Why Legal Books Are Likely To Go Electronic (Pretty Soon)

The paper book is a familiar and generally well-loved technology. It also has advantages over e-readers that might endure for many years. The main ones have to do with how much material one can see at once, without flipping a page or clicking a button. Paper books still let people see more text, on two open largish-sized pages, than can be seen on a modern e-reader screen. [Footnote: This stems from three reasons: E-readers’ lower legibility requires them to use a larger font; their screen size tends to be smaller, presumably for cost and portability reasons, than the text size of a typical book (though screen size for the Kindle DX, which is designed specifically for textbooks, is roughly the same as the text size of a typical textbook); and a hardcover or loose-leaf book can be opened to show two pages at once. I don’t speak here of the supposed esthetic benefits of holding a paper book in your hand; I’m not sure that such benefits are on balance likely to be seen as high enough even with books that are read for pleasure, but they seem especially low as to books related to law. Students, professors, and lawyers are likely to make much more functional approaches towards the textbooks, treatises, study aids, and scholarly books that they real.]

Also, people can cheaply have several books or printouts in front of them at once. Few people are likely to buy several e-readers to duplicate that experience, until e-readers get as cheap as CD players have become over time. [Footnote: Of course, one can have many books available on the reader, and can switch among them at the click of a few buttons. But that’s not quite as easy as having several items that you can read side by side. Losing or damaging an e-reader is also much more expensive than losing or damaging a book. This may lead people to be highly reluctant to take e-readers certain places, such as beaches or bathtubs, and to give e-readers to their small children; but that’s a matter more relevant to pleasure reading and children’s books than to legal books.

But e-readers offer material advantages over paper books, and are likely to offer still more within just a few years. This will be enough, I think, to lead most users of law books to eventually shift to e-readers, and especially to influence law students and young lawyers who are already used to reading many things on computers.

First, e-readers are more portable than books. Hundreds of books’ worth of data can fit on a reader that is the size of a hardback, and the weight of a paperback. This is especially useful for law students who have to carry several books for their classes — a typical textbook weighs 4 pounds, and a semester’s worth of books is a back-straining load — and for lawyers who have to carry many books and other documents to court or on a trip. (The Kindle 2 lets you upload your own documents onto it for free.)

But e-readers don’t just help people carry those books they’re already carrying. Rather, e-readers also make books more immediately available. Lawyers could have all their favorite treatises and most important statutory and regulatory sources constantly at hand. Students could be sure to always have their hornbooks or outlines, together with their textbooks.

E-readers can make it easier to find one’s books. All the books, and other materials such as downloaded articles or cases, are right there on the reader, available through its alphabetizable table of contents; you needn’t spend time searching for that misplaced book. Of course, this assumes that you haven’t misplaced the e-reader itself, but it’s easier to keep track of one e-reader than of many items.

E-readers make it easier to buy books, which can be selected in seconds and then downloaded in a few minutes. Of course, impulse buys are uncommon for law books. But this ties in to one more reason that many readers of law books might want to buy e-readers: E-readers are also useful for reading other books, newspapers, and the like, for which impulse buying and instant delivery can be important. As lawyers and law students buy Kindles and the like for pleasure reading, they’re likely to use them for legal reading as well.

E-readers can also make each book more usable. First, they can make source material more available. Case or statute references in a treatise, for instance, could link directly to the text of the case or statute. This text could be distributed as part of the work, for especially important sources. Or the treatise could be linked to a Web database, such as Findlaw, Westlaw, and the like, which could be reached through the e-reader’s built-in cellular modem. Such a link would be slower, but faster than going to the library or even to one’s main computer to track down the source.

E-readers also make books more searchable. This is especially helpful for reference works, but is also useful for textbooks, and to some extent for scholarly works. If you’re looking for a passage you remember, you can find it by just recalling a key word. Traditional indexes provide some such flexibility, but full-text search is quicker and generally more comprehensive.

And e-readers can provide instant translation through built-in dictionaries, whether for English words, legal jargon, or foreign words. This is especially useful for foreign language speakers who are studying or researching American law, for English speakers who are studying or researching foreign-language law, or for law students who need quick lookup of legal phrases. (The Kindle 2, for instance, lets you set any dictionary you buy as the primary dictionary, though it comes with a free New Oxford American Dictionary.)

On top of this, e-readers have the potential to substantially reduce the cost of books. Going electronic will cut down on printing costs, shipping costs, and storage and distribution costs on the publisher side, plus the costs of shelving and operations at the bookstore. This should quickly offset the cost of the hardware. Law students, for instance, generally have to buy $400 or more worth of books each semester; if that bill is reduced by just 20%, the savings will quickly exceed the Kindle 2’s $300 price tag (and there’s every reason to think that e-reader prices will fall, just as prices for other hardware, from computers to CD players, have fallen). There’s more on the cost issue, though, below.

[More to come soon on improvements that manufacturers and publishers need to make — but can probably make without much difficulty — to make this happen.]