I read the other day that Aspen Publishing initiated a new policy requiring law students to return their textbooks at the end of the semester. The idea seemed crazy, and only lasted a few hours before it was withdrawn under a howl of protest and derision. If this had happened a month earlier, I would have thought it was an April Fool’s joke. The fact that these folks were apparently serious about it probably speaks volumes about the state of  academic publishing.

Publishing is an area where people can make small fortunes today. They start with a large fortune, and by the time they are finished, if they have any fortune left, it will be quite small. There is just too much information available in too many media, much of it available for free, to make this a profitable business.

I used to teach at a law school. I realized that many authors would change their texts every few years. In some subjects, it appeared that the only reason for the new edition was to render the former editions obsolete and, thus, rob them of their value in the resale market. For my money, however, the old books were good enough for my first-years to get the info they needed, and if there had been some big changes in substantive law or procedure I could always supplement the materials by posting cases and articles on my class web page. Thus, I would have a contest to see which student could find the cheapest resold copy of the texts I assigned. Where some books retailed for over $200, I had a student who won one year with a book he got on Amazon for $3.92. (Plus $5.00 shipping.)

When I published my own book on legal ethics, I was teaching as a state school where the rules forbid me from profiting by assigning my own text to my classes. I went to my publisher and got an “e-book only” price of $60.00, versus the retail of $250. My co-author was gracious about me giving away his intellectual property, and some students actually opted to buy the hard-copy book anyway, so he made a few cents.

My brother, who is a full-time college professor, says he gives away the PDF files of his assigned texts, figuring that may students were copying the books anyway, and wanting to make sure they had the most recent version. To the extent he profits from his writing, it is in foreign translations.

All of this is well and good unless you have a business that requires revenue to survive. It is hard to make money giving away your product. Unlike FaceBook, Google and other platforms that can gain revenue by selling proximity advertising or user demographics, academic publishing needs people to buy its products to survive. Someone at Aspen probably just figured that if they could destroy the secondary market in the print versions of their books (they were going to let the students keep the e-book versions), they might be able to eke out a few more quarters of profit. I know their pain.

I am incoming president of the Connecticut Bar Association. A few years ago, we tried to enter the book publishing business. When I came aboard, we had enough unsold books in our basement to satisfy the market, at the rate we were selling our back-list, for a few centuries. I set up tables at our headquarters and tried to give them away. We still have hundreds of surplus books that with each passing day become less relevant and useful. The next step is the dumpster.

Where will all this end up? I have no idea. There are some in the “copywrong” community who think that allowing people to control access to information and ideas violates some important basic human principles. All I know is that I am never going to make a small fortune in publishing.

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