This morning, I received a survey from Wolters Kluwer (Aspen), publisher of the IP Survey textbook I use. The survey sought out what I find important in a book, and even asked if I knew any young IP professors I was impressed with (who could presumably write a new book). Why? The casebook authors (Profs. Merges, Menell & Lemley) somehow worked out a deal to take the book "private." That is, Aspen won't be publishing the book anymore, and they will self publish the book for a mere fraction of the former cost.
This is just one example of the casebook revolution. Contrary to what students might think, many professors actually do care about casebook prices. Modern technology is finally allowing them to do something about it.
The straw that broke the camel's back, I think, came last year, when Aspen offered Dukeminier, et al., as a rental only. That is, students paid for an electronic version and a paper version, could mark up the paper version, but then were required to send the paper version back. The cost was less than the prior full price of a casebook, but not by much. The rationale for this move was obvious: cut out the secondary market. Professors rebelled, and many said they would switch books before they would allow this, and Aspen relented, offering a print version (and claiming that its prior emails saying there would be no such version were misinterpreted).
But the handwriting was on the wall: book publishers are looking for a way to extract more and limit competition. Some of my colleagues get angry about that. My view is more sanguine: entry costs are low, so someone should be able to capture the market by simply competing with a lower price. If we hate this setup so much, we should just do casebooks another way.
Perhaps not surprisingly, IP and internet law professors have led the way to start doing just that. Independent presses have arisen, open source casebooks have been created, and materials have been shared. You can now get two IP Survey texts (with a third on the way) for around $30. You can get statutory supplements for free in PDF (or cost of printing in paper). These things sell for $60-$90 from publishers. There are specialty casebooks (e.g. trademark or internet law), as well as highly focused reading materials (for example, you can get free access to my internet law readings online, or you can buy it in paper for about $35, if you want my exact reading choices for internet law).
Another benefit of the revolution is that new platforms allow for benefits not previously possible. Unlocked PDFs that allow for easy search, cut, and paste. An "open source" feel whereby edits by one professor's edits can be recombined into other books (though standardization of format would be helpful for this). More images, quotes, video links, etc., by professors willing to take fair use positions that publishers might not be willing to take.
In other words, the revolution has arrived, and is waiting to spread. Non-IP professors have not picked up on this as much (yet), though the H2O platform at Harvard has several reading lists in non-IP courses. As self-publishing platforms grow and more professors get on board, casebook publishers will see significant pressure.
I'll end this post with a couple caveats, however:
1. Publishers add value. For the most part, the cheaply available works are not nearly as polished as casebooks. They also contain far less material (which is good and bad - depending on whether the book matches what you want to teach). There are definitely exceptions to both of these.
2. Authors that have more potential upside may spend more time. If you like "notes" that sum up history, cases in other jurisdictions, etc., you are less likely to see those in a self-published book - certainly in the first editions. That work takes time, and simple incentives may limit it. On the other hand, if the author keeps 100% of the profit, then maybe such work will be worthwhile. Creating my own set of materials took a huge amount of time, and I simply had nothing left in the tank to write long notes, introductory text, hypotheticals, etc. But not all works are the same. I have colleagues who have written books with some fine problems in them, for example.
3. Sometimes the published book is just better. I like my patent law book. I like my contracts book. It's going to take a lot to convince me that another book is better. But that's what competition is all about.
4. New systems lack standardization, and thus may not offer all the features we want. Converting my fully online materials to printed materials was time consuming and, frankly, pretty ugly. There are other systems that may work better, and eventually the best ones will shake out.
In conclusion, be on the lookout for opportunities to collaborate on new textbooks in new areas, and the next time you complain about high prices, remember that you can do something about it!
[updated to incorporate and respond to some good comments]