Ever Cuddled an Aardvark? Ever Studied Zymurgy?

A hitherto senior colleague, a mentor in legal publishing, speaking more allegorically than in truth, I imagine, recalled a difficulty that his wife allegedly suffered. Although an intelligent, urbane and charming person, she did not find herself always comfortable with some of the duties of the corporate spouse, particularly when it came to institutional dining. Her heart would sink at the prospect of an evening trapped between two crusty old judges with whom she had little in common. Her tactic, it was said, in trying to maintain conversation when it did not flow naturally, was to use alphabetic sequence to introduce topics. Perhaps with pocket dictionary secreted under the tablecloth, she might happily work her way through until the right topic was found.

Not that I believed the story for a moment but it amused me and I enjoyed the idea of a process or training to get that particular job done. As with most tasks, particularly those that are work-related, the required skills do not come naturally but need to be learned. Not long ago I found myself at dinner, sitting beside the twenty-something daughter of a lifelong friend. Although we knew each other well, she is not especially outgoing and had difficulty with dinner table conversation. She asked me nothing, made no enquiries and simply answered politely and enthusiastically any questions or observations that I put to her. I realised that despite the long period of our acquaintance, she probably knows little about me, as she has never enquired, though I don’t think that it’s just that she doesn’t care. I concluded that this particular young person needed much more experience of life, confidence and probably some coaching to exchange ideas in a mature and engaging way. At that point it seemed clear that, quite simply, she didn’t know how to converse, certainly not with non-family adults.

Likewise in legal and professional publishing, the ability to make and generate conversation is a key skill in developing ideas and commissioning new content. The metaphor of the long and expensive author lunch, however contrived, has its truth in the process of creating and delivering new product by whatever media as are appropriate. To a significant extent it involves the publisher, exploiting such knowledge s/he has or has not of subject, market and anything else, to encourage the expert’s creative juices to flow. It requires the judicious use, appropriately timed to cover potential blank periods, of questions, smiles, nods and grunts to keep things moving. For the most part, it is likely to be pointless and possibly counter-productive to try to exchange ideas competitively with the prospective author and display one’s own expertise on the topic. Better, in my view, however dishonestly, to display a pretence of respectfulness. That said, the timely introduction of “what about tax aspects?”, “how about the international dimension?”, “how does that relate to……?” and suchlike can be tactically flattering and help to build on ideas not yet fully developed.

It might be a problem, however, if legal and professional publishers are no longer especially interested in creating and exploiting new content. The point was made to me recently by a knowledgeable executive in one of the big professional publishers that for the most part they believe they have all the content they need and are not looking for more. The current aim is to re-present and repurpose the content that they already have in many other contexts, described wickedly but perhaps accurately in a recent Tweet by an eminent writer and speaker as “‘Repurposing’ can be like putting old beer into new wine bottles”. The inference might be that if the need has disappeared, then they have stopped investing in people whose jobs have been to understand the content. Taken to an extreme, the reliance is placed on technicians, geeks and sales and marketing staff to squeeze more out of what they have. There is no one capable of talking to and seducing authors, hence no authors. In a circular way, if the content is not required, then the skills will not be developed to generate it, so creating the self-fulfilling prophesy. Conveniently, it has the potential to contribute to intelligent conspiracy theories alongside well-founded insider views on dumbing-down, cost-cutting and inappropriate out-sourcing, supporting the view that the customer is progressively getting a less-good deal at ever greater cost. If we believe what we read, the consequences, unless the current trends are reviewed, are inevitable.

It is perhaps the prevalent view that the major purpose of the legal and professional publisher is to provide its customers with tools and solutions, to a greater extent than the intellectual means by which to learn, think, argue, rationalise and advise tactically and strategically, that contributes to the repurposing trend. Others share the concern that technology will not make old content, poor writing, or awful structure better or more useful. To such an extent that the latter view has relevance, it is likely to demand that publishers add value in terms of their expertise in finding, understanding, filtering and improving new content to add to the body of existing content, tools and solutions. Positive and negative reactions that have been expressed about such evolving trends are worth noting. I find myself, however, occasionally reading the scribblings of the corner-cutters who, mainly in ignorance, argue that the age of reasoned, rather than simply computed, knowledge has passed, and realising how peripheral these people can be.

I’m inclined to believe that no matter what stage in its evolution has been reached, a publisher, information or solutions provider, whatever is the terminology, is at risk if it relies only or even primarily on offering its customers cost-saving and efficiency process. Conversely, one that is perennially short of and desperate for new and refreshed content is more likely to be in touch with markets and able to see new ways to make money. Let there be many more and better applications, tools and ingenious solutions. That is a given. Still, in my view, it would be sad to imagine any major legal and professional information provider that did not have the appropriate number of suitably qualified communicators constantly on the hunt for more expert content, combined with others with the skills to process and improve it. Whether or not that is greatly in evidence is probably a matter for debate. So, it might be about the legal protection of aardvarks or the regulatory framework that surrounds zymurgy. Either one or otherwise, it would be comforting to think that inquisitive, articulate and commercially-minded people are being encouraged to look for opportunities arising from them and that they know how to talk about them.

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