The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and in no way represent the opinions of William S. Hein & Co., Inc. and HeinOnline.
Writing a Reference Book, Part II: Updating a Moving Target
State laws change. Constantly. Keeping a reference book that compares the most interesting and controversial laws in all 50 states current is like pushing a boulder up a hill that doesn’t have at its top a place for the boulder to rest. Every time you get it up there, it rolls back down; it’s a never-ending process. (It won’t surprise you to know that the laws change!) With the release of the first Interim Update to the 7th edition of National Survey of State Laws, I’ve pushed the boulder to the top of the first hill. Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be working to push it back up.
In addition to updating three important chapters, we’ve also added a brand new chapter on Civil Shoplifting statutes—an area of law that is little known for most people, but came to the attention of the chapter's creator, Professor Ryan Sullivan. Professor Sullivan is a supervising attorney at the University of Nebraska’s Civil Law Clinic. A client was sued by a store owner for restitution of shoplifted merchandise in a civil action. It turns out that there is no requirement that a shoplifter be arrested or cited for shoplifting in order for a store owner to sue to recover merchandise. Many states have passed laws that give the store owner the option of simply pursuing the accused shoplifter without the bother of prosecuting a criminal case.
One of the three chapters being updated is Marijuana Laws, which in the 7th edition was moved out of the “Illegal Drugs” chapter and given its own treatment as more and more states modify their laws to decriminalize it. Two other chapters that are included in the current update are Medical Records and Interest Rates. Both of these were in the 6th edition, but didn’t make the initial cut into the 7th. (Ask Dan Rosati for an “inside baseball” version of why the Medical Records chapter doesn’t exist in the 7th print edition.) The state laws concerning interest rates were undergoing a radical transformation around the time when we were preparing to publish the newest edition. Initially, it looked as if all the state laws had been superseded by big changes in federal financial and banking laws, so the decision was made to pull the Interest Rates chapter until we figured out how things were going to shake out. We’ve added it back into the first Interim Update and it, with Medical Records, will become a permanent part of the online 7th revised edition.
Part of what drew me to work with Hein as the new publisher of NSSL was the freedom I now have to keep the book up to date. The story below recounts how working with my former publisher made this process virtually impossible, not because they were bad people, but because as the company grew, the needs of its customers and authors became more remote and the emphasis was on what made business sense, not what would be most helpful to users.
The following narrative should be taken as an objective description about the particular process that my book went through from the 1st to the 7th editions. It is not meant to be critical of my former publisher in a personal sense; it’s simply an accurate description of how business forces influence publishers—a lesson that we should all keep in mind in this age of mergers, acquisitions and consolidation.
For the record, I was disappointed with Gale as it changed from Gale Research, to The Gale Group, to Thomson Gale, and finally to Gale Cengage, and as I got further removed from the development of the project. (Buy me a drink and I can complain for a good long time about how these kinds of consolidations are killing legal bibliography and have damaged the mission and vision of good companies….) But nothing in the following should be taken as personal or resentful. The fact is, Gale Research was the perfect publisher for the 1st edition; with their close ties to public libraries and their reputation as a producer of quality general reference works, it is doubtful that the book would have found its way into as many non-law libraries as it did. But Hein is the perfect publisher to take NSSL into the future: Hein understands the needs of legal researchers and has the resources to make a superior online version of the book. Hein’s perspective and support gives me the freedom to develop new chapters and update old ones as necessary and without having to wrangle the layers of bureaucracy and the sometimes contrary mission of the parent organization.
The success of the 1st edition of the book surprised me and my publisher, Gale Research. However, a year after publication, Gale Research surprised me by being sold to Information Access, that upstart digital information company which was known only as the source of Current Law Index and Legal Resources Index. The change seemed to me to be incidental at first, but I soon learned that bigger is not always better!
The first change was that the editors that I had worked with to produce NSSL no longer had the power to decide when the book was to be updated and had little input into the book’s future. Two years later I was working on updating the book, but by then IAC had been acquired by the Thomson Group, which later acquired West Publishing. With each acquisition, I found that my editors grew further and further away from the publishers and executives who made decisions regarding publishing schedules. There are two extraordinary examples of this.
Dropping Under the Radar
It was at some point after Thomson acquired West Publishing Company and the book was in its 3rd edition that I was at an AALL Annual Meeting when someone passed me and said, “Congratulations!” To which I responded, “For what?” It turned out that the person had just visited the booth for West Group (as it was then known), where they were featuring a new database of 50-state surveys! Exact reproductions of chapters from NSSL, as it turned out, and there in the exhibit hall was the first I had heard of it! For several years I had suggested to my editors that we should produce an electronic version of the book so that it could be updated more quickly, but the only response I received was that they would take the idea to the next “development meeting,” which I gathered was a quarterly meeting where the editors and various associate publishers gathered to plan the calendar for new books and updates for existing titles. These meetings were very important as they considered past revenue and the cost of production for each title.
Apparently, since West and Gale were now “sister” companies, they found the wherewithal to license NSSL to Westlaw, but they felt that there was no need to bring this to my attention! (This was also the first glimpse of things to come regarding my contractual arrangement … more on this shortly.)
For years I had suggested to Gale that they should have a presence at the AALL Annual Meeting exhibit hall, but since the company was primarily focused on general reference books, they were very focused on ALA and its gigantic annual meeting. (If you’ve never been, it’s mind-boggling, and the exhibit hall is a book lover’s fantasy!) Consequently they had no interest in attending AALL.
In 2003, when the 4th edition was completed and it was clear that the book was on its way to becoming a standard reference work, I mentioned to my editor that the marketing department may want to nominate the book for an Andrews Award. Since it didn’t win when it first came out,1 I thought that a subsequent edition might have a shot; indeed, it won! I was very proud of this accomplishment and was thrilled that it coincided with Gale’s decision to finally exhibit at AALL! When I toured the Exhibit Hall I walked up to the Gale people manning the booth with a hand over my head, ready for a high five! I said, “We won!” To which the puzzled people in the booth responded, “Who are you?” After I explained that I was the author of, and they were the publisher of, that year’s Andrews Award winner, they still acted as though I was making up the whole thing! It turned out that the company had grown so large that my book was being published in a different division from their “legal” division which wasn’t interested in publishing legal reference books at all. As far as they were concerned, NSSL was being published by another (competing?) publisher!
Looking To the Future
To make a long story short, four years later after the 6th edition was published, Gale was making more money from licensing the database than they were from publishing the print and decided to drop the book altogether! I was crushed. When I asked if I could take the book to another publisher, they said that since my original contract essentially made me an independent contractor, I owned no rights to it. With a great deal of patience and persistence, I eventually purchased—for $1—the rights to my book and all previous editions.
My first choice of a new publisher was Hein, because they reminded me in many ways of the old Gale Research that I first signed on to write for: honest, independent, with a solid reputation. It is wonderful to now have the ability to update the book all year long and to add new chapters as often as I choose. Our goal is to keep the database as current as possible with changed laws and new topics at least two or three times a year.
I am interested in hearing suggestions for new chapters, and also let me know if you have either compiled your own 50-state survey or want to develop one! The possibilities are endless. If you’d like to contribute to NSSL but don’t know what to write about, let me know that, too. I have a list of chapters that I want to work on….
1. When the first edition of NSSL was published in 1992, after nearly four hard years of work, it just so happened that that was also the same year that my good friend, Fred Shapiro had finally finished his magnum opus, the Oxford Dictionary of Legal Quotations, after working on it ever since we first met in the mid-1980s. His book, deservedly, won the Andrews Award that year.