Legal Publications Unbound

There’s a tendency for all of us working in legal publishing to think of printed books when we think of secondary sources. Even when we know we’ll publish online as well as in print, our choice of format (or information design) is still strongly influenced by our familiarity with print.

Over the years, we’ve certainly changed our thinking about the format of primary law. We now expect statutes and case law to be available and easily searchable in large databases, with noting up and other features added. And although some have lamented the wane of the bound law report, we appreciate the excellent functionality offered by CanLII and the commercial providers with large databases of cases and statutes.

I don’t think anyone laments the decline of bound statutory volumes! In my early years as a legal editor, I spent a great deal of time at the BC Courthouse library verifying statutory references and statutory history for our publications; as we know this effort now takes a fraction of the time and does not involve a trip out of the office.

We can see why the idea of a book continues to be so attractive; after all, the format is tried and true over hundreds of years. But is the printed book format (chapters, supporting material, tables, and index) the best way to deliver secondary legal information online? To what extent do we still need to be bound by print format?

We know that online publication, particularly when delivered over mobile devices, provides a whole new set of parameters. No longer are we constrained by the number of pages that fit in a volume or in a softcover. Still, when we decide what to publish, our thinking continues to be influenced by the limitations of print.

Online sales models also tend to be based on the book: some publishers sell access to an entire library, or libraries based on practice area; others sell access to each publication individually. At least one of the large commercial providers includes “books” as part of their subscription service; these are familiar secondary sources originally published in print. Another way to sell material is bundles of papers from a course (course materials), or as a subscription to a collection of all papers. Online delivery just makes it easier to package the whole collection.

The trend in online information delivery is to publish information in smaller pieces. For legal information, this could mean chunks based on discrete steps of a transaction: “how to search a title in BC”; “how to draft an easement”; “how to apply for an Anton Piller order”; “how to introduce discovery evidence at trial”; and so on. If we amassed enough of these chunks of information, we could deliver a service entitled “How to Practice Law in British Columbia”.

We could create an omnibus legal information service, but before we embark on this mammoth project, we’d need to know how much curation do lawyers want and how much will they pay for? Do lawyers want publishers to arrange and sell online content in book-sized chunks as we do now? Or do lawyers want legal information curated differently? Curation is not inexpensive, and a significant amount of legacy content exists in book form; this information will need revision if it is to be published in smaller pieces.

When lawyers buy a secondary source, they expect that the information will be accurate, organized, and easily accessible. Part of the effort to organize the information is to ensure that all relevant material is included; another part is to ensure that connections between information are clear (for example, that you must complete certain steps before you move to the next step of the transaction). Now, that curated content comes in book-sized packages. Will lawyers pay for information in smaller chunks, checked for accuracy and more easily used online?


  1. Thanks for this column, Susan. It’s always useful to read thoughts about the future forms of the legal “book” from a publisher’s perspective.

    Your mention of course materials and the flexibility of the e or online delivery format got me thinking. You point out the choice or information design tends to be influenced by the traditional structures of the printed book. What about the contents?

    For example, online or e formats could regularly incorporate video or other multimedia content. For example, some might prefer to buy course materials publication that incorporates video or audio of the course as presented, rather than the collection of papers or a recording of the course. Ideally the multimedia would be indexed and metadata incorporated, with links to the text. The “reader” then could access the the multimedia content to be accessed by paper topic or by subject tags.

    In a presentation imbued with naïveté from a couple of years ago I touched on such possibilites: (scroll all the way to the end – point 4 and conclusion)