Big shake up in the publishing world. Mike Shatzkin:
Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler contacted me on Saturday to tell me what Barry is up to. I’ve read their lengthy conversation about Barry’s decision to turn down a $500,000 contract (apparently for two books) and join Joe (and many others, but none who have turned down half-a-million bucks) as a self-published author.
To use a metaphor that connects with the current news: this is a very major earthquake. This one won’t cause a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, but you better believe it will lead everybody living near a reactor — everybody working in a major publishing house — to do a whole new round of risk-assessment. Because, in its way, this is more threatening than the earthquake that just hit Japan. This self-publishing author will much more assuredly and directly spawn followers.
As news of Eisler’s decision spreads, phones will be ringing in literary agencies all over town with authors asking agents, “shouldn’t I be doing this?”
I submit a bit of perspective from another part of publishing: scholarly journals. A few years ago I asked my very smart friend Mark Bide, who knows that part of publishing much better than I do, how I’d know if the business model for journals — by which they publish work the university paid the professor’s salary to write and then sell the published version back to the university’s library — was threatened. Mark told me to watch their submissions. As long as the scholar-authors felt the need to be published in journals, the journal business model would continue to function.
I am not alone in having long known that self-publishing would ultimately present big authors with the opportunity to disintermediate their publishers, but I wouldn’t have thought when I asked that question that the sci-tech journal would hold its ground longer. Now I wouldn’t be so sure.
Which to my mind raised the question of whether the law review and the case book will hold their ground.
To be sure, I've expressed doubts about whether the Kindle is the future of law reviews. But that's a different question.
I am currently writing a book on corporate governance for Oxford University Press. I also just emailed out e-reprints of an article entitled Insider Trading Inside the Beltway that was published by the Journal of Corporation Law. But why? Why not self-publish them? I can see several reasons that self-publishing would be a good idea:
- I get all proceeds instead of royalties of 15% of book sales.
- Law reviews don't pay for articles. An article self-published would generate income.
- I get to control marketing. I was really disappointed by the (lack of a) marketing campaign for one of my more recent books. If I self-published, I'd control the marketing campaign.
- I control the price. If I want to maximize the number of readers, I set the price low. If I want to maximize revenue, I can set the price somewhat higher.
The problems? Publishers of legal scholarship tend to act as gatekeepers with respect to quality. Oxford is routinely ranked as the #1 academic press. Having two books published by Oxford (ahem) thus is a signal to one's employer and other relevant observers that one is doing good work. The signal is objective and unbiased, which gives it very useful credibility.
The same is true of law reviews, I suppose, although it's less clear why. Unlike professional academic presses, which have multiple levels of grown-up editors that must be persuaded and make use of peer reviews, law reviews mostly are staffed by twenty-something second-and third-year law students whose knowledge of the law, legal profession, business, and so on is typically modest at best. If the Harvard Law Review turns down an article that Chapman's law review accepts, all it really tells you is that kids who on average scored higher on the LSAT liked your article less than did kids who on average scored lower. Why their choices send signals worth paying attention to is unclear, at least to me, which is not to say that I'd turn down any offer of publication the Harvard Law Review would care to make. I may think that the market is absurd, but I'm still an economically rational actor.
The signaling effect doubtless matters for junior scholars of whom no one has ever heard. It's particularly important when tenure rolls around. In my years in the academy, I've seen very few tenure discussions in which book and article placement did not serve as a proxy for quality. It's not the only quality measure, of course, but it is a factor.
For a more established scholar, however, the signaling effect may not matter all that much. Indeed, I suspect that "Professor Bainbridge" is a more potent brand name than, say, the UCLA Law Review.
Suppose I had taken that last law review article and self-published it as an e-book entitled "Professor Bainbridge on Insider Trading Inside the Beltway" and priced it at, say, $4.99. Could I have sold a couple of hundred copies? How about a whole "Professor Bainbridge on ____" short e-books?
Having said all that, why should the State of California pay me to write self-published books? Isn't part of the deal I make as an academic that I will do scholarship that is publicly accessible to all? Advance mankind's knowledge and all that? This actually strikes me as the biggest and most valid objection to self-publishing scholarship. OTOH, however, if it were a fatal objection the university ought not let me do any writing that produces royalties or, at least, ought to force me to turn my royalties over to the university. As things stand, however, I'm free to decide how to allocate my time between writing law review articles for free, academic press books for modest royalties, and case books for ... well, that's between me and my Mercedes dealer.
But I'm equivocating. It's not obvious to me that self-publishing legal scholarship is intrinsically silly or an idea waiting to happen.
But I am tempted to turn my next 30,000 word law review article draft into a 50,000 word ebook and try selling that baby through Amazon and so on. And when I retire, maybe I will try my hand at a whole series of "Professor Bainbridge on ____" books.
Your thoughts welcome.
BTW, my friend and UCLAW colleague Eugene Volokh did a whole series of blog posts a while back on the future of legal scholarship in the digital age. Well worth reading.
Update: This study sheds interesting light on the choice:
To date, there have been no studies focusing exclusively on the impact of open access on legal scholarship. We examine open access articles from three journals at the University of Georgia School of Law and confirm that legal scholarship freely available via open access improves an article’s research impact. Open access legal scholarship – which today appears to account for almost half of the output of law faculties – can expect to receive 50% more citations than non-open access writings of similar age from the same venue.
So if reputation is what matters to you and cite counts serve as a key metric by which your reputation is assessed, self-publishing is probably not the way to go unless you give it away for free. Inwhich case, you might as well just post it to SSRN.