Innovations in law publishing and the death of (some) print

By Nick Holmes on June 9, 2011
4 comments
Filed under Law publishing

The first wave of digital products in the CD era consisted basically of “books on screen” – existing print product repurposed with search and hypertext bells and whistles. This continued online with the advent of the web. More books on screen. Same old product, different medium. But the earth never really moved.

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.

In academia the earth is moving as authors seek to regain control of their work. Consider, for example, the Durham Statement on Open Access to Legal Scholarship and Open Book Publishers.

The disruptive influences of the net have forced trade publishers to innovate as their advertisers have migrated to online alternatives. Legal Week has responded by moving from free print title to a paid-for website, with law firms paying for firm-wide access. Publishers Incisive Media won the Association of Online Publishers’ Digital Publisher of the Year (Business) award in 2010: they “demonstrated a great knowledge of their audience … and have shown positive results by truly grasping digital and placing it at the core of their business.”

And what of that innovation of the late 20th century, the looseleaf service? Ruth Bird, the Bodleian Law Librarian, writing on Slaw on The Death of the Looseleaf regards as the happiest of developments the “totally new approach being taken to looseleafs online”:

At long last the publishers have stopped trying to convert static paper to static electronic flat content. They now see the information as an organic, interlinking resource that allows a serendipity of approach, hyperlinking and content are divorced from the format. And we now have to wonder how long the publishers will continue to produce the paper updates.

The looseleaf was an innovative solution first devised by the Commerce Clearing House (CCH, now part of Kluwer) addressing the problem of keeping law books sufficiently up to date, but it has been overly exploited by the publishers as a cash cow and has now had its day.

Also on Slaw, Susannah Tredwell, Library Manager at Lawson Lundell LLP in Vancouver looks at the many disadvantages of looseleafs and considers their future. Looseleafs increasingly do not provide value for money. In some looseleafs consolidated legislation and other materials that can now be found online for free make up a significant portion of the publication. Considerable staff time is taken to file updates and complicated page numbering and filing instructions result in misfiling problems which require even more staff time to resolve. (But because the end user is not the one doing the filing, this time is usually not factored in as a direct cost of the service.)

Given all these concerns, what is the future of the looseleaf service? They will increasingly migrate online, but interestingly Susannah Tredwell also suggests that some should revert to a form whence they came:

They could instead be printed as books with yearly supplements. Changing to a book format means no staff filing time, no missing pages, and (ideally) lower costs. Another solution is to remove legislative materials that can easily be obtained elsewhere.

This is a view shared by publisher Jason Wilson of Jones McClure:

Binder-based books are awful, unwieldy, lack portability, discourage innovation in typographic design, and cost more in upkeep than simply acquiring a newly bound volume.

What do you think? Are we witnessing the end of print for law books? And what are the most striking law publishing innovations for you in this rapidly changing landscape?

4 comments

CCH were one of several who “invented” the looseleaf concept – I used to marvel in the Frankfurt fair jolleys how many countries claimed to have invented the beast. Whatever was in the water in the 40’s-50’s – the key issue was not taking the spine off, but whether you charged per up date, annually or by weight/pages.

Either way – yes, the looseleaf is dead or dying, thank God – and has been for some time, but that does not mean the full legacy back list of Lexis, West, BNA etc is moribund. There will be a role for bound format usage for some time, but it is peddling backwards while electronic use is double digit typically.

The bell is tolling for the librarians, however, as much as the publishers – on-line solutions are only going to get more dynamic and integrated with other solutions, not just case and document management ones.

The problem lies in the fact that the big publishers are geared up to dealing with heavily over engineered information beasts, whereas users want precision, relevance and speed, often on very niche specialisms (and take bang up to date for granted). At least the 15% price hike for publishing by weight should finally come to an end – the death of furniture publishing was first welcomed by me and others back in the late 90s. Why buy your sports car from a farrier?

by David Johnston on 9 June 2011 at 5:16 pm. #

Nick – firstly a great summary of some of the innovations in legal publishing and hopefully the death of the accursed looseleaf.

David – I’m not sure your comment about the “bell tolling for Librarians” is accurate. Certainly there have been many changes in the legal librarianship sector not just around legal publishing but around outsourcing and the impact this is having on the sector. The changes in legal publishing certainly mean that some roles will be at risk but Librarians have always been very good at reinventing themselves and adapting to changing circumstances so I don’t see any reason why this situation would be different.

by James Mullan on 14 June 2011 at 1:37 pm. #

I would concur with James. The day that lawyers want to spend time sorting out all the contract negotiations, clever deals and training – not to mention the monumental cock ups that the e-publishers manage to present us with regularly, then yes, I would say we should worry.

But even then today I have dealt with a specialist health query, business development, seminar research, financial services research etc etc so really, are we that defunct?! We are not just keepers of books you know, but a company resource…

Have a lovely afternoon!

by Clare Brown on 14 June 2011 at 2:07 pm. #

As I see it, the future of law publishing is along the lines of this article:

http://www.slaw.ca/2011/07/11/%E2%80%9Conly-a-fool-would-make-predictions%E2%80%94especially-about-the-future%E2%80%9D/

and yes, looseleaf has become almost dishonest, with its hidden cost and its purpose only to drag out legacy profits.

by Robert McKay on 9 February 2012 at 9:47 am. #