Law publishing – the end of print?

There’s too much in favour of print to bury it prematurely, but we know that particular types of print are under severe threat from the disruptive influences of the internet.

The continuing decline of newsprint in the face of free news online has been well documented. Trade magazines also are falling like ninepins as their classified advertising migrates online. In the legal market, controlled circulation titles like Legal Week and The Lawyer are suffering similarly from loss of advertising revenues. Legal Week has responded by moving from free print title to a paid-for website, with law firms paying for firm-wide access – a strategy which is working according to publishers Incisive Media. Incisive 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.”

Open access to legal scholarship

Print publishing of academic law journals also looks set for an early grave. Across the pond, according to an annual report on Law Review Circulation by Ross Davies of George Mason University School of Law, circulations have declined dramatically and continue to do so: Harvard Law Review, for example, has declined from nearly 9,000 in 1980 to just over 2,000 in 2010.

As if natural attrition wasn’t enough, the February 2009 Durham Statement on Open Access to Legal Scholarship signed by a dozen leading US law profs actively called for the end:

The undersigned believe that it will benefit legal education and improve the dissemination of legal scholarly information if law schools commit to making the legal scholarship they publish available in stable, open, digital formats in place of print. ”¦ If stable, open, digital formats are available, law schools should stop publishing law journals in print and law libraries should stop acquiring print law journals. We believe that, in addition to their other benefits, these changes are particularly timely in light of the financial challenges currently facing many law schools.

The two years since the Statement was issued have seen increased publication of law journals in openly available electronic formats, but little movement toward all-electronic publication.

In the UK others, such as Open Book Publishers, similarly espouse open access to academic publications, arguing that the beneficiaries of copyright protection in academic works are the publishers, not the authors who will benefit more from wider circulation of their work under a Creative Commons licence or similar.

The end of the good times

The killer for many publications already in decline has, of course, been the recent recession. In February 2009, the (US) Law Librarian Blog found that 89 per cent of respondent law librarians (42 per cent law firm, 40 per cent academic, 14 per cent public) had already experienced or were expecting budget cuts averaging 10 per cent, the majority of which were in their acquisitions budgets.

Where are those cutbacks biting most? Where online equivalents are already paid for out of the budget or where free access materials might substitute, print will continue to suffer severely. We’ll continue to see a decline in subscriptions to printed law reports, looseleaf services and periodicals.

What will be left? My money’s on the practice book, shorn of all appendices. That’s where the enduring value is.

Looseleaf services RIP

Georgetown Law Library has an interesting page on Using Looseleaf Services which starts with a definition:

A looseleaf service is a popular type of legal source which brings together a variety of types of information concerning a particular topic or area of law. A looseleaf service is so called because it is made up of pages or pamphlets filed in looseleaf binders, often a multi-volume set. This format allows current information to be easily added to the existing materials. The ease of updating the binders allows supplementation to be added frequently, even weekly in some cases. Many looseleafs are also available online.

That last sentence deserves consideration. While it is strictly a non-sequitur, it recognises that the diverse content from these services is increasingly now being delivered via online services. Ruth Bird, the Bodleian Law Librarian at Oxford, writing on the leading Canadian blog 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 and has now had its day.

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.

Are ebooks the future?

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 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 of the law book is not the ebook. The web is the platform and if we put on the right pair of glasses we see the future of the law book already taking shape: it is all those web services that are not books and that do not try to replicate them. Soon we’ll be able to hook into that library with whatever device we fancy.

Nick Holmes is joint editor of this Newsletter.