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The death of the looseleaf service?

By Jason Wilson

It’s been a long time coming, but Thomson Reuters Legal’s (TRL) latest campaign (as reported by Joe Hodnicki over at the Law Librarian Blog) suggests the imminent death of the dreaded looseleaf service. In 18 years, we’ve never published such a creature (monstrosity) for the simple fact that they are, and remain, an inelegant device for learning and finding information. 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.

So imagine my surprise to find that TRL’s Print & New Media division is finally experimenting with the idea of getting rid of the looseleaf service. I had always assumed that the margins on the supplements were far better than reprinting the entire collection every year and shipping it to customers, and they may very well still be. But since AALL in Denver this year, I’ve come to understand that many law firms may have cut subscriptions to these services dramatically because they no longer have the library staff to ensure upkeep, so it doesn’t matter much if the margins are better, assuming subscriptions are in a rapid free fall. And if the Ribstein and Keatinge on Limited Liability Companies (Ribstein & Keatinge) experiment is any indication of what’s going on behind the scenes, then I would suspect sales are in fact declining and TRL is trying to find a way to maintain margins. Let’s examine this experiment a bit.

Hodnicki informs us that the current list price for Ribstein & Keatinge is $434.50, but current subscribers will receive the “Summer 2010 Pamphlets” for $326 “with a second edition coming later this year.” Did you catch that last part? The publication will now be updated twice a year. Great, right? Cheaper and more current. Hold on a second though. Hodnicki says that the 2010 proforma pricing is $620. So, you’re getting hit with two editions that cost nearly $200 more than the original retail pricing for the looseleaf service. Hmmmm, maybe there’s a way to protect those margins after all.

So why the change and additional cost? Well, we could speculate, but thankfully one of the authors, Larry Ribstein, took up the mantle on behalf of TRL and posted a comment to Hodnicki’s post. Here’s what he had to say (emphasis is mine):

I would like to offer a few thoughts. First, for the reasons stated by TR, the pamphlet is indeed a higher quality product than the prior format of supplements with call-outs to the text. In my judgment as someone who has been closely involved with this product and with LLC law since the beginning, LLC law is moving much too fast for the prior format to continue to work. Librarians should take these improvements into account when evaluating the price increase. Second, interfiled pages are very labor intensive at your end and not necessarily cheaper. Third, contrary to the statement in the post, the pamphlets include both the latest updates from the prior looseleaf and new revisions to reflect the latest developments. One advantage of the pamphlet approach is that it is easier to rewrite sections as required by the latest cases and other materials. Obviously, though, neither the law nor the book changes entirely each six months. Finally, I believe that Ribstein & Keatinge is the best work available on LLCs, which are the fastest growing segment of business associations (more LLCs are now being created than corporations), and very important for all business practitioners. If I were a law librarian (and obviously I’m biased on this particular issue) I would take these facts into account in deciding how to best serve my patrons.

After reading his comments, I had the following thoughts:

  1. How was the looseleaf format a limitation? If Ribstein & Keatinge were a true interfiled title, then replacement pages would be printed and the customer would always have the most current information when they looked at the text. But it isn’t, so the format is considered a limitation because the supplements for these services have become pocket parts (whether inserted in the front or back), which is something Hodnicki raised in an earlier post. As Hodnicki has said, if the looseleaf pocket part is considered a limitation, then it is a limitation for all books with pocketparts, which suggests, to me, inferior design.
  2. Interfiled pages are labor intensive at our (i.e., the customers’) end? Yes, they always have been, and now you’re using this as a justification for an increased pricing structure. Terrific.
  3. With a true interfiled system, how does the pamphlet make it easier to rewrite sections? You just rewrite the sections and ask the customer to replace all the pages that have changed. But if you just make pocketparts, then yes, your looseleaf system is a limitation. Being able to reprint the entire book, as rewritten, is a huge advantage to the customer and to the author and to the publisher. How much time and money does the author and publisher save by moving to this system? That should be part of the equation as well rather than asking only the customer to pay for that advantage.

I get moving to pamphlets. It’s the only format we publish in. For print, it’s the only format that makes any sense because much of the law is incredibly dynamic and no taxonomy can be carved in stone. But to move from a looseleaf service that was updated once a year to a pamphlet service updated twice a year and charge more for it smells funny to me.

And while we’re on the subject of abandoning the looseleaf service, I have two final observations:

First, you cannot simply go from a looseleaf service to a soft-bound book (i.e., pamphlet) without rethinking some design details. For example, binders typically have smaller pages, wider gutters (for the holes), and physical tabs. Dumping a looseleaf service into a pamphlet format won’t work.

And second, the customer’s perception of value is vitally important. With looseleaf services, the customer always had an opportunity to weigh the value of replacement pages by size. Forget whether much content actually changed because this isn’t a rational assessment. If you received a looseleaf update costing $175 but only received 50 pages, you might question the value of that update. With pamphlets, the value is disguised, hidden. It’s up to the author and publisher at that point to craft a good introduction explaining to the customer the subject matter that has changed and been updated, highlight new cases, statutes, etc. that have been added and addressed, and on. Obviously, you don’t have to call out all of the changes, but certainly all of the major ones. Taking that step will go a long way towards building trust between the publisher and customer.

[Image (CC) by mandiberg]

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nick Holmes September 2, 2010, 10:37 am

    Pardon my ignorance, but what is a pamphlet (in this context)? Is it a paperback book?

    Looseleaf has always stunk as a format. It was invented to profit the publisher. Full stop. (Period to you.) The savings are all on the publisher's side and the inconvenience and cost (dressed up as convenience and saving) are all on the subscriber's side.

    As you say, it is a bit rich for TR now to extol the benefits of "pamphlets". That's just an acknowledgment that they've been ripping us off all these years.

    Good riddance to looseleafs.

    • jasnwilsn September 2, 2010, 12:23 pm

      Nick,

      Yes, "pamphlet" is actually an unfortunate industry term for a perfect-bound (soft cover) book. Our books are perfect-bound, but I would not (and never have) characterized them as pamphlets.

  • Michael Scott September 24, 2010, 12:38 pm

    As the author of three legal loose-leaf treatises, theoretically it should be less expensive only to print and distribute the changed pages than an entire volume. The pamphlet/supplement model is flawed because it requires a researcher to constantly flip back and forth between the main volume and the supplement.

    A compromise would be to replace entire chapters, which would waste some paper and ink, but would be much easier and quicker to file and less prone to errors.

    Another possibility is to publish the treatise as a series of pamphlets (one per chapter, for example). That makes them portable, and those chapters that are revised can be replaced individually without any interfiling.