Monday, June 12, 2006

The End of the World as We Know it

The following will soon be published in an upcoming "Database Report" column in Legal Information Alert:

I recently was asked if I had any concerns to bring to the attention of a certain large midwestern publisher. I responded, with characteristic reserve and diplomacy:

"Yeah: Everything is getting too expensive. We're considering canceling Westlaw to save money. Over the last six years, their prices for standard print materials has inflated something like 30%. That's absurd. Especially for publicly funded schools in this present economy. Most of us haven't had budget increases of more than 5% in years. They should be excoriated to not read shifting purchasing patterns of academic libraries as an indication of our preferences: ie, canceling digests, state codes, etc. It is purely a matter of economics brought on BY WEST ITSELF! If they see our cancellation patterns as indicating that libraries are moving away from print for any reason other than cost, they are deceiving themselves and will come to regret it. Someone will come along and market cheaper versions of all this stuff. West has virtually no good will left in law libraries any more. They need to hear this stuff.

Give 'em hell!"

My concerns were diplomatically conveyed to the publisher and I received a reply to the effect that while they acknowledge that the market is changing, they want to attempt to milk all the revenue they can out of the print market before it dries up! This response is surprisingly frank and honest. And it should scare the living daylights out of us all.
I truly believe that the "big two" publishers believe that the print market is "drying up." What I'm not sure of is whether they are aware that they are the cause of it drying up. They have multiple reasons for thinking this. For one, they think that online research being the future is a fait accompli. This is reflective, of course, of the naive belief that the future will look like Star Trek or the world of the Jetson's. This is patently false. If I am correct, then the market will prove me so and the publishers will continue to grow their catalogs and profits in the print market whether they like it or not. At best, they will be relieved and embarrassed.
But there is a sinister aspect to this scenario. The costs associated with maintaining their online databases is every bit as expensive as maintaining a print publishing house, so as they enter the future they are running two gigantic businesses side by side. Clearly, they would like to only run one, but maintain the same profits. New contract schemes like LMA's, WestPack's and who knows what else will be coming down the pipe in the next few years, will be directed at causing us to cut back on print resources - for economic reasons, not practical ones - in hopes that they can justify canceling their print catalogs.
My prediction is that soon, we may be in a situation where the publishers will unilaterally close their print publishing divisions and announce that they are going entirely online. Watch for the cost's of CALR to go through the roof.
My proof for these predictions? I have heard of no library that has cancelled a title simply because the print version was not useful anymore (exceptions might be Shepard's, indexes to legal periodicals and, someday, perhaps, digests); The reasons for every cancellation is lack of money and lack of space. I know of no one who would argue that books are bad or not useful. They are simply expensive and take up space.
And there aren't any libraries on the Enterprise or the Skypad Apartments.....

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

Dear Rich,
I am so glad I popped in and read this entry! Wow. The West guys really have not processed the reality that the electronic products have exactly as much cost as the print ones and that they have been riding free on the back of print.

I don't know if you saw my e-mail to law lib-dir-l about asking the Boston law firm librarian community about whether they are keeping print. THEY ARE; what print they have now, they are planning to keep. Every single person who responded and I had dozens of responses. We were speaking of statutes, and occasionally of reporters, to be specific.

I plan to keep the print in my law school library -- the way research is taught at Suffolk, we rely on the print, and need a wide variety to accommodate a large number of sections at once. Give 'em hell, Rich!