some universities might also be able to promote their faculty members’ writing, though it’s not clear to me that universities generally do that well.

Beyond that, Internet media can also help authors themselves promote the book: They can, for instance, contact legal bloggers that write about the field, and ask to guest-blog about the book, or at least ask for a link to the book. And while the legal blogs have many fewer readers than many newspapers and magazines have, those are generally the very readers who are most likely to read a legal book that’s aimed at academics or top practitioners.

They can also contact bloggers with an even wider readership than the legal bloggers have. Northwestern University law professor Jim Lindgren, for instance, reports that his article debunking Michael Bellesiles’ work on the history of guns in America was downloaded over 130,000 times, chiefly because of a link on Instapundit.com. Instapundit at the time had over 50,000 readers per day, and now has over 250,000 per day. And while Instapundit isn’t focused solely on law, it often covers academic and legal topics, partly because the author of Instapundit, Glenn Harlan Reynolds, is himself a law professor.

Likewise, the article “I’ve Got Nothing to Hide” and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy, by George Washington University law professor Dan Solove, has been downloaded over 70,000 times from SSRN. Solove reports that this stemmed from a link to the article on the Slashdot site and on computer security expert Bruce Schneier’s Web log, which in turn triggered many online recommendations (for instance, through the Digg social filtering site) and a wide range of online commentary. Naturally, these are unusual examples, and there would have been many fewer downloads if the papers had cost even a little bit of money. But given that many books sell only 2000 or so copies, the bar for what would constitute sales success is not set very high.

Marketing of electronic books can also be made especially efficient precisely because the book is online. Any blog posts linking to or excerpting the books, or even any article citing the book, can therefore direct the reader directly to the book’s home page. So can any ads that a helpful think tank or the university might buy. The reader could then see the linked-to excerpt of the book, and quickly buy the whole book with just a few keystrokes.

And if the publisher is cut out of the loop, the book could well sell for a good deal less. My colleague Stuart Banner’s The Death Penalty: An American History, for instance, sells for $18.45 plus tax and shipping from Amazon (and that’s the paperback price). The Kindle edition sells for $10. I suspect publishing through a law journal can lower the price to, say, $5, to cover the author’s royalty, the fees for the online bookstore, and perhaps some compensation to the journal. It takes less persuasion to convince people to part with $5 than to convince them to spend $20.

This marketing would not reach those readers who prefer physical browsing — who tend to buy books that they see at a physical bookstore, or borrow books that they see on a library shelf. The paper books might still exist, since the law journal is obviously capable of publishing them, and they might even be delivered to some law libraries. But they probably wouldn’t make their ways to bookstores or physical non-law libraries, unless the law journals could somehow develop new relationships with those institutions.

So there is a big unknown here: Would the extra advantages of marketing a cheaper, instantly downloadable book online overcome the disadvantages of losing purchases through browsing at physical bookstores and physical libraries? But my sense is that, especially for specialized scholarly books, online promotion through sites that are already often read by the target audience will likely largely compensate for the loss of any physical browsing sales.

Other Potential Publishers: There would also be other alternatives as well. Some authors could choose to self-publish. Some think tanks and advocacy groups could publish books directly, rather than just helping authors market them. There are already models for this, such as the Cato Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Hoover Institution.

On balance, I suspect that most academic authors would prefer to get the brand of an established impartial entity, such as a top faculty- or student-edited law journal, both for the sake of increasing readership and for the sake of having the book be more impressive to colleagues and evaluators. But if law journals don’t quickly move into book publishing, these other options could be reasonable alternatives for authors who want their ideas distributed without the high reader cost barriers that now exist.

And of course, if my prediction is correct, the established publishers may change their approach in order to compete more effectively. There may be limits to the price cuts that the publishers might offer, because they don’t enjoy the subsidies that law journals or advocacy group presses might have. But presumably competition will have some substantial effect, at least in encouraging publishers to reduce book cost if not to increase the range of books they’re willing to publish.

The important point is that electronic distribution substantially reduces barriers to entry into the publishing market. One way or the other, that should lead to more competition, lower cost, and more options.