Pricing Books

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III’s Cosmic Constitutional Theory is 161 pages long (counting the notes, and 116 pages without). This slim book retails for $21.95**. Is that expensive?

As it stands, the question isn’t well defined. If you interpret that question to ask “is the book worth $21.95?”, then the answer must depend on the particular person doing the answering. This person’s utility and budget constraint dictate how much the book is worth to him and specifically, whether this worth exceeds $21.95. Whatever his answer is, it offers no insight to the next person to whom the question is posed. If you instead interpret the question to mean, “does $21.95 represent a high markup over the cost of producing Cosmic Constitutional Theory?”, then we’d have to talk about what “high” means and when “high” crosses into “unusually high“, “artificially high“, or “expensive”.

So the short answer to “Is Cosmic Constitutional Theory expensive?” is “I don’t know”. To make it up to you for how anticlimatic that is, I do have a couple of thoughts on the probable factors that went into Oxford University Press’s decision to price this publication at 21.95 USD.

On the production side, a book by Oxford University Press, one of the most recognizable and prestigious presses in the business, commands a brand premium. So even if Judge Wilkinson is a meticulous writer who needs no editorial help and who has access to all the major distribution channels, he would not have been able to self-publish, price his book at $21.95 and hope to sell as many copies as OUP publishing that same text. Secondly, Judge Wilkinson, who “has been frequently on the short list of prospects for the Supreme Court and is regarded as one of the nation’s premier appellate jurists***”, is a brand unto himself. Due to the platform that Judge Wilkinson commands, he presumably got a good advance and royalty rate. OUP covers those favorable contract terms (and then some) by pricing the book at a higher point than it would for same text delivered by someone who’s more obscure. Thirdly, Cosmic Constitutional Theory is a part of a series and so can expect to benefit off the series’s brand.

On the consumption side, a book of this nature — sparse in providing background and summaries to court cases mentioned , plentiful in tracing the provenance of every argument to its proper originator, dense in its footnoting practices — is aimed at a very specific market. In this case, that market is comprised of lawyers, law libraries, and other similarly well-endowed persons and institutions****. Thus the potential buyers for this book are those with inelastic demand, thus allowing OUP to price higher and still capture their purchases. Lastly, due to the “pointed and sharp” criticism that Judge Wilkinson expounds on in the text that has as its aim some very prominent jurists (Robert BorkRichard Posner, disciples of William Brennan), the book is sufficiently contentious to attract such publicity as to be expected to sell well. (Indeed, it has caused quite a many words to be spilled over at the legal blog Balkanization.) OUP rationally takes advantage of such favorable conditions in its pricing decision of Cosmic Constitutional Theory.


*: Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III has a grandson named Harvie. Also J. is not for Judge.

**: Alternatively, it costs one trip to a library. You can think of this as either the time cost to make this trip, or a fractional part of one’s apartment rent to live in a place where a library lends this book.

***: Unfortunately, as a Republican judge who advocates judicial restraint, Judge Wilkinson probably has slim chance of actually being nominated to the Supreme Court. Jeffrey Toobin in The Nine informs us that the capture of the Republican party by evangelicals is so complete that no judge can hope to be considered by the party unless they vow (outside of their confirmation hearings) to overturn Roe v. Wade, blur the separation of church and state to allow religion to play a more prominent role in government, and repeal other judicial traditions — essentially to exercise judicial activism to advance the agenda of the political right. Judge Wilkinson reveals in his writing that he fits this activist profile poorly.

****: Plus an occasional student who checked out the book from the law library.

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