Thursday, September 11, 2014

The common sense of self-published legal e-casebooks, or, Why on earth would anyone publish a casebook with a major legal publisher these days?

The cost of law school casebooks is truly staggering; they are almost twice what they were when I finished law school about a decade ago.  Further, very few law professors are getting rich off the relatively insignificant royalties.  Add to this the fact that the major publishers seem intent on a business model that will limit students' ability to resell casebooks in the used books market (witness the Durkminier casebook debacle), and it is a wonder that more law professors are not writing casebooks as self-published e-books.

Law casebooks are peculiarly amenable to self-publishing, it seems to me.  First, in most cases, much of the material in a casebook--cases, statutes, regulations--is in the public domain.  Second, there is very little need for complicated graphic design:  it's essentially one long Word file.  Third, students that purchase an e-casebook can print out each day's portion of the casebook rather than carrying around a thousand-page tome and thereby save on chiropractor visits.  Fourth, professors can readily update the casebook as new cases come along rather than having to provide cumbersome supplements.

Let me give you an example.  A friend of mine, Jeffrey Litwak, an attorney with the Columbia River Gorge Commission and long-time adjunct at Lewis & Clark, recently self-published an e-casebook with Semaphore Press called Interstate Compact Law: Cases and Materials v. 2.0.  The casebook looks great and is completely indistinguishable in format from one of the major publishers.  The price:  $30.  This is a great deal professor and student.  First, students receive a 330-page casebook on interstate compact law, a fascinating subject with an admittedly small market that likely would never warrant a casebook format otherwise.  Second, the price is eminently reasonable for students.  Third, the royalties scheme offered by Semaphore Press rivals any offer for such a casebook by a traditional publisher.  For those casebooks that have a large reach, I imagine the professors would likely find themselves receiving greater royalties.

So why have legal scholars not jumped on the e-casebook bandwagon?  Is it simply the prestige of being able to say that one has been published by a major casebook publisher?  Presumably there is something to that; however, significantly reducing student debt and increasing professorial royalties also seem to warrant some attention, both of which I imagine would be simultaneously assisted by a wholesale turn to self-published legal e-casebooks.  All the tide needs, I think, is one or two prominent professors to make the switch, and let the rest of us mere mortals know it is okay to march, in lock-step, into Law v. 2.0.

Check out the unusual terms of Semaphore Press, for students and professors, here.

Stephen R. Miller

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