A multitude of factors led to the decision made by ReedPop last week to cancel the 2020 editions of BookExpo, BookCon, and Unbound, according to Jenny Martin, director of the events. Questions about the feasibility of holding the publishing industry’s most important American conference at New York City’s Javits Center at the end of May began to surface in mid-March, when Penguin Random House said it would not attend the events due to concerns about the continued spread of the new coronavirus. In its announcement, PRH cited New York City and New York State guidance, which, at the time, called for substantially limiting the number of participants in public gatherings.
Hoping that the outbreak might abate over time, ReedPop shifted BookExpo and BookCon to July 22–26, but in the meantime the number of people infected by the virus has soared in New York and throughout the U.S., the Javits Center has been converted into a temporary hospital, much of the country has been placed on lockdown, and the economy has cratered. As a result, the remaining Big Five publishers, as well as Ingram Content Group, pulled out of the shows. In doing so, all pointed to uncertainty over business conditions caused by the spread of Covid-19, saying that it was impossible for them to plan to attend the fair.
Martin acknowledged that the withdrawal of many of the events’ biggest exhibitors played a role in the decision to cancel the conferences, but she said the most important factor was the deterioration of the nation’s economy. With many independent bookstores closed and independent presses focused on keeping their lights on, it became clear, she noted, that “many guests may not have the discretionary income to make the trip” to New York for the events.
ReedPop explored the possibility of finding other dates after July, Martin said, but none met the needs of the industry. Given the circumstances, she felt it best to cancel the events and give all participants, especially booksellers, time to focus on their businesses. Pulling the plug more than three months before BookExpo and BookCon were scheduled to take place will prevent exhibitors from incurring costs, she noted, adding that no one has made any shipments to Javits yet. And ReedPop will refund tickets already purchased.
Martin said ReedPop plans to hold BookExpo, BookCon, and Unbound next spring, but she didn’t rule out the possibility of moving the shows to somewhere other than New York. “We were planning to shake things up in 2021,” she said, adding that the cancellation will give the organizer and all those involved in the events more time to plan. First order of business, she noted, is to form an advisory committee to begin exploring which changes will make the most sense.
Asked if she felt that the growth in virtual events, after the widespread cancellation of conferences and fairs across the industry, has endangered physical events, Martin said she believes there is room for both. While she acknowledged that virtual fairs and conferences have their place, and may change the shape of physical fairs, she added that they can’t replace the face-to-face communication provided by in-person events.
Martin said Reed is exploring some new ventures to fill the void left this summer by the cancellation of BookExpo and BookCon, noting that plans are in “the early stages.” ReedPop hosted a virtual Read-a-Thon on April 11 as part of its new BookCon Virtual Author Tour Series, which will run through the spring. The Read-a-Thon, Martin noted, raised about $6,000 for the #SaveIndieBookstores campaign.
The cancellation of BookExpo and BookCon are the latest in a string of cancellations affecting the biggest conferences and fairs in the book business worldwide, including the London Book Fair, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (which is planning a virtual fair beginning May 4), and the ALA Annual Meeting. The next major publishing event is the Frankfurt Book Fair, set for October 14–18. In a note sent out last week, Frankfurt organizers said that—based on current information available—they expect the fair to proceed as planned.