Are You Missing the Market, Aspen?
Professors are in an uproar over Aspen Publisher’s new rules for textbooks. In short, if you thought you could buy a book and do what you wanted after that (i.e. sell it used), Aspen wants to change that system. Instead of a true, unbundled digital option, it has a system where students buy both a physical textbook and a “lifetime” digital book. Too bad as there is a market opportunity that they might be missing. On the legal doctrine front, Josh Blackman called it out. James Grimmelmann jumped on the bashing. Rebecca Tushnet has poked at the offer too. But where is the market here? Is there a way Aspen could make this shift work well? If so, would authors (i.e., professors with deals with Aspen) like it? And why not use dollars to tell Aspen what to do? Assign a different casebook from a competitor (FYI there is a free one out there, see below). There are some specific issues that illustrate sme of the problems in this space.
First, what about time and artificial editions? Rebecca nails this point by calling out that some areas of law (e.g., IP) change so fast that new editions and coverage issues make staying up with casebooks a problem. In those areas, does first sale do much work? Maybe it does much work in the few years between editions. But after that, the text is somewhat obsolete. Dusting of an IP text in digital or hardcopy from the 1990s would be dangerous except for fundamentals (and maybe even for those). Still, there are now seven editions for the Dukeminier casebook. Are the updates every four or so years needed? Even in other areas, are authors updating to add value or to create a new text that undercuts the used market? Do publishers lean on authors to issue new editions when there is not much to say as a market window or version control? If so, the publisher is setting up the demand for secondary or alternate markets that cut out the publisher.
So is this system functioning? As I noted before, the OpenStax system offers high quality texts for free and in a modular way. That means sections are updated for free and folks can assemble material as they wish. Law does not have that yet. The folks at Semaphore Press are close however. That press happens to publish a property text by Steve Semeraro (disclosure I am friends with the folks at Semaphore and introduced them to Steve). It is not quite OpenStax, but it is an interesting model with a shareware feel.
Second, what about the cost to write and update a text? I know it takes tons of time. Whether RA’s do some work or it is all by the professors, the time to write a good casebook is real. I am grateful for the good books. A great teacher’s manual is also a huge help. For new teachers and even experienced, a rich manual provides insights about how the author(s) teach the material and where they see the comments to be headed. One can then choose to follow that lead or modify. But is the price point for texts (as many noted often close to $200) sustainable? Would the market collapse if the cost dropped to low or no charge? OpenStax indicates that the system could shift, and a small crowd of experts would be able to offer an excellent, up-to-date text. And as Pam Samuelson and many others have noted, scholarly works pay off in reputation. So having the most assigned text (or specific chapter on a subject) may stimulate just enough competition for reputation to get great texts (or chapters) but not a glut of roughly the same material from many high-priced publishers.
Third, what about that market opportunity? Would a publisher that offered A) a true digital copy for $40, $50, or even a $100 take share from others? B) What if the publisher said rent the hard copy for a reduced price (again it should be low)? Some might hate that idea as a matter of doctrine but that market is emerging on Amazon and at least lets the student know what is going on (though I think a rental model poses some issues for libraries in that no one should say that libraries should just be rental depots that is another debate for another time).
So Apsen, if you’d like to survive I am betting your authors would like that too. But I am also betting they want to work with you to offer much better solutions than the ones you have right now. The life time digital edition and the high price insult the authors and the marketplace. I think others will find ways to route around you. But you could take your current position and parlay it for the future. If not, I think you may have pushed the law text market to Semaphore or OpenStax. Hmm, maybe Aspen should stay with its model after all.