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Evolution of Traditional Law Publishing Marketing Techniques

I was asked recently to express some views on a topic on which I have never claimed any significant expertise, that of how to market books published on law and related professional topics (for the expertise, see the forthcoming 6th edition of Alison Baverstock’s book, How to Market Books). The fact that it still needs to be done by many publishers makes it a relevant issue but to some observers, perhaps a little distanced from the real world or simply in different types of publishing, it might seem odd that anyone should discuss such a topic at all. Having again not long ago attended the London Book Fair (the clue being in the name) on behalf of Dunedin Academic Press and seeing the continued scale and range of book publishing, one realises that things are not so simple, however anachronistic.

Previously I have written on these matters in Reaching and Retaining Customers, Just Trying to Keep the Customer Satisfied and in more general terms in A Round of Applause for the Middle Men and Women of Culture!, but I was inclined to wonder if things are changing rapidly or in more evolutionary ways. I’m fairly certain that smaller law publishers would recognise and perhaps bemoan the tasks of reaching and selling to academic and professional customers.

In my opinion, to suggest that information (or knowledge) is power is insufficient and reflects thinking from the distant past. The question for the publisher is, what can be done with it? Motives such as fear, greed, self-esteem and social standing are powerful drivers in encouraging spend. Price acceptance relates to the amount of profit that can be generated from investment in the information product or service, sometimes with variable pricing models, depending on market sectors. The risks, of which customers need to be cautious, is of bundling of unwanted and not required content and access to required content only by taking other services, of which recently Lexis Nexis has been accused.

More than ever before, modern professional advisers and their legal practices are buying solutions rather than products or services so that sales and marketing approaches must be based on solution identification and selling. It is critical to understand the workflow of the customer and indeed the customer’s clients, with an ever-greater emphasis being put on the management of the law firm business. For those with marketing and business development roles, this market intimacy may be a critical way to reach customers as more traditional routes to market diminish in value. A deep understanding of market sectors and segments too, is necessary to apply the range of tools and techniques effectively.

Not to understand, as I see often among people in professional publishing, the most basic principles of law or the differences among a solicitor, barrister, professional support lawyer (considering the Irish and British models), or indeed differing professional practice traditions around the world, never mind their complex support system of knowledge management experts and information specialists, would be a weakness that is quickly exposed. Not to know and use appropriate language, such as that which indicates a failure to understand the differences among structures such as “company”, “firm” and “limited liability partnership” would likewise be noted and perhaps derided.

All forms of social and business media are enormously important and widely used both for sharing ideas on practice and commenting on matters relating to practice but a real risk might be that traditional publishers are of decreasing relevance. Providers too must employ all electronic media and tools as ways of connecting with their markets, as traditional ways of communicating and doing business become progressively less effective. Without doubt, the effects and implications of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will have wide implications in Europe and globally in relation to data privacy, storage and marketing activities.

Providers are judged by speed of access and technical competence and innovation to such an extent that increasingly the notion of professional publishing has been overtaken by the provision of professionally-focused technology. It may well be the case before too long, if not already, that it is largely inappropriate to consider these professional markets under a general heading of “marketing law books”, as that medium is progressively reducing in importance. Despite a degree of evidence to be found in providers’ online and print catalogues (where the latter are still produced), the books are primarily reflective of legacy and often still-profitable endeavours, as regular editions of successful texts continue to be published and backlists are refreshed. However, for the most part, the main and successful providers seem no longer to be content or information-hungry, though they may still be looking for ways to repurpose their legacy content in innovative ways. They tend not to need armies of in-house editors and commissioning editors, many of which functions, where required, are now outsourced to low-wage economies. Likewise, their products and services are no longer largely marketed and sold using leaflets and print communications. An industry of intermediaries in the home markets and internationally exists to service professional libraries on face-to-face and process bases and it is they and other salespeople who require marketing, promotional and other informational tools to support their efforts. The internal front line, needing backup, is likely to be customer service, tele-sales and direct sales staff. Of ever-increasing significance is contact, dialogue and communications with existing and potential customers, using social and business media, regular messaging and online engagement to increase awareness and drive business to sales channels. Equally important is physical presence, engaging with customers in places in which they find themselves. Like anyone else, a lawyer, tax adviser or accountant is more likely to buy a one-off book via Amazon or by contacting or having been contacted by a regular sales intermediary than by studying a leaflet, completing an order form and putting it in the post or indeed going to a bookshop.

The shift from printed publications to electronic services and software solutions combined with overall shrinkage is reflected in publishers’ revenues and profits steadily reducing from traditional channels. These and related factors are almost certainly driving the next phase of evolution of the industry. Even annual books, such as in tax, where regular legislative changes have in the past driven the successful sales of specialist publications, are fast declining in numbers and relevance. Market needs are changing, with increasing demands for solutions than analysis of theory so that, just like everyone else, professional advisers will turn to Google and other online sources for quick answers that can be processed and sold on to clients. Print is not yet dead – perhaps because of the need for evidence-based documentation such as the original text of cases or legislation and sometimes professional advisers favour PDF files over HTML documents, as they can be sure that a document sent as a PDF cannot be altered by the recipient. It would be unwise and short-sighted, however, to think that present practice and requirements will determine those of the future. Hardly surprisingly, the trend towards the use of artificial intelligence tools to analyse primary sources such as decided cases and statutes and predict outcomes in litigation is now with us and in parts of the market is taking on increasing significance.

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