Friday, January 13, 2006

Legal Publishing in 2006

I just had a very interesting conversation with Kent McKeever at Columbia's law school library. I give him huge credit for a lot of insight in the current state of law publishing. He pointed out that MBAs are running the various Thomson umbrella companies and, I suppose all the remaining publishing and vendor companies as well. They don't necessarily know boo about law books or practicing law or libraries. They are, unfortunately for us all, learning on the job.

The upper level management sets performance standards that the mid-managers and sales folks have to meet. They may not understand that, though Yale and Harvard seem wealthy, that 1) they are outliers and 2) they certainly are not going to touch their endowments to buy books. The rest of us don't have big endowments and certainly can't touch what little we have to buy books, either. We have a regular operating budget that has to stretch to accommodate the huge price increases that have been seen each year since the monopolies were authorized.

They are killing the goose that laid their golden eggs in two ways. They are devouring the library budgets in larger bites by shifting the prices so that single purchases or subscriptions cost more. And they are making their own divisions compete against each other, including making print compete on an unfair playing field against electronic. This will destroy their own brand name, and I am particularly thinking of West, here, although the same charge can probably be levelled agains other vendor/publishers as well.

The single purchase/bigger bite issue means that they will not be able to sell as many different products to any single library. It many mean that no other vendor or publisher will be able to get their product on our shelf, which may be their thinking, but they won't be able to get any other products on our shelves, either. I have had to cancel a number of products that I used to carry, in order to protect my core collection. I am sure I am not the only librarian in this fix. The publishers have not gained any more money from me; they have reduced the number of products they are selling me!

The unfair playing field between electronic and print: This was something that Kent said he had been told in a private conversation. Evidently, at West, until very, very recently, the print products have borne the entire cost of the editorial staff that produce the materials. Then the electronic products get the same text, without having to contribute to the editorial overhead in their accounting for profitability. Wow! So Westlaw looks fabulously profitable, and every one of those individual West-produced databases looks golden, if you don't factor in the overhead for the editorial work that underlies the text. According to Kent, they are just now coming to think about making the electronic guys pay their share. There seems to be an internecine war going on over it.

You can see how the print would be forced to the brink of extinction in a bookkeeping war like that! I had not known about this. I did know that the individual divisions within Thomson/West were competing. Perhaps this works well to have two brands of diapers that compete against each other. I am not sure that the same factors bear in the publishing world. You have a much smaller market for these books and databases. And each potential customer has a very limited budget to spend. There is not, as the publishers seem to envision it, a bottomless purse of money at universities. We have a very real limit on what we can spend, and my choice is driven by what my students and faculty need most. So, when push comes to shove, I have to choose the core legal materials that our Legal Practice Skills faculty choose to teach about, and the materials that support the rest of our curriculum , and my faculty's research interests. Period. The MBAs need to learn fast, or we are going to lose our legal publishing industry in spite of betting that letting Thomson take it over would save it!

This charming picture of the goose that laid the golden egg is from an illustrated book written and illustrated by Geoffrey Patterson.

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