Are (law) ebooks the future?

By Nick Holmes on January 18, 2011
Filed under ebooks, Law publishing

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.


eBooks (or at least the ePub / Kindle etc. formats) do seem to be quite limiting for law texts.

I blogged a while back on the user experience of ePub law books on the iPad ( and I suspect that the kind of features which I think are missing from eBooks are more likely to be delivered via a web or cloud service… things like:-

1) Collaborative editing and markup
2) Over the air updating
3) Powerful semantic search

In actual fact this know-how may well end up being delivered via something which looks a lot more like the PLC online service than a traditional law text or even eBook.

Where eBooks do win out is in the connectivity stakes as they are still accessible if you don’t have an internet connection. I guess this will become less important as connectivity becomes more ubiquitous, but at the moment it would be frustrating to access a cloud / online service if you are working without a WiFi or 3G connection.

by Jon Bloor on 19 January 2011 at 12:54 pm. #

Short or medium term, the issue is not one of mutual exclusivity. There are many areas of legal publishing, tax being a significant one, where the annual book remains most attractive, despite the existence of the major electronic services. It seems to me that this need and type of usage is most susceptible to migration to e-book delivery. Almost a hybrid between linear reading and look-up reference, the question of easy access and portability is likely to make e-book versions more attractive than print.

by Robert McKay on 19 January 2011 at 4:32 pm. #

Are you kidding. Law treatises are served very well by the ebook treatment. I will often send an assistant with a scanner to the library to scan in a looseness treatise. A few minutes for the computer to OCR the text and another 10 minutes for the assistant to bookmark the index and I have sn ebook that is portable and easy to read. It would be tremendously easy for publishers to produce and update treatises in the ebook format.

by Roger on 19 January 2011 at 7:52 pm. #

@Jon – Thanks for adding that. Agree on all counts.

@Robert – I don’t disagree!

@Roger – Are you kidding. Scanning in a book may be the present but it’s certainly not the future. (and as for a “looseness treatise”?? :-) )

by Nick Holmes on 19 January 2011 at 10:23 pm. #

As a criminal practitioner who is often in the Crown Court and e-book version of ‘Archbold’ or ‘Blackstones’ would be an immense help. I already have both on my laptop so that I do not have to carry the very weighty hardback copies.

The advantage of a Kindle version rather than a CD would be the ease with which I could mark passages and have them stored for future use.

by Lynton on 27 January 2011 at 12:31 am. #

I definitely believe that e readers can have a huge impact on law in the future. Not only can you connect to the web with most of them and download exactly what you need, or look up additional info, but you can highlight and search electronically which will really cut down on time for lawyers. Just a thought though.

by IBB Solicitors on 14 February 2011 at 6:23 pm. #

It’s actually interesting what was said above about ebooks not being the future for law books, as the same could be said for any type of technical book etc.

The thing is that when these devices get advanced searching and bookmarking features, they may actually be the ticket!

Great post,


by John on 23 February 2011 at 12:33 pm. #

[…] her Legal bloggers unite post on 21 February 2006. Nick blogs at Binary Law where he recently asked Are (law) ebooks the future? Travel back in time to 9 February 2004 and Nick posted: Law Blogging: What’s the fuss? The diary […]

by UK Blawg Roundup #6: The Time Travel Edition – The past, present and future practice of law on 8 April 2011 at 11:59 pm. #

Hi, I really liked this article and although I really like reading e-book, because it saves me time ( i can read them, while I am waiting my friends to come and meet me, while I am travelling etc,., because it is so small and easy to put in my handbag.), but I prefer that only for e-magazines and novels. I have tried to read some of my university text books on a e-reader, but it is too complicated, as you say when you are reading law book, you need to constantly go back and forth etc., so I believe an ordinary book is better in this case. Anyway, I thing e-books are cool , but I do not see them replacing the old paper books in the years to come!

by Ella on 23 May 2011 at 8:44 am. #

[…] However, one of the biggest publishing phenomena of 2010 was yet more books on screen, now called ebooks, with Amazon’s Kindle leading the way. Same old product, different medium, but this time mobile, wireless/3G connected and of course brought to you by the dominant online bookseller who is now selling more ebooks than print books. Law publishers are now jumping on the bandwagon. I’m sure they’ll have some success and, as there are no great fixed costs, enjoy some profits. But the earth still doesn’t move for me. […]

by Binary Law · Innovations in law publishing and the death of (some) print on 9 June 2011 at 9:58 pm. #

I think the regularly updated nature of law books makes ebooks particularly tempting. I remember spending whole afternoons helping to update my law clinic’s loose leaf copy of Harvey and then not needing to after it became available on Lexis.

I’m a big fan of using the Kindle to replace printing, though. I find it’s good for getting a non-screen copy of something you’re working on for proof reading.

by Stephen on 31 October 2011 at 11:45 pm. #