The Conference of International Book Fair Directors is an unofficial and loose confederation of friends who oversee the world’s largest international book fairs. While our biannual meetings traditionally center around industry issues, this year, like everyone else in the book business, our activities have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and our efforts are being directed to how we can best serve the book industry now and in the future.
Except for the Brussels Book Fair, which was held in early March, all the major international spring book fairs were either canceled or postponed (Bologna Children’s Book Fair is taking place this week with digital exhibitions, webinars, conferences, and virtual rights sales). The Seoul Book Fair, original scheduled from June 24-28, has been postponed. The directors are working on a new virtual platform for a “mixed reality event” but no new date has been announced. The fair in Beijing, set for August 26-30, will take place as planned.
In a recent Bookseller article, agent Peter Cox of Redhammer Management, stated that “the Corona virus might be the death knell of the physical book fair.” He went on to say that for years it hasn’t been necessary to “do the face-to-face.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Robert Gottlieb, chairman of the Trident Media Group, countered by saying that “the fair plays a central role in the rights business for us from hand selling to personal relationships, which we value and depend on when managing our clients careers.”
I would add that book fairs are especially valuable for the buying and selling of rights in the international arena—across all continents. Further, many of our fairs are public events—Guadalajara, for example, has 820,000 visitors and Buenos Aires well over a million—and play an instrumental role in getting books to readers in countries, like Mexico and Colombia, with a dismal bookselling infrastructure. Further, the Latin American book fairs are the venues for librarians and Spanish-language distributors to purchase books for the nearly 60 million Latinos who live in the U.S. and frequent American libraries to read books to strengthen their reading skills and read their favorite Latin American authors.
So that brings us to the traditional fall international book fairs set for Goteborg, Frankfurt, Sharjah, and Guadalajara. As of this writing, all the fairs are scheduled to go on, perhaps in a less than traditional way. Goteborg is considering two options, with or without exhibitors, which will still focus on its strong seminar and writers program, and a reduced Scandinavian rights business. Frankfurt, the pre-eminent rights fair in the world, is planning a number of changes, but says it will definitely be held in October. Sharjah, with its unique translation grants, has yet to announce plans for its early November fair. And Guadalajara, with Sharjah and Arabic Culture as Guest of Honor, has offered exhibitors flexible payment plans, while it continues to monitor world developments that might affect its role as the premier Spanish-language book fair.
So many unknowns are challenging the fall book fairs. Will borders be open? How difficult will it be to get visas? What will airline travel be like? How will audiences respond to the restriction of ticket sales and entrances? Can events traditionally held in fairgrounds be moved to venues scattered around the city? Will hotels accommodate and maintain social distance for thousands of trade show visitors?
International book fairs are crucial to the book chain. Though business can be carried out virtually, there is no substitute for like-minded people coming together under one roof. The seemingly electric energy generated can catapult one title or one author around the world in a variety of platforms. Book fairs will continue to be a welcoming environment for the exchange of ideas, for the presentation of new books and new authors, for the introduction of new literature via Guest of Honors programs and for, yes, the making and the renewal of friendships, which in time forge business partnerships.
This year, book fairs may have to transform to virtual and socially distanced platforms that reflect the realities of a vicious virus. But their directors are working to find solutions to keep expanding what has taken centuries to create: a kinetic venue for everyone involved in the book chain. The end goal is to continue to bring books and knowledge—creative storytelling—to audiences all over the world.
David Unger is the secretary of the Conference of International Book Fair Directors and the U.S. rep of the Guadalajara International Book Fair.