“Quality”. It’s one of those nouns and/or adjectives that everyone uses to describe their own output standards but for the most part is applied to whatever level – high, medium or low, that they are willing and/or able to offer. In many respects, though, that’s a good and desirable thing as more often than not there are no objective standards of quality such as those of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). In any case, sensibly, the word should be preceded by “optimum”, “appropriate” or suchlike as quality cannot be divorced from competence, price, speed, brand and many other factors.
That said, given the nature of the markets for those products and services created and delivered by legal and professional publishers, one might think that quality in all aspects of their endeavours should be a key factor. Yet increasingly I have a sense, perhaps nothing more than that as I read and listen, often from certain consultant charlatans that feed off the industry, that in a world in which commoditised content is prevalent, maybe the achievement of optimum quality standards is seen as not enormously important. I believe I sometimes detect mild sneering from such types at the idea that there needs to be specific investment in achieving and nourishing quality; for them “not bad” is the more likely goal. Further evidence of different forms of devaluation of depth and quality abounds, in my view, however honest and genuine are the opinions.
Now to be more specific, for present purposes I am seeking to focus on content quality, that is, what is produced out of the minds and endeavours of expert authors and editors. It should go without saying that for a publisher or any such business, the maintenance of quality should prevail in all that it does, including marketing, customer care, process software and tools, metadata, search engine taxonomy, data analytics, to name a few. Equally, the excellence of other factors should not be used to disguise any reduction in that of the written word.
Being of my gender and generation and a relatively uncomplicated person, I am inclined to respect the often-held view that the guidelines for understanding and resolution of many human dilemmas lie within the wise parables to be found in books and films about American crime families with roots in Mediterranean islands. In the same vein, all examples of model business practice can be derived from the automobile industry; utter 3, 5 or 7 Series and many people understand the quality metaphor. With certainly the latter truth in mind, it’s hard to imagine a modern Lexus, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and others that do not trade on actual or perceived optimum quality standards that are guarded by those manufacturers. These are simply obvious quasi-facts. Whether or not these truths are self-evident in professional publishing seems to be a matter for debate. If there is a significant absence of content quality I believe that negative consequences follow, yet the admission of it is unlikely to form part of the marketing and PR messages that are distributed. It would be comforting to imagine, however, that brands such as Sweet and Maxwell, Carswell, Tolley, Indicator-FL Memo and CCH remain synonymous with quality. Susan Munro in her excellent Slaw article Pulled in Both Directions, rightly makes the point, of course, that sometimes publishers over-engineer their output, providing the highest quality research capability, when such a standard can be more of a hindrance than a help. In his equally superb article, The Curse of Loose-Leaf Law Books, Louis Mirando presents an analysis of where the quest for short-term profit in holding on to obsolete formats can be an enemy of quality and value. Gary Rodrigues takes the quality arguments further in Loose Leaf Pain No One’s Gain by encouraging a return to the drawing board on the important legacy content and advises those who are who interested in developing the legal heritage to leave it to others to do.
It may be that the publishers are focused on optimum quality to the extent that the demands of the market are relatively low. I was somewhat surprised and disappointed, having asked a practising lawyer that I know to describe what he thought to be key quality standards from legal publishers who serve his needs. He struggled and hesitated in his response and after being pressured concluded that what he needed was good sign-posting to relevant source material, leaving him, based on his own experience, to work out solutions that benefited his clients. He seemed to have little need for the learned reflections and analysis presented by expert authors as delivered via their hefty tomes. Maybe I asked the wrong sort of lawyer as he, while being an accomplished practitioner in his field, is a knockabout criminal defence hack with little need for theory and sophisticated legal strategies. But if he represents the mainstream, then legal publishers are at their best when they are simply able to compile, structure and present commoditised content and have little that they can do to differentiate one from another. This may as well be the case as we see evidence of some legal publishers abandoning altogether the editorial process. Someone as close to me as my sister, Professor Sonia McKay, reported that she recently contributed as an author to a law book published by one of the UK’s well-known legal publishers. Within the process, their people did nothing by way of editorial intervention on the manuscript. One has to wonder though, in such circumstances, what the role of the publisher has become if it does not engage in editing and as is generally the case, does little by way of marketing? It may be reduced to a low added-value print facilitation and distribution provider in which in-house quality standards are not applied at all to the core aspects of the product.
My impressions were somewhat strengthened by another conversation, this time with an internationally renowned lawyer and writer of very many respected works in his fields of expertise. His view was that he has to live with the dilemma of personally maintaining and updating his huge back catalogue as it cannot be entrusted, partly for reasons of quality, to lesser minds. As to the role of the publisher, well, at best a necessary evil. In his case, he sees his publishers doing nothing to add value to his work in editorial terms and he is merely grateful if those with whom he ought to have regular contact remain in post long enough to provide some form of continuity.
I have a suspicion, however, that the management of optimum or maybe even high quality standards for content may be directly driven by controlling costs when revenue is difficult to grow, or worse, rather than in order to meet market needs. Where the trend is to outsource to third-parties those services that support the intellectual process of writing complicated material, the idea of establishing, monitoring and maintaining high standards that are unique to the publisher is difficult. Where recruiting and training the right people is left to others, who are perhaps abroad and not specialist in national law and procedure, as well as in matters of secondary and quasi-legal sources, citation, indexing and suchlike, quality standards may have to be relegated in terms of priority.
Alternatively, it might simply be that things cannot and should not be as they have been and the future is simply different. Initiatives from publishers such as those intended to drive efficiency and streamline lawyer workflow, deliver technology that seeks to transform the way that the legal profession writes about the law, platform innovation to revisit eBook access strategy and other platform improvements may help to ensure that professional advisers and the clients they serve continue to operate in a quality environment.
Finally and thinking, probably of necessity, more about quantity than quality, the news of the acquisition by Lexis Nexis of Jordan Publishing, subject to prior review by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, comes as no surprise. It was both predictable and predicted, the only questions being, up to now, as to who would be the purchaser and if they would go for the whole of the Jordans Group rather than just its publishing unit. Meanwhile, Euromoney has sold its China Law & Practice to ALM. Of lesser significance perhaps is of Wolters Kluwer’s acquisition of Effacts, a Netherlands-based provider of legal management software. Still, it is clear that there remains enthusiasm for acquisition by the major names in legal markets, despite the imminent round of restructuring. It makes me continue to wonder, however, which UK targets below the level of the big three but also from within them will be next to go. Among those that spring to mind are Groupe Editions Lefebvre Sarrut, Informa Professional Services – Legal, Tax and Accounting, CCH in the UK, Bloomsbury Professional, Globe Business Media and Justis. Maybe Thomson Reuters or Bloomberg will buy them all, before exiting the sector.