Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Two Observations About the State of Modern Law Book Publishing

First, things cost too much and the prices keep increasing at rates that are out-stripping inflation and funding for libraries. It's almost as though publishers don't want law libraries to buy law books any more. Second, while the quality of online services, and, indeed, even print resources get better and better, there is still an indication that publishers aren't developing their materials for what people need, but, rather, what they can profit from.

Think that the reason that we're in these predicaments is at least partly because most of our publishers are so far removed from their customers that they simply don't understand who their customers are, or how or why they are using them.

For the most part, the executives of the big three publishers of materials about American law are not lawyers, nor publishers. Even if they have law degrees, they usually also have MBA's and come from business backgrounds. They are corporate types who see their companies as manufacturing widgets! They don't appreciate the grave responsibility that they have as publishers. (Seriously.)

Think about it. Without publishers, we'd have no idea what the law is. After all, the law is ideas, and it doesn't become static or fixed in any way, shape or form until it's captured in some form or other. The government and the courts have traditionally done a half-a**ed job of publishing legal materials, but that's about it. The only two government publications that are effectively published are the Federal Register and the CFR. Everything else they publish is poorly done: slow, bizarre formats and classification systems, etc. Without commercial publishers, we wouldn't have a workable USC, US Supreme Court Reports, federal court reporters, etc. What's more, even if we did have all that it wouldn't be worth much without looseleafs, treatises and law reviews to tell us what it all means. (See Jason Wilson's excellent post on why Secondary Sources are Like Cheeseburgers. The work of publishers isn't just like manufacturing hub caps or widgets, it's a vitally important role in our whole legal system. It's the lynchpin of our understanding the law.

But publishers and executives who come to the law publishing industry thinking that they are publishing widgets, will view their work differently than those who realize that they are not publishing widgets. This is the first problem: the new publishers are not serving us, they're serving themselves. They think they're making widgets.

Second, in the aftermath of the enormous mergers of the Ninties, the companies have merely grown more dense at the top. People who make decisions about what should be published and what shouldn't, or how they should serve their customers or how they shouldn't are now made by people who are so far removed from their customers, that they can't really hear what's being said. Sales people don't know who to communicate with inside companies in order to pass along good ideas. (Librarians are full of good ideas, by the way. No fooling.) I had an experience recently in which a single title published by a single publisher was available in both print and electronic formats. Managers of the print format didn't even know there was an electronic format available! The left hand didn't merely no know what the right hand was doing; the left hand didn't even know the right hand existed!

There are a couple publishers still around who are independent and produce good materials, and they succeed, in part I think because they are still small enough where actual customers can talk to the publishers and the product development people. But with the likes of the big three (or four, depending on how you count), you can't get any face time with a person who matters unless you can deliver.... profits.

Now, lest this sound too pessimistic and negative, please understand that I'm simply trying to be objective with this post. All this is understandable and remediable. Publishers must realize that their roles are critical components of our legal system and take a broader, bigger view of what they do. And, we customers must be more understanding about who were are dealing with; and we must continually strive to inform them. Especially the those newest to the field. If they don't get it, we must work to explain to them why we care so much, and why they should care about why we care.


Jason said...


Excellent post. Sean Hocking had a related piece on Slaw last week calling for legal publishers to bring back "the publisher" in their businesses. Hocking, Legal "Publishing" Companies & People: That's What We Need (Sept. 30, 2010). I'm glad you pointed out the work of the independents because the face of our industry would have you believe that publishing companies are, as you so rightly observe, serving themselves. The rest of us are, and remain, committed to the law, which benefits us all.

Anonymous said...

You left out the fact that the major U.S. law book publishers are owned by foreign publishers who come from markets where lawyers are used to paying high prices for law books because the markets are small and segmented. My editor told me that when their company was acquired, they were informed that prices were going to increase because European law publishers were used to making 30% profit instead of the 8-10% that American publishers were used to.

Richard Leiter said...

Anonymous, This is fascinating! I left it out, for two reasons: First, I didn't want to detract from the observations about content that I was making. The fact that most American Law is published by foreign corporations should be a source of shame for us all. (I secretly hope that one of these days, someone like Rush Limbaugh get ahold of that information.....!)

Second, I've never heard it put that way. I assumed that prices were going up simply because the corporations were trying to make their money back, or were trying to earn profits from their shareholders.... This rationale makes the pricing climate even more sinister and ridiculous.

Betsy McKenzie said...

Great post, Rich! And I would go a bit farther and say that without publishers, we would have to democracy, at least U.S. style. In the U.S., as you point out, we depend on commercial publishers to put out federal statutes as the U.S. Code, and I contend that democracy depends on citizen access on documents such as the Constitution and statutes, at a minimum.

Now, consider that, as Anonymous points out, items like the U.S. Code have come to be published by foreign-owned mega-corporations. I would think that Rush Limbaugh, upon considering the situation would have good cause for paranoia.

And we haven't even touched on the ologopoly issues that Ken Svengalis has raised, that the mergers of the 80's and 90's brought about. That is a bit short of real monopoly, but the lack of real competition is one reason for the prices rising so dizzyingly. Great post! Thank you, Rich!