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ABA Publishing puts growing emphasis on legal books that interest general audiences


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Traditionally, the ABA’s book-publishing efforts have focused on the kind of in-depth treatment of substantive law topics that lawyers want—and need—to keep up with developments in their fields of practice. But those are the kinds of books that only a lawyer could love, and there was practically no chance that any of these titles would find an audience among nonlawyers.

In the past several years, however, all that has changed. In an effort to expand its footprint in the publishing field, tap into new sources of nondues revenue and build an audience outside the legal profession, ABA Publishing is addressing topics that are redefining the meaning of law books.

Within ABA Publishing, this strategy is designated as the Flagship Series. Generally, substantive law books are produced by the association’s 34 sections, divisions and forums. But other books, which cover a range of law-related topics intended to interest general audiences as well as lawyers, are developed, nurtured and brought to print primarily through the efforts of staff editors in ABA Publishing.

Variety is the essence of what the Flagship Series is all about. “We’re now doing consumer titles, titles about legal history, about war history,” says Tim Brandhorst, who heads up the Flagship Series as ABA Book Publishing’s director of new product development. “It’s legal lore and stories told for a lay audience. We’re dipping our toes into true crime for the first time this year. It’s all these areas where there’s a natural affinity for the ABA.”

Kathleen J. Hopkins, who chairs the ABA Standing Committee on Publishing Oversight, says the Flagship Series has been a key element in the growth of the association’s publishing efforts. “It’s been a different source of nondues revenue,” says Hopkins, a member of the Real Property Law Group in Seattle. “It’s filled in gaps … in what sections publish and helped the association fill gaps that don’t fit the sections. I’ve bought these books at the holidays and given them to my clients.” (Hopkins is a member of the ABA Journal Board of Editors.)

That quest to produce books that don’t fit the traditional mold of legal topics explains why ABA Publishing offers a mix of titles. The Soul of the Law (20th anniversary edition) by Benjamin Sells and The Little Book of Elvis Law, part of the popular Little Books series, are offered along with more traditional works like Business Torts and Unfair Competition Handbook (third edition), produced by the Section of Antitrust Law, and the Manual of Style for Contract Drafting (third edition), a product of the Section of Business Law.

The Little Books series, for instance, is “a treatment of the way the law intersects with life, in a way that can be enjoyed by anyone—lawyer and nonlawyer alike,” says ABA Associate Executive Director Robert Rupp. “They’re about a topic that the reader is interested in, so they’re going to enjoy reading about the way the law has shaped it. They’re about all the things that make life worth living.” The series includes books on music, wine, fashion, horse racing and golf.

While the Flagship Series is primarily staff-driven, the Publishing Oversight Committee is part of the process. Hopkins reviews every book proposal to assess its merit and whether it might overlap with other publishing efforts by association entities. Information on proposals also is shared with the sections, which sometimes become co-sponsors.

GLOWING REVIEWS

Two recent additions to the Flagship Series that are creating some buzz in the publishing field are The Mother Court, the story of what arguably is the most influential trial court in the United States, and The Innocent Killer, ABA Publishing’s first venture into the popular true crime genre.

Both books were published earlier this year to generally glowing reviews. The Mother Court, which Vanity Fair featured in its Hot Type column, recounts the postwar history of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, whose jurisdiction includes Manhattan, and many of the landmark trials from the court’s modern era.

In recent decades, prominent cases before the court included the trials of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, trials of New York Mafia leaders, key libel cases brought by Israeli leader Ariel Sharon against Time magazine and Gen. William Westmoreland against CBS, and the U.S. government’s decision to try 9/11 terrorists before a military commission rather than civilian courts.

The book’s author, James D. Zirin, knows the territory; he has been a leading litigator for many years and formerly served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where he was appointed by legendary U.S. Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau.

The subject matter of The Innocent Killer is vastly different from The Mother Court, but just as compelling. The book tells the tragic and cautionary tale of Steven Avery, who served 18 years in a Wisconsin prison after being wrongfully convicted on charges of rape, only to be convicted of murder in another case a couple of years after his release. The book’s author, Michael Griesbach, became an assistant district attorney in Wisconsin’s Manitowoc County after Avery was first prosecuted there.

The seeds were planted for the Flagship Series not long after Bryan L. Kay was named director of publishing in 2001. At the time, the ABA was publishing about 65 books a year, nearly all of them products of the sections. But the ABA’s Publishing Oversight Committee supported his view that there was significant potential for books about legal topics that would interest a general audience as well as lawyers. Internally, Kay’s initiative was dubbed the Flagship Series.

“Given the power of the brand, given the excellence of the content, given that there was an existing audience and market for this content, the risk was minimal,” Kay says. “Thanks to the quality of the acqui-sitions people we’ve hired as the program has developed, it’s being done in a really high-level way—in the way it’s done in the trade publishing world, which in the past would have been beyond our reach.”

The Flagship Series produced seven books in 2007, its first year. (The very first title was Every Relationship Matters by Peter Rouse.) That number reached 60 in the ABA fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, and ABA Publishing is aiming to put out 70 Flagship Series titles in fiscal 2015. Earnings from Flagship Series books for those two years are estimated at $5.5 million. Most ABA books are sold through the association’s website, but sales through retail channels doubled to $331,000 for the first 10 months of the 2014 fiscal year, Rupp says. “That’s a substantial doubling, particularly when you’re talking about books that sell for $18 or $19,” he says. “I would posit that a nonlegal title selling through Amazon is selling to a nonlawyer.”

In light of the ABA’s growing emphasis on nondues revenue, those numbers represent significant additions to the association’s general revenue, Rupp says. “There were types of books and types of titles that the sections would not be out acquiring. What we’re seeing now is its saleable potential, something that does continue to grow year after year and contribute to the association’s fiscal health as well as its intellectual health.”

Part of that growth is due to ABA Publishing’s relationship with the National Book Network, a major distribution company, says Rupp. “They have a global sales force that is out representing our title line to booksellers around the world—everything from Barnes & Noble to chain airport stores to Amazon to smaller booksellers,” he says. “We don’t get to Amazon without NBN.”

Another factor in the success of the Flagship Series has been the productive working relationships between staff editors in ABA Publishing and outside authors. “We go above and beyond what many other publishers would do in servicing our authors,” Rupp says. “We’re a little more lenient in our timelines and supportive in providing back-and-forth communication when a title is under development.”

It’s a relationship that Mother Court author Zirin appreciates. “I was delighted at their enthusiasm,” he says about his editors at ABA Publishing. “I felt like I had at last found a home. There’s a natural audience there. It is not the sole audience, but it is a natural audience. It allows the book to hit the ground running.”

Brandhorst says the Flagship Series is committed to new topics and new ways of writing about them. “We are open to anyone who wants to write for us,” he says. “We will work with anyone. We want to help develop ideas.”

Browse ABA Publishing’s catalog.

Listen to an interview with James Zirin, author of The Mother Court.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Flying the Flag: ABA Publishing puts growing emphasis on legal books that interest general audiences.”

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