Digital publishing news and views from the Firsty Group

Commentary Book Fairs

Published by FirstyNews

What’s the future for book fairs?

Editor’s note:

Welcome to this month’s newsletter. It’s been an exciting and unique month in publishing – we saw the Frankfurt book fair go digital, followed closely by the IPG autumn conference. It’ll be interesting to see, as time goes on, just what kind of impact these digital events have. Of course these are key events not just for publishers but for all aspects of the industry. They provide much more than just business opportunities, but are often a way for people to keep up over the span of years – I think there really is no replacement for meeting face to face, but more on this later.

For Firsty, things are busier than ever – the plethora of new book releases, combined with more publishers using Glassboxx every month, means that we’re seeing more activity than ever. It’s especially rewarding to see Glassboxx making a real difference to the ways in which independent publishers get their books out there. We have always been a strong supporter of independents and are enjoying seeing Glassboxx used by them to create a greater reach for their titles, while being less dependent on traditional channels – which is something that has been at the forefront for us for a long time, but is becoming more important than ever in this changing industry.

Darin Brockman
Firsty Group Founder & CEO

In an industry like publishing that is built on people, the loss of book fairs in 2020 has been a big blow. Without London, Frankfurt and many other smaller fairs, publishers have been deprived of opportunities to meet their customers, partners and friends from around the world—not to mention important avenues for rights and export sales.

Visitors sometimes grumble about aspects of big book fairs, like the travel, expense and endless traipsing of halls. But as Frankfurt Book Fair week arrived, there was widespread sadness that the pandemic was keeping people apart—just as there was six months ago when The London Book Fair fell victim to the growing spread of Covid-19. It was a reminder that these two book fairs help to keep the wheels of publishing turning in between times.

As restrictions on meetings and travel have gone on, fair organisers have sought to recreate events online. The Frankfurt team steered an ambitious migration of aspects of the event into a virtual environment, including a new Frankfurt Rights platform, live-streamed conferences and an app-based matchmaking service. There was even facilitated daily networking in a digital recreation of the lobby of the Frankfurter Hof, the legendary hotel at which countless after-hours deals have been sealed over the years.

Some of these imaginative responses worked better than others. Learning-related aspects like the Frankfurt Conference and panels can move online without too much difficulty, while retaining important elements of interaction. Other virtual conferences, like the IPG’s recent Autumn Conference and the Bookseller’s forthcoming Futurebook, show that speakers and delegates alike have become comfortable in connecting online.

It is proving harder to replicate the more personal aspects of book fairs, the socialising and deal making. Attempts to steer publishers towards proprietary platforms have had mixed results, with a lot of rights professionals preferring to set up their own schedules of video meetings with partners during the week of the Frankfurt Book Fair. And of course nothing can properly replace the serendipitous elements of book fairs, like bumping into old colleagues in the aisles, or spotting a book on a stand.

When the pandemic subsides and publishing can meet in person again, it will be interesting to see how book fairs return. The last six months have shown how easy it is to connect via Zoom and other video platforms, and some people may feel that these provide enough personal interaction to sustain friendships and negotiate deals. Publishers will be looking at the costs of flying their teams around the world and wondering if the returns are worth the investment.

The popularity of recent online conferences means some book fair events might not return. The convenience of accessing conferences in a few clicks from wherever you are in the world, or catching up afterwards if you can’t be there on the day, is something that might not be readily given up.
The environmental aspects of book fairs have also come into sharp focus. The impacts of international air travel and building and dismantling vast temporary villages of stands have troubled many publishers for a long time, but the dramatic reduction in emissions in 2020 will lead some to question whether a return on the previous scale can be justified.

But publishing probably misses face-to-face contact too much for this to be the end of Frankfurt and London—so perhaps what will eventually emerge is a new hybrid of physical and digital events. Just as the pandemic has accelerated a shift towards internet sales, digital marketing and the direct delivery of content, so it has taken aspects of book fairs out of the real world and into the online one for good. With new technology so firmly embedded in our lives, some of the things we associate with fairs might not come back, but the personal touch isn’t something we are willing to give up just yet.

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