Wednesday, September 28, 2011

eBooks: Why are Publishers Pouring Digital Content into 19th Century Wineskins?

I was at first excited by the prospect of eBooks for law firms. Next year could we be handing new associates an i-Pad loaded with a custom practice library? Could eBooks liberate law firms from the significant cost of housing, maintaining and updating print resources? Could eBooks liberate librarians from managing the substantial overhead of staff time for processing, the cost of filers for updating and the real estate footprint demanded by print resources. Could we be freed to spend even more time engaged in value added client support activities?

Deskbooks are a Go. Right now the only type of publication I see as ready for the eBook distribution model are the annual, statutory code books that we commonly refer to as deskbooks. These are perfect candidates. They are meant to portable and "personalizable." Since I work in a firm with over 1,000 lawyers, the prospect of eliminating  the annual processing and distribution of thousands of volumes of deskbooks makes me do a "happy dance."

Treatises Not So Much. The more I talk to publishers about the model for "circulating" multi-volume treatises, the more I am disheartened at the predominance of print based paradigms. Public libraries have developed methods for circulating eBooks that are modeled on existing print circulation models and in that context, traditional circulation models may make sense.

Law Firms Need A Different Model - Law Books and Lawyers are Different
  • Law firms are not public libraries. We are purchasing corporate access to content, we need a model that permits the unfettered access to appropriate units of content on an "as needed" basis. 
  • Treatises are not monographs - they are complex organisms that change over time. 
  • Lawyers need information not "volumes." 
  • Lawyers require updating by "push " not "pull " (We learned this lesson with electronic newsletters, lawyers didn't go a website to get the current issue of an electronic newsletter - it had to be delivered! Yet right now legal publishers seem to believe that lawyer behavior has changed. They appear to believe that lawyers want to engage in unnecessary administrative tasks which interrupt their billable time.The current proposed models also suggest that librarians want to chase down lawyers and their Ipads when it it time to update a treatise or that lawyers will willingly spend time reloading treatise updates to their Ipads. Didn't we cross the automatic update bridge decades ago? Why regress to a less efficient workflow now?)
 The Madness of Circulating an eBook Treatise

 If I hear one more publisher suggest that I would want to ask lawyers to "check-out an eBook" as if it were a physical object, I will run from the room screaming. Sadly when I ask why they came up with this circulation model -- I am told -- this is the model that librarians are requesting! Is this really true? Has there been a complete failure of the imagination? Must we hamstring ourselves and our lawyers to manage digital content in the same way we would manage a physical object? Can we call a time-out before we get too far down this road?

There are a number of reasons this is a ridiculous model but let me start with one of the most obvious.

Does a lawyer really want to download a volume of a treatise? I think Not!

 Let's think about it. A "volume" is not a meaningful unit of intellectual information.  A volume represents the number of pages which can be put into a  4 inch wide binder. This 4 inch container doesn't necessarily represent a  coherent unit of information that is of interest to a lawyer. The most meaningful unit of information is more likely to be a "chapter" and yet no one is thinking about allowing lawyers to download these more meaningful subsections of legal treatises.

Let me illustrate :

Volume 3 of Matthew Bender's Business Crimes 
  • Chapter 23 Bad Faith in Insurance and Other Contracts  
  • Chapter 24 Private RICO Actions  
  • Chapter 25 False Imprisonment  
  • Chapter 26-27 Reserved  
  • Chapter 28 Trademarks and Trademark Infringement  
I suppose if I thought long and hard , I could come up with a fact pattern involving, Insurance, RICO, False Imprisonment and Trademarks - but it would be a stretch. My guess is that a lawyer is more likely to be interested in one of these chapters from volume 3 and perhaps one or two other chapters which reside in volumes 1,2 , or 4. For some reason, the reality of lawyer workflow doesn't carry weight in the eBook distribution model. We are developing digital workflows which are enslaved to the limitations of 19th century print publishing. Why?

I have no doubt that the current design and arrangement of legal treatises was viewed as a magnificent leap forward to a 19th century lawyer. I can't help but recall my one visit to the old Matthew Bender offices in New York 20 years ago. It was a delightfully Victorian environment, I expected to encounter Bartleby the Scrivener with a quill pen and high collar around every corner.

 But Folks we are now in the 21st Century -- isn't it time to break the 19th century paradigms that constrain our thinking .

Déjà Vu CD-ROMS: Sometimes the Customer is Wrong!

When cd-roms were introduced in the early 1990's, I will never forget a meeting that Ron Friedmann and I had with a representative of CCH.

When they created the digital version of the Standard Federal Tax Reporter, instead of integrating the updates into the primary search database, they segregated the updates into an "electronic pocket part." Instead of introducing a smarter product that would always deliver  up-to-date results, they kept the "new" information segregated and required lawyers to engage in a two step research process.They missed the opportunity to use technology to improve lawyer efficiency. I don't recall if we laughed or gasped, but we were both appalled. When we asked why they wouldn't just integrate the updates into the main search, the response was - "our customers wanted it that way." Well sometimes your customers are wrong!

Think Outside the Volume. Unless both publishers and librarians can stop looking in the "rear view mirror," we will  all loose the opportunity to develop an eBook model for law firms which enhances both access to information and workflow efficiencies. I fear that -- at least in the law firm environment,-- eBooks  may be destined to become the "8-track tape" of the 21st century.

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