Book fairs: The Past and Future

Richard Charkin, member of the international advisory board of the Frankfurt Book Fair, shares his views on the changing face of book fairs.

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Book fairs come in any number of shapes and sizes and they all play a role in the economic and cultural framework of the book businesses around the world. We, global publishers, naturally think of Frankfurt, Bologna, Beijing, and London first. These are the fairs which generate the most rights deals and income – and never forget the profitability of selling rights as opposed to selling paper!

However, these fairs don’t tell the whole story by any means. Take New Delhi World Book Fair as an example. Publishers generate significant sales both to domestic retailers but also to visiting foreign distributors. Not only that but, in my visits at least, the Fair hosts the annual India vs Rest of World cricket trophy. In one of the matches not only did our team receive a medal each but also Rs 10,000. It is the only time I have actually been a professional cricketer and I cherish the moment (even though I failed to trouble the scorer).

And then there are fairs such as Salon du Livres in Paris or Feria del Libro in Buenos Aires which attracts over a million paying customers every year – yes over a million and they pay full price for any purchases. We must not forget the hugely important mainly Spanish-language Guadalajara International Book Fair which now attracts visitors from Ibero-America but from around the world. There are several more I could list – in Bangladesh, in Japan, in Warsaw – and they all serve a purpose.

These are large or very large but there are myriads of small ‘book fairs’ in villages and towns in just about every country in the world and businesses such as Scholastic organising fairs in schools at all levels, are true contributors to literacy.

The future…

But back to the big ones. What is their future? RELX, the owner of London Book Fair has announced big losses in their Exhibitions division but are still confident that there will be return to live events once the fear of Covid recedes. I suspect that will be true for all the main book fairs but they will have to adapt. A few thoughts about the future, always a risky business:

  • Publishers will spend less on sending people overseas both for economic and environmental reasons.
  • The days of the huge ‘statement’ stands are over and will be replaced by more workmanlike professional meeting places.
  • Fairs will gradually move from a single fixed time slot into 24×7 365 days a year digital showcases for publishers and authors.
  • There will be consolidation in the exhibitions industry with unpredictable outcomes for book fairs.
  • There will be renewed focus on return on investment, which will drive more efficient use of the fairs and ultimately better margins.

But all that said the fairs will remain principal opportunity for meeting colleagues, dreaming up new projects, discovering new routes to market, making new friends, and reinvigorating our industry in all its complexity, sometimes absurdity, and always re-invention. It will take more than a pandemic to stop publishers, booksellers, librarians, and authors mingling.

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