Nolo Press Will Remain in Berkeley

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday December 10, 2008 - 07:15:00 PM
The Nolo Press building in West Berkeley.
By Richard Brenneman
The Nolo Press building in West Berkeley.

Nolo Press, which calls itself the nation’s oldest publisher of legal information for nonlawyers, will remain at its current location in West Berkeley following a decision by the business’s landlord, the Genn family, not to sell the property. 

The Planet reported in August that Nolo, located at 950 Parker St., was looking at relocating from Berkeley to Oakland after the Genns decided to put the property on the market, following the death of their patriarch Tom Genn. 

Ralph “Jake” Warner, Nolo’s publisher and co-founder, told the Planet Thursday that the company will be signing a new lease with its landlord and staying on in the revamped clock factory it has called home for the last three decades. 

“We were looking for another building and found one in North Oakland and were getting ready to move in when everything came together magically,” Warner said, adding that a month after the story appeared in the Planet, the Genns decided not to sell. “We were delighted. The economic contraction was hitting and now we can hold onto the building. Moving 100 people would have caused a huge disruption.” 

Nolo, which started out of a small “hippie courtyard” on Sacramento Street in 1971, was formed by New York native Warner and family law attorney Charles Ed Sherman, after the two decided to do something to help ordinary citizens who couldn’t afford to hire lawyers get easy access to legal information. 

After graduating from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law in 1966, Warner worked as a legal aid lawyer for three years. 

“During that time I realized that the vast majority of the middle class can’t pay legal fees, but they need the information,” he said. “I wrote my first two Nolo books in the Berkeley Public Library, and Cody’s Books was the first bookstore to carry our books. So it means a lot for us to be able to remain in Berkeley.” 

In 1971, Sherman wrote “How to Do Your Own Divorce,” a 100-page self-help guide, which drew the ire of many lawyers but led to record sales. 

The business moved to Parker and Ninth streets in 1978 and shared space with architects and artists, eventually taking over the entire warehouse. 

Nolo overcame a big challenge in 1999 when it emerged victorious after a two-year struggle against the Texas Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee—a committee of the Texas Supreme Court—which investigated the company, and other self-help legal publishers, for allegedly practicing law without a license. 

The committee decided to drop the investigation after the Texas Legislature enacted HR 1507, which exempts websites and textbooks from such accusations, provided they state that their products are not substitutes for advice from lawyers. 

Over the years, Nolo, whose name is derived from the legal phrase nolo contendere, which stands for “it will not be disputed,” turned into a thriving enterprise with a loyal following who prefer the company’s do-it-yourself books, software, online legal forms and eProducts to paying exorbitant attorney’s fees when it comes to seeking help on divorces, bankruptcies and other legal issues. 

Today, despite its share of tough times due to the slowing economy, the company continues to thrive, reporting higher individual sales than last year. 

Books dealing with bankruptcy are practically flying off the shelf, Warner said, describing them as “recession proof,” and an overwhelming number of people are flocking to Nolo’s WillMaker software program. 

“Books on Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies are very popular, as are those on foreclosures and credit reports,” he said. “I think the state of the economy has turned our WillMaker into a best-seller. People have suddenly realized that the meltdown in real estate and the stock market has thrown their wills out of whack. So they want to do a new one.” 

Nolo is currently having a massive sale at its store to celebrate its new lease. 

Reflecting on the precarious state of the publishing industry, Warner said that Nolo has not been as badly hit as some of the big publishing houses on the East Coast, because of its readiness to accept the digital age as early as 1995, which allowed it to evolve from a traditional book publisher to one that had content readily available online as well as in print. 

“There’s a long-term trend in publishing—it’s not a growth business,” Warner said. “Many publishers waited way too long to move to the Internet. The average publishing company is facing a 30 to 40 percent drop in sales. People are buying more and more stuff on Amazon. Nolo is not a traditional publisher in that sense. We sold $3 million worth of books directly to customers on our website. Few publishers sell books on their website even today. We license our content to dozens of organizations, such as General Electric and Chase. Even our books have discs in the back.” 

Nolo recorded a total of $5 million in online book sales alone this year, including those on amazon.com.  

The company is, however, holding off on plans to expand at the moment, in the face of what Warner described as the “economic tsunami” and poor retail climate. 

Booksellers across the country, including Barnes & Noble and Borders, are cutting inventory and bracing for a weak Christmas shopping season. 

On Dec. 3, reports about the book industry’s cost-cutting measures to trim expenses painted a grim scenario, with Random House announcing a major reorganization to cut costs and Simon & Schuster laying off 35 people. 

“The advantage of being in California is that we were more involved in the digital movement from the first day,” Warner said. “Because of our proximity to Silicon Valley we could see that this was where the future lay. We realized the trend before the New York publishers did. Businesses can build up tradition, but when the paradigm switches, that can hold you back.” 

For more information on Nolo visit www.nolo.com