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Practicalities of Securing a Law Book Publishing Agreement

I read a Linkedin posting by lawyer and consultant, Simon Haigh, asking “Which book is in you?”, perhaps the correct assumption being that many in and around the legal profession, inter alia, have, deep within them, a desire to commit their experience and expertise to the written word. A reaction from some at this point will be that nobody writes or reads books any more, nor should they. Indeed, published articles have seen one commentator’s headline pronounce that “lawyers should stop doing legal research”, while another’s boasts “Hire me. I won’t work hard for you”; it’s a changing world! However, the truth is, in my opinion, that nothing exists until it is written down and that for “book” read “creation, analysis, structure, explanation and dissemination of technical and expert information in any conceivable and future-proofed medium”. The book idiom is a useful, pragmatic and still realistic one to describe the process of lengthy analysis of evolving legal theory and procedure and that evolution is contained in every aspect of it. Other media have lesser requirement for the expert author to be at the centre of the process; the world of online platforms and artificial intelligence programmes is a technical laboratory rather than the law library.

In a broader context, my article Working with and writing for a law publisher to achieve law firm or corporate reputational and competitive rewardsoriginally published in Modern Legal PracticeMLP Vol 2 [2019] issue 4, pp.54-59, offers greater detail on the potential for extremely modest fame and very little fortune.

For an author considering the painful task, there is no shortage of law publishers, even in an era of dynamic change. Therefore, she or he and/or their law firm are in a strong position to exercise judgment and preference in finding a suitable partner. Much depends on objectives, purposes and, of course, the subject matter, character, style and target audiences that apply on a case-by-case basis. The various law publishers have as many distinguishing characteristics as they have similar ones, thereby necessitating detailed examination prior to approaches and agreements, in order to find the ideal one. Their ideas on quality, market focus, how to market their output, author care, market sector attractiveness and technical competence will vary from one to another and these are important matters to consider. Still, even as they evolve and alter their focus, and endlessly change hands, the range is such that selection, preferences and differing objectives can all be accommodated. For an insight on these matters, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4uhOJH7d6o&feature=youtu.be, and detailed, relevant guidance from Jason Wilson, reflecting his extensive law publishing experience and obvious expertise.

At the same time, it should be remembered that competent and professional publishers should already know what (and whom) they want to publish and, in some ways, the unsolicited approach from a prospective author might be considered fundamentally unattractive. Ideally, publishers should know their content and market and should be able to find authors and editors to help fulfil their measured and researched requirements. The publishing house which needs to be told directly by authors and editors what it should be publishing, arguably, does not know its business.

As to the direct process, pitching a prospective publication to a law publisher is not especially complicated and is probably easiest for those whose experience is in the mix of the English language and the Common Law tradition. Indeed, many information providers provide guidelines and instructions which are accessible on their websites and which should be followed precisely to improve the chances of success. More generically or where no specific guidance is available, suggested criteria such as the following may have value for purposes of approaching a law publisher with an idea for a book, which may, to repeat, include various related formats, media and services:

Law book publishing proposal checklist:

Concept

  • Decide what it is, about which you wish to write, and allocate to it a working title which describes it in an obvious way;
  • Prepare a written plan and description of the book, by way of a proposal or business case;
  • Highlight potential features and benefits (with greater emphasis on the latter) to indicate exactly how a customer will find the product or service useful;
  • Draft one or more sample chapters and/or some form of evidential work;
  • Demonstrate, at least in theory, why your ideas will produce a work that falls into the category of ‘must have’ (at the right price) rather than ‘nice to have’;
  • Investigate what further opportunities for multi-media innovation, solutions, services or tools might be envisaged, arising from the initial work and its media neutrality

Structure

  • Prepare a structure plan in the form of a list of parts and chapters
  • Calculate the approximate number of intended pages and/or words

Authorship

  • Prepare a relatively short curriculum vitae for the author/editor, together with the same for any significant co-author(s);
  • Describe and define your relationship to the target audience and what is your standing among those people;
  • Describe and measure your level of expertise on this subject and the extent to which you are a recognised expert in the field;
  • Describe the level and style of intended writing and explain how this is right for the market(s) in focus;
  • If the plan or intention is to include more than one author or contributor, provide adequate information and rationale for all and remember that promised progress and perhaps quality will ultimately be driven by the slowest and weakest link;
  • Be able to demonstrate what else you have written and published, preferably in a related area of law and the outcome in terms of measurable success

Target market(s)

  • Calculate and explain who might be the target primary, secondary and (realistically) other audiences (it simply cannot be “everybody”, in their millions);
  • Explain and distinguish among academic, scholarly, practitioner, practical, transactional, workflow, documentation and other markets, where the intended work is to be positioned

Schedule

  • Calculate how long it will take you to research and write the book which you have in mind;
  • Be prepared to guarantee that you will meet communication, delivery and review dates as agreed. A disappointing author is an unreliable one who does not fulfil on promises

Competition

  • Describe and measure the competition;
  • Indicate why, how and in what delivery media the proposed work exceeds the features and benefits delivered by the best of its competition

Marketing and sales

  • Calculate what price you envisage the publication would bear in its target market(s);
  • Explain the book’s perceived key and unique selling propositions and why the content is best delivered in the media which are being proposed;
  • Explain why there is a substantial need for this particular publication and why it should be written by you;
  • Explain why now, including what events, legislation, important cases, etc., make this work relevant and marketable at the time that you are able to write it and bearing in mind that it may take a further six months after you submit it to have it published;
  • Investigate what participation, contribution and outcomes might be anticipated by securing the engagement of the author’s firm, academic institution, business and/or associations, particularly as to whether bulk purchases, subventions and/or other forms of support might be forthcoming;
  • Suggest any other institutions or associations which may be interested in purchasing the book in bulk for a discounted price;
  • Provide ideas as to who you think should review the book (specific contacts or names of relevant journals are always helpful);
  • Suggest relevant periodicals to which review copies might be sent, as a key promotional tactic is to do so. Endeavour to list in order of importance the key periodicals in this field;
  • Provide information as to any societies, associations or organisations which might be used for promotional purposes, to which you belong or with which you have connections? Endeavour to provide a list thereof;
  • Suggest details of conferences or professional meetings at which it would be useful to promote the publication

Working with and expectations from publishers

  • Research which publisher in the market would be just right, bearing in mind their existing focus and market positioning;
  • Seek to target the one, right and best publisher and try to anticipate its particular requirements. No publisher likes to receive something generic, which looks as if it is doing the rounds;
  • Be prepared to listen to and follow the advice of prospective publishers. On these matters, they probably, or rather should, know much more than you do;
  • Be prepared for all the above to be the subject of negotiation, as a good publisher will want to publish what it thinks will be successful rather than simply agree with a prospective author

Of course, 100% compliance with this guidance does not guarantee the desired outcome, particularly when imperfect people are involved and/or the arguments are simply not sufficiently persuasive to those publishers who do know their business well and care greatly about law publishing. However, to attempt to circumvent the formalities would be unwise. Benjamin Franklin’s “fail to prepare; prepare to fail”over-used adaptation works as well in this context as it does elsewhere.

Potential authors should keep in mind that for so long as the provision of legal advice is an added-value service in which its advocates wish to be distinguished one from another in terms of expertise and quality, it will be necessary to demonstrate clearly the difference between the commoditised and the valuable. Law publishing, at its best, offers a modern, optimal quality solution that connects lawyers to each other and to clients and it is the role of the author to deliver this.

LexBlog’s Kevin O’Keefe writes of “the energy and stamina required when writing a book”, contrasting it with that of legal blogging; I agree that the two are not meaningfully comparable, not least to the extent that blogs are more directly comparable to and historically derived from newsletters and magazines. Yet, while it is unlikely directly to bring great rewards to the author, expressed in terms of royalties, there can be few greater satisfying projects than advancing the understanding and interpretation of the law itself. Few experts are remembered for their contributions to some enormous body of aggregated online content, but the appeal of real, visible and individual or shared authorship offers near infinite satisfaction. 2019 saw the death, at ninety years of age, of Guenter Treitel, of Law of Contract renown. Who could even imagine such a legacy as is his?

Comments

  1. This is great advice. If it were to be actually followed it would make so many lives far less stressed. Fewer editors on long-term sick leave etc.

  2. Thanks Verna.
    I do agree. I hope that my intended follow-up article on what prospective authors and editors can expect from competent law publishers will be of assistance.
    This is not a field of endeavour in which there are, at present, established agreed and objective guidelines. Indeed it is becoming more difficult clearly to recognise what is and is not a law publishing business.

  3. There are good resources for aspiring authors at writersunion.ca – and I’d add that having your publishing contract reviewed by an author-friendly lawyer is money well spent. You will have very little bargaining power over the main commercial terms, especially as a first-time author, but a lawyer helped me get some nice things that cost my big international publisher nothing (additional free copies, the right to buy back copies at a discount if the title was discontinued) and gave me a general sense that I wasn’t being completely taken advantage of. I’m happy to provide a referral.

  4. Thanks Neil. A lawyer for the lawyers! I like the irony but you may well be correct. I’ve just drafted my follow-up Slaw article on these issues , provisionally entitled “Authors and Editors Working with and Their Expectations from Professional Publishers”.

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