That’s the title of a forthcoming Foreword that I was invited to write for the next Michigan Law Review Books Related to the Law issue. The issue itself mostly consists of book reviews, but the Forewords are generally on broader subjects related to legal books or legal scholarship. I thought I’d serialize the article here (with the law review’s permission, of course), largely to get our readers’ feedback. The article is still early in the editing phase, so I have plenty of time to make corrections and improvements. For now, here’s the Introduction.
People have been reading books for over 500 years, in more or less the same format. Book technology has changed in some measure since then. Fonts have become more readable. Books have become more affordable. The indexing of reference works has generally improved. Still, the general form of the book has remained much the same.
But the arrival of e-readers, such as the Kindle 2 and the Sony eBook, offers the possibility of a major change. [Footnote: I’m not wild about the label “e-reader,” since it makes it awkward to talk about readers (people) in the same sentence as “e-readers” (reading devices). But that seems to have become the generic term, with “e-books” being used to mean the electronic text that’s downloaded to an e-reader.] First, people may shift to reading existing books on those readers, and the shift may lead them to change the way they use books, for instance by letting readers have many reference works at their fingertips. Second, the shift may change the content of books. And, third, the shift may change who publishes books, and in some measure which books are published.
In this Foreword, I will try to briefly sketch how these changes might play out as to books related to the law: textbooks, scholarly books, legal books aimed at laypeople, treatises, other practitioner reference books, and law student study tools. I will also talk about what changes to the technology, and to the structure of the legal book market, are likely to be needed to capture the technology’s possible benefits.
The effects of the change in medium will likely be varied. The shift from horses to cars, for instance, allowed long-distance commuting and at the same time reduced the amount of manure on the streets, [“In 1900 New York City’s approximately 120,000 horses produced over 2,500,000 pounds of ‘solid waste’ a day, as well as about 60,000 gallons of urine.”] yet the two are hard to link through a grand theory. But many of the effects will point in the direction in which electronic distribution tends to change the media generally: Electronic distribution will reduce cost, increase choice, and increase convenience. And in the process it will not only facilitate access to existing material, but will also promote the production of more material.
This is naturally a speculative endeavor — we’re only at the beginning of the wide acceptance of e-readers, though we’re about 15 years into the broader cyberspace media revolution. And I’ll make it still more speculative by considering not just the current e-reader technology, but also foreseeable developments in that technology. [Footnote: I’ll therefore set aside some criticisms of e-readers, such as the Kindle DX, that are focused on particular unfortunate design choices in the early-generation models, so long as it seems likely that those problems could easily be avoided in future versions of the product.] But I hope the speculation will still be helpful, both to curious observers and to those who are thinking of participating as authors in the evolution of the legal book.