Tuesday, March 24, 2009

U of Michigan Biting the Dust (?), Poised to Turn into Blog....?

The Great Lakes IT Report reports that the U of Michigan Press is following the trends and will revamp their publishing operation and expand into "3D animation and video", as well as publish it's scholarship in digital format so it can provide hot links and graphics. The announcement says that it "will be "restructured" to focus primarily on digital monographs, not the printed version."

It seems to me that ceasing publication is quitting publishing, and selling scholarship as pdf's and web pages won't enhance it's prestige, but will dilute it. It also seems odd to brush off concerns about customers who want to "hold something" can simply print them off on their own. Most scholars that I know would rather publish with a publisher who can actually capture the scholarship and sell it as an item. Blogs and hot links still don't have the cache of a printed book.

That's not to say that blogs don't have their place, or that bloggers aren't thinkers. It's just that their material is inherently different. It's a new format that's gaining respect and notoriety all it's own. Witness, Obama has even called on Politico correspondents in his first two press conferences. If that act alone hasn't given bloggers credibility, then nothing has. But does this mean that blogs are equivalent to University Presses?

UM's announcement, I think, is short-sighted. If anything, they should go slow, and start a blog, perhaps, and use it to promote it's catalog.

Fortunately, the announcement doesn't say that it is going to completely cease it's print publishing, but, spokes-people quoted in the article seem to indicate that it is going in that direction. I predict that ten years from now, it will largely be the same as it is now. But with the addition of a digital division; it will have higher overhead and will probably be selling more books.

Finally, I'd like to know how many libraries, or customers, for that matter, actually buy digital books. When I see adverts for e-books, I usually pass them up. What's a library to do with e-books, any way? To me, it seems that delivery of e-books is too personal for libraries to be involved with. I can provide links to the material, or direct patrons to useful titles, but I can't be responsible for how they actually obtain use, or fuss with setting up their equipment or software to guarantee their ability to use it.

If a patron has a Kindle (or the new e-book reader/web-book from Apple that's coming in the summer) how can a library lend it out? There's a missing link in this business model.

I wish the U of Michigan Press well, and hope that they are able to complete their misguided experiment before too many others go down the same road.

OK, a final thought: If a publisher publishes a title in a format that no one can read, have they still published a title? The thing that's neat and tidy about publishing a book is that the end user needs only two things to read it: light and the ability to read. (OK, knit-pickers, they do need access, but that's theoretical....) But look what's required to read an e-book: power, equipment of a particular variety, connection to the internet, software and the ability to make it all work together - plus the ability to read.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What's the Future of Legal Publishing? (To Anonymous)

Ok. Anonymous, here's an attempt to clear up my earlier post on Westlaw and Lexis. I grant you that stock price isn't necessarily an indicator of profitability. But for a company with a virtual monopoly on a very important (critical?) product, with an ever-expanding market, it seems to me that they should be doing better than they are. (Ie., Not raising prices at double the rate of inflation, not complaining about declining sales, etc.)

Let me try to explain my cynicism about their business models:

Here's a couple of facts that I observe about the state of legal bibliography:

1) the director's email listserv is buzzing with talk of canceling print subscriptions to reporters, looseleafs and costly, large treatises;
2) prices of legal materials are rising at about 10% per year, and more;
3) cost for access to the very titles being cancelled in favor of academic subscriptions to online services is substantially less;
4) each company has become publicly held in the past fifteen years;
5) stock has remained virtually unchanged in value since Yahoo! Finance charts report - shouldn't it have been going up?;
6) the quality and quantity of free government and court information are both increasing; and,
7) publishers complain/comment ceaselessly on declining sales of print materials. (They seem to be blind to the fact that their pricing policies on these materials is making them unaffordable. This is probably the biggest reason sales are declining. But that’s another topic....)

Taken altogether, it seems clear that both companies’ present business models are threatened. Their positions with respect to LMA’s and public access contracts are ruthless and even seem desperate.

What is most puzzling to me is that the Big Two/Three legal publishers just can’t seem to adapt to the current climate. Instead of enhancing their valuable assets - secondary materials - they appear to be focusing on primary material (at extravagant prices) as their primary business. Primary material is free information that is in the public domain. All that the publishers can really do to make a product that is more valuable that mere access to primary material is add their intellectual property: digests, case-verification tools, treatises, handbooks, encyclopedias, etc. These tools provide the intellectual structure that overlays the whole field of primary sources and helps practitioners and citizens make sense of it all. But as they see their subscription base decline, they appear to be simply raising the prices to make up for falling revenue.

The BT/Th should be innovating. Offering users something that’s new and useful and that exploits the fantastic catalog of secondary materials that they’ve built over the years. They should be building mobile device/iPhone apps and 2.0-sites that serve up indexes to all their material: Digests, KeyCite and the whole catalog of secondary materials.

In the end, they could easily cease publication of many books and provide cleaner and more useful access to these valuable tools of research. For instance, why do they publish the Digests at all? A mobile/web app can provide better access to digest information than can a print volume. Likewise, a mobile device can provide better indexing to all their materials than can their print indexes.

As their profits temporarily rise, primarily because they are selling less and less at higher and higher prices, they have to adapt or end up in a curious conundrum: they own the most valuable and important assets to legal scholarship and research, but won’t be able to sell them to anyone anymore because their won't be able to afford them.

Then what?

OK, I Give Up, Newspapers ARE Toast - But Important, They Are

It appears that the industry just isn't adapting to the times. First, they failed to compete with Craig's List and lost classified revenue; Second, in response, they laid off staff and let the quality of their product slide; and, Third, many have failed to develop an online format that will connect with their users. The future of the news looks like it will be a combination of Twitter feeds, email notifications, RSS, 2.0-style websites, and mobile-optimized websites. The biggies, have made most of the switches, of course, but clearly the time has come for local rags to develop local online content.

This all can't be that difficult to do, either. And, as Prof Glasser, rightly puts it, the importance of these enterprises are critical to an informed citizenry and a functioning democracy, so I am optimistic that news papers will keep pace and adapt. Just check out news organization iPhone Apps from USA Today and the BBC if you want to see part of the future. The Google News reader for iPhone is another app that is well-executed to feed users news, national, international AND local.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

From USA Today: Newspapers as important as libraries!

Here's a delightful quote from Professor Theodore Glasser. The article is about the demise of newspapers:

"We need to view journalism in the same way that we view libraries and public schools, as absolutely essential to any prospering community," says Theodore Glasser, professor of communications at Stanford University.

Prof. Glasser has just become one of my personal heroes. (I've never met the man, but I hope he's up to the task....)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lexis and West are Losing Money? Oh My!

Weird. I just looked up Reed Elsevier’s and Thomson Reuters’ stock quotes for the recent past. In the case of Thomson, Yahoo! Finance’s charts only go back a couple of years, and in the case of Reed Elsivier they go back much further. If stock is any indication of anything at all, it’s the company’s profitability. And over the long haul, both companies are not doing well at all. The charts show a general decline. In the case of Reed Elsevier, it's about at the same place it was ten or fifteen years ago. Surprising? I think so. How in the world can companies with such great, vital products be loosing money?

Lack of foresight. They failed to create the next generation of information product when they had the means. They’ve stayed loyal to what they know: sell what you’ve got, and keep it that way! Instead of innovating and using the tools at their disposal and distributing their product with the greatest of ease, they have priced themselves and their products out of existence.

As Carl Malmud and others advocate for thorough and free distribution of all public information, and as technology and technologists rise to meet the challenge with elegance and facility, the Big Two (three, if you count Volters Kluwer) are marketing themselves out of existence despite a veritable intellectual gold mine in hand, the main things that make their products special: secondary titles, digests and indexes and compilations of all sorts.

The free public information movement will surely supplant the Big Two/Three’s ability to publish primary materials. But they can’t supplant their ability to publish the secondary materials that help us make sense of it all.

If the Big Two/Three go out of business because of poor business practices, bad judgement and lack of vision, God help us. I’m serious. If scholarship fails, (which is what secondary materials are, after all) then culture fails. When culture fails, so do civilizations.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think that our legal system is mighty important for maintaining order, and even if I think that it can stand with a tweak or two here of there; it’s worth saving and maintaining.

Somehow, the news that Lexis and West (and CCH) were loosing money sent a chill up my spine....