Thursday, April 23, 2009

Killing Trees

Students have many reasons to loathe law school textbooks; the back-breaking size, the low-quality paper, the unanswered questions in the notes between cases (Do you see why?).  The biggest gripe among my students, however, is the price of their materials (textbook prices rose by 186 percent between 1986 and 2006).  Thinking that I might be able to get a better deal for my books, I took a look at the price of some of the leading property texts:

Dukeminier, Krier, Alexander, Schill  $149
Merrill and Smith $146
Singer $146
Rabin, Kwall, & Kwall  $144
Nelson, Stoebuck & Whitman $143
Casner, Leach, French  $143
Freyermuth, Organ, Noble-Allgire and Winokur: $142
Sprankling & Coletta: $132
Bruce and Ely  $129

This seems problematic.  Is the difficulty, as Ian Ayres said, "the lack of price competition?" Is it that we just don't pay attention to prices?  Should I run for state senate on a platform of breaking the textbook monopoly?

Steve Clowney

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As a student, I can definitely say that one thing that supports the high prices of new textbooks is the comparative immunity of law texts to the used book market. Some law students will buy used books for the lowest price regardless, of course. But because students' briefing/highlighting/note regimens tend to be both quite idiosyncratic and integral to the studying process, many law students are reluctant to buy anything but an un-marked copy. And because we all write in our books, this almost invariably means a new copy.

Posted by: Andronicus | Apr 24, 2009 6:15:14 AM

One problem that I've heard from publishers is that the internet is making the used book market very efficient. As a result, the publishers have raised prices to make their profit in the first year or two that a book is out. After the second year, sales of new books apparently drop off a cliff. This also explains the absurd number of new editions that come out for popular textbooks.

One thing this suggests is that students may be able to get many of their books less expensively on the used book market. To be sure, they'll be forced to buy new books for some classes because of new editions. The overall cost for all classes, however, may be lower than a look at list prices would suggest. Or, put another way, the overall price to students may be stable even if new book prices are going up.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Apr 24, 2009 6:22:35 AM

There are some cheaper alternatives out there--Gordon Hylton et al.'s Property Law and the Public Interest lists for about $70, I think.

Posted by: Alfred | Apr 24, 2009 6:29:34 AM

Unfortunately, my comment was posted at the roughly the same time as Andronicus's comment. To comment briefly, many of my students have told me that they buy used books, even if they have some marks. It could be that as prices go higher, law student tolerance for market up books will increase. I've also talked to friends who are authors of casebooks, and they have noticed a steep falloff in sales after a year or two. So someone must be buying used books.

Posted by: Ben Barros | Apr 24, 2009 6:32:13 AM

All very interesting. As we all know however, the price of graduate level texts has always been exorbitant. And generally, the price of any new undergrad text has always been high, regardless of size, content, etc.

More importantly however, this price dynamic predates the internet used book market. The recent level of rate hikes no doubt is internet driven in part, but publishers have been snakes for eons.

I once had an economics professor who quit teaching. A chance encounter a few years after I graduated revealed an unsettling, if already presumed fact: there's money to be made in dem der books! He told me he had become a academic book seller to colleges/universities. He said the game was rigged, the money was better than teaching, and there was always the kickback: get the professor to buy your "highly recommended" text at your "highly recommended" price and your publisher would make it worth his while. I've also seen evidence of this from a few other professors. That may or may not be the norm, but it's evidence at the very least that publishers notoriously have little regard for the hit to the students (their dads actually).

The academic publishing world is chock full of bizarre, unpleasant, and non-sensical examples of pricing. The perfect example: "Photons and Non-linear Optics" by Klyshko. Go to Amazon and check out it's price. Get back to me when you can come up with a RATIONAL reason for its price. (I own a copy by the way--lucky me?)

Posted by: gompers | Apr 27, 2009 8:41:22 AM

Well, it looks like my explanation was just flat wrong. Maybe this is why I'm not an economist.

Posted by: Andronicus | Apr 28, 2009 10:25:17 AM

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