e-readers: right baby, wrong mother

I just learned that the new nook e-reader by Barnes & Noble is now officially sold out for the 2009 year. Any additional purchases, for example for Christmas, can be made in receipt of a certificate-styled promise of a slated January, 2010 shipment, the soonest shipment date now available. Barnes & Noble’s communications suggest they greatly underestimated the demand for the e-reader.

There’s another story here. e-readers, for all their heraldry, are quite right fixes to the wrong problem. They have in fact come from the wrong place: Amazon introduced the Kindle, but Amazon arguably knows little about reading. They’re a logistics firm. They’re glorified book fetchers. That’s a legitimate service, but it shouldn’t correlate with any automatic according to Amazon of an expertise on reading and readers, or of a likelihood to adequately serve the heartiest of reading customers.

The Kindle came from a book fetcher when it should have come from the legal publishing and IT industry. It didn’t come from the legal industry because that industry, dominated as it is by an oligopoly in Thomson Reuters and Lexis Nexis, lacks real competition and innovation. The value creation for the industry that is consequently precluded is arguably staggering.

The Kindle and the nook, likely decades late in light of the legal industry’s practices and available technology, are a real testament to how staid and non-innovative that industry is. More reading, publishing and printing occurs in the industry than in likely any other—no book is thicker or professionally read with greater care, income-dependence and frequency than a law book —and it above any other sector would benefit from provision to apprentices, educators, practitioners, governments and scholars of law of a means to (1) free up information from the associated energy-consuming heft that is the legal hardcover, and (2) retrieve information more efficiently by locating it to one portable place which reduces briefing and even research time.

Imagine an attorney having the entire state and federal code on an e-reader and being able to download updates in real time vs. using pocketparts or being required to log in to a proprietary database that raises accounts payable.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble are thinking about rock star authors like Stephen King, or maybe about John Smith from demographic X who “travels” and “reads a lot” and spends Y dollars per year on books.

But a generic e-reader’s real ROI lies with neither and instead comes from the captive legal customer about whom no one appears to be thinking. That industry would not only readily downsize from the onerous weight of hardcovers at a significant operational level, but would likely pay premium dollar for the privilege. The margins available in the industry obliterate what can currently be found in conventional or online retail book-selling. Theirs is livelihood-dependent book reading in the legal industry—every legal apprentice, every law school, every legal library, every private legal actor, every state government, every governmental regulatory body (indeed, a full third of our GDP is government)—vs. generally elective reading by individuals for Amazon and brick and mortar bookstores. Moreover, it is higher-end sales as cheap paperback law books still cost into the hundreds of dollars; it is recession proof book reading; and it is predictable volume book reading.

It’s the right thing to do environmentally. Hardcovers in code and casebooks are quite enough. But otherwise the famous paper mills that are the Lexis Nexis and Westlaw printers are precisely such because the information they print isn’t differently accessible, “hand-holdable” and portable. So voluminous is the law and secondary research, that they often involve significant printing queues that require strategically timed print commands and physical visits to a singular legal printer by a legal researcher. That researcher must pay per page for their printouts which normally range into the hundreds of pages, not all of which will assuredly be useful, atop the fees paid to both query a legal database, and then digitally view a retrieved page to prioritize it for printing.

It now makes sense for one of these existing e-reader firms to take the technology to the most demanding standard (a legal one) and target the legal industry vs. that industry now charting any such course. However, their disconnect from the value creation that this technology provides to the legal industry may ironically preclude such.

That is the inefficiency of the technology’s origin in retail booksellers. Had it originated in law where not only the greatest value creation potential resided, but where every possible application and feature would be stringently designed and debugged (for example, hardly a mishap like the recent text-to-voice design glitch in the Kindle for the visually impaired would have made it out of the door of a legal manufacturer where blind attorneys practice and the field is naturally attuned to the fullest range of disabilities, special needs and required legal accommodations in workplaces and general society), it easily could have been tweaked or pared down for informal readers. The reverse, however, will be trickier, and I think will take longer.

If it doesn’t come from within the legal industry, it isn’t likely to come at all by disinterested retail oriented firms, or will be met with sufficient oligopolistic resistance to dissuade any such foray by highly competitive firms that “compete” against the hardcover province so long golden to these publishers. The legal industry won’t readily embrace e-readers as a value creating energy conserving efficient evolution of information storage, retrieval and portability in general. Otherwise it would have already done so. It suggests that the legal customer may not well have any such accommodation soon, but given the evolution of how reading is now facilitated in other industries, casually, in libraries and in schools, will now be too familiar with the ilk of convenience it can offer.

e-reader companies are adjunct value creators doing incrementalism for some larger and still dominant business model and appear fixated on each other; they are not breakthrough firms challenging hundreds of years of legal practice modalities or industry behemoths.

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