“Online book fairs cannot substitute in-person book fairs” – Opines David Unger, General Secretary of the International Conference of Book Fair Directors in conversation with All About Book Publishing.


Online book fairs reveal to their visitors that they are still “alive” and can provide amazing content—authors, panels, concerts, readings, debates—but a virtual encounter, no matter how enriching, is a poor substitute for the in-person experience.

Directors from major book fairs across the world meet at The Conference of International Book Fair Directors to discuss shared issues of interest. Here, David Unger, General Secretary of the International Conference of Book Fair Directors, shares his views on the current situation of book fairs.

AABP: Brief us about The Conference of International Book Fair Directors.

David: The Conference of International Book Fair directors came into existence on the heels of two Rockefeller Foundation sponsored meetings in Bellagio, Italy in the early 1990s. At those first meetings, we had nearly 25 directors attending, including representatives from India, Beijing, Taiwan, Cuba, Chile, Zimbabwe and Singapore as well as directors from the major European and Latin American Fairs. We decided to “formalize” our organization in Gothenburg in 2001, but without statutes or registration as an NGO. We are simply a federation of book fair directors that meets every two years to discuss shared issues of interest. We have had 14 official meetings so far. I would characterize our organization as a success in its ability to foster cooperation and the sharing of ideas.

AABP: This pandemic has disrupted the book fairs. How do you think fairs across have adapted?

David: By their very nature, book fairs require in-person contact. For those fairs that are international and strictly professional like Frankfurt, Bologna and London, the opportunity for book professionals to meet each other en face is extremely important—we are talking about books and culture, not facial creams or hardware supplies. It is a necessity to be able to meet colleagues once or twice a year and discuss new developments or products. Of course, the selling of rights can be handled digitally, but I have heard from many literary agencies that the need to meet other agents, scouts and editors is an essential part of their business. So you are right: book fairs have “adapted!” What choice did they have? The fairs either present a digital version or they cancel. Many of our Conference members, like Guadalajara and Gothenburg, have hybrid fairs where the professional meetings are a part of their presentation, but Guadalajara for example draws 800,000 public visitors and Buenos Aires well over a million. In a word, the pandemic has been pretty much of a “disaster” no matter what face we give it.

AABP: What has been the exhibitors and visitors’ reactions to a virtual or hybrid option?

David: Most of the fairs have been virtual which profits the general public. Despite Herculean efforts to have a professional program, most book people have not profited from these encounters. Certainly, publishers have not sold books at virtual fairs, and this has hurt those fairs in the less developed countries where many publishers sell 40 to 50% of their books annually in these in-person events. There really is no point in exhibiting virtually if the general public is absent. We are all looking toward Frankfurt, Sharjah, Guadalajara, Shanghai and Thessaloniki for forthcoming in-person fairs, albeit with masking and social distancing. Taipei has just announced that their in-person book fair will take place in June of 2022.

Online book fairs reveal to their visitors that they are still “alive” and can provide amazing content—authors, panels, concerts, readings, debates—but a virtual encounter, no matter how enriching, is a poor substitute for the in-person experience.

AABP: Once the pandemic is over, would book fairs be the same?

David: Some book fairs, like Buenos Aires and Warsaw, have had vastly reduced book fairs in the open air that have been successful—for the public and some publishers. But these events have not been monetized to the extent that book fair employee salaries have been justified. We need to slowly rebuild the in-person aspect so that fairs can pay for the rental of the fairgrounds and provide exhibitors an opportunity to have enough sales to justify their stand investments. We hope that the autumn book fairs will provide a template for how book fairs will return. Gothenburg, for example, has gone all out to create a powerful seminar program which is being monetized by trying to make the meetings intimate—but again, it is a virtual event for the most part with no bookselling to the public unless it is through a link for the purchase of author books.

AABP: Do you see the trend for online or hybrid model? Give reasons.

David: Personally speaking, I believe that we will need an online component until Covid is under control—this means vaccinating the vast majority of the world that has not had access to vaccines. But online models do not bring in profits; I don’t mean to be so mercenary, but unless a “store” is able to sell its products then it won’t be able to pay its “rent.” The future of book fairs is dim until the pandemic is gotten under control. We can honestly admit that in the short run, the pandemic will continue to hound us for another 3-5 years.

AABP: According to you, which book fairs have a higher Indian audience?

David: Sharjah has a huge Indian population and the UAE have been able to tame covid. This is the natural fair for Indian publishers, given that the pandemic is still raging in many parts of India. For rights sales, I think Frankfurt and Guadalajara offer good opportunities.

AABP: Share some interesting innovations at book fairs.

David: There has been little innovations in the last year and a half, other than the transformation to virtual events. I would hope that measures to embrace sidelined communities—LGBTX, the visually and hearing impaired, offer an opportunity to enlarge audiences. Innovation is always about increasing readership and, therefore, increasing the purchase of books, and hopefully the liberalization of culture and thinking to include people that have been excluded from the marketplace.

AABP: What message would you like to give to exhibitors to continue their participation at book fairs – whether online or offline?

David: I personally don’t think there is a way for exhibitors to monetize their participation in online events. I would like to encourage them to begin participating in in-person book fairs as soon as it is feasible—this means calculating the expense of exhibiting and matching that with the possibility of making a small profit. Naturally, they should only participate if the health risks are reduced. For the moment, I think that Frankfurt, Guadalajara, Sharjah and Shanghai’s Children’s Fair are relevant international fairs that should be explored.

Guatemalan-born David Unger received his country’s 2014 Miguel Angel Asturias National Literature Prize for lifetime achievement though he writes exclusively in English and lives in the U.S. The Mastermind, (Akashic Books, 2016), his latest novel, has been translated into eight languages including Spanish, Arabic, Italian and Polish. Unger has been a featured writer in book festivals in San Juan, Miami, Los Angeles, Guatemala City, Istanbul, Santo Domingo, Managua, Panama, Warsaw and Krakow, Bogotá, Lima, Prague, Buenos Aires, La Paz, Oaxaca and Guadalajara. He directs CCNY’s Publishing Certificate Program and teaches Translation in the MFA Program. He is the U.S. rep of the Guadalajara International Book Fair. In 2022, Penguin Classics will publish his re-translation of Guatemalan Literature Nobelist Miguel Angel Asturias’ Mr. President, with an introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa. He is presently translating Chilean Carlos Franz’s If You Saw Yourself With My Eyes on speculation.

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