The Name-Your-Own-Price Pricing Model Applied to Casebooks, A Field Report

What if you let law students choose what they would pay for their (digital) casebook? Would you make any money?

That’s the gamble behind the Semaphore Press, the publishers of James Grimmelmann‘s, Internet Law: Cases and Problems, which is the book I am using in my Internet Law class this semester.

Semaphore Press’s name-your-own-price publishing model was publicized by Radiohead (although not invented by them). It is very different from the traditional law school casebook publishers who now charge well upwards of $100 per book. The Press suggests students pay $30 for this casebook, but allows them to pay as little as a penny:

What do you have to pay?
Each publication has a suggested price. We price full casebooks based on our belief that it is fair to ask a student pay about $1 for the reading material for each one-hour class session. Different schools use different calendars and credit hours, so we’ve settled on a suggested price for most of our casebooks of $30. We ask that you pay the suggested price either with a credit card (by clicking the appropriate link on our page), or by sending us a check, and then download a digital copy of the casebook. Note that if your professor has assigned, e.g., only 10 class sessions of material from a Semaphore Press book, then we suggest that you pay $10.

We have expenses that we need to cover. Our authors hope, and deserve, to receive some royalty revenue from the works that they’ve created. But we also recognize that law school is expensive. We’ve heard stories of students not buying the required books because they just can’t afford them. These students – who want to learn just as much as those who can afford the books – borrow a classmate’s book some days, read the copy that is on reserve in the library other days, and some days simply can’t do the reading. We think that is not the best way to go about obtaining, or offering, an excellent legal education. Download the required reading and pay what you can, or what you think is fair.

The risk of freeriders
We know that the biggest risk to our business model is freeriders. If too many students pay little or nothing for the materials they download, Semaphore Press won’t be able to pay its bills over the long run, and we won’t be able to attract authors to publish their casebooks with us. Put simply, we need a critical mass of students to pay for the materials they download. Be a part of the solution to $130 casebooks, by fostering the creation of $30 casebooks: Please pay the suggested price. If you can’t pay it, please at least pay something to help Semaphore Press succeed.

In my introductory note to my students, I repeated to the language Semaphore requests faculty use:

This book has a suggested price of $30. I urge you to pay the suggested retail price in order to keep high-quality legal educational material available at reasonable prices. You might want to read the Semaphore Press FAQ before you buy the book.

I was curious: What did law students, a notoriously hard-bitten bunch, actually pay? So I asked them. Every student in my class was asked to write on a piece of paper, without their names, how much they paid, their age, gender, and what year of law school they were in. The tallied results are interesting.

Average price paid in entire class: $21.19 N=26

Average male payment: $20.63 N=16
Average female payment: $22.10 N=10
Average 2L payment: $23.40
Average 3L payment: $17.00
1 LLM @ $30

Paid zero: 5 (3M 3L, 1F 3L, 1M 2L)
Paid $.01: 1 (1M 3L)
Paid $.02-$29.99: 3 (3F: $5, $15, $20)
Paid $30.00 :1 7 (11M 6F)
Paid over $30: none

Age range was 23-29, no particular correlations seemed visible.

We might also conclude from this small sample that the Semaphore Press model may have a future. This is consistent with the Radiohead experience, by the way: as Ed Felton noted in 2007, Radiohead’s Low Price Might Mean Higher Profit. Casebooks are perhaps even less highly substitutable than songs, and the demand is likely less elastic, so the parallel is far from exact. Even so, I think it’s an interesting result.

(We might also conclude from this small sample that male 3Ls are cheap.)

Meanwhile, however, even though name-your-own-price seems to have worked out well for Radiohead, for their latest album Radiohead have gone back to fixed prices.

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