“Only a Fool Would Make Predictions—Especially About the Future”

I’m hesitant about trying to predict the future and would be aligned with those with those who have written:

Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window


The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.

both by Peter Drucker

or Samuel Goldwyn, providing the title above.

That said, I’m occasionally asked for views on trends and evolution and to squint into the future, while retaining loyalty to the anti-futurists.

Many see technology and social media as critical to the future and generally, I suspect they’re right. Equally, in terms of new and existing product development, a key element of success continues to lie in detailed and structured research and market segmentation to identify and satisfy customer needs, with few openings for enthusiastic amateurs and blind opportunists. I reckon that battles will be won on the basis of deep and constantly revisited understanding of markets and their requirements, delivery of optimum quality and great sensitivity to pricing constraints and opportunities. The success of the major, rather than niche professional publisher will, I think, depend in part on the ability to satisfy total, rather than narrowly defined information needs. Lawyers, for example, don’t just need to know about law. They require information also on a whole range of topics, such as business, social, financial and other statistics and trends, commercial and industry practice, medical, health, educational and environmental developments, local, national, regional and international government policy and plans. This, along with the essential regulatory information, guidance, documentation and tools is obligatory. The opportunity to grow new products, link important bodies of data and add further value is great, subject to an absolute commitment to electronic delivery of information, alongside print. Increasingly, information solutions are by products and services which combine to give the greatest value from the interconnected use of multiple media. As information becomes further commoditised, flourishing businesses will be those that add value throughout the practitioner’s workflow. Successful providers are those who offer integrated content and technology tools that save the practitioner time and generate profit at every stage of the proceedings.

Some eminent and knowledgeable commentators see things differently. Gary Rodrigues writes of global publishers that “they are likely to be seeking a means of easing out of legal publishing sector altogether” while Sean Hocking suggests that “the legal publishers decided that legal publishing wasn’t exactly the business they wanted to be in”. In my 

view they’ll follow the money, expressed in potential for market share, top-line growth, increased margin and profit. Indeed, Thomson Reuter, in declaring an intention to divest itself of its healthcare businesses, maintains that its “core franchises” including legal, tax and accounting, intellectual property and financial services, are those where it sees opportunities for growth and profitability. WK’s acquisition of Twinfield confirms its interest on the software needs of its market.

Particularly in legal and tax compliance/regulatory markets, pressure has been put on commercial publishers to innovate and compete or withdraw. One might speculate on the reason why, in the USA, Wolters Kluwer sold its compliance portfolio to Blue Gavel. Might it be that WK and others want to distance themselves from compliance, as opposed to professional markets for publishing, particularly print-based? Perhaps, inasmuch as they might want to deal with these markets, where the customers/end-users are corporate managers and officers, they would prefer to offer them software solutions rather than information/research. No doubt, in compliance markets, the publishing formula has been overtaken by a mix of online official and free content, supported by a drive to process management in the corporate sector and a preference for software-based solutions rather than narrative content. WK’s stated intention to acquire NRAI is, perhaps, an example of this evolution. I think that the opportunity to add value in the compliance/corporate markets holds fewer opportunities than in the professional markets of lawyers, accountants, tax advisers and such. 

The effect of static markets, segmentation within them and publishing to order will put pressure on the big players to veer towards or retain the high-margin top end of the market, where there is greater willingness to pay appropriate prices for high added-value information, with entrepreneurs making or losing fortunes in areas which the market leaders ignore. It’s all good news for smart and eager professional publishers, with such impressive examples as Bloomsbury Professional recently winning an important publishing contract with PricewaterhouseCoopers, it previously having been held by CCH(WK). Ironically, it is acquisition that becomes a key means by which the major, less-nimble players can initially capitalise on innovation, until they lose it as progressively they squeeze out the entrepreneurial spirit for which they paid handsomely

I’ve been surprised at procrastination, until relatively recently, by the UK legal publishers, in delivering legal content online or electronically. Still, again in the UK, online delivery isn’t always a default approach and, to some extent, focus is on delivering mainly commoditised source content rather than the whole portfolio. Contrast this with tax and accounting publishing, where it would have been absurd, latterly, not to make all published content available online. Undoubtedly, this has to do with the pace of change in tax and customer characteristics but I think that a significant reason is that the law publishers, with their legacies, have more to lose from abandoning books and print subscriptions and use lack of customer push as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. We still see, in the UK, retention of multi-volume looseleaf services with all their problems, whereas in my view and experience, that medium is dying.

I think that now is a critical period of change, thanks to the iPad, e-book readers, blogging and the growth in interest in Apps and we see legal titles being delivered as e-books. I would assert that the main reasons for reading are to be entertained, informed and taught and the professional publishers can find opportunity in all three purposes. Each create different needs but the more important the need, on a scale down from necessity to leisure, the faster the pace of change from print to electronic. Hence, the needs of the lawyer will be scaled higher than of the holiday novel reader. One needs reference information, in which “lookup” content is often the requirement and this is more effectively done electronically, whereas at the other end, narrative reading for pleasure and perhaps not at a desk, lends itself to print. As to delivery media, the issue is not one of mutual exclusivity. There are many areas of legal publishing wherein the annual book remains attractive, despite the existence of the electronic services. I think that this need and type of usage are most susceptible to migration to e-book delivery. Almost a hybrid between linear reading and look-up reference, the questions of easy access and portability are likely to make e-book versions more attractive than print. It’s not a simple straight-line evolution.

As I see it:

  • We are increasingly accustomed to searching for reference and technical content online, the default approach
  • Recent innovations, notably e-book readers, tablets and smartphones are transforming how we access information. Their use is more likely to become the logical norm.
  • The cost of creating major databases and search technology has reduced dramatically, eroding a barrier to entry, particularly for smaller competitors.
  • Smaller competitors selling content in integrated online systems with sophisticated tools will reduce prices and encourage subscriptions from smaller firms. 
  • An opportunity exists to convert and deliver the residue of legal print content, notably looseleaf services and monographs, to paid online content
  • However nauseating the vocabulary of the “workflow” and “solutioning” directions of the publishers, particularly the international ones, the future has to be about combining added-value content with compliance and source content, documentation, process and compliance software, document management, smart-tools, support services, etc. to advance the publishing model. 
  • Particularly working with larger firms, where the need is more likely to be to provide structured and updated source rather than added-value content, it’s critical to ensure that content and supporting technology feeds into and works with existing back office systems to ensure seamless access to it.

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