For book fairs, 2020 was (not is) a watershed moment. On Reed Exhibitions pulling the plug at BookExpo, and related news. About the current re-writing of the publishing play book.
December 2, 2020 by ruediger

At BookExpo in May 2018, a CEO roundtable with, from left, the Association of American Publishers’ Maria A. Pallante, Macmillan’s John Sargent, Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy, and Penguin Random House’s Markus Dohle. Photo by Porter Anderson, Publishing Perspectives, used by permission

At BookExpo 2018, a publishing “CEO  roundtable” hosted by the Association of American Publishers‘ Maria A. Pallante, had 3 heads of New York Big Five publishing corporations debating the future of the industry. I don’t recall details, but am certain that all three speakers were upbeat.

Two years and a bit later, Carolyn Reidy of Simon and Schuster has passed away, John Sargent has quit Macmillan and Holtzbrinck, and only Markus Dohle is still in his position as CEO of Penguin Random House, and announced just a week ago that his group would pick up Simon and Schuster. Another major American trade and educational publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt stands for sale.

And now, BookExpo, together with its consumer sibling BookCon, the by far largest industry gathering in the US, and the States’ only public platform for welcoming international publishers and other vendors of the book business, has been “retired“, as the press release of Reed Exhibition, the parent company, camouflaged their decision of pulling the plug. (See the summary in Publishing Perspectives)

My personal book fair calender for 2020 saw me packing for London in April, and shortly thereafter for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I was considering Leipzig, and would have observed closely Bologna and Paris from afar. Already, I did not plan to attend BookExpo in New York in late May, as I couldn’t anticipate any business for me at the event. Beijing in late August was still undecided. In fall, I obviously planned for Frankfurt, and then Ljubljana in November. I was considering Guadalajara, as my interest in Latin America had seriously increased lately, while working for Cerlalc, the UNESCO partnering organization based in Bogota, Colombia.

None of these events would have any physical presence or attendees, it turned out.

Instead, together with a few friends like Carlo Carrenho and Klaus-Peter Stegen, we decided as early as late April to launch our own, purely digital conference format, ReBoot: Books, Business and Reading, which eventually took place with 4 workshops in September and a 6 hour marathon series of industry debates on October 13, 2020, which normally would have been Frankfurt’s opening day.

I summarize these details not out of nostalgia, nor anticipating any “return to normal” in 2021. Yet I am an optimist. I am confident that the vaccine will have a – hopefully broad, and not limited to the rich countries and mega cities only – impact on our lives and businesses.

I am fairly confident that the book business overall will cope, and adapt – which is synonymous to ‘deeply transform‘ – in the course of the pandemic. But I am also convinced that the same may not necessarily apply to book fairs. At least those in North America and in large parts of Europe, plus Japan. For all the rest of the world, this is a different story, which I’ll address another time.

There surely will be industry gatherings in the future, with actual visitors, with some kind of exhibits, and certainly with receptions and parties, probably as soon as in early summer or fall of next year. But I would wish to be a fly on the wall when a sales representative of Frankfurt or London will call up the person in charge for marketing budgets at Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins – or, very similarly, at Planeta, Bonnier, or German Bastei LĂĽbbe in spring 2021, in the ambition to sell some significant booth space. ‘Best of luck‘, as those hard nosed sales reps would say.

All the big, and many medium sized companies have their finance people right now spending hours and days in home offices and zoom calls to figure out how to slash office space and rent, shift resources into a more de-centralized model of organization, invest – hopefully – heavily in streamlining their workflow and otimize their processes (ERP companies, but also Salesforce/Slack and other will further expand), AND they will be, at the front end of their operations, all about  ‘the consumer‘.

“D2C” – Direct-to-Consumer will be the magic formular for 2021, I am sure.

These moves will fairly quickly result in shifts in companies’ internal power balances, hopefully by just even more strongly separating what, on a day-to-day basis, editorial does, and what the ‘back office‘ does with what editorial is proposing to them – or in return, by drastically re-framing the set-up in which editorial is supposed to do their work.

That swing does not necessarily clip the aisles of good editors in theit creativity. But it may rewrite the overall playbook of book publishing.

To give just one example: Anything more ‘niche‘ may be handed over to some ‘special arms‘ of the organization, or be delegated into new (or already existing) ‘author platforms‘ – as in publisher + Wattpad cooperation deals.

In less fortunate organizations, which will be around too, it will be a new regime that hardly breathes that old air of sniffing out that new genial literary hero who might be a winner of some award half a writing life later.

These are, of course, just a few guesses. But for traditinal book fairs, they carry a few clear lessons. First of all, there is little reason for publishers to spend a fortune on renting huge booth space, add more money for flashy cusomized stand constructions, and send over hald the company staff for a week.

Fairs will be closer to festivals on the one hand, and on the other hand to the more operational, small-table plus hotel-bar-and-dinner-separĂ©e type of the rights business. In addition, the ‘industry talks‘ will be hybrid at best, and much debate will be within closed settings– e.g. behind corporate community walls, rather than public.

For the ever more pressing opening up, embracing new ideas, interact with an ever growing number of new comeptition from new entrants and start-ups, this may become a huge problem. For letting in new company talent, the result may be a desaster, really endangering a necessary renewal of the professional book communities.

But, as an optimist, I see all these ‘problems’ mainly as bringing some transformative strains that we all have seen coming already before the virus struck, didn’t we?

With regard to BookExpo, Michael Cader now wrote in his Publishers’ Lunch: “The show itself had diminished for years.” So let’s move on, and make the best of it.

PS: David Unger, of Guadalajara FIL, commented in the Facebook group Publishing without borders: “Rudiger: for many years BEA was running itself into circles and into the ground. It had no identity and changed its focus and format sometimes twice a year. It cannot be compared to other international book fairs that have very clearly defined roles and focuses. I know you agree with me.”

This allowed me to specify, how I would differentiate between 3 types of international book fairs:

 Full agreement on part 1, BEA. Not so sure on part 2, which I would split into a) Frankfurt, London, Bologna, b) Beijing, Sharjah, Guadalajara, Madrid/Barcelona, perhaps Italy Paris, Göteborg and c) the many ‘other’
To a) frankly I see no way back to the old ‘charging high price booth space’ business model for any of that top tier group. No way.
To b) These are different, as hubs for specific, commercially relevant regional markets, plus their price tag is much smaller, due to local subsidies, subsidies to national collective stand models and much more affordable booth spending anyway, so they make more sense perhaps, economically,
To c) an entirely different kind of beasts, either as national show cases of local industries (my domestic Austria being such, or focused on selling books! (All across the Middle East), etc.
So we have a LOT to figure out, I guess.

 

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