Legal and Professional Publishing – It’s the Money, Stupid

Many areas of publishing, to me, are bizarre. For example, visit the Frankfurt Book Fair and see tiny stand after stand, staffed by families, displaying delightful books, over which they have slaved, yet nobody’s making money. Publishing is often seen like that; resembling academic and religious endeavour, done for the greater good rather than profit. It’s not my view but neither, mostly, is it any of my business how others think and behave.

When it comes to legal and professional information publishing, you’d think it would be different. With customers such as fat, succulent lawyers, accountants, tax advisers, big corporates and institutions, it should be just a question of knowing or finding out what they want, delivering it to the optimum quality standard and banking the cash. Yet, despite their undoubted qualities and strengths, the major international professional publishers seem to be increasingly less able to do that simple thing. Much of the evidence appears to be that, to some extent, their customers hate them and feel hated by them, while the endeavours of the publishers appear, in certain of their developed markets, to be directed at reducing revenue, profit and margin from what ought to be the dream market of professional, highly-qualified, rich advisers who get richer from trading on information.

Remember the 1980s fictional character, Gordon Gekko, recently revived? Now we mightn’t have publicly agreed entirely but we certainly knew what he was saying with his “greed is good” mantra. Greed is such a powerful motive. It’s often seen accompanying its slightly anaemic sibling, Fear. So, if, as a publisher, one had to choose to play to one motive or another, Greed should win out. You identify areas in which big money can be earned. You have the best authors and editors. You know the market requirements, including competitive costs and price points that optimise profit and facilitate growth, go after them aggressively and commercially and you’re done. The professional advisers see that the investment in winning content assists them greatly in underpinning their expertise and currency; they add value and pass it all on to their rich corporate clients; billing is constantly sustained or increased; the cost of acquiring and maintaining quality content is seen as a small price to pay to increase the size of the kids’ trust fund. Sure, it’s not quite like that and there’s a recession and other elements of the equation are changing but you get my drift. I would repeat the quotation that Alison Baverstock kindly took from me for her book “How to Market Books”, 4th edition, Kogan Page (2008),

Information publishing is of limited value if it simply serves to inform but does not form part of a growth strategy for the customer. We need to understand our customers’ relationships with their customers and help them achieve their objectives.

Fear is OK but less appealing. Everybody’s in fear of the consequences of making mistakes and of doing harm. Keeping out of jail is indeed a powerful motive but it’s still not like Greed. Fear is about saving and protecting. Greed is about making money, growth and power. It works better.

So why is it that the big players often can’t tell the difference between the two? They appear to put more of their efforts into back office activities for lawyers and others. It’s fine to help them take costs out of their businesses and manage efficiency, and very worthy, of course, but better to find ways to help them increase their billing by selling them quality information wholesale, allowing the advisers to add value and sell it on retail, at a larger profit. As everybody knows, any fool can take cost out of a business. You need to be clever to do the growth thing. They increasingly sell themselves as providers of “solutions”, implying that they’re giving responses to problems of some kind. Perhaps rather than a focus on problems, they should direct themselves to encouraging “opportunities”, helping their customers get richer by growth.

What, therefore, are we seeing? Publishers whose wonderful reputations have been built of the quality, expertise and suitability of their content seem more obsessed about outsourcing capabilities to take out cost, with software to reduce the clients’ back-office costs, consultancy and call-centre services using cheaper labour, document management and time-management tools. Obviously, it’s important to understand the customer’s workflow and to find places within it to intervene profitably and in relevant ways but where do you take it? Lawyers need many services but that doesn’t mean that publishers need to focus on providing low-margin, as compared to legal publishing, commoditised products and services. I refute the notion that “content is king” but rather it’s what you do with it that matters. It sometimes looks like with all the amazing innovation that is possible in collecting, creating, exploiting, adding value to and delivering content, the point has been lost or certainly diminished.

There is a massive difference, in terms of capitalizing on opportunity that brings high rewards, between, at one level, providing compliance and back-office solutions, through structured source-based information provision, to helping to drive strategic planning decision-making to deal with or avoid litigation though the genius of great legal minds, at the other.

One wonders what might be the reasons for the situation that appears to prevail? Some might suggest that a problem lies in the de-skilling of publishing, taking out the legal editors, publishers and marketing people in favour of lower-cost generalists and bluffers. Arguably, there are those who are likely to defend or seek to hide their own weaknesses and ignorance by surrounding themselves with others who won’t make them look stupid and ill-informed. Therefore, they play down the importance of real knowledge and expertise, derived from the inside and only make decisions based on the advice of clever, earnest but knowledge-free consultancy clones, quick to prove their cases by spurious research intended to confirm the decision first thought of. It’s far too tedious to learn the difference between a case and a statutory instrument or the distinctions between Civil and Common Law. 

The solution? Use only metaphorical language, analogy and general management-speak to disguise ignorance and avoid specific challenge, draw all examples for intended actions from unrelated industry sectors so that everyone is ignorant in equal amounts, set up project teams to investigate issues but never complete tasks, when in trouble, announce an internal restructure to buy more time and get out quickly, on to the next job before being rumbled. 


  1. Gary P. Rodrigues

    Welcome Robert McKay. Slaw readers will now have the benefit of your shrewd analysis, clever phrasing, and most importantly your sense of humour.

    Typically your first piece heralds the decline and fall of the traditional legal publishing houses and their commitment to “the quality, expertise and suitability of their content”, as cost saving and outsourcing become the order of the day.

    I would add to Robert’s analysis a reference to a comment by a former American colleague, who said that the major legal publishers had “lost their faith” in publishing legal information. Failure in such circumstances is inevitable.

  2. But why do the customers of the legal publishers hate them and feel hated by them? Is it because those customers feel they have been ripped off by paying high prices for information in an oligopolistic market, and conned by sales people who understand little about the content and functions of the products they are pushing?

  3. Hello Rebecca: The following post may answer your questions:
    I believe that one of the reasons that CLEBC has been successful as a legal publisher is because we’ve made a commitment to do our very best not to engage in these practices.