The end of expensive law school casebooks?

I teach advanced patent prosecution as an adjunct professor at the University of Denver.  I hear from my students what it costs these days to buy a casebook for a class.  Some cost $150.  Some cost $200.  So I am delighted to see that there is some movement in the direction of reducing this cost for the student.  It comes from publishing-on-demand services such as Createspace and Lulu, as I will describe.

First I suppose I should describe the legacy approach for publication of law school casebooks.  The legacy approach is that a legacy publisher gets a professor to sign a contract for the publisher to publish a casebook written by the professor.  The book sells for $150 or $200.  The professor gets a royalty of maybe $20 per book.  Because of the wording of the contract, it is usually pretty much impossible for the professor ever to “get the rights back” so as to pursue any other way of getting the casebook published.

The professor gets to buy copies of the book at an “author’s price”, typically just under half of list price.  Thus if the professor wishes to give someone a gift of a copy of a casebook, the professor is out maybe $60 or $75.

But slowly, slowly, some forward-looking law professors have somehow had the self-control not to sign such a contract with a legacy publisher.  Instead they pursue a different course — maybe giving away a PDF of the book for free.  Or publishing the book using a printing-on-demand service such as Createspace or Lulu.

There are many advantages to these approaches.  One thing is that if you use the POD service, you can price the book much, much cheaper and still get a royalty comparable to the legacy royalty.  You could price the book at maybe $45 and still get a $20 royalty per book.

A second advantage is the good feeling that you get when you realize that the student only has to pay maybe $45 instead of having to pay $150 or $200.

A third advantage is that you can keep the book up to date quite easily.  With a POD service, a new edition is easy to create.

A fourth advantage is that the “author’s price” is probably only $8.  So if you want to give someone a gift of a copy of the casebook, you are only out $8.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, and Rebecca Tushnet, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, recently published a law review article talking about their own experience self-publishing a law school casebook.  I found the article fascinating.  Eric and Rebecca identified a fifth advantage that I would never have thought about.

To see this fifth advantage, keep in mind that a casebook will often quote from other sources.  If you go with a legacy publisher, the publisher will require that the authors secure written permission from someone for each quotation.  This is time-consuming and sometimes it is impossible to figure out whom exactly to contact for permission.  Often as not the party from which permission is sought will fail to respond or will decline to provide permission.

As a law professor one may be confident that the quotation is “fair use” or for some other reason does not actually require anyone’s permission.  But this confident view is not shared by the (risk-averse) legacy publisher.

So a fifth advantage to self-publishing a casebook is not having to spend time on unnecessary permission-hunting tasks.

One thought on “The end of expensive law school casebooks?

  1. This fall, I will begin my 4th year teaching Patent Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. I have not used a case book the past three years, and will not use one this year. The law has been changing so rapidly, what case book would be relevant? At least 20% of the cases we will read and discuss this year are different from the ones used last year. Section 101 is an example, but not the only one. The 101 discussion will have very little in common with the discussion of 4 years ago. I wish I could say that the state of the law in most areas has improved in the last 4 years, but alas, that does not seem to be the case.

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