The personal touch

If ever there were two words to strike fear into the hearts and minds of the trade in the run-up to the London Book Fair, the charmless duo “social distancing” would surely be it. But as worries over the coronavirus virus grow, we may just have to get used to a little less mingling (for a while anyway) or, as Dr David Nabarro, who coined the term above told “Today”, behaving differently. 

We are, of course, past masters at carrying on as if nothing is happening around us, as was evident when, a decade ago, LBF was severely disrupted by the flying ash from the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull. As we noted at the time, an eerily quiet fair went on regardless, and despite the absence of some international visitors (the Americans in particular), many others made heroic journeys just to keep on keeping on. Nevertheless, the postponement of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, for all the disruption it will cause, was undoubtedly the right move, given the sudden appearance of the virus in Italy. And it was a wake-up call. 

LBF parent Reed Exhibitions remains adamant that London is open, but given some agents and publishers have already had meetings cancelled, and travel from Asia and Italy remains tricky, it will already feel like a changed event. Besides, as Reed’s sombre statement about the fair’s status implied, in the end a decision may be out of its hands. For now Public Health England is not advising the cancellation of “large gatherings”.

History provides some comfort. In 2010 the volcanic ash brought with it an ill-wind that could have had longer-term effects—not only was the trade just recoving from a recession, but with digital growing its footprint across the trade, the disruption brought with it real fears over whether such large and expensive trade fairs could survive into the next decade, as publishers and agents figured out new and different ways to connect. 

In fact, as is typical of this business, London—like Frankurt, and the many other smaller trade events that have cropped up across the globe—has thrived, as book people have continued to value the personal touch, in preference to business done just by email or on the telephone. 

In fact, while some complain about the expense of such events and inevitably their carbon footprint, the bigger trade fairs, and newer get-togethers such as the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, have never felt more vital. You only need to glance at Twitter to see how differently the business can look when viewed from a distance instead of from within.

Back in 2010, LBF’s travails proved to be a boon for BookExpo America, while 2011 and 2012—the years when the deals done in 2010 would have mattered—were turning points in the performance of the print book market. The disturbance, such as it was, perhaps proved to be more of a fillip than a knockback. Children’s publishers will no doubt be wishing for a similar stimulus as they figure out how best to do their Bologna business without the spring event.

Such disruption does not change the fact that publishing remains a business best done close-up. Gloves off.