It would be my view that, even at its very best, the world of legal and professional publishing has been and is one that embraces evolution but not more. We see evidence of this in the recent sale back to its previous owners of American Lawyer Media. What goes round comes around would appear to be the preference and it seems that the major international law publishers were not interested in absorbing ALM. Perhaps this reflects their current view of the market. Still, there can be little doubt that the electronic revolution and the state of the economy in recent years, in aggregate, have altered somewhat the speed of change and customers’ attitude to value for money.
On the former, it is interesting to compare the lifespan of information delivered via loose-leaf volumes with its de facto successors, CD and DVD. Probably, the first loose-leaf service covered the US federal income tax and it was first published in 1913 by Commerce Clearing House. Although many loose-leaf services are still in existence and widely used, few new services of this kind are launched nowadays, nor have they been for the past decade or more. Contrast this with professional information delivered via CD and later DVD. The first of the former began to appear in the mid-1980s and for the past 5-10 years have been in decline, in favour of online delivery. Hence, the loose-leaf medium has had an active life of nearly 100 years while CD/DVD have reached obsolescence in 30 years.
In pre-electronic information times, it would have been unusual for the loyal customers of a high-quality professional publisher to highlight price as a negative factor. Based on trust, reputation, a requirement to have optimal content to perform the role of a professional advisor and knowledge that investment in high added-value content led to high profits, quality and service were much more important than price factors. In the past several years, the introduction of more free content, access to official information, blogs of various descriptions and a general commoditisation of information have put price much more into focus. It is probable that even professional advisors, whose first information resource is as likely as a lay-person to be Google or Wikipedia, will be resistant to allocate substantial investment to information. Gary Rodrigues and others have written knowledgeably on this trend.
Some research I did recently on the topic of the pros and cons of offline electronic delivery indicated clear trends among users. The vast majority of those who responded took the view that frequent or real-time updating of content were the key factors in favour on online delivery rather than offline but that factors such as technology obsolescence and the fact that modern laptop computers and tablets do not provide CD and DVD drives are of near equal significance. Moreover, people don’t want to have to store, carry and install disks. At the same time, a minority take the view that issues of confidentiality of data, the need to retain archived and historical information and occasionally when on the move, the lack of internet connection favour the outgoing media. Perhaps a more notable research result was that clearly no-one wants to lose the good and positive aspects of any medium as it evolves to its next iteration. The standard for such issues as search facilities, flexibility and general ease of use has to be as least as good as before and ideally better without being over-engineered and higher-priced. We see what happens when this is not the case, with users clinging to the old and familiar, rather than moving on to what ought to be much better. One consequence of this is that the publishers find themselves supporting too many media and formats, thereby increasing costs and potentially reducing profitability from internally competing products and services. The dream of low-cost, paperless hardware-light, high profit online-only content has not entirely been delivered and the never-ending race seems to be to manage technology change and occasionally fickle whim, while at the same time clinging to whatever ancient cash-cows that they can.
From those for whom even CDs and DVDs are or have been too faddish, high-tech or simply not to be trusted, there is much to read. A great deal of excellent and well argued writing exists on the subject of looseleaf formats and there remains support for the medium, as the portfolios of the major and minor professional publishing houses indicate. I wonder if the reasons for retaining media that should have been superseded years sooner is more than just innate conservatism on the part of users but also the residual profits that derive from their exploitation by publishers. Only very recently I heard a publisher admit to the practice, one I thought was long-since dead, of using the benefits of variable pricing of pay-as-you-go to boost year-end profits and bonus opportunities. Two smaller updates published within a short gap one from the other can generate significantly more revenue than one larger one and at the same time more easily fulfill the requirement to produce a contractual number of updates in a given year. I’m certain that if the cash cow element of loose-leaf were over, the format would be almost certainly dead. On the positive side, but for the legacy of loose-leaf and the investment put into it over the years, the on-line shift may have suffered from both the investment cost and the lack of available and paid-for source content to underpin the on-line services.
Perhaps there is less opportunity for trickery and sharp practice in pricing and selling online content and services than there is with legacy models. With online, we are less inclined to be seduced by length and volume of content and certainly less tolerant of the idea of updating very infrequently while still accepting the notion of “service”. If a publisher were to admit to and display the fact that its online services were updated maybe only one, two or four times a year, I believe that customers would consider such services to be sub-optimal. Yet with CD, DVD and looseleaf delivery, it is often the case that this is all the publishers are geared-up to deliver, while the world has long-since moved on to real-time updating. Rather than talking about the demise of the format, it might be more about independent authors and editors who will not be shackled to their keyboards and be prepared to deliver to order.
For my part, I shall not greatly mourn the disappearance of paper-based looseleaf services and newsletters, CDs and DVDs. They served well in their time but that era must surely be over. Whether or not legal and professional publishing can continue do so well as in the past from the delivery media successors and indeed other innovations intended to replace the obsolete ones, remains to be seen. As I dispose of some of my own shares in a couple of the major international providers, I am rather more content to see my financial future depend on more dynamic areas of commercial activity.