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The London Book Fair 2014: Upstairs, Downstairs

There seemed to be two different events at this year’s Book Fair. Downstairs, in the main hall, there were new books galore, events with authors and celebrities. In the rights section, agents were working flat out to sell rights in hundreds of different territories. It was business as usual, as it has been for the last 38 years. But elsewhere upstairs it was a different story.<--break->

One event in the digital seminars (organized by consultancy Cognizant) seemed to sum up the diffference. It combined presentations by the founder of Mendeley, a citation and reference management tool, with a presentation by Knewton, a company collecting and using analytics data from educational publishing. What both presentations had in common was the use of digital media to understand more about the reader, and to provide tools to facilitate the reading and learning process. For Mendeley, there is a button labelled on the citation desktop called “related”. Click on it, and you are taken to hundreds of titles that are related to the ones you have been looking at, chosen automatically using information gathered from your previous usage. For Knewton, the tool is slightly different, but the result very similar. In this case, the software tracks what you have been learning, measures your attainment, and then suggests further exercises based on your achievement. In this way it supersedes the textbook, which understands nothing of the student reading it.

It could be argued that neither of these applications is particularly leading-edge. There are much more impressive tools on the market for automated entity extraction, analytics, and making suggestions. But what was striking was that Mendeley and Knewton could be described as in the mainstream of digital publishing developments, while back on the main hall, publishers were continuing to guess what their readers might want to read, just as they have done since books started to be sold. A handful of publishers – Elsevier (who bought Mendeley in 2013), Macmillan (who have a new ventures division, which has acquired 23 small companies) – showed themselves to be busy buying innovative small software companies, and integrating them, with the goal of eventually transforming the company publishing. Such a process is not guaranteed to work; but nonetheless, it told a very different story to the main hall below.

It seems somehow indicative of the Book Fair that, having tried the modern facilities of the Excel Exhibition centre and hated its brash modernity, it not only moved back in time to Earls Court, but from 2015 will be back at the Victorian hotchpotch that is Olympia.