A great deal has been written both here and elsewhere about the future of publishing in general, and book publishing in particular. And while there are probably as many different prognostications as there are prognosticators, my impression is that a solid majority of those who have commented on these things are in agreement that the publishing industry, as we know it, will soon become a thing of the past. According to a recent piece by novelist Jon Evans in The Walrus, ((Jon Evans, “Apocalypse Soon: The Future of Reading,” The Walrus 4:7 (September, 2007) 38.)) which Neil Campbell cited in his post a couple of weeks ago, “book publishing is a dinosaur industry, and there’s a big scary meteor on the way.”
The argument goes something like this. First, we are in the midst of a profound cultural and economic shift, aided and abetted by technology, wherein intellectual property becomes a “public good” (in the economic rather than normative sense of the word). Second, printed books are a highly inefficient means of delivering information, particularly in this new world, and while they may have some lingering aesthetic appeal that too will disappear as new devices such as Sony’s e-book reader continue to improve on the display of text on screen. Evans compares books to vinyl recordings. And finally, traditional book publishers will have a diminished role, if they have one at all, in bringing creators to consumers. In the new world, so it goes, anyone can be a publisher.
The first part of this argument is, of course, subject to serious and wide-ranging discussion and debate among the chattering (and blogging classes). Indeed it is a topic to which I would very much like to return in a future posting. Similarly, the future of the printed page has received a considerable amount of attention. But the digitization of legal information has been a fact of life for legal publishers and their customers for at least two decades. There is, I would argue, a general consensus among both information providers and information users that the electronic storage and online retrieval of large amounts of legal information, is inherently more efficient and, as Ted Tjaden points out in his posting this week, an increasing number of previously print-only monographs, treatises, and textbooks now coexist in both print and electronic formats. At Irwin Law we have been making books available on Quicklaw since 1998. In 2005 we published Michael Geist’s In The Public Interest under a creative commons copyright in both digital and paper. Last year we launched stand alone digital editions in the VBK format, and we are currently working on networked e-books for academic libraries. All of these activities have given us and our customers the chance to evaluate platforms and technologies. The jury, as they say, is still out. It is interesting to note that while the number of our digital products continues to grow, their share of overall sales has decreased in recent years. Book sales continue to grow much faster.
But what about the role of publishers? Here, I think, Evans and others demonstrate a misunderstanding of what it is publishers actually do. Particularly in scientific and professional publishing, of which legal publishing is a subset, the course a manuscript takes on the road from the desktop of an author to the hands of a reader involves a great deal more than simply putting ink on paper. It includes peer review, rigorous editorial scrutiny and intervention, fact checking, careful and creative design and production, and a host of other activities. These are the things that stand behind the publisher’s imprint and signify to the reader that the information is reliable. In a sense, publishers impose a system of validation which the legal community and others have come to rely upon. It is a model, I would argue, that is going to be difficult to replace.