A while back, I explored some of the pros and cons of bypassing the law review/university press publication venues in favor of self-publishing legal scholarship. Roger Alford kindly notes that he found the discussion "interesting" and then goes on to make some very interesting points of his own. His argument that e-publishing would actually increase the availability of one's scholarship is especially worth consideration:
What we strive for in legal scholarship is to be part of the marketplace of ideas. Our ideas–at least those published in books–are hidden behind a giant paywall established by legacy publishers. We currently reach hundreds of readers when we could reach thousands if the price were right.
Legacy publishers are loathe to reduce the price of ebooks despite the fact that the marginal cost of each additional download is nil. They do so because they don’t want ebooks to cannibalize hard-copy and paperback sales. That makes perfect sense if you are a publisher. But authors don’t care about cannibalizing print sales, because royalties are of no consequence to most scholars. They just want their stuff to be read.
Legacy publishers of legal scholarship assume that they can continue to pay authors fifteen percent royalties, regardless of whether the book is published digitally or in print. But that pay structure actually creates incentives to self-publish.
Why should established legal scholars agree to put up artificial barriers between themselves and their readers? For example, how many more readers would purchase Mary Ann Glendon’s latest book, The Forum and the Tower, if it were available on Kindle for $4.99 instead of in hard copy priced at $27.95 (or on Amazon for $18.45)? Do we really need the OUP label to tell us that Mary Ann Glendon’s books are worth reading? Glendon’s wonderful book, A World Made New, costs $11.99 for downloading on Kindle. If she were in control of the pricing, she could drop the price of her ten-year-old book down to $2.99 or $0.99, so that it would actually be cheaper to buy digitally than purchasing it used for $10.33 ($6.34 plus $3.99 shipping) on Amazon. How many more people could learn about Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if they could purchase Glendon’s book without a tinge of financial guilt?
Great question -- it goes straight to the core of the cost-benefit analysis.
Alford's conclusion is especially apt in light of recent developments:
Ten years ago none of us had ever heard of SSRN. What SSRN did to law review articles, self-publishing could do to casebooks, treatises and law-related non-fiction. The new age of self-publishing is fast approaching the world of legal scholarship. It will just take a few legacy scholars to create a norm cascade that will rock the world of legacy publishing.
Speaking of SSRN, SSRN now allows users to purchase a hard copy of articles posted thereto. I was informed of this by email when SSRN notified me that my employer had decided not to opt out of the program. This raises a couple of questions relevant to Alford's analysis:
- Who's going to pay for hard copies when they can download them for free?
- Is SSRN making a profit of these sales?
- If there is a paying market for these articles, why should SSRN get the cash instead of the author?
I'm committed to doing three books for legacy publishers, not counting case book updates and the like. When the last book is finished sometime in late 2012, it'll be interesting to see whether things have developed to the point that self-publishing a 35,000 word ebook makes more financial and reputational sense than giving away free to SSRN and some law review.