Technology will not make old content, poor writing, or awful structure better or more useful.

by Jason Wilson on June 24, 2013

In the very near future, legal publishers’ front lists are going to explode with new digital titles for your consumption. They will grow by the dozens in every product category, enough to make your head spin, and they will never know the feel of paper. Each title will be increasingly granular, like an ALR annotation (e.g., Copyright Infringement in the Fifth Circuit: Proving Substantial Similarity). But along with the titles will come the promise of better filters for determining which “product” is right for your task. After all, discoverability is key, and the current tools available don’t really fit the bill.

What you may 1 not be told is the provenance of the commentary, and more specifically to your concern, is this really a new product? Odds are, the answer will be no because publishers won’t want you to know that you probably own or already purchased access to much, if not all, of the same content, assuming that you have. (Hint: it’s going to be a smaller part of a larger collection or multiple products).  But honestly, the provenance is most likely less relevant than the actual utility of the product.

Because publishers are spending more on marketing, sales, programmers, and legal journalists 2, there just simply isn’t anything left for good ol’ traditional editorial work. Market demands have shifted, and publishers are reacting as best as they can to deliver the right combination of goods and services. But they are still left with a vast collection of material written for a different kind of lawyer—products that used to carry fantastic margins—that must be repurposed. There is no acceptable model where these products simply die.

With the right ePub development, sales, distribution, and consumption platform, the ability to slice and dice to create becomes increasingly seductive. There is very little friction between conceptualizing a title, creating the product, and delivering it to the consumer, assuming you care little about its overall “flow” and utility to satisfying the user. The friction increases, of course, as you apply more editorial resources to restructuring and rewriting old, existing content to satisfy the new breed of legal research or lawyer. Technology does not make content better, editors do. If a publisher doesn’t care that much though, it’s sort of like a phishing scam, you just need a few bites to make it worthwhile. And seeing how there is no good web destination for legal product reviews, most titles’ lack of utility will remain obscure, thus making them potentially profitable. At least from where I sit.

Now, I don’t want this post to be interpreted as suggesting that legal publishers are going to take advantage of consumers 3, but I want it to serve as a signpost for possible changes in the publisher-consumer relationship. 4 Many clamor for digital to ease the burden of carrying books to the courthouse or home, interfiling, desktop distribution, lending, and so forth, but fail to recognize that giving up on traditional gauges such as binding, page length, return policies, and such will make it difficult to evaluate products unless some other kind of scale is demanded and implemented. But if the lack of investment in editors is any indication, we are going to see a bevy of products like no other time in the history of legal publishing.

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. Note, I leave open the possibility that you might actually be told something. No need to cast aspersion this early in the game.
  2. This is in reference to current awareness and on-demand legal analysis products.
  3. Because they’ve never done that before.
  4. Seeing how the FTC doesn’t really care

{ 6 comments }

Charlie Ter Bush June 25, 2013 at 10:08 am

The Big 3 (TR, LN and WK) at least no longer describe themselves as publishers anyway, and they are very sincere about this. Content is merely a component to their high-price-tag "workflow tools," and in and of itself somewhat of a commodity. Because of the way content is integrated into these tools, I certainly agree with your point that many of the indicators of quality are lost. Whether anyone will notice is another question (though I make the latter statement at the risk of sounding like an old grouch).

jasnwilsn June 25, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Even though they've become "solutions providers", they still control the largest collection of secondary sources in the country, and the predictions that law blogs and other firm-generated material (open source) would slowly take their place has not come to fruition. So how to combat entropy? One way is as you suggest, stick parts of it into the "workflow", where it seems to make sense. As alluded in the post, that only really works if editors are retooling the content for the task, not the machines.

Charlie Ter Bush June 25, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Absolutely agree, and given the strategy of these players it is good to keep a spotlight on their editorial practices, because they won't be focused on it.

Robert McKay August 2, 2013 at 2:55 am

I do agree and coincidentally have started to draft a Slaw column, http://www.slaw.ca/author/mckay/, on the actual or potential loss within legal publishers of the skills required for commissioning, now that they are doing very little of it.

Mike Giuliano August 14, 2013 at 9:47 am

Hopefully, the editorial component will not be overlooked. I think there is some realization that technology alone will not suffice to create the new content-based products that lawyers want.

jasnwilsn August 14, 2013 at 10:06 am

You could hope, but you'd be wrong. Editorial staffs aren't going to retooled to fix what's currently wrong with large treatise sets. They will still update them, but there won't be fundamental restructuring of the works to accommodate modern research practices.

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