There is a way out for the publisher
At the most recent meeting of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries in Moncton, it was clear that the present, past and future of looseleaf services continue to be a source of angst and concern in the legal research community. This fact has been documented on many occasions, most recently by Louis Mirando in The Curse of the Loose-Leaf Law Book posted on slaw.ca on July 22, 2015. There is no doubt that loose-leaf services are an open wound that can and should be healed.
A sense of loss
The issue is not only about price. If that were the case, the loose-leaf services would be cancelled by the customer and that would be the end of story.
Here the real issue is the pain that comes with the loss of access to valued sources of legal information by the legal research community and from the loss of purpose that comes from law libraries being unable to provide access to legal information that is the reason for their existence.
Not a problem elsewhere
To Robert Mackay and Jason Wilson, the panelists from the U.K.and the U.S, in Moncton to discuss The Future of Legal Publishing, the reaction was one of dismay and disbelief to learn that loose-leaf services were still a problem in Canada. Everywhere else, the format is dead and buried. How could it possibly still be an issue in a country so “advanced” as Canada when the answer is so simple – offer the content in traditional hard bound and digital formats and terminate the looseleaf services.
Death by a thousand cuts
It is time for Canadian legal publishers to end the process of death by a thousand cuts. By now, everyone knows that the loose-leaf services are dying. The end cannot be far off. In spite of this, paralysis seems to have overcome the legal publishers, obsessed as they are with short term revenue requirements. From what I can ascertain, the strategy appears to be one of milking the print until there are no subscribers left, while encouraging customers to migrate to digital formats. “Let them eat digital.” (I am sure someone will correct me if I am wrong.) This strategy clearly does not meet customer needs and does not even meet the publishers’ goals of maximizing revenue in the near term.
There is still significant demand for secondary legal information in print – just not in loose-leaf. See Eric Appleby’s post on The Future of Digital Reading published on slaw.ca on July 10, 2015. Customers understand the publishers’ strategy of forced migration to digital and resent it. Having supported the publishers over the decades, first by acquiring loose-leaf services, and then by investing year after year in maintaining them, customers who want access to print have earned something more than a brush off, however graciously worded. As for customers who have already abandoned loose-leaf services because they could no longer afford them, they need to be given an opportunity to rebuild their print collections through the acquisition of reasonably priced editions of major treatises and monographs in traditional hard bound formats.
The next steps are fairly simple – prepare a publishing plan, contract with existing or new authors to revise and update the content of all of their publications currently in loose-leaf, and then budget, schedule and publish new editions in traditional hard bound volumes as well as in digital formats. Properly planned and executed, more revenue can be generated for the publishers by launching new editions in print as well as in digital formats as new and former customers pay to build and restore their print collections, than can be eked out of dying looseleaf services. Over a two to three year period, both the publishers and the customers can have their needs met.
Time for renewal and rebirth
Virtually every loose-leaf publication is in need of a new edition. Rarely is a loose-leaf service maintained at the standard when it was originally published. Releases generally focus on case and statute updates and not on the quality of the legal analysis that is the raison d’être for the publication itself. Case and statute tables and revised indexes are sometimes published as filler when case and statute law updates are not available. Sometimes it is the tables that are not updated. As often as not, the releases are not prepared by the original author, who the person best positioned to assess the effect of changes in the law. Over time the integrity of the original work may be lost.
Before the coming of loose-leaf, major treatises and monographs would be regularly fully revised by the author(s) and re-issued by the publisher, ideally every three to five years. This process needs to happen in the digital world. What is not fully recognized is that new editions are required for digital formats as well as print. The same issues with maintaining quality in a loose-leaf format exist with digital formats with one big difference: in a digital format the quality of updates to an established work are even more difficult to assess than they are in a loose-leaf.
Our legal heritage
Not to be lost sight of is the fact that legal treatises and monographs are the legal heritage of all Canadians as well as the property of legal publishers. With rights go duties, in this case a duty to preserve and protect that heritage and to do what is necessary to see that access is not denied by the constraints imposed by loose-leaf formats and prohibitive pricing. If any publisher is no longer willing to recognize this fact, it should consider divesting itself of its publishing rights to publishers who do.
Walk the talk
During the course of my career in legal publishing, the corporate mantra of “listening to your customer” was repeated endlessly. Less often heard was another well known cliche – “walk the talk”. The time to do has come for Canadian legal publishers to listen to their customers and act on what they hear.