Will West Publishing capture the used casebook market?

by Jason Wilson on August 5, 2010

By Jason Wilson

So, it would appear that West Publishing still has a few tricks up its sleeve. On the heels of being nominated as one of the world’s most ethical and admired companies and best global brands, they’ve gone and launched a very interesting new service: the [Casebook] Rental Program for Students. And by “interesting,” I mean to say West seems to have its eyes set on (1) crushing the used casebook market (and by extension the “first sale” doctrine and university co-ops) and (2) gathering data on the value of eCasebooks (by using students as unwitting test subjects).

According to the launch site, here’s how the system works:

  1. Rent a casebook. Not all casebooks are available yet, but rest assured, if the system works, they will be. You will have to provide a credit card during this process, but when you sign up, you’re only charged for the first month’s rental. You will be charged every month after that until the seventh month, after which (i.e., month eight), you own the book outright. Why? Because you will have paid full retail for the book by then.
  2. Access & markup the eCasebook. What? Yes, I said access the eCasebook. But by access, I mean your computer because you can’t get it on the Kindle, Nook, iPhone, or iPad. Basically, anything that doesn’t support Flash. Boooo! But you’ll have web access through two different portals for the rental period. This means, by month eight, you get cut off. But during that time, you’ll be able to highlight and make notes on the eCasebook. But after month eight, say bye-bye to your digital casebook and your notes. But no worries because you have the hard copy, right? That’s assuming you kept it until you owned it, which sort of defeats the purpose of the whole program right?
  3. Receive your book in the mail. You’ll get the book sometime, which shouldn’t take too terribly long, but you never know. After all, I buy books from West, and sometimes it can take an interminably long time to get them.
  4. Mark up your hard copy. You can use the book just like you would for one you buy from the store. Highlight it, write marginalia, etc. Just don’t destroy it. You get charged extra up to the retail cost for that.
  5. When you’re done, return it for free. That’s right. Just like Zappos, you can go to your account, print out a UPS label, stick on the box the book came in, and return, free of charge. As long as you do it before the post date for the next billing cycle, you’re all good.
  6. Save money. The pitch here is that you can save up to 38% off the retail cost of a casebook. Pretty sweet, huh?

Here’s what I see:

  1. Delayed delivery = POD. Students get their course schedules, determine what books they need, determine whether they can get a rental, and order. Three to four weeks later, they get a book(s). I think this will allow for a print on demand service. West will be able to take orders at roughly the same time, and print on site. [Disclaimer: I've toured the printing facilities twice, they are impressive.]
  2. Retail value of print & digital are the same. While a student is waiting, they are hitting the eCasebook and highlighting and writing notes. How many of those students will stop that process (once they’ve been trained) to read a print book? I’m going to speculate that 80% continue marking up the eCasebook, the rest will switch to the print version. This means that the vast majority of books returned (assuming I’m right) will be in pristine condition, and all the while, West is charging the student near retail prices to access the eCasebook. Do you see where this is headed? The promise of print (and its corresponding retail value) mollifies the student’s perceptions of the cost of digital, which consumers always believe should be less than print.
  3. Usage data. There will undoubtedly be a great deal of data collected by West about how students use eCasebooks and the types of services (e.g., study groups) and tools they want attached to them. Without sacrificing profit, West will be able to gauge (and train) students reception to digital books. This will give it a huge advantage over competitors seeking to break into the market.
  4. Killing the secondary market. By making it easy for a student to order, receive, use, and return a casebook, the incentives for purchasing them through a bookstore are significantly reduced, particularly when you factor in the eCasebook advantage. If enough casebooks are offered through this system, it could have a serious impact on the used casebook market within the next five years or so. If (and that’s a big if) that happens, West could control a significant part of spigot for casebooks, effectively choosing to turn it on and off as it chooses.

The only hurdle I see to this system is (1) getting the word out and (2) overcoming a student’s expectation of getting cash at the end of the semester. But as best as I can tell, there is very little downside to offering this program. Other than absorbing the shipping and return costs and the additional labor to determine whether returned books can be put back into the system (and there I suspect the cost of printing a new book is less than paying a person to look at returned books, which means all books shipped will be new), there is almost no reason why West wouldn’t continue with this program until they have achieved the ultimate goal: controlling the secondary market.

In short, I think they have created a genius plan.

[Image (CC) by Swansea Photographer]

{ 2 comments }

@lawschooltech August 27, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Not until they publish for the iPhone, iPad and any other e-reader. I don't take my laptop everywhere and I rarely open the casebooks I've got. Call me when there is an app for that.

jasnwilsn August 30, 2010 at 1:01 pm

I think you can write off eReaders. Tablets, or whatever they are calling them now, will be it.

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