The 2021 Madrid Book Fair, known colloquially in Spanish as the Feria del Libro de Madrid, was among the first large-scale in-person consumer book fairs to take place anywhere in the world since the start of the pandemic. The event usually occurs in the spring but was bumped to September. This year’s fair opened on September 10 and ran to September 26 in Madrid’s Retiro Park in the center of the city.
Typically, the event has had as many as 40,000 people a day, but this year it was limited to 20,000–22,000 daily because of Covid protocols. To meet Covid guidelines, the area with the exhibitors, which includes publishers and booksellers, was cordoned off from the rest of the park and attendees were asked to line up and go through an electronic booth, which monitored the number of people inside. Once the fair reached full capacity of 3,900, people needed to wait until others left, which led to long lines snaking through the park.
The fair is a major sales channel for Spain’s publishers and booksellers. For 2021, the fair ended with €9.1 million (approximately $10.1 million) in sales overall, down 10% from 2019, the last year it was held, according to Manuel Gil, the fair’s director. “It is essentially a good figure, considering the pandemic,” Gil said at a press conference. Over the course of the 16 days, the fair had 384,000 visitors, with 1,700 authors signing books and participating in events.
Enrique Pascual Pons, head of the Madrid Booksellers Association and director of the Marcial Pons bookstore, was pleased with the outcome of the fair. “It’s great to see so many people lining up and eager to buy books,” Pons says.
Sergio Bang, co-owner of Grant Bookstore in Madrid, echoes Pons when he says, “It’s great to have the event back. It is very important for our sales,” Grant, which opened in 2014, is one of the city’s hippest independent bookstores, known for its eclectic selection and popular book clubs. Colombia, the guest of honor, had several booths offering imported books from the country for sale. The Colombia exhibit caused some controversy when several authors, such as Melba Escobar, pulled out of the event to protest the decision of Colombian president Ivan Duque to attend the fair and to protest the exclusion of writers critical of the government or Colombian history, such as award winners Pilar Quintana and Pablo Montoya, neither of whom were invited.
This year the fair also expanded its programming for publishing professionals with a program called Libro 4.0. The events included a series of conversations hosted by Verónica Fernández, content director of Netflix Spain, which is responsible for the country’s most popular cultural export, the Netflix series Casa de Papel (known in the U.S. as Money Heist), which saw its fourth season draw 65 million viewers last year. Among Fernández’s interviewees was Oriol Paulo, director of the series El Inocente, based on the novel The Innocent by Harlan Coben.
One of the questions raised by the professional program was why Spain has not produced more global blockbuster books and creative content in general, considering the language is used by more than 500 million people. One speaker asked, “Where is the Spanish Sally Rooney,” referencing the popularity and global ubiquity of the Irish author, whose new book—Beautiful World, Where Are You?—was published the same week the fair opened.
This year also saw the introduction of Publishers Weekly en Español as the fair’s main sponsor, supplanting Samsung. The magazine, which launched last year, hosted more than 200 authors across two booths, ranging from bestsellers such as Julia Navarro and Carmen Posadas, to celebrities like Queen Letizia of Spain, former prime minister Felipe González Márquez, and adult film actor and feminist Amarna Miller. The PW booth featured a red Chesterfield sofa that attracted influencers, who turned getting photographed with the sofa into a “must-do” at the fair. Many of Spain’s top publishers also visited the booth for interviews. Núria Cabutí, CEO of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, was interviewed alongside Jesús Badenes, director of books at Grupo Planeta, in a conversation (available on YouTube) that grew personal and intimate. Another panel at the booth featured three of Spain’s top women publishers: Silvia Sesé, editorial director of Editorial Anagrama; Ofelia Grande, director of Editorial Siruela; and Sandra Ollo, director of Acantilado.
“The 2021 Madrid Book Fair had the very distinguished honor of leading the global publishing industry toward its post-Covid recovery,” says Enrique Parrilla, publisher of Publishers Weekly en Español. “After many years of declining sales, shifting markets, and juggernauts threatening bookstore livelihoods, people from all ages came in droves to support their local bookshops, see their favorite authors, and enjoy 16 days of bookselling activities, while standing in lines that stretched for hours in order to keep capacity and social distancing at safe levels. This event demonstrated that if bookstores are to thrive, they need to remember they serve a local constituency of readers that can be tremendously loyal.”