Book fairs: vital for trade books for discoverability, curation and dissemination

Poulomi Chatterjee, Editor-in-Chief & Publisher, and Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India, share their views on the importance of book fairs for trade books and how book fairs are changing amidst the pandemic.

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Book fairs in India vs. overseas…

Book fairs in India are very different from book fairs abroad. In India, most of them are retail/consumer fairs where you set up stands and interact with your end-reader—a rare instance. So most publishers attend these with primarily a PR and sales approach.

Abroad they are almost all ‘trade and rights’ fairs where publishing deals are struck for exciting new finds and auctions are held, or for sale of the rights of books in territories other than the ones they have originated in, or of language rights specific languages to international territories – or they are showcase occasions for product or imprint launches.

The London Book Fair or the BEA in New York, as also the Jerusalem Book Fair, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, or the one in Leipzig, for instance, are closed to the public completely and are trade and rights fairs in the true sense, allowing editors and rights personnel from across the world to mingle, exchange ideas and experiences, and get to know and discover the world of publishing in markets other than their own. These interactions are necessary eye-openers and help form communities that often last for many years across territories in the publishing world. The Frankfurt Book Fair, held over a full week, opens to the public in the last two days (a weekend) in addition to the six days of trade interactions, and it’s a joy to see readers browsing through books and art and stationery, enjoying cosplay dressed in characters from classic books and graphic novels, and buying books directly from publishers’ stands (those who will allow it). The other fairs too have events open to the public, featuring authors, expert panels on books in general, trends in print and digital publishing, copyright and IP issues, and so forth.

So in both ways they are fairly important to trade books which depend on discoverability, curation and dissemination.

Disruptions in book fairs due to the pandemic…

In India, we miss the New Delhi World Book Fair, and it may well be a year or two before it gets back to being what it was. Overseas, fairs are moving to online versions or hybrid or even substitute interfaces (like an agents’ presentation for instance or a focused by-invitation Rights fair). Over the last year, the major international fairs have been cancelled or postponed or held online – be it London, or Frankfurt or the beloved Bologna Children’s Book Fair, but the Frankfurt Book Fair has been planned this year as an in-person event once again, and it remains to be seen which publishers attend and how successful it turns out to be.

On virtual book fairs…

Most people miss the whole personal interaction and the vibrant hum of a good fair. In India, as a substitute for something like the New Delhi World Book Fair, it just doesn’t work. For instance, we participated in one fair and that we felt was a dismal failure. You were limited to a display of 75 titles on a portal. So as a retail/consumer fair, these can never work. Why would anyone really bother to visit these, when you had massively publicized sales on Amazon or Flipkart.

Abroad, Hachette has followed whatever is the best safety norm. The London Book Fair 2021 was fully digital and 2022 it is hoped is back to being a fully ‘staged’ physical fair.

Trends in book fairs…

In India, if we’re done with the pandemic and COVID becomes endemic to be treated like the flu—i.e. no longer front-of-mind consciousness, then it’ll come back to being business as usual in India. Overseas perhaps it’ll be a mix. Certainly it’s clear now that (for Indians to participate) unless you have a great stream of revenue that justifies a visit, you can equally make do with an online version, and appointments done on zoom or teams without having to wait for a fair. There’s also the fairs themselves, which may reorient themselves based on what sort of participation they receive—because finally they are also businesses that have been badly hit.

Will book fairs be same after pandemic?

We hope so and see no reason why not. Even though we’re seeing markets returning to normal, and even situations where we see crowds, the surest benchmark will be when schools are back open and functioning normally. The year after that, fairs I believe can be back on track.

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