The lockdown legacy

The speculation from on high that we are likely to be living with lockdown restrictions for at least the next six months is a bitter blow for those in the trade just beginning to adjust to the new normal—the newer new normal will affect office openings as well as city centre retail, it will also further undermine festivals, book fairs and author events. Suddenly, though not unexpectedly, this glorious summer of slight unlock has given way to a winter of uncertainty. We are back where we were, yet wearier, hairier and more frustrated.

We have so far tended to look at the pandemic through the prism of book sales, but in truth it is the trading of rights where we may yet see (or indeed have seen) the biggest impact. With Frankfurt around the corner, another six months with restrictions, however they differ internationally, puts at risk both the London Book Fair and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair as events we can attend in person. The effect is that two years or more of future publishing will have been plotted out through rights deals done virtually, rather than face to face, the consequences of which we have yet to fathom.

Frankfurt thus becomes an important litmus test, both as to whether virtual fairs can work, and if so, how they alter the landscape for publishers, agents and scouts, whose needs during an actual show can vary wildly. As this week’s preview (see the Supplement in this week’s issue) shows, and our fair daily will confirm, there is still much to get excited about both in the agent hotlists but also the steady stream of publishers’ prepared announcements.

In our interview (pp06–07) FBF director Jürgen Boos cuts a determined, if slightly battleworn, figure. After the serious misstep of announcing it planned to open as usual, he and his colleagues have worked magnificently to re-imagine first a hybrid and now an all-digital affair. Yet even he must recognise that without the physical meetings, pre-arranged or spontaneous, Frankfurt risks becoming just a moment that over time becomes a season and then a continuum. For some that future is here: “Constantly busy and less seasonal,” is how rights director Rebecca Folland sums things up.

Much will depend on how its virtual trading facilities work: I have long been suspicious of online rights platforms, which seem to me to fail in precisely the same way as the Amazon algorithm, by forgetting that book sales are made by people, a relationships-based and somewhat messy ordeal. Equally, although outsiders sometimes mock the idea of the fair and the publishing lunch, in truth such meet-ups act as catalytic converters for tomorrow’s books–ideas thrown up, digested and then put into action.

It is to be hoped that #fakefurt is a wild success, the virtual-Hof an inexpensive hangover-neutralising replica of the real thing, and that rights deals done via Zoom do not leave the quieter titles on the table. The real test, though, will be longer term. Lockdown changes us and our relationships with our colleagues: how much it also alters the type and nature of the titles we bring to market remains to be seen.