Here is a thought – as we remember that the Russian Revolution is 100 years old, the Frankfurt Book Fair has inaugurated its first innovation day. Well, since Gutenberg anyway. But since I am chairing the inaugural session of the innovative Innovation Day, I do not want to appear unwelcoming or dismissive – and indeed my mood is exactly the opposite. I want to use the day to celebrate the freedom of publishers to innovate. The technology which appears to allow their users to compete directly with them, the social mores which appear to allow their users to adopt a different attitude to intellectual property which undermines their business models, the distribution services in the network which undermine their market control – these are all, in a different context, immense processes of liberation which allow publishers to change roles and positions in respect of changing business models. Instead of trying to hold up the future, we have to take it on!

While not quite as momentous as the Russian Revolution, I have an anniversary of my own to celebrate. Fifty years ago today, I entered what was rightly known then as “publishing” and in my second week journeyed to Frankfurt in a van with the exhibition display stands to do exactly what a graduate trainee should do in the estimation of those days – help to put up the display stand, since his abilities in any other direction were not obvious. During the ensuing 50 years I have learnt that what I thought of and was trained to appreciate as a product – the book – is in fact a service. An intermediary service which conveys creativity form its source to an end-use, reader, purchaser. In seventeenth century England, in the first great age of books, when they cut off the head of a king to demonstrate that change could not be reversed, the pamphleteers described it as “a World Turned Upside Down”. In 1993, doing my very first internet strategy project I tried to describe what had happened in those very same terms, looking at a world where authors became their own publishers and where university reference publishers were re-inventions of University Presses. Now that we are reaching the point where the full inversion of the publishing model is taking place, it is incumbent upon us to think about “what next”, rather than how we  preserve old business models in aspic.

So, first thing, lets stop this romantic twaddle about “print is coming back”. Sit on any train or bus going anywhere and use your eyes. Print will never go away as long as we all love objects – the Snowden shelves in every room in my own house bear testimony – but as long as we do not measure effectively the circulation of self-published material we are only guessing, and the published figures of self-interested publishers associations are no real guide to anything, except maybe the ability of publishers to move to that dodo amongst poultry, the electronic book. Not that I do not read those as well, but I offer a simple maxim – Those who imitate Print in Digital Formats must expect a Short Shelf Life – and look at the demise of the newspaper industry if you doubt this!

So the point is not to imitate the printed book but to exceed it. EPub3 was long heralded as the vehicle to do this – and today it reaches rather arthritically  towards the same functionality that Peter Kindersley and Alan Buckingham achieved on fixed disk CD-ROMs in the mid 1990s. Meanwhile, still using this odd word “book” which we seemingly cannot do without, we are building in non-standard software all sorts of extensions of the book. Beautiful books which add AR and VR to extend our sense of reality , appearing alongside a whole generation of books this century which, since Inanimate Alice, have driven narrative through text, sound, video and graphics. And as we speak, a fresh wave of innovative books promises  you books which will interact with all the other books in your digital library, bringing you a “live” environment, cross-referenced and updated and allowing you to read one book while having the benefit of your collection. And, as an ex-school textbook publisher and writer, I get a real kick when I hear McGraw Hill’s David Levin describe books that learn to know the learner, diagnostically and socially  suggesting learning journies and demonstrating achievement. Books that speak to each other and books that speak to you.

Surely all this is innovation? Yes, it is, but there is one important caveat. In many of the old publishing sectors, which, incidentally, are moving ever further apart like ice floes in global warming. The role of the intermediary/publisher in the cycle is to move to support the end user requirement. As it changes, so must she. In areas like STM and HSS, the demand may be for navigation and discovery, for semantic web mark-up of pre-print materials, for data about usage and other altmetrics, or for the availability of evidential data from the original research – bright and lively companies are being built in these areas, but not by erstwhile publishers. Instead it is researchers who are coming to their own salvation – and publishers, still clinging to the journals milch cow, who buy them as a hedge against the future. Getting these people – with the honourable exception of Elsevier – to look at the horizon has always been a struggle.

All these issues and more will be debated in Innovation Day, starting in Hall 4.0 Hot Spot on Friday 13 October (!) at Frankfurt Book Fair. My opening panel has some classic innovators – Annette Thomas of Clarivate , Matt Turner of MarkLogic and Michael Clarke. See you there!


When it was just the Mexicans taking the jobs, life was fairly simple. When it’s intelligent workflow cutting out clerical tasks, or advanced robotics building self-driving cars, it will be much harder to move a major nation backwards by 50 years by executive presidential order, especially given the role of the tech industry in all developed economies. Credit then to the Finns and the provincial government of Ontario for experimenting with social wages. We will have to be endlessly creative to make the whole productive economy of our countries meet the needs of all of our peoples. The urge to restore 1952 and take shelter there does not answer the questions – and things were not very good then anyway!

These thoughts were of course prompted by recent events. And prompted too by an increasingly hostile view of the way in which we use words (“sovereign” and “sovereignty” are current examples) to cover a multitude of cultural misunderstandings. If globalisation is now the hated concept from which we must retreat, please let us remember that the internet is a bedrock of globalisation. And if we communicate only by tweets, lets remember that the internet, gifted to the world in 1993 by the US DARPA researchers who created it, is what enables tweeting. History is not a series of accidents that can be revered at will, just as it is not a deterministic and unalterable process. Global communications were redefined in an age of free trade for a slew of reasons that range from making the developed world even richer to trying to feed some of the 800 million people who subsist on an inadequate diet. The Canute – like gesture of saying it has to stop because it no longer works in Dearborn or West Virginia will lead to protectionism and isolationism that provides the greatest opportunity yet for China, India and Brazil to rebalance world markets. A networked workflow is independent of geography, physical manufacturing is a just-in-time issue, drop out of the global conversation and it may be very hard to get back in, however rich and mighty the nation is that wants to turn back the clock.

And as it happens, much the same applies to “publishing”, another troubled word with poor definitional logic. Here Sovereignty (redefined by me as a sense of ownership and control which persists in a culture long after the reality has departed) is matched by IP or Copyright, a persistent belief that you own assets of value despite the fact that ownership cannot be exercised and content becomes commoditised. As many have noted, when information moved to global network-based markets, the entire business model structure of the analog world was fatally undermined. Despite these twenty five years spent trying to prop it up, the commoditization of content, and now data, is inexorable. So successful business models around content, if there are any to be had, have to take into account the idea that there is now no retreat to advertising based models and no pretense that subscription is the saviour. To think otherwise is Trumpery. Some models may have sponsorships, and others may have entry fees or upgrade charges, but I now suspect that there is safer ground to be had, and I was pleased to see Fred Wilson, a successful internet entrepreneur with a huge reputation, saying something similar.

The information marketplace in data and content has now become a software-based services and solutions market. Yes, we are still selling books and journals, but the future growth is in injecting content into workflow and decision support. In other words, into business models based on licensing, rental and fees. The value of content is expressed in the license, but it is a contextual value, not an inherent value, and it is not a high one. To the publisher who said to me 2 years ago that he was not going “to preside over this company becoming a software company”, I must now respond “Step away now, for the change is happening.”

In a world of broad-based network access (and the internet still has a long way to go) one thing is true: we can all be publishers now. Indeed, words like Publisher (consider “artist” in the same context) are more descriptive of common everyday acts (putting an image on Instagram) than they are of roles or professions. In this context Fred Wilson’s enthusiasm for Steem as a business model was impressive. Newspapers do not work as online business models and nor do magazines, and the nay-Sayers were delighted by the announcement that Medium was going ad-free and that Reddit was looking for a new business model. Maybe there is no way to put curated information into a consumer context online except free? So good news for fake news? Or can content services coalesce around a crypto currency, where providers and readers pay and are paid in the same currency, with rates varying by popularity. Maybe the currency is vital to creating the community in ways we had not imagined before. We have to try it – there is no going back!

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