I Want E-Books, Just Not Yours

I participated in a meeting with a Canadian legal publisher’s sales rep today to see the latest in their e-book offerings.  Canada is significantly behind US peers, with about 6 titles available at the moment from LexisNexis Canada and Westlaw Canada.  For people who follow e-book trends, it’s like wandering into a rural village from a metropolis.

Law libraries do not yet have the challenges that public libraries have, nor do legal researchers have access to the range of e-books – free or otherwise – that are broadly available to consumers.  When the topic of e-books comes up, there is very little to talk about if you’re speaking just about the legal publishing world.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the horizon is very promising.  I have spoken to two different Canadian legal publishers and both say they understand that (a) lawyers are researching differently these days and (b) that the e-books shouldn’t reflect the linear path of print books.  But this is all that they seem to produce.

Don’t Fence Me In

PDF.  ePub.  There are commonly available formats for e-books that I can use on multiple devices and, more importantly, I can provide to the lawyers I serve on their devices.  That helps me because I don’t have to invest in hardware to deliver my books.  The model that legal publishers should be following is already out there.  Create the e-book so that it can work on multiple platforms.

Overdrive is the most obvious delivery platform to copy for libraries.  It provides the timeouts, the licensing management, and searchable databases.  Is it perfect?  Of course not, what is.  But it is a system that works and would make a sensible channel for legal publishers to deliver their books to law firms.

There Needn’t Be an App for That

I want to buy a book, not an app.  I appreciate that there are ways to improve the reading experience using note-taking and highlighting tools.  But if you make me use YOUR tools to read YOUR book, then I’m locked into what you are willing to develop.  Legal publishers are great at producing information but not always great at producing software.  Go ahead, knock yourself out creating a software application.  But let me have the pick of the apps developed by people whose sole focus is creating productivity (note taking, highlighting, etc.) applications.

Again, there is a model for this.  The book and the reader tool do not need to be the same.  Amazon’s Kindle software runs on multiple platforms and handles multiple e-book forms.  I’d rather see a legal publisher develop a great app and allow me to read their books – and those from other publishers that provide compatible e-book formats – and give me the app separately, even come up with a charge for it.

Make it Portable

An e-book has some basic characteristics that, I think, most people would agree on.  One of them is that it’s portable.  Some legal publishers have decided that the way to deliver e-books is through a Web browser, on a computer.  But if you can provide the information that way, why not put it right into a searchable database and give people the option to read it in the traditional, linear fashion or, more likely, give them the ability to skip from chunk to chunk as they need it.

A Web-based e-book isn’t necessarily portable and probably hasn’t been designed for mobile users who may or may not have Web browsers, large enough screens, and so on.  Give us e-books that a lawyer can have accessible on their mobile device, when they need it.  An e-book that relies on an Internet connection is going to be useless in areas with weak or non-existent wireless range, and in courthouses with no wireless or wired networking available.

Tripping Over Your Own Feet

The legal publishers have been focused on creating a soup-to-nuts workflow environment.  Get the lawyers into the product suite and keep them in there.  If they create a book woven into an app, they can capture what the lawyer finds, what they mark up as important, what their research activity is, since it can be stored on the publisher’s servers as a service to the lawyer.

The ultimate product, though, is just a linear book.  The add-ons don’t change the book and there doesn’t seem to be any rethinking of that container.  If the option is a print book or an e-book in a lending law library, the e-book is going to be a lot of extra hassle unless it is better than the print book in some way.  With all of the innovation going on in e-books beyond the legal publishing world, it would be interesting to see something different being brought to market by the laggards serving lawyers.

My Ideal Legal e-Book

What would my ideal e-book look like for legal research?  It would have a couple of different features:

  • First screen would be a finding tool OTHER than a table of contents.  The table of contents is useful once or twice but the index or the search tool would be a better option for an e-book;
  • The content would be broken into pieces so that a non-linear use would be possible.  If I access an e-book and get to a relevant chunk, let me go sideways to other relevant chunks without having to navigate back to an index or re-run a search or assume that the only relevant chunks are sequentially in the linear book.  Databases often have “related” content or tagging to tie content together across the system, and there is no reason a book can’t either.

To be fair, I haven’t seen these features in any of the fiction or non-fiction e-books I’ve read.   But those books are typical, linear books and are unlikely to be consumed like legal research materials are.  These aren’t particularly innovative ideas, either, but they would seem to leverage the e-book more for how lawyers are likely to be accessing them.