International Book Fairs Still Thrive in the Digital Age

From Publishers Weekly:

The international circuit begins each year with two spring fairs: the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and the London Book Fair, typically held in March and April, respectively. The several book fairs of the summer and fall follow: Beijing International Book Fair and Frankfurt Book Fair held, respectively, in August or September and October. The fairs rounding out the year include those in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Sharjah, UAE. A slew of other fairs are also of some international, but primarily regional, importance, including those in Abu Dhabi, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Cairo, Gothenburg, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Kyiv, Leipzig, Montreal, Moscow, New Delhi, Paris, Prague, São Paulo, Seoul, Taipei, and Thessaloniki. One could spend the entire calendar year just traveling to book fairs.

Sometimes world affairs intervene to create challenges for the fairs, such as in the fall of 2008, which saw, first, the Russo-Georgian war in August and the global economic collapse in September. The impact of both events was apparent at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair, where the stands of Greece, Iceland, and Ireland stood nearly empty as a result of the economic crisis, and the Georgian stand, in close proximity to Russia’s stand, staged a days-long protest in which Georgians bombarded the Russian stand with paper airplanes made from pages torn out of Russian books.

Fast forward to 2022. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to cause ripples on the international book fair scene as well, though the full impact is uncertain at press time. For starters, nearly all the major international book fairs announced they have banned Russia’s state-sponsored publishers and booksellers from exhibiting at their fairs, though independent publishers will be allowed. The primary concern is that the war will spill over into other countries in Europe and create hesitation among fairgoers about traveling to the fairs or exhibiting; this would have significant consequences for both Bologna and London. Both fairs have been idle for two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and each had offered virtual alternatives in both 2020 and 2021. Most people found these virtual events less than satisfying, however, and it is urgent that the fairs return to in-person events as soon as possible, lest fairgoers lose their sense of loyalty.

Frankfurt, Beijing, and Guadalajara also went digital in 2020, and then each returned with scaled-down in-person events in 2021. Having benefited from its late date in the year, Sharjah was able to hold a modest book fair at the end of 2020, then returned in 2021 with its full show. Thus, Sharjah could take bragging rights to being the biggest book fair in the world last year, attracting 1.3 million people, compared with just 75,000 in 2021 for Frankfurt, which would typically bring in some 300,000, and Guadalajara, which allowed in just 200,000 people, when it would usually host more than 700,000. The Beijing fair was said to be half its usual size in 2021, which generally brings in 300,000 people. All these fairs are not exclusive to publishing professionals and cater to some extent to consumers and members of the public, who account for most of the attendees. In contrast, both Bologna and London only allow professionals to attend and typically draw 30,000 and 25,000 attendees, respectively.

These large numbers of people spend a lot of money and, accordingly, represent a huge, predictable influx of cash into the community hosting a book fair. Some people take advantage of this, such as the hoteliers in Frankfurt who triple their rates during the fair. When Covid-19 shut down the fairs, national governments were compelled to step in and shore up the finances of the organizers to ensure the fair would keep going. Still, Covid did have some consequences: Jacks Thomas, director of the London Book Fair for seven years, retired, then started working with Bologna, while Frankfurt closed several overseas offices and significantly reduced its overall staff numbers.

Despite returning to live events this year, the fear remains among the fair organizers that as publishers become accustomed to doing business digitally, they will feel less and less compelled to travel to meet with colleagues in real life. Going into 2022, for the first time in many people’s careers, the relevance and importance of attending in-person events is being questioned.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly