John Sargent is a good man and he is right.  I have been wanting to write that sentence ever since I read his full page letter to staff and authors yesterday which explained why Macmillan titles are no longer available via Amazon.  I shall go on searching out and selecting Macmillan titles and, as in the past, writing with respect when I think, as with Tor, that they are innovating at the front of a fast developing market.

And I hugely respect the innovatory skills of Amazon and the profound impact they have had on the accessibility of books.  However, Amazon cannot be allowed to use its muscle to collapse wholesaling into retailing and eat the margins accruing in a way that threatens the independence of producers.  Amazon is a good online bookseller: it is unsafe for us and them to become good publishers and agents as well.  It is the tendency of networks to collapse real world workflow models and disintermediate players who lack the ability to compete online.  That is a tendency which must be monitored closely in competition law, not because of intellectual property ownership issues, but because the public interest does not always equate with the delivery of supply chain economies.

Wonderful thing , the digital world: by the time I got this online, Amazon had capitulated to Macmillan.  This is sensible and progressive, but  it forces me therefore to  put the rest of the blog as a sort of italicized afterthought below !

I wanted to write this yesterday , but I was fighting a personal battle with the Machine all day and was too self-absorbed to set digit to keyboard.  In the first instance , on arrival at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 I found out that my ESTA travel authorization to visit the USA had expired the previous day.  Quick sprint (imagine the sight!) to Caffe Nero at the other end of the terminal to find an internet access point (BA does not do wireless in Departures).  Online to the US Embassy and its four screen form: what was my grandmother’s maiden name and  have I entered my inside leg measurement correctly?  New reference number is attained, so back to the 40 minute check-in queue (this is BA , the UK near monopoly supplier and holder of my 640,000 Air Miles, which can never be spent unless you can book travel a year in advance).  And so on board and ten hours pass, only to find out from an amused  immigration official at San Francisco that on my visa waiver form I appear not to have notified the USA of my gender.  Back to the end of another long line.
And then the joys of a wonderful downtown hotel room.  But Internet Explorer will not allow me to access the Web via the local WiFi.  Technical Support is baffled – the only solution is to go out and get a USB stick, download FireFox from a hotel machine, and load it up onto my machine.  And it works, as I speak to you now.
Why all this incidental travel chat?  Simply to demonstrate that big is mostly stupid and often bad.  That applies to governments and airlines and to Microsoft, and equates with our familiar experience of the world.  I experienced this long before becoming a publisher: at the age of 18 , with responsibility for 80 bacon pigs, I first encountered the brutal truth about price control from a Unilever subsidiary called Walls, and British farmers have become experts in the area as they face the collusive anti-competitive behaviour of the supermarkets.
The only real answer to all of this for publishers is to get to know customers intimately and sell to them directly and cost effectively.  Disintermediate the disintermediators.  And this is possible – Tor demonstrates it, and Nature in the Macmillan group demonstrates it further.  And , from other publishers who also face the same threats , a little collusive anti-competitive behaviour might be in order as well.  After all, when it came to the silly business of delaying eBook publication dates, publishers seemed pretty collusive, even if no one could accuse them of plotting together (!).

Well, OK , I haven’t actually got an iPad, or been in the same room as one, but I did see the launch and the demos and I am left wondering.  At the same time, the annual Gartner predictions reached the top of the pile.  And since I still had the  thought that, given the truth of jokes, it was at least possible that Steve Jobs would launch a revolutionary digitally-enhanced running shoe called the iRan, I clearly have not been paying nearly enough attention to the Press (or buying enough repetitive articles).

In my briefcase I have a netbook – ideal for hotel internet access – and a Sony eBook Reader, plus of course the ubiquitous Blackberry.  Each of these devices was bought to save weight, since as I have got heavier I want the world that I carry around to get lighter.  The next device that I want to buy is one that combines the functions of all of these three at the weight of the heaviest.  So how does the iPad match my demand curve?  Well , it sort of …doesn’t.

Colour is not my high demand, since most of the sad things I read are in black and white.  Price is not my issue , since while I want the cheapest and most effective I can point to a long career of buying over-priced innovation in a triumph of hope over experience.  New functionality is not my issue either: I am now inured to the fact that with any device, including my highly computerized car and the digital controller on the heating system and the new hands free phone installation here, I will never live long enough to understand and implement all of the functionality that cleverer men than I have built in, so innovation and replacement cycles are designed to stop me worrying about that, and bring me to a new device, newly replete with all the things that I shall never learn to use.

Which brings me to Gartner and my ardent wish for the iPad to succeed.  Gartner’s range of projections is as impressive as ever, since long gone are the days when pure wishful thinking was the only fix we had on these markets.  Today, the talk is far more sober and grounded, but no less startling (  For example, the realization here that by 2014 more than 3 billion people on the planet will be able to transact electronically (“transact” , not use a phone) is critical to our understanding of the global networked society.  In that year we are on target for a 90% mobile penetration rate (56% Africa, 68% Asia), and 6.5 billion mobile connections.  By 2013, mobile device connections, at 1.82 billion units, will overtake PCs at 1.72 billion as the primary connection to the network.  If you are thinking now of preparing your web presence at a future point for mobile optimization then you are almost too late: this is the last call for legacy conversion.  The people who succeed in 2013 are running hard now, and are probably not carrying the burdens of legacy web publishing, let alone legacy print publishing.

But the paragraph that caught my eye began ” By 2015, context will be as influential to mobile consumer services and relationships as search engines are to the Web”.  And, later on “context will provide the key to delivering hyperpersonalized experiences across smartphones” and “context will center on observing patterns, particularly location, presence and social relationships…. Whereas search was based on a pull of information from the web, context-enriched services will, in many cases, prepopulate or push information to users”.

What phases me is having Gartner write digital publishing strategy, but in a vital sense they are quite right.  Push and Pull were central to the debate in the early web days, but faded out in the great Age of Search.  In the post-Google world, where search is just another tool, Push returns, wrapped in the guise of personalization.  Will My iPad, or its elaborations, do that for me?  This is the key question.

There is a sting in Gartner’s tail.  I will quote it in full:

“The most powerful position in the context business model will be a context provider.  Web, device, social platforms, telecom service providers, enterprise software vendors and communication infrastructure vendors will compete to become significant context providers during the next three years.  Any Web vendor that does not become a context provider risks handing over effective customer ownership to a context provider, which would impact the vendor’s mobile and classic Web businesses.”

Any Web vendor ? If you are a content or information service provider, This Means You.  The competitive struggle for survival in network publishing intensifies, and the only recourse is to hybrid models and full service solution provision.  There is no ” Just Content” position anymore, unless you want to be a supplier to the sub-contractors of the people who supply the services.

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