From the seashore the poet could not be sure if she saw waving or drowning. And so it is with nations, if you are a London correspondent of the New York Times (16 February: Roger Cohen/Intelligence): “It is not difficult these days to imagine Britain as a flooded speck of land bobbing around in the North Sea, reduced to rump status by the secession of Scotland, cut off from Europe by its exit from the European Union, ruled by a bunch of Old Etonians squabbling over how to dredge a river, plagued by officials issuing frantic edicts on “health and safety” and criss-crossed by a barmy prince declaring that “there is nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people to start doing something.””

Yet appearances are deceptive. This land is flooded, but all the other statements in this quotation contain truth, or are aspects of truth, but none are absolute truths. Yet what has been written is perfectly valid. And I was thinking of angles and aspects of the truth when studying the mass media as I have done since Marshall McCluhan identified them for my generation) when this week a wise friend in the US sent me this idea ( “There are in fact no masses,” said sociologist Raymond Williams, “there are only ways of seeing people as masses.”

So I was well-prepared for this week’s new battle ground – how big is self-publishing and how much of a threat is it to the natural order of things (e.g will it displace publishers from the top of the heap)? The big story of the week was Hugh Howey’s assertion that most fiction publishing is now digital self-publishing. And as the dams burst on blogs and innocents were drowned in a millrace of speculation and accusation on self-publishing, I took comfort in that old (and now electronic) stand-by, The Times Literary Supplement (13 February), whose NB column records “Self-publishing has a rich past, as well as a digitally-enhanced and off-puttingly successful future. “The past is represented, says the TLS, by Proust, Blake, Walt Whitman, Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter and Stephen King, but it turns out that the only target here is the unfortunate Ms Debbie Williams (no relation?) who has had the temerity to launch what they describe as the world’s first MA in Self-Publishing at the University of Central Lancashire. And if this claim is wrong, tell them, not me.

I am sure that they see things differently in the USA. It all depends where you are sitting. Self publishers buried blogger and self-publisher Hugh Howey last week in accolades, praising his research into statistics derived from Amazon on the proportion of eBooks self-published in popular fiction genres. Here is a pleasing sample:

“There’s a second and equally important reason to doubt a 25% e-book penetration number: The other 75% of those titles includes textbooks, academic books, cookbooks, children’s books, and all the many categories that are relatively safe from digitization (for now). Print remains healthy in these categories, but these aren’t the books most people think of when they hear that percentage quoted. E-book market share is generally spoken of in the context of the New York Times bestsellers, the novels and non-fiction works that are referred to as “trade” publications. If we look specifically at this trade market, it’s quite likely that e-books already account for more than 50% of current sales (some publishers have intimated as much). Factoring in self-publishing and further limiting the scope to fiction, I’ve seen guesses as high as 70%. But that can’t be possible, right?…
“Did the smelling salts work? Are you with us? It turns out that 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the overall Amazon store are e-books. At the top of the charts, the dominance of e-books is even more extreme. 92% of the Top-100 best-selling books in these genres are e-books!”

So at the heart of this is an argument that states that when publishers say that the market is 25% eBooks, they are grossly misstating the position, since they are not counting self-published eBooks who account for the difference between the 25% that publishers acknowledge and the higher figures that Mr Howey discovers in his Amazon data dump. Please go and get the full story at – the report is long, but the effort is worth it, if only to enable an appreciation of the publisher backlash, which starts with the politics of dispute – the man knows nothing of statistics – and ends with the politics of envy – how dare he speak so when his own self-publishing is backed by movie contracts!

For the fight back against the Howey Heresies see and Like the author of the latter, I too have “no dog in this hunt”. But I have heard hunts like this before, some baying sonorously and some anxiously in pursuit of an inadequate argument. Mr Howey’s samples are probably too small, his arguments too far-reaching and his data source too limited. But he has put his head above the parapet to say that traditional publishing business models are threatened and that the publishing value position, in mass market popular fiction, is being disintermediated. A few weeks ago I made similar comments here about the rise of self-publishing of academic research articles. And having observed the impact of the network – global scale inter-networking on the level that we now know it – I have to say that it twists every business model out of shape, flows around obstacles like flood waters and leaves few real world players of the previous generation intact. Mr Howey may be wrong on current measurements, but he is almost certainly right on direction of flow and eventual outcome.

Lets step back a bit and put ourselves in the position of confidential and trusted advisors to Rupert Murdoch, or Arnaud Lagadere or Dr Thomas Rabe (interestingly not a native born American in sight when it comes to the ultimate decisions on global consumer book publishing). Can Harper Collins, Hachette and Random House continue for ever on the Big Bestseller model? Will the agents let them? Will the stance of Amazon be decisive? Will initial publishing be self-publishing – and will consumer publishing be selecting already published winners to be groomed for stardom? Will social media be the marketplace and will advertising/sponsorship be part of the business model? We have already had Amanda Hockings and Fifty Shades – how many signs in the night sky do we need? Above all, can the big players re-invent – not transition/migrate – themselves in alignment with this new world. If the answers are negative, then should we advise these managers of assets to re-invest in consumer publishing in their current major holdings?

There are other games to be played, as the Netflix/Game of Thrones story in a parallel entertainment market shows us. Perhaps we should stop criticizing Mr Howey’s statistics and start fundamentally re-thinking what all of this means for a global networked society which shows interesting signs of reading more, by all measures of that word, each year.

There is something about Professor Sugata Mitra. The award-winning TED exponent of individualized learning was speaking yesterday at the meeting organized at the British Library by Cambridge Assessment (and well done to them) and within moments he had subtly undermined the subject title. His respect for teachers was unlimited, he told an audience comprised mostly of teachers, even if the teacher was a machine. Using his celebrated Hole in the Wall work ( he chatted affably while casually lighting sticks of dynamite and tossing them into his audience. Is there a barrier to learning that needs teacher moderation? Well, if you put Indian kids in his experience in the same context as a computer then they will learn for themselves. It takes nine months to get them to the same level of proficientcy that you would expect of an English office worker, but they get there – and they self teach English on the way. And it works in Northumbria (he is now Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle) as it did in Kalkaji (Delhi). No one could occupy the same space as this man without knowing that self-learning and group learning drive educational change, not teachers or technologies. And the group is vital (as is the Grandmother – he includes a reference point figure in his experiments, explaining that we all need praise and admiration to ensure that we persevere!).

In a crowded agenda (billed as a debate, though it transpired that there was little time for that) it is only possible to pick highlights. Like David Puttnam contrasting his 44 honorary degrees with his three “O” levels, and talking about the comic books that inspired him to learn. Or Clive Beale’s attack on ICT labs, with rows of screens but no space for collaboration. As the morning wore on you might have thought that all you needed was Raspberry Pi and self-taught Scratch and internet access at home (Mind the Gap:, or the good fortune to have enrolled in Christine Swan’s class at Stourport High School, getting enabled as a builder of Minecraft worlds, and all would be well. And she reminded us too that while her school allows pupils Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) rights we still have no methodologies for assessing learner device knowledge or indeed assessing the outcomes of collaborative learning (which begs the question of whether we need to assess these things – maybe teachers need those assessments, but do they help learners?).

So we kept on talking about teachers, and not about learning. Which meant that it was good to hear from two Mooc providers, both in their different ways demonstrating that a Mooc is an undefined entity which can be just about anything you want it to be. Future Learn (, from the Open University, provides one interesting twist. This is Mooc injected with social media. Here you can check your progress with your co-learners – no one wanders alone in this Cloud. It scores high levels – 34% is very distinguished here – of active engagement by users, so the social aspects seem to be working There are now 29 university and institutional backers, alongside sponsors like BT and IET. The scheme has 10,000 initial users from 190 different countries and some parts of this presentation seemed to me to go to the heart of the matter. For example, I applauded the stress on vicarious learning – those happy accidents that seem to follow, in all our learning experiences, through a conjunction of context and enthusiasm. And this is an environment designed explicitly for the smartphone screen, since this is the learning centre in so many of those countries. And then the Argugraph – an online tool for charting how arguments are changing in group discussion – seemed to me to show a real determination to match new styles of learning with appropriate instruments, even if those are not yet fully evolved.

Just as engaging, and now past breakeven and into modest margins, was the Galway-based private enterprize ALISON (Advanced Learning Interactive Systems OnLine; Mike Feerick, its CEO, uses an advertising/sponsorship business model to propagate some 600 vocational and skills-based course to 3 million users, including 500,000 in Africa. Since they are growing at 200,000 users per month, even while bearing in mind that completion rates on all Moocs are low, there is a suggestion here that they have found a formula which works. The service is genuinely international, and Mike Feerick was at pains to point out, in a world of commoditized content for schools, that organizations like his can very rapidly move to cover national requirements (in weeks in the case of the maths curriculum, where he is also able to collaborate with partners like Macmillan’s Math Doctor: In other words, core courses can be rapidly re-framed around learner needs, which becomes competitively important if your chief competitor is YouTube. In that competition, ALISON would point out that they are the learning experience which is vetted, tracked, and standardized by length and level. They also want to speak clearly to employers, pointing out that an ALISON certification allows the learner to demonstrate exactly what he knows to a prospective employer by rehearsing the test online. At last Moocs are beginning to sound like sustainable businesses and less like an alternative revenue stream devised by university finance staff. And at last a speaker who recognized the importance of analytics in this context!

I could go on, for it was a rich day of 12 speakers. Helen Eccles of CIE, the international side of Cambridge Assessment, must, for example, deserve a mention for the teacher-free purity of Global Perspectives, the trial of broad cross-disciplinary subjects (“traffic congestion” is the trial example for the new IGCSE examination. Yet by the end, amidst all the opportunities they we now have to rethink the educational space, I was surprized that we did not speak more about assessment (considering who sponsored this meeting!), about content (there were three or four publishers in the audience, most from Pearson, but there should have been 50!) and about the Cloud! As I write this I note that McGraw Hill Education have followed the earlier acquisition of ALEKS with the purchase, this week, of the remaining 80% of Area9 Aps which they did not own ( here then are investments in adaptive learning that also follow the idea that learning, if not the School, now goes to the Cloud. Are publishers really aware of the implications of this, and of the commoditization of content to which one speaker referred? We are now way beyond the world of the digital textbook.

keep looking »