The Fall of the Geeks and the Rise of the Nerds

When first it occurred to me to write on the topic in question, its title was to be “From Production to the Rise of the Nerds”. However, when I explained to a friend who for many years has been on the periphery of law publishing, the underlying thesis that power in law publishing has shifted over the years from what used to be editors to what used to be production people (the nerds), she responded with her belief that editors tended also to be nerds (or geeks; I don’t recall). She was, of course, correct, so the title was changed, acknowledging Professor Philip Wood, Q.C.

My early experience of the law publishing trade was that if a young law graduate aspired to a successful career which might lead to significant seniority over time, a good place to begin was as a legal editor. More senior than a copy editor, editorial assistant or similar, the requirement normally was to have a law degree or legal qualification of some kind; keyboard skills may have been thought infra dig. A person with a legal background would rarely have considered working in law publishing production. In consequence, the progress might be through job titles like managing editor, commissioning editor, editorial director, publishing director, managing director or similar. Less frequent but ever possible was the ascendancy through a marketing or even sales route through which bright, commercially-minded people, maybe with legal qualifications, might advance. Generally, the mix succeeded in creating growth in terms of turnover, profit and scale, with quality being paramount.

Alongside were the production and print-buying people. Sometimes less academically qualified and occasionally having arisen from clerical and administrative roles, they learned the business, established relationships with suppliers, enhanced undoubted existing technical skills and developed their expertise. My recollection was of more cautious, conservative people in these roles, there, now and again, to defend the status quo, ensure cost-saving and keep a balance between the interests of the printer and the publisher; once-in-a-while they might lean excessively in favour of those of the former. It is unlikely that the professional concerns and aspirations of customers would have played heavily on their minds, not least because they would have had little contact with them. Their successors today may be in an entirely different position, however, as user profiles and functions continue to align more closely with those of the providers.

Over time emerged the technical revolution, on the one hand within the print industry and on the other in terms of electronic delivery of content and beyond, into the “solutions” age, with its mix of advantages and disappointments; one view of this transition can be found in a recent interview with the Wolters Kluwer head. It was interesting during this period to observe the shift of power in favour of those who had been associated with production and technical functions and away from those in editorial and marketing ones. Progressively, long-standing production staff and managers who were less au fait with platforms, machine readable data, metadata, taxonomy, flat and portable document files, artificial intelligence and various newer forms of classification disappeared or perhaps drifted towards process operation and information technologists, software engineers and computer scientists took their places. More significantly, perhaps, bringing with them a back-office cost-saving mentality legacy, the new breed became more core to the running of the business, acquiring management and strategic power, participating in and leading corporate boards.

Meanwhile, to the extent that all the formerly in-house publishing functions have not been outsourced to the developing world, previous production and editorial functions and departments have, in many cases, fused to become lower-skilled, non-specialist and relatively lowly. Technical support, innovation and development is also often outsourced or, within international conglomerates, centralised.

What was described as innovation had previously been the domain of the commissioning editors and publishers, because of their proximity to and knowledge of the markets. As time has passed, things have changed and, for better and worse, continue so to do, so that some of the solutions and research products and services coming onto the market are more likely to have been conceived in university computer departments rather than in legal practice or faculties of law. In consequence, one might speculate as to the extent to which there emerge solutions in search of problems rather than the other way around. In relation to in-depth research into cases and analysis, this may be to a degree and in ways that are simply not required and where they are, do not always deliver optimally. I’m reminded of not long ago when a legal information business showed me the latest version of its core service. I was unreservedly impressed with the product but I had a nagging worry that although it was phenomenal for what it was, arguably, few people needed it. The mainstream lawyers and others would probably have use of just components of it as, in fact, it was more of an academic, scholarly or theoretical tool; the market might have ended up as a very small number of law faculties and specialist researchers. I have many times myself suffered the frustration of working with expert technical people who produce the most wonderful concepts that make complete sense to themselves but who have no understanding of the real world of practice, while actual user needs are often well satisfied, at least in the USA, by Google Scholar. No matter how formidable a tool, product or service is, it will fail if there is no a market for it; sometimes in their enthusiasm, technical nerds can be even less commercially and financially minded, if that is possible, than editorial nerds. The future may to an extent be about separating and analysing legal, practice and jurisdictional market differences to determine how, where and in what amounts technical innovation is valued. Nate Russell offers a balanced view of the way forward, from a user perspective. In the scheme of things, nerds tend to know and pay attention to the needs and expectations of other nerds. I’m also somewhat suspicious of the sorts of businesses that have among their employees “chief evangelists” and suchlike which, in my view, only nerdy and fanatical types could think appropriate. I suspect, maybe erroneously, that they might have a non-ironic need to “believe”, an inclination to preach and might disagree with me when I would suggest that it’s only work, not life.

However, as increasingly we see the establishment of small, innovative and highly technical solutions emerging from the laboratories of people (absurdly to reinforce the obviously inaccurate stereotype) without social or commercial skills, never mind legal ones, it is pleasurable to watch the establishment and early growth of something that is of sufficient size and scale to seduce the slow-moving mammoths and thereby effect an acquisition. At the same time, the sheer number of such innovators coming into the market with new services that do subtly different versions of one another means that both failures and consolidation are inevitable.

Regarding, in my opinion, abject management failure, long since predicted and by way of confirmation of the geek to nerd trend of direction, Wolters Kluwer has sold its UK publishing assets held by its Legal and Regulatory division; the price obtained is pitiful. The sale possibly includes its CCH UK tax and accounting publishing portfolio, which has suffered around 35 years of consistent commercial failure in the market, except for a handful of successful years a decade or so ago. It might result in job losses and leaves WK as an exclusively software provider in this market in the UK. The acquirer is, as on the last UK disposal, Peninsula Business Services but it would be pleasantly surprising to see fiery phoenixes rising there. It returns the UK market effectively to an unenthusiastic Thomson Reuters and RELX duopoly in law and tax information publishing, beneath them a diminishing number of stragglers. It would hardly be unreasonable to wonder when the whole of WK’s ever-declining Legal and Regulatory division will disappear.

A key lesson therefore might be that offered by Charles J. Sykes when he wrote “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one. Seems like the geek shall, indeed, inherit the earth.


  1. “I’m also somewhat suspicious of the sorts of businesses that have among their employees “chief evangelists” and suchlike which, in my view, only nerdy and fanatical types could think appropriate. I suspect, maybe erroneously, that they might have a non-ironic need to “believe”, an inclination to preach…” The cult personae worked for Steve Jobs. As noted in Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs: “Jobs was also beginning to have a little trouble stomaching [Robert] Friedland’s cult leader style. ‘Perhaps he saw a little bit too much of Robert in himself,’ said [Daniel] Kottke.” (p. 38) Jobs was also aware of the and used the stare and reality distortion as techniques to bend people to his will. It seems people including lawyers want to “believe” that they really can’t do without [fill in the blank] because it’s going to make them look innovative, smart and ahead of everyone else even though everyone else is doing the same thing.

  2. The WK UK price does include the CCH publishing asset (not the software).

    The UK economics for accountancy firms is just buddy.

    There is nothing evangelistic about the new legal publishing market. It was transformed 20 years ago by two guys from Slaughters with no knowledge of the Tolley, Sweet & Maxwell or RELX wisdom. It was delight to watch them break the ‘rules’ (that I explained to them as a non-exec for many years in great detail, and delight as they trashed them, anyway). Rules you tried to enforce in the High Court and exclusive primary sources deals as I recall. To no avail; the tides were too strong.

    The competitor who kills you doesn’t look like you.
    Susskind tried to appropriate this phrase from me -and perhaps you can too – it is especially appropriate for publishers.

    Perhaps the UK lessons hold some wisdom for others; who knows:

    One final point. If your readers still haven’t fathomed that it’s not about erudition, it’s all about expedition – they really should; but that’s another article entirely.

  3. Many thanks, Verna, for the Jobs insight. Particularly at present, looking at both the big and small pictures, I think that there are good reasons to be wary of cult leadership and evangelistic styles. In my view, they operate for specific, intentional and usually extremely nasty purposes.
    David. Although there are aspects of your helpful response that I don’t entirely follow (my fault, not yours, I’m sure. I often fail to understand slogans and metaphors relating to business; see, I must say that I don’t recall ever personally or being party to trying to enforce rules in the High Court and exclusive primary sources deals. I don’t understand the erudition/expedition reference either but I’d like to read the article if you write it.

  4. Apologies Robert. I assumed you were Editorial lead on the Tolley team that tried to get exclusive rights to the Inland Revenue content. David Millet led the Butterworths challenge all the way to High Court and Cabinet Office as I recall, and in fact it led to Carol Tullo leading a Professional Publishers group which fought for open access successfully thereafter. Maybe it was before or after your time there. A little piece of Tolley avarice actually resulted in some good and when I won the Customs & Excise tender for WK we proved how you could share and still make money.

    Slogans and metaphors? Really. Expecting chats with judges and librarians to point the way to a future already dominated by GCs and technology is an odd choice, is all. The people who ‘get’ the expedition issue, already know, funnily enough.

  5. Thanks David

    Apology accepted.

    The rest is lost on me but no matter.

    All good wishes