July 9, 2010
West and AALL Price Index
Guest post by Ken Svengalis, Rhode Island LawPress, and author of the annual Legal Information Buyer's Guide & Reference Manual
To follow up on Joe Hodnicki’s comments regarding Thomson Reuters of a few weeks back, we have all been witness to the devastation wrought by West's price increases since the 1996 merger. Driving profit margins to better than 32% from an already healthy 25% (i.e. 2.5 times that of corporations generally) has caused untold damage to law libraries nationwide. Although we may rail against West’s price and supplementation costs increases, we can’t, as an organization, tell West what to charge. Those determinations will ultimately be left to the market. But we can demand that West provide the Price Index Committee with supplementation cost data so that we can make informed decisions. They owe us no less.
Early on, West set its sights on the broader lawyer market and had decided not to let the interests or concerns of law libraries stand in the way of price increases that will be tolerated by gullible lawyers unaware of the dynamics of legal publishing. We're simply not important enough to them in the broad scheme of their business model. That's why they have continually stiffed AALL on the issue of providing supplementation cost data to the Price Index Committee. Once AALL stiffened its resolve not to tolerate West's intransigence any longer by refusing their sponsorship of the Annual Meeting, West seemingly relented and agreed to cooperate. But, in actuality, it was more of the same.
It should have been obvious to anyone who has been paying close attention that the Price Index tracks supplementation costs, not new set costs. Yet, when West seemingly relented and agreed to provide data to the committee, what did it actually provide? Not the supplementation costs that the Index has tracked since its inception in 1973, but NEW set costs as already provided on the West web site. One can only interpret this as a deliberate slap in the face to the law library community. It's hard to imagine that anyone at West could be so clueless as to not understand that supplementation costs are what the Committee, and the law library community, seek in order to make informed acquisitions and cancellation decisions. And they should have had enough sense to realize that inserting new set costs into an index designed to track supplementation costs would wreak havoc with the result.
After all, this issue has been batted about for at least ten years, or at least since the creation of the Price Index 2d in 2000. Repeated appeals have been made to West for their cooperation, all to no avail. Failing to secure their cooperation, the AALL Board finally decided to drop West from the Price Index entirely, rendering the whole project virtually useless. After all this unfortunate history, to now provide the Price Index Committee with new set costs is little short of bizarre.
The supplementation costs the Committee sought from West involved essentially the same titles I have been tracking in my “Legal Information Buyer’s Guide & Reference Manual” since 1996. Indeed, the current list of West titles in the Index closely tracks the titles in my book and represents my input into the process when the Price Index 2d was created in 2000, using 1998 as its new base year. So, naturally, I have viewed with dismay the difficulties the Committee has faced in attempting to collect supplementation cost from West. When the Price Index 3d was unveiled in 2006, using 2005 as its new base year, all the West titles were dropped without ceremony. This reduced the number of indexed titles from 914 to 584, or 36% of the total. It soon became obvious that the Committee could not continue its project with all titles of the world’s largest legal publisher removed, particularly when that publisher was responsible for the largest supplementation cost increases in history and was the cause of devastation to law libraries nationwide.
So, what is the Price Index Committee to do in light of West’s continued intransigence? Does it continue to publish its index on aallnet.org without West's representation? Or does it work with the AALL board to ensure West’s cooperation with the Committee’s work? Committee members have a difficult enough task as it is. Limited terms and membership rotation make it difficult to maintain the group memory necessary to keep the pressure on West and preserve the long-term viability of the enterprise.
I have been tracking West supplementation costs since 1996 when I published the first edition of the “Legal Information Buyer’s Guide & Reference Manual”, which now includes nearly 20 years supplementation cost history for many titles. Indeed your support of my book since 1996 has allowed this effort to continue. But such an effort should not be left to one law librarian/publisher, but should be an essential AALL activity that provides it with the attention, commitment and continuity it deserves.
The AALL board’s decision to refuse West sponsorship of the Annual Meeting was a salutary development after many years of dithering. But now, it is faced with confronting the same issue all over again. On the eve of the Annual Meeting, it is hoped that it will give this subject the attention it deserves and demand West’s genuine, not feigned, cooperation. Over the years, West has insinuated itself into the sponsorship of dozens of Annual Meeting luncheons, SIS functions, and parties which are simply extensions of their marketing efforts. Until they come across with the supplementation cost data, however, these are all meaningless exercises that fail to address our most pressing concern.