How E-Readers Can Change the Content of Legal Books

(This is part of a series; the earlier posts are here.)

So we’ve spoken about why lawyers, law students, and law professors might shift to e-readers, and how this shift may change their reading habits (especially by letting them have their main reference works constantly available). But the shift should also lead to a change in the content of legal books.

Size: The most obvious such effect will be to remove the influence of page limits. My First Amendment casebook is now 1074 pages, including front matter, and my publisher tells me that the next edition can’t get any bigger. And there are good reasons for that, both related to cost and to bulk. That means that if I add some new cases, I have to remove or trim down some old cases — that’s work for me, and inconvenience for teachers who use my textbook but find that a case they taught from the previous edition is missing from the new edition.

Likewise, if I’m interested in adding a new chapter (for instance, about the First Amendment and ballot access restrictions, something I don’t now cover, or about Framing-era views on the First Amendment), I either have to cut something else, or forgo the new material. This limits the useful material I can add, and the choices I can present to the teachers who adopt my book.

If my textbook moves to e-book format, these constraints will fall away. And though long law journal articles or scholarly books are hard to get through, thick (but well-edited) textbooks are good: Textbook authors deliberately design books to have more material than each adopter will need, so that adopters can pick and choose what to include. If my textbook grows to the equivalent of 1500 paper pages, but remains easily portable, no student will have to read all 1500 pages. My adopters would still assign the same number of pages that they usually assign, but they would have more topics to choose from, and perhaps more cases in each topic to choose from.

Removing page limits would also let authors include valuable supplementary material — statutes, regulations, datasets, and the like. A scholarly book could include a great deal of supporting evidence, so that readers who are interested could examine it, and even readers who don’t want to see all the evidence could feel more confident in the book’s accuracy because the evidence would be there. A copyright treatise could include the full text of the Copyright Act and of all Copyright Office regulations.

To be sure, lifting the page limits could lead some textbook authors to underedit the cases. But the current page limits may lead some authors to overedit them. And in any event, experienced textbook authors know that they need to edit cases well, so that students don’t have to read unnecessary material, and so that textbook adopters don’t have to assign too many pages per class session.

Malleability: E-books can also be easily changed, both at the time they are sold and later. One consequence is that textbooks could be custom-produced for particular teachers, with little extra work for the authors.

It shouldn’t be hard to create a textbook assembly program that lets an instructor choose which cases from a textbook should go into the custom e-book that he will assign for his class, and which order they’ll go in. The program might be designed in a visually friendly way that lets instructors drag cases around using the mouse, and it might even automatically fix forward and backward references (with help from metatags embedded in the source file by the textbook author), or warn the user when some case is being deleted but another case that refers to it is being kept. The resulting packet will be easier for students to navigate, especially if the instructor’s syllabus would otherwise have skipped around a lot.

Such a program could also make it easy for the instructor to add supplementary materials, or perhaps even merge materials from multiple textbooks. The sales price can be suitably and automatically split between the textbook publishers according to some prearranged fee schedule. And students will have one “book” that they’ll read beginning to end, rather than a book of which they’ll read half, coupled with some separate supplementary materials.

This malleability also facilitates post-sale changes. E-textbooks, e-treatises, and even scholarly e-books would then be easier to update. New cases and other new developments could be added right away, without having to wait for the next Supplement. To be sure, this will lose publishers the profits on sales of Supplements. Perhaps publishers will then charge for the updating service, to make up for that (though the cost savings of electronic delivery mean they wouldn’t need to charge as much as they do for the printed Supplement). But in any event, the immediate and seamless supplementation should be so valuable to teachers and to students that some publishers are quite likely to start offering it, and when they do, others will have to follow suit.

Likewise, electronic books are easier to correct. When one user of the book reports a typo, a substantive error, a poorly edited case, or the like, the author could promptly fix it. The software could even immediately distribute the correction to all existing buyers, and perhaps notify them of where the correction took place.

Of course, this needs to be done in a way that doesn’t make readers feel that their bookshelf is being tampered with against their will. [Footnote on the Amazon/George Orwell controversy omitted.] Moreover, a professor or a student who has read a passage the day before class might be surprised and unhappy to find that an unannounced change was made the day of class. But this could easily be dealt with by noting the changes in the text, or giving people the option to accept or reject the change.

Interactivity: E-books could also be made interactive, though that would require some changes to e-reader software, and the development of a protocol through which those changes can be taken advantage of by publisher.

The chief value of this should be for legal study tools. Instead of a books full of written multiple choice practice questions, with answers and explanations at the back, students could use an e-book with interactive questions that immediately explain why some answer was right or wrong. The question sequence could even be paced to a student’s performance, for instance so that the e-book would test a student more on matters that he consistently gets wrong and less on matters that he consistently gets right.

There are already such tools on CD-ROM, but having them available on e-readers should make them more readable and portable. And the advent of e-readers will also make it especially convenient for textbook authors to include such self-testing questions within the book.

In principle, interactivity could also be helpful for some scholarly works and treatises, for instance to depict changes over time, or to allow custom searches of large sets of data. Various reference sites, such as the Census and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, already provide useful databases that way. But I suspect that this sort of feature would likely be most useful for more data-rich projects than the typical legal book.