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JILT 1996 (3) - Dick Greener

Arranging Deckchairs on the Titanic

The Publisher's Role in the Digital Publishing Era?

Dick Greener
Sweet & Maxwell


Abstract
1. Technology makes it easy ....
1.1 Publishing's first enabling technology
1.2 Getting into print today
1.3 Getting published
2. Being commercial
2.1 Publishing systems
2.2 It can be done, but should it .... ?
3. Cost/revenue profiles
4. Technology can help
4.1 New entrants
4.2 CD-ROM
4.3 Caveats/Disadvantages
4.4 Financial
4.5 Pricing issues
5. Online Services and the Internet
5.1 The rise and rise of the Net
5.2 Caveats
6. Impact of Online/Internet
6.1 The library of the future ?
6.2 Impact on publishers
7. Law Report Publishing, current Awareness Publishing, and Abstracting and Indexing Services
7.1 Law reports
7.2 Abstracting and indexing
7.3 Current awareness
8. Looseleaf publishing/statutory data
8.1 A paper fix
8.2 Access to primary data
8.3 The implications for publishers
8.4 Economic changes
9. Periodical publishing
10. Conclusions
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Date of publication: 30 September 1996

Citation: Greener R (1996) 'Arranging Deckchairs on the Titanic', BILETA '96 Conference Proceedings, 1996 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/elj/jilt/bileta/1996/3greener/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1996_3/special/greener/>


Abstract

The argument is that the arrival of technology makes it easier for new entrants to the market to compete with established publishers. Whilst partially true, this does not supply a complete picture.

1. Technology makes it easy ....

1.1 Publishing's first enabling technology

It has always been possible for people to become publishers, ever since the invention of movable type. It is considerably harder (though of course possible - there are many honourable examples) to compete effectively with existing publishers on any commercial basis. Our own history as publishers reflects entryism in the publishing industry: Mr. Sweet opened his doors as a law bookseller in 1799, Mr. Maxwell (and Mr. Butterworth) a few years later. They began publishing and printing books, in common with other printers and booksellers of the time. Many of their contemporaries are long forgotten, but titles from that era such as Woodfall: Landlord and Tenant (1822) and Archbold: Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice (1828) are still leading works in their fields.

Many academic institutions also venture into publishing as academic presses, a few becoming major international institutions (OUP, CUP to name two famous examples). Most settle for reflecting the publishing needs of the parent institution, thus restricting their output to a relatively small number of titles. Many professional institutions have chosen a similar model.

1.2 Getting into print today

However, even as Mr. Caxton's little idea made publishing a possibility in the first place (bringing, in its wake, mass redundancies amongst scribes and illuminators), new technology continues to make it easier to get into print.

Most (though not all!) works are prepared these days using word processors, cutting out the drudgery of typing and retyping successive drafts. As this software becomes more feature-rich, the output is almost publishable as it stands. The really technically able author can use Desktop Publishing software to produce a final typescript which is fit for publication and can serve as camera ready copy almost indistinguishable (to anyone other than a printer) from CRC produced in the course of typesetting.

Finally, the rapid growth of the World Wide Web has allowed unparalleled self publishing opportunities for everyone (everyone, at least, connected to the Net). The costs are relatively low even now and are likely to disappear as Internet providers begin to offer space and assistance in creating Web pages in order to stimulate the opening of an account with them. Home pages are already being added to the Net at a phenomenal rate by institutions and associations, individuals and anoraks alike. Some are exciting and innovative; others bland and boring; yet others (pending the imminent moral backlash) obnoxious or plain obscene. Nonetheless, the Web does extend substantially the range of options for getting into "print".

1.3 Getting published

Put bluntly, whilst it is easy to get into print (as redefined), it is much less easy to get published. From returns in the trade press it might seem that it is becoming increasingly easier: more and more books are published each year, to say nothing of the new journals, newsletters and looseleaf services that also commence publication. However, for every title which makes it into print there are many which never see the light of day except in the dreams of the author.

Most publishers, understandably, are only prepared to invest in a range of works from which, overall, they expect to make a reasonable return. All their geese need not be swans, but they are in serious trouble if they all turn out to be turkeys.

Very specialist publishers can make a go of very short run printings for very specialist markets - in the eyes of "real publishers" the rarefied world of law publishing looks fairly specialist.

Vanity publishers exist to service the remainder: the World Wide Web however offers a very real threat to the latters' continuing existence.

2. Being commercial

Even with a good publishable idea, it is not that easy to publish it successfully on a commercial basis. Commercial publishers have spent much time and effort in

  • developing systems and resources to support their activities;
  • establishing imprints/brands and known quantity backlist titles (and the revenues which flow from them) to support more experimental publishing ventures ;
  • gearing up for significant investment into projects which may or may not come successfully into profit and
  • managing the cashflow implications of the publishing trade.

Finally, commercial publishers need to do all that repeatedly in order to survive year on year, often in an environment where parent companies are looking for both continuing profitability and healthy growth.

2.1 Publishing systems

I want to look in a little more detail at the systems and the investment issues which those who wish to become commercial publishers have to take on board.

In order to keep on keeping on, a reasonably regular flow is needed of new titles or new editions of existing titles to keep them up to date and selling well. This requires a commissioning function, which exploits existing market knowledge. It will also provide a foundation for the research and exploitation of new fields as they arise. Commissioning editors will put time, skill and effort (and sometimes a little patience) into developing good links with quality authors who can be counted upon to produce excellent work in marketable areas, as well as bringing on new talent.

Few works ever arrive on publishers' desks in a state of complete readiness for publication. A considerable amount of editorial preparation is usually required to ensure that the material will be fit for its audience. This is not a criticism of authors: it is not sensible to ask authors recruited for their analytical skill and knowledge of their chosen area to provide publishing skills when those skills can be provided by the publisher on a more cost and time effective basis. A good author may have clear ideas of the structure, layout and design of the work - that is to be encouraged. However, turning a expert lawyer into an amateur book designer, typesetter's keyboard operator or copy editor represents a disaster waiting to happen. And waiting is what publishers will then tend to find themselves doing ...

To produce a title is one thing, but to get it bought by the intended audience is another. Considerable skill, expertise and focused effort is required to market a range of titles effectively to the market, particularly where subscription titles are involved, which rely on long-term continuing take-up rather than one-off purchase for their success.

2.2 It can be done, but should it .... ?

It would be wrong to suggest that those who wish to publish themselves can not acquire the necessary skills. Many entering the publishing industry have done so. However:

  • it is doubtful that it is cost-effective for an individual or institution to do so at the expense of their core activity (whatever that may be - research, teaching etc.) unless it really is the intention to found a commercial enterprise with a critical mass of new and forthcoming titles which justify the investment of time and resources involved;
  • inevitably there are economies of scale involved in publishing on a large scale - those involved in a minor way will pay more for less.

3. Cost/revenue profiles

It has already been made clear that each title is taken on as a gamble (hopefully a calculated risk!). One of the publisher's key roles is to carry the risk of, and provide the investment in as yet unproven publishing ventures. Even when it is likely that the risk will pay off, there are still considerable cashflow implications involved in bankrolling a publishing project.

For book publishing, the bulk of the cost comes early - printers bills, distribution costs tend to have to be paid upfront - whilst revenue is in arrears - purchases trickle in after an initial surge on publication day (hopefully enough to pay off the printers bills), and bookshops take titles at a discount and enjoy favourable credit arrangements in order to help them survive.

The position differs for journal titles: in the early years, the publication incurs relatively low costs. One issue comes out at a time, allowing the publisher to spread the costs forward, though it is necessary to commit to a minimum period for which the title will be published if the title is sold on subscription. Income comes in slowly to start with, and few periodicals will do more than break even in the early stages. When a title becomes well established, however, cashflow is fairly positive, with subscription income taken in advance of costs going out and used to fund the forthcoming year's activity.

Looseleaf publishing has very high setup costs in the early years, rarely recouped out of receipts (printing, manufacturing, costly binders), and is expensive to run (especially where the speed of updating is crucial), but has a similar "revenue in advance" profile when properly established.

I will look later at the models we can expect for electronic publishing ventures.

4. Technology can help

4.1 New entrants

It is certainly true that new technology will make it easier for different types of concerns to consider entering the publishing market. New entrants might come to law publishing from:

  • existing non-law publishers, who will have many of the systems and can develop others as required
  • other information industries often with experience in providing online information services
  • hardware and infrastructure suppliers keen to provide ever more inclusive services to their customers
  • possibly even the media giants, expanding into global info/edutainment concerns (though their interest is more likely to be acquisition-based than rely on new starts) or the software industry, having potentially exhausted the software upgrade market, and looking for "content".
4.2 CD-ROM

It is also certainly true that CD-ROM as a publishing platform has significant attractions.

CD-ROM is now affordable technology for most end users with an acceptably wide installed base both in the home and increasingly in the workplace. A CD-ROM is highly portable (though of course it requires computer equipment wherever the user wants access to it).

CD-ROM, like all forms of digital delivery, offers the user direct access to the data without the need for existing paper-based access routes. Subject indexes, no matter how talented the indexer might be, are a paper-based publishing stop-gap to help users to find material in an environment where such direct searching is impossible. Such indexes inevitably fail to reflect the mindset of all the possible users in all possible worlds. Other access routes such as full tables and mini-contents and physical features such as divider cards, quick access tabs are print-based features designed to allow readers to "jump" to the required location. These can also be provided in electronic media, via e.g. contents pages and hypertext links.

A further advantage of CD-ROM to the user, is that, once purchased, unlimited use can generally be made of the data it contains, without the need for online time and further expense. Against that, online of course has the advantage of constant updating. In an environment where not all purchasers purchase supplements and where looseleafs are not always updated promptly, absolutely up to the minute accuracy may not yet be perceived as being as essential to lawyers as it is those in the "real time" information industries, mainly in the financial sector. However, speed of delivery and updating will increasingly be a consideration as the technology allows publishers to provide it, and customers grow to expect it.

The physical cost of production of CD-ROMs is relatively low in comparison with print on paper, especially where large quantities of data are involved. Short run CD-ROMs are accordingly relatively cheap to produce in comparison with short run looseleaf/books etc. The CD-ROM pressing industry is supported by the CD audio pressing industry, and major investment in those pressing plants ensures that there is plenty of capacity for cheap CD-ROM production.

CD-ROM makes it significantly easier to create large projects which will be frequently updated: looseleaf publishing is a costly, unwieldy and widely-unloved solution to this problem in the print environment.

The advent of affordable CD-recordable technology means that it is easy (from the technical point of view) to produce a master CD-ROM. The latest release of Sweet & Maxwell's Supreme Court Practice 1995 Digital Edition was mastered in our Avenue Road offices on the same computer on which this presentation was written. (The possibility is raised, however, of CD-ROM copying.)

4.3 System Feedback

The feedback described so far is student controlled feedback. The student is free to choose when feedback is required. Statutor also provides some kind of system controlled feedback. By recording the various diagnoses made during the student's problem solving activity, the system can evaluate the student not only on the basis of the present state of the exercise, but considering also the process through which the present state was reached. The mechanism provides a means of controlling the type of feedback provided to the student. In contrast with immediate feedback where the system intervenes after each error made by the student, and final feedback, where feedback is given only at the end of the exercise without considering the intermediate steps, this mechanism may mean that the student makes significant errors before there is any intervention.

The student requiring frequent feedback is most likely to be a user with limited knowledge of the rule examined in a particular exercise. By requiring assistance the student has indicated doubts but the assistance may reduce the degree of error in the final proof-tree. Student diagnosis of this nature can be used in selecting the next exercises to be given to the student and indeed the format in which these exercises should be presented. A student's lack of knowledge of the use of a particular rule will lead to subsequent exercises where that rule can be re-examined. When the student appears to have mastered the use of a particular rule, the following exercises may not deal with the same rule, or, if they do, the rules will not have to be evaluated. The conclusion of the rule will be represented as a fact. Collapsing the expansion of a mastered rule into a simple fact can be achieved dynamically or by the human tutor using the authoring mode. In fact the human tutor can decide before constructing the new exercise which rules are to be expanded and which are not. Another beneficial result of collapsing mastered rules into simple facts lies in avoiding the repetition of the same rule expansion within a single proof-tree.

5. Online Services and the Internet

5.1 The rise and rise of the Net

Much of the concentration in this section will be on the Internet: whilst the setup costs for a proprietary online service are still fairly substantial, as noted above, the Internet provides a vast canvas for potential self-publishers (although its very scope and lack of structure means that many offerings will be lost without trace). It is difficult to find a publisher or institution who has neither launched a Web page, nor is in the process of evaluating a proposal for one. The Internet does offer real possibilities for members of the scientific, academic and legal communities to make information available amongst themselves without the need for the traditional intermediaries - publishers and librarians - without themselves taking on those roles.

The range of information types is wider than for traditional outlets - including images, sound and video - if it can be digitised it can be transmitted over the Net. Information can be available to users at any time (subject to traffic flow on the information highway) and from sites remote from traditional libraries or bookshops.

Such information can be participative and/or interactive; it need not be fixed in any final format and others have the opportunity to add to or comment via e-mail or other postings. On Sweet & Maxwell's own home page (http://www.smlawpub.co.uk) we are developing a bulletin board-type page to which postings can be made on a range of legal topics or threads.

Interconnectivity is important - there will be links to other relevant material - and pages should be updated regularly, as few browsers will return more than once to a page with no visible changes, no matter how much money has been spent on its creation.

5.2 Caveats

Whilst effectively free (apart from telephone costs and modest subscription charges if relevant), users may be prepared to put up with much that would be unacceptable for any profit-based service. There are considerable frustrations with the Internet relating to with speed and lack of organisational structure; many of the caveats raised in respect of CD-ROM - users' technophobia, skill gaps etc. - apply equally if not more so to the black art of communications technology and Internet software setup.

Commercial use of the Internet is a fast developing area, though in the light of security concerns, the bulk of initiatives in place are actually directed towards finding clever schemes to avoid having to pass credit card numbers over the Net. Historically the Net and commerce did not mix, but as advertising revenue becomes the source of development cost for web pages, and commercial funding ultimately replaces central funding for the development of the infrastructure of the Internet, the reluctance to engage in grubby commerce is likely to be smothered. Publishers engaged in subscription publishing activity are already sufficiently close to their customers to be able to continue to take money through traditional routes in return for making password protected areas of their Website available to those customers for rapid updates.

6. Impact of Online/Internet

6.1 The library of the future ?

As a reliable and comprehensive library of information the Internet is a non-starter. Selective directories exist and search engines are increasingly providing free search services to users (paid for by Web advertising). However, the amount of material is vast, and pages are regularly moved, so that there is no guarantee that a citation/link to another page still refers to material which exists.

Much ink has been wasted (and bytes transmitted) on whether the Internet is the library of the future: without proactive management and structure or organised library services, it is difficult to see how it could be the whole of the library of the future. For critical information needs, the future may need to choose between a mass of uncontrolled and therefore useless information and a smaller quantity of high quality, controlled, organised and accessible data. The Internet ought nevertheless to continue to be a considerable component in any future library provision strategy.

6.2 Impact on publishers

The impact on book publishing, especially for students, of online and Internet may in fact be quite limited. The printed book is not ready to die yet: it is still quite a handy, portable information source; it can be read anywhere without equipment and technical know-how; it can be annotated at will; it can even be sold to others on the second hand market! Other technological developments - for instance, the ability to select chapters from different sources to be printed locally on demand as a personalised textbook - are likely to have more impact in the short to medium term on the academic book trade than online services.

The impact on other areas of publishing activity may be more substantial, particularly in:

  • law report and current awareness publishing; abstracting and indexing services,
  • primary data and looseleaf publishing and
  • periodical publishing.

I will concentrate on these three areas in the remainder of this paper.

7. Law report publishing, current awareness publishing and abstracting and indexing services

7.1 Law reports

Law reports have hitherto been more readily available in digital form than most other forms of primary legal material. As the amount of caselaw material available grows exponentially, the need for quality headnotes, summaries and abstracts becomes ever greater. So too does the need for indexing services which allow the user to access just the relevant few cases required, rather than producing a long list of potentially irrelevant material. This is particularly so whilst the UK courts continue (rightly) to discourage citation of references by the yard.

7.2 Abstracting and indexing

Abstracting and indexing services in paper and digital formats will therefore continue to be an important reference source despite the availability of tools to search the full text material directly. The use of standardised keywords assists users quickly to retrieve brief and accurate summaries pointing to just the material they seek. Just in time data (which is of any practical use) will be difficult to deliver unless these services are also in place.

7.3 Current awareness

I have already mentioned the capability of online services to provide rapid updating which will outstrip nearly all existing paper-based current awareness services such as newsletters, bulletins and monitors. As much as anything, this can be an opportunity for publishers to make commercial use of the information feeds they already have to maintain for the production of their existing titles.

Paper-based updating services are likely nevertheless to continue to have a role. They provide intelligence to the user without effort - once a buying decision has been made they are sent automatically without the user having to actively seek information - an online service must be interrogated by the user. They can be slipped in a briefcase and read through in otherwise dead time, e.g. on the train or in waiting rooms. Finally, there is an element of selectivity and filtering out of less relevant material in their coverage which many readers will welcome. The availability of online updating services will however increase the customer's demand for speed of response.

8. Looseleaf publishing/statutory data

8.1 A paper fix

All publishers readily admit that looseleaf binder publishing is a necessary evil adopted in order to make available in a paper format constantly updated data such as statutory material. Looseleaf publishing has proliferated over the last ten years in response to customer requirements for regular updating, and various types of publishing pattern have been invented in an effort to minimise looseleaf filing fatigue - part replacement, bound in supplements etc. This is partly unenlightened self-interest: for every time a user has to file in a looseleaf release, members of the publishers' staff have to file it in three or four times - to check the filing instructions, to file in the master and slave copies and any library copies that may be required. The most immediate single benefit of the digital age may well be to provide an alternative to this unloved format.

8.2 Access to primary data

Whilst some of Sweet & Maxwell's looseleaf titles are effectively updated books on a binder, the bulk of them tend to provide updated primary legislation and Statutory Instruments, along with essential tertiary or quasi-legal materials and extensive expert commentary. The recent announcement by Roger Freeman MP (Press Release OPS 13/96) to the effect that:

"The Government will continue the existing policy of allowing secondary publishers, without charge or prior permission on a non-exclusive basis, to reproduce in value-added print formats [statutory material/S.I.s] .. I have now decided that this concession should now be extended to electronic and microform formats."

is very much to be welcomed. In the same Press Release he also promises that HMSO will begin releasing the full text of new Acts onto the Internet. Finally, the Statute Law Database when implemented in 1997 will provide some of the updating elements previously only available through the commercial Encyclopedic titles or the now defunct Statutes In Force series. Together this will amount to a considerably increase in availability of statutory material in electronic form to the market.

8.3 The implications for publishers

What effect will this have on commercial services which traditionally provided users with updated statutory material ? Ready availability elsewhere will tend to devalue the mere provision of such data to the end user: it may become "commoditised" and other services will become more central to the customer's perception of value for money. Updating and compilation are of course only part of the range of services: I believe that publishers will have plenty of added value still to provide.

The key factor will be our ability speedily and effectively to provide the market with primary material in value-added form in a range of formats, along with timely commentary by quality expert authors in each field. The emphasis on commentary draws heavily on our "traditional" publishing skills - knowledge of what the market wants (and will want), fitting products to its needs, commissioning and selection, and the layout, design, structure and quality and process control of products.

We will have the ability to get products more quickly to market and to improve the speed and frequency with which updates are provided. The door is open to projects which would have failed to be viable in looseleaf form, whether owing to scale or the nature of the data; images such as line drawings and photographs, for instance, have always been a costly element in the print environment.

New types of added value can be provided in a digital environment, which will require new processes. Products which previously were limited to the provision of information will be able to provide added functionality which actually helps the end user do their job - to name but one key example, automatic form filling/document assembly.

There will be new skills to learn. Conversion of data and the development or selection of suitable software will both become important skills, as will the management of new manufacturing processes and workflows. Some very large projects will stretch considerably existing project management routines, and there will be a range of technical computing skills to be absorbed - networks and World Wide Web authoring to name but two.

8.4 Economic changes

However, the most far-reaching change arising out of online is likely to be a change in the economics of publishing. Currently publishers pre-package and sell materials in reasonably large quantities, from which users then select the exact data they want according to the needs which arise. Customers do however pay for the material as a whole, which is packaged up in a convenient format (the book, or looseleaf) designed for mass-production rather bespoke supply. Users are effectively paying for the security that when they want something covered by the scope of the work, they can have it on demand: few users ever require anything like the full data, and many will only need a very small percentage.

Where primary data and commentary are available electronically, there is a movement towards a "just in time" model of information purchase, with users expecting to pay for only those materials they require. There is also a tendency to expect to pay significantly less as a result.

However, publishers still have to create the archive which, typically, for digital products will be larger than print archives) for which the costs remain the same or higher. In addition, publishers may need to provide users with sophisticated search software and/or additional services such as customer profiling or filtering to assist users retrieve just the data they want without unnecessary "noise" from increasingly large data sets.

Any money saved as a result of economies in physical production is likely to be swallowed up in these additional costs. It could be argued that publishers are providing a better, more focused service which justifies a premium charge. However, it may well not be a realistic option to charge for any of the additional effort involved.

9. Periodical publishing

Here there is a real possibility that materials may be made more widely and speedily available directly to users in the legal community. For the same reasons that current awareness material may still have a paper role to play, it is anticipated that few paper journals will be wholly supplanted in the short to medium term, yet there are interesting opportunities for the creation of online journals where paper analogues could not be financially viable owing to limited print numbers.

For users, advantages include the ability to purchase only those articles which are of interest (whereas paper journals, in the interests of balanced issues tend to include something of interest to the whole constituency, with the result that few readers will read the whole of an issue's contents, relevant themed issues aside).

Interesting possiblities for extending the online journal's range include live citations (hypertext links) to other materials available, and the possibility of more participative involvement - instead of the relatively arid exchange of correspondence in a printed letters page, controversies could take place in "real-time" on the Net.

For publishers, there are the economic issues discussed above of moving from a subscription model to a pay by use model, and, unless the initiatives being undertaken to widen access to digital libraries include provision for remuneration of the publishers for use of the material by users, they could have a potentially damaging effect on existing recognised outlets for work of scholarly value.

Whilst the possiblities of online journals are open to all, including the relevant subject community themselves, in reality this is not a new phenomenon: learned societies have often published journals to their own membership which are the de facto journal of record for that entire discipline. The advent of this technology opens to the door to allow others to provide the infrastructure on which to publish such materials. Whilst online journals have proliferated in the STM field where speed of publication is crucial, they are reported to have had less penetration than expected. However, as a candidate for digital treatment, publishers will ignore this area of publishing at their peril.

10. Conclusions

There is still a role for the publishers in the digital age despite the more ready availability of bulk primary data in searchable format. Users are expected to want value added services - in fact as raw data becomes a commodity, the quality of the added value is crucial.

The Publisher provides a promise of quality amongst the endless cyberjunk, bringing disparate elements together to provide a service of value. Data retrieval and presentation is not of itself enough: a key ingredient of an integrated publishing process which distinguishes it from indiscriminate "availability" is quality control.

The need for commercial services with heavy investment in information services to provide added value for return over the Internet will stimulate development of the technology/software required to manage secure Internet commerce, allowing publishers to take full advantage of the new media.

Publishers will have to learn fast and accept constant change. There will be a need for considerable re-engineering of processes, different cost and revenue implications, and there will need to be a recognition that the basis of investment in publishing has changed for ever.

Nevertheless, publishing is by no means a doomed ship, provided that attention is given to the engine room and navigational system as well as to the entertainment of passengers. Although there might be high seas, the destinations are thoroughly worthwhile and it could be quite a pleasure cruise for those who reach the other end. If publishers can act quickly to recognise and exploit the opportunities that technology presents for exploitation of their high value information, publishing houses with their mix of "traditional" and new publishing skills can continue to exist and thrive well into the next century.

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