Self-Publishing A Legal Casebook: An Ebook Success Story (Forbes Cross-Post)

casebook-cover-232x300I co-authored a casebook on Advertising and Marketing Law with Prof. Rebecca Tushnet of Georgetown Law. Last July, we self-published the casebook as an ebook via Scribd and Gumroad. Drawing on the past 14 months of data, this post explains why I consider the self-publishing experiment a success.

About the Book

The casebook supports Advertising & Marketing Law courses in U.S. law schools. In 2011, about a dozen of these courses were offered around the country. Before our book, no published casebooks was designed for those courses; instead, each professor individually compiled his/her own materials. (Note: some published textbooks supported advertising law courses in business schools, communications departments, journalism schools and related disciplines, but none of those textbooks were well-suited for the law school market).

Recognizing this opportunity, Rebecca and I wrote a casebook over several years. It is a hefty piece of work by any standards: 870 pages, almost 400,000 words, nearly 40 megabytes. See more details, including the table of contents. Rebecca’s law school has an on-staff book manuscript editor who cleaned up the book’s formatting and typos and helped convert the book into the ePub format. Without her help, we might have paid a freelancer a few hundred bucks to provide those services.

We decided to self-publish the book as a DRM-free PDF. We deliberately chose a low price of $10. For comparison, the typical traditionally-published casebook run $150-$200 and some other legal casebook ebooks are trying to establish a $30 price point.

Initially, we published via Scribd, which I had previously used with mild success to self-publish my Internet Law reader. Scribd charges 20% plus 25 cents per sale, so we earn a net royalty of $7.75 per sale. Subsequently, I learned about Gumroad, which charges only 5% plus 25 cents per sale, for a net royalty of $9.25 per sale. Gumroad’s self-publishing platform and buying experience is elegantly minimalist, its reports are more detailed than Scribd’s, and it makes automatic monthly deposits at PayPal (where it picks up the transfer fee). Between those benefits and my permanent break with Scribd after they made another ridiculous snafu, Gumroad is the likely home of future book releases.

In the near future, we hope to create a substantially improved version reflecting thousands of changes we’ve accumulated. With the next version, we expect to use BookSurge to obtain an ISBN and offer mobile device (ePub) and print-on-demand versions.

Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing

Some advantages of self-publishing the casebook:

* Ebooks are more useful to readers. Unlike physical books, ebook readers can conduct keyword searches in the PDF, can cut-and-paste material, can see graphics and photos in color without paying a premium for color printing, can increase the size of photos if they want, and can install the PDF on multiple devices. The traditional law school publishers are now offering DRMed ebooks for “rent” that expire after a period of time; without DRM, our buyers can enjoy the PDF forever.

* We set our own deadlines. Nothing sucks the joy out of writing more thoroughly than writing on someone else’s deadlines. Without a publisher, we don’t have someone anxious to goose their revenues haranguing us for the next edition. We do have to satisfy the expectations of our casebook adopters; that provides ample motivation.

* We retain the copyright. We own the copyright, so we control every aspect of the work. For example, we can give the PDFs free to our students instead of making them spend $150+ to buy our casebook from our publisher.

Some disadvantages:

* No marketing support. Most casebook authors gripe about the publisher’s marketing support, but usually the publisher takes some efforts. In contrast, we have zero marketing support from anyone. Nevertheless, we already personally knew many of the actual or potential professors for the course, so we figured we could do most of the marketing ourselves. As it’s turned out, word of mouth has generated a number of potential professors we didn’t otherwise know.

* No peer credit for a “publication.” I don’t think my colleagues view a self-published ebook with the same respect that they would afford a traditional casebook publication. Rebecca and I are both tenured, so this consideration really doesn’t matter to us.

* Piracy risks. We don’t have any way to prevent piracy of the PDF. Instead, we hope the book price is so low that most people will choose to buy it rather than go look for the free version. We have no reason to believe that piracy has noticeably affected our sales.

Did We Maximize Profits?

Typically, casebook economics are so disadvantageous that few authors write for the money. (One exception might be a successful casebook for 1L courses or major electives, which could sell thousands of units a year). That’s emphatically the case with our book, which we deliberately priced below the probable revenue-maximizing price, i.e., I imagine we could charge $12 or $15 or possibly even $20 with little impact on sales volume. (We’ll probably raise the price a little as the book continues to improve).

Still, compared to the royalties we’d get from a traditional publisher, I think the $10 price leads to a comparable amount of money in our pockets. Here’s the math:

Assume we net an $8 royalty per PDF sale (we’ll get that number over $9 as we completely transition to Gumroad). A traditional casebook like ours would sell in hard copy for at least $150 and wholesale for perhaps $110. Assuming 15% royalties (although I think 10% is a more common casebook royalty rate), each hard-copy sale produces around $16 of royalties. However–and here’s the kicker–due to the first sale doctrine, the used book market cannibalizes most hard-copy sales in the second and third year of a book’s release. Meanwhile, because there is no market for “used” PDFs, we’ll make new sales in years 2 and 3. Will we make up in subsequent years’ sales what we lose from the higher initial per-copy royalty? It’s hard to know for certain, but I think it will be close (if not favorable for us).

Of course, course adoptions are the real determinant of royalties, and traditional publishers offer the potential of increasing adoptions. Because our book doesn’t face any competition, and because we know the community of advertising law instructors, it’s unlikely that the marketing of traditional publishers would swing many new adoptions our way. I might feel differently if we were competing in a crowded field with lots of existing casebook choices, such as casebooks for first year courses like Property or Contracts (though a low price point might help a new entrant stand out from the existing competition). Meanwhile, the low price spurs adoptions; professors won’t feel guilty about making students buy it, even if they use the book only as a supplement or to teach only a chapter or two.

Furthermore, we have gotten purchases from practicing lawyers and others who simply want a reference guide for the topic. These buyers never would have bought a $150 casebook, but $10 is cheap enough that it’s worth a gamble. By tapping into that additional market, we expanded our volume compared to the traditional publication route.

So how have we done financially? I initially projected annual sales of 200 copies and annual net revenues of about $1,600, calculated as 10 course adoptions x 20 students per course x $8 net royalties per sale. Ten course adoptions assumed we’d capture most of the existing dozen courses and help grow the field a little, while some professors would still choose to prepare their own materials. The 20 student estimate reflects that the course is niche-y/boutique-y, so many courses would be offered as a seminar or small elective.

Unfortunately, we don’t know the number of course adoptions–not every professor who adopts the book contacts us, though we would be happy to provide additional resources and support to them. My guess is that we haven’t hit 10 course adoptions per year yet. However, due to strong student demand for the course, the average course probably has more than 20 students.

In the past 14 months, we’ve sold 467 copies at Scribd and 58 at Gumroad, for a total sales volume of 525 copies and net royalties of over $4,100. Assuming a few more adoptions in Spring 2014, we will substantially exceed my expectations for the first two years.

Will we ever get rich via our ebook? No. But in the context of casebook economics, I’m quite pleased with the results. When considering the additional benefits discussed in this post, self-publishing the book has been a great choice for us.