The news on Monday that the Bologna Children’s Book Fair has been rescheduled to May 4–7 due to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has left North American publishers and agents scrambling. Most are working to reschedule appointments, hoping that other attendees will agree to shift their existing appointments to the new dates.
“It has been hectic trying to reschedule,” Derek Stordahl, executive v-p and general manager of Holiday House, admitted. “The goal is to get everyone to move over their appointments to May and keep things routine. That is the strategy most people are taking so far.” He said that should the outbreak become more widespread, his company doesn’t want to send people there and risk them getting infected. “We were planning on four people going. But we don’t want everyone coming back sick and getting quarantined,” he said. “If we have to cancel, we can make up the business through our sub-rights agents. It will be ‘make-do’ and is not ideal.”
Looking for a silver lining for the postponement, Stordahl pointed out that perhaps in a month or two, should the virus subside, “it will allow some of our publishing friends from China and Korea to come to the fair.”
At Owlkids Books in Toronto, publisher Karen Boersma said the bigger question "will be whether publishers decide that they are not going to go at all this year given the change in dates and the uncertainty around the outbreak of COVID-19 in Italy." She doesn't anticipate rescheduling appointments will be difficult, but added, "There were already quite a few publishers and agents from Asia who had decided not to attend—we were already working on plans to set up Zoom or Skype meetings with those partners to present our new titles and we may decide to expand those efforts depending on what happens in the next few weeks. Long story short: we’re in 'wait and see' mode right now."
Marietta Zacker of the Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency said that her firm too is still “attempting to figure out all of this.” She emphasized that her concern was greater than merely missing meetings. “I am not comfortable with putting myself and my colleagues at risk—not to mention those who we would be returning to, including the community at large. So along with dealing with the expense of it all, which is significant, we are thinking carefully about the best course of action for all involved.” Zacker said they are exploring the possibility of scheduling video calls with each of their appointments at the same pre-arranged time.
Literary agent Jill Grinberg is also looking at alternatives. “I was due to be in London the week before Bologna and need to figure out soon whether I can continue on with that plan, which would at least allow me to see most of the U.K. publishers,” she said. “With regard to Bologna, our backup plan as of now is for my foreign rights colleague Sam Farkas to reach out personally to each of the translation publishers she was due to meet with to share our catalog electronically, bring their attention to specific books on our list that may be a good fit for them, and open the door to follow up phone conversation.”
Rescheduling appointments is proving challenging for publishers and agents, as some of their colleagues in Europe and elsewhere have existing conflicts. In addition, making new travel reservations can be burdensome. One particular concern voiced by several people was that should they reschedule travel to Italy, and the fair is ultimately canceled, they will be losing money twice.
Among a handful of people saying they are canceling plans to attend Bologna as a result of the outbreak is Charles Kim, publisher of Six Foot Press. “The coronavirus just poses too many unknowns,” he said, “and with 30,000 visitors from 150 countries mingling in enclosed halls, the risk of transmission is very high and the risk of exposing loved ones to the virus too high. I hope there will be a vaccine available before next year’s fair.”
Grinberg noted that there is “no real replacement for in-person connection,” but added that health and safety comes first. “We are a close-knit international community and I trust we will weather the situation together.”