Publishers Could Induce the Digital Transformation

I vividly remember the salesperson coming to our home as a child, brandishing the 32 shiny, leather-bound volumes. “This,” he said, “is the Encyclopedia Britannica.” Although we had the Vic-20, we simply didn’t have the same access to information online that we do today. As an insatiable bookworm who already professed an encyclopedic knowledge on everything I claimed to be right about, I was completely enthralled.

We ended up settling for the Britannica Children’s Encyclopedia. As I recall it met its eventual demise being cut up into pieces for its pretty pictures for use in elementary school projects in science, English, and math classes which required a collage or accompanying graphic. This was my version of non-digital interactive media at its finest.

This week the era of the Encyclopedia Britannica as we know it has come to an end. The company announced that it will no longer be publishing print editions of its collection. But they also deny that Wikipedia or Google has anything to do with the decision. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. President, Jorge Cauz, stated,

This has to do with the fact that now Britannica sells its digital products to a large number of people…

The sales of printed encyclopedias have been negligible for several years. We knew this was going to come…

A printed encyclopedia is obsolete the minute that you print it. Whereas our online edition is updated continuously.

After reading Simon Fodden’s post yesterday on Romspen Investment Corp. v. 6176666 Canada Ltée. 2012 ONSC 1727, I wondered if this is the perspective we need to introduce to the legal field in order for them to go digital.

Until now we have been pushing for digital records, e-discovery, and e-filing from the wrong perspective. LexisNexis sold the first digital copy of Britannica in 1981, and Britannica actually launched the first online encyclopedia as early as 1994. But the print copies continued in circulation for over decades before they were pulled this week. Could we be facing similar resistance from the legal industry?

I already use my digital Rules of Civil Procedure on my iPad in court far more than I do my physical copy, which provides supplements and looseleafs, and is too bulky to conveniently carry around. I rarely pull a physical record when there is an equivalent citation available in digital format. This saves me time, and those savings are passed on to the client.

If legal consumers, which includes knowledge management professionals, judges, and even clients, demand the use of digital products from publishers, the chances are they’ll produce them. And if they don’t, their competitor will. See my Rules example above, where the publisher states it is “The ONLY Ontario Rules of Court which can be dropped directly on your iPad®, iPhone®, Android or Blackberry® Playbook.” Commercial publishers respond to the demands of the consumers. Just as Wikipedia and Google prompted Britannica to shift almost entirely to digital products, the CANLIIs of the world will force the commercial publishers to provide something more than just a digital database.

The challenge may be in the interactivity of mobile devices themselves. Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel wrote in the New York Times earlier this month,

People who read e-books on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks.

E-mail lurks tantalizingly within reach. Looking up a tricky word or unknown fact in the book is easily accomplished through a quick Google search. And if a book starts to drag, giving up on it to stream a movie over Netflix or scroll through your Twitter feed is only a few taps away.

That adds up to a reading experience that is more like a 21st-century cacophony than a traditional solitary activity. And some of the millions of consumers who have bought tablets and sampled e-books on apps from Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble have come away with a conclusion: It’s harder than ever to sit down and focus on reading.

Now imagine that the judge and counsel are both on their iPads looking at the same e-book, which allows hyperlinking directly to a commercial database, and is updated frequently with emerging case law and commentary (the equivalent of looseleafs). The printed book that opposing counsel is using is already obsolete, and doesn’t have the key piece of case law that makes the crucial difference in your case. As much as I appreciate everything CanLII does, that is a product worth paying for. Although I have yet to use surreptitiously use Netflix in court yet (there’s always a first), the interactivity of mobile technology can also be its greatest strength.

If the counsel in Romspen had electronic copies of the appraisal documents in their Dropbox, and were able to email them directly to the bench, they could have saved the court time and resources. Better yet they could have gained favour with the bench, which may not have necessarily resulted in better outcomes, but obviously makes submissions easier. If digital advocacy is good advocacy, I suspect more lawyers will make the transformation, and fast. But judges will need to make more “rants” like the one Justice David Brown did in Romspen for counsel to realize how important this is to judges, and also encourage counsel to e-mail documents to their registrar.

Courts will also need better printing facilities with a digital submission cue (via e-mail) and credit card payments (not coins) to make it convenient for counsel to carry their documents digitally. Judges may not think they have a role in encouraging these infrastructure changes, but they do.

When legal consumers, the commercial publishers, and the judiciary all make their own bold moves into the digital divide, the courts will have choice but to follow. They may dally on for a few decades, bogged down in mountains of paper and large file rooms, but those will be in the minority for as long as a few decades while the rest of us benefit from the efficiencies. And if commercial publishers are also able to convince legal consumers that they can make more money through these efficiences, there won’t be many stragglers left behind at all.

We tend to think of Britannica as a dinosaur in this digital age, but we forget that less than 1% of Britannica’s current revenue comes from their print volumes. Only an additional 15% comes from online subscriptions. The vast majority of their revenue comes from “curriculum products” like Pathways Science, Smart Math, and Discover English with Ben and Bella. In other words their core market are those kids with a thirst for interactive media, just like those cut up encyclopedias were for me at that age.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    It’s genuinely hard to write the first book on a new subject, or the first book that treats a subject a new way. The people who can do that are hard to find, even for a well-know publisher.

    Once the ice is broken, though, an expert in the subject who isn’t a great author can write the second or third edition, and become a better author in the process.

    The implications of this are probably most visible in science and the law: one can learn to be good by signing on to work on a “looseleaf”, and presently graduate to writing monographs. The barriers to entry are much lower if one is writing updates, for both authors and publishers.

    Therefor, I expect to see books that constantly are brought up to date, first in law, then in textbooks, and then in the physical and mathematical sciences. The publisher that recognizes that, and that plans for individual lawyers to annotate their textbooks and then publish the annotations, will be the first to benefit from the capabilities of what are now the current technologies.


  2. David,

    Those are great points. But my point is that young legal authors can still gain the same amount of prestige by authoring updates to an electronic publications. I agree that the updates are what is key; most litigators live in some form of perpetual paranoia that they have missed a key case that just came out.