Visitors to Kensington Olympia for the Online Information conference this December could be forgiven for wondering about the long-term future of the event. Just two years ago, Online was packed to the rafters. The upper level of Olympia was stuffed with exhibiting stands, and there was no need for cafes in the centre of the hall. It is certainly strange – and, on a superficial level, paradoxical – to see the UK publishing industry’s premier digital event in decline over the past few years, when digital publishing in the UK has been going from strength to strength.
Those same years have seen a major recession, of course, and it is marketing budgets, rather than the interest in digital publishing and online information, which have suffered. The London Book Fair was also visibly smaller in 2009, and for the same reason. Rather, publishers demonstrated at Online this year that they have been busy producing innovative digital products and will continue to do so. Ebooks were the central theme in 2009 for the publishers at Online: how to produce them, how to market them, and how to package and sell them to as wide an audience as possible.
A new ebooks catalogue developed by Swets is indicative of the new eBooks market. Librarians are confronted with a dazzling array of choices for eBooks, as well as several competing business models and sets of licensing terms. If a librarian can purchase a licence for the same eBook from three different sources, which should they choose? And how might a librarian find out what is available in the first place? These questions were a hot topic at Online, and perhaps demonstrate that the eBooks market is reaching a further level of maturity.
Despite the conspicuous absence of exhibitors, and the sprawling central café, it would be difficult to describe Online as quiet. A good number of seminars – ranging in topic from twitter to semantic searching to business information – were standing room only. Librarians visited Online in numbers, and there must have been at least 10 companies exhibiting content management software. For a company like MPS it is certainly useful to have a winter meeting with clients and publishers, but can Online maintain a presence at Olympia for many more years? Perhaps the London Book Fair will subsume Online by increasing its focus on digital publishing before long.