The struggle in legal publishing

The battle over the cost of CDs compared to
bound books goes on, but this writer confesses
that he's changed his opinion


My mailbox has been filled this month with a continuing discussion (putting it politely) about the high prices of California law books in electronic format.

I'd not paid a lot of attention to the problem in the past because I've always been grateful that my favorite law office tools were available on CD.

The complaint is simple, and it goes like this: "Why shouldn't CDs cost a lot less than bound books? They contain the same editorial, but CDs cost 75 cents to make and books cost at least $50 per volume to print. Shouldn't I get a discount if I buy a CD and not a 75-book set?"

I used to agree with this argument, now I don't!

For the last several months I've been working on two brand new California-based software applications. This job is often a lot tougher than practicing law -- take my word for it!

To make these applications, it was necessary to both develop quality editorial content and at the same time develop applications to make the content useful and useable.

It's true that I can deliver a CD-ROM to your desk (postage, envelope, small gift included) for less than $5.

So it is cheaper to "deliver" the information to you than sending you four cartons of books. It's also cheaper for me to just remake that CD ROM at update time (so you can throw the old one away) than sending you 75 pocket part inserts.

But CD formats can deliver a lot more than just editorial in large quantities. They need an engine to enable you to search, annotate and manipulate that information with little or no training.

Take the Folio application as an example, as it seems to be an application commonly used to deliver information (Bancroft-Whitney and Matthew Bender for starters).

Take a look at what it costs to produce a Folio-based product. First, all the work that had been done for the print versions has to be moved to SGML (Standard Graphics Markup Language), the lingua franca of the electronic publishing world.

In some cases this can take years, as most often the old typography is in a format which requires painstaking translation into a useable electronic format.

Spend some big bucks to translate 75 volumes of data and you've got a decent start. Then if you haven't developed the application in your own shop (if you have, add another five hundred thousand to a million dollars for building and testing), add the license fee that you'll have to pay to the actual application manufacturer.

So now you've got an electronic duplicate of the texts and an application to view it with. So what?

What about an electronic index, what about a table of contents, what about hypertext links both to other locations in that set and to other sets as well?

What about concept and idea linking and searching -- tools you never expected in a print version, but are commonplace in electronic publishing?

This is what electronic publishing is for isn't it? Problem is, today this added value does not come cheaply.

I assure you, publishers are struggling with this issue from both directions: adding value and reducing costs.

Martin Dean, a San Francisco attorney, is president of Essential Publishers. He can be reached only by e-mail at: