Friday, October 12, 2012

Why would you ever assign a book that costs students money if it is available for free? (Again)

Over the summer, I posted about the high cost of law school textbooks for students (Why Would You Assign).  My current book for Contracts was being updated and the new edition would cost my students $180+. With the cost of law school somewhere near $150,000 (See For Law Schools, a Price to Play the A.B.A.'s Way, New York Times) I find it difficult to add to that cost any more than necessary. That means, choosing free books for students where they are available. CALI's ELangdell program does just this by paying professors who write textbooks a stipend and then giving the books to students in Word, Mobi, PDF and Epub formats for free. So, why is the message not getting through.

I receive the messages posted to the Contracts list-serve daily and this topic came up again. Professor Jeff Harrison (U Florida) initiated a lively discussion with the following post: 
Is the market for casebooks working? I like the George/Korobkin casebook which was just published. I thought I would use it until I saw the price --$186. I really cannot see asking my 100+ students to pay this. Even if they get $40 for selling their used copies, it's too much given what is otherwise available. Put differently, how is it possible that any contracts casebook would have enough market power to profitably sell at this price? One explanation is similar to that with physicians. The people who demand the books are not the same as those paying for them. So the professor assigns a book and is sheltered from the impact. Related to this is the possibility that professors are too lazy to change books. So, suppose you have been using Farnsworth for 20 years and when a new edition comes out you assign it because you want to minimize preparation time. The economics of casebook publishing puzzles me. First, the breakeven point must be tiny. Second, the pricing seems based on a belief that there is some market power when there should not be.

Well said.  A number of responses ensued ranging from students will buy the new hardcover book no matter what the cost even if given the choice of something less costly (indicating that this might not be ripe for concern) to arguments in favor of jettisoning the traditional books in favor of other alternatives without delay. To me, this seems to be a question of leadership. As professors, we should care about the cost of legal education. If there is not sufficient incentive to add to the cost of the students (much of which is financed through student loans), we should decline to do so in favor of viable alternatives. There is no good reason that I can see to lead students down the path of higher costs even if they would willingly pay when most of the cost is incurred by the student as debt that will take them years to pay off. Again, can we justify asking law students to pay for something that is not necessary?


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