You can’t have missed the fact that Amazon’s fastest selling product last year was its Kindle ebook reader. Even I bought one. And during the year his Godliness Steve Jobs gave us the iPad tablet. Though the iPad is more than an a e-reader, as such it is of course much more book-like than an iMac or an iPhone. And there are plenty more tablets and e-readers on the way. We can safely say that the ebook has arrived.
But I’ve always been sceptical of the value of ebooks for law. For novels and other linear reading they clearly work well. But law books are different aren’t they? We dip into them, approach them via indexes etc, jump back and forth and put bookmarks and sticky notes on them; and they’re constantly being updated. I’ve long held that ebooks are not the future of law books or rather that the future law book is not a book, and others agree that law books belong in the cloud.
There are plenty of popular and student law ebooks in the Kindle Store, and LexisNexis is starting to release law practice books in ebook format, with titles from Sweet & Maxwell to follow. But to think that heavyweight annuals or looseleafs with updating services are going to translate into ebook formats is crazy. Remember that Butterworths’ first digital publications were badged “Books on Screen” but that appellation was quite soon dropped as it became clear that continuing the analogy wasn’t the way forward. There are many online law offerings whose principal content is based on texts initially created for publication in print, but the web services the publishers offer do do more than replicate the book and journal. I’m not saying the law publishers have got it all right, but they do know that they’ve got to figure out a future beyond books; and that means beyond ebooks too.
For as long as publishers are still publishing books, there will be a healthy market for ebooks, but as technologies converge and we do ever more in the cloud we’re going to stop thinking like Gutenberg.