Law ebooks – guidance and questions

In the last issue I wrote of the launch by LexisNexis of a clutch of practitioner ebooks, with plans for more to follow in 2011. Sweet & Maxwell have also now made a start but seem keen not to rush release content; they are releasing a selection of legal texts aimed more at the student market with plans to tackle practitioner texts during 2011. As regards format, they have decided they want to be device neutral so are offering multiple formats so that their content can be bought and downloaded in ePub format (like Lexis) but also in Mobi as favoured by Amazon, so their titles are also available from the Amazon Kindle store.

Elsewhere, the likes of Bloomsbury Professional (previously Tottel), Routledge and OUP have also started issuing ebooks, the focus again being mainly on the student text market which seems like a sensible place to start. Most are back list titles, but all are now starting to release newer works in the format (Bloomsbury and OUP are also offering sample chapters of many of their works in PDF format.)

For the moment, whatever the device you choose to access your ebook, the functionality you get from it is probably as dependent on the particular e-reader software you choose as on the device. Most e-readers, such as the Kindle, the Nook and Sony’s e-reader come with their own e-reading software. If you are reading off these devices you are reading with software developed with that device in mind. If you want to read on a tablet computer, a PC or Mac or a smart phone, then the options are wider, with popular choices including Adobe Digital Editions (ADE), Stanza, Apple iBooks, Calibre, Mobipocket and others.

These all offer search, bookmark, highlight and annotation functionality, but the means of display and the means and ease of accessing things such as the index and table of contents differs.

If you are going to view and read ebooks using a computer, smart phone or tablet PC, it is worth spending a bit of time playing around with the various options, as how tables of content are displayed differs greatly. ADEs split pane display of the TOC and text is easy and quick to use and will appeal to many and as navigation in more academic and practical texts is more important than in a linear work of fiction.

Being a Kindle owner, I use its software across devices out of convenience – it allows me to sync between devices – but Adobe Digital Editions is an excellent desktop option and I would go for Stanza on tablet computers (including the iPad).

Accessing the index quickly is not something that seems to have been given much thought. Because of this the quality of the search function included in the reader software is likely to be key. Depending on the number of hits and whether they are displayed in context or not will also be important. So, for example Kindle and Stanza display the results in a similar way to Google – a list with keyword in context – and the Kindle desktop option offers a split pane so that you can retain your search results in one pane whilst seeing each “hit” as you click on them in the other pane. Adobe Digital Editions takes you directly to the first hit and then you can click to next mention.

There is of course no doubt that using a physical book is still easier and quicker to use than ny ebook, but if you are willing to sacrifice a bit of ease and speed for convenience then ebooks are ideal.

My experience of using and reading two ebook titles from leading law publishers has convinced me that legal ebooks do have a future. Tolley’s Company Law Handbook 2010 (from LexisNexis) is a handy text aimed primarily at lawyers, accountants and company secretaries. Arranged in a user friendly A-Z chapter format, references to other sections of the book are linked, so you can click straight through to the related content. Peter Carey’s Media Law from Sweet & Maxwell is a great introduction to the subject for non-lawyers, lawyers unfamiliar with the area and law students. Again, being able to follow linked references in the text neatly provides functionality not available in the hard copy. I read this on the Kindle with ease.

Other questions

Within law firms there are some other questions that will need to be addressed if ebooks are to flourish.

Cost. How much will ebooks cost? Will there be a like for like price between hard copy and e-copy? Will publishers push bundles, offering a free e-copy (or as close to free as possible) with any hard copy?

Access. How many people can use an ebook? For a traditional hardcopy book this is not a problem – anyone can look at it and use it; if it is in a library (legal or otherwise) anyone can borrow it. How will this work with ebooks? Will books now have to be “owned” by a named person and not shared with others? Or will they be licensed to multiple users? Will law firm’s who have libraries be able to buy copies to “loan”? Also, in a sector where many of the larger law firms buy their books, journals etc through third party agents, how will that work in practice with ebooks?

Updating. How will updating work, especially if looseleaf publications get the ebook format? If your ebook file is overwritten with new content will you lose any annotations and comments you have already made, or will they find a way to just update the pages that have changed like with a hardcopy looseleaf? At the moment it would almost certainly be a totally new file. Can the current ebook formats adapt to meet this type of need or will publishers develop their own apps to deliver such functionality?

Citation. As page numbers disappear in ebooks (replaced instead by “location”), students or others wishing to cite page numbers would still currently need to track down a hard copy to find the corresponding passages to allow them to reference or cite anything they read in ebook format. This would seem to be a problem that will need to be addressed and quickly if ebooks are going to be of genuine use as citable sources.

Scott Vine is Senior Information Officer, Communications, Media and Technology Group, Clifford Chance, LLP.