This time last week, when I asked someone at one of the bigger publishers whether they had called off their London Book Fair party yet, I could feel the baffled response down the telephone line—“as if”. A week is a long time during pandemics (we are learning), but for Reed Exhibitions, the organiser of the fair, it must have felt like much longer. After the big publishers pulled out the company finally bowed to the inevitable on Wednesday morning (4th March), “with reluctance” cancelling the event for the first time in its 49-year history.
It’s an unprecedented moment, a piece of rotten ill-luck and, of course, badly timed in Brexit year. Last week I made a comparison with 2010, when an Icelandic volcano scuppered flights in and out of the country during the fair. But seven days on, I’m no longer sure that holds. A decade ago the ash came too late to talk about cancellation or postponement. There was simply a will to carry on and make do, despite a near-30% drop in attendance. Some people even enjoyed the peace and quiet.
This time around, the split between those who loudly (and quickly) called for the fair to be called off and those quieter voices who have rallied for its continuation looks serious. For those who have lined up to criticise Reed in the run-up to its decision, I would recommend taking a step back. There is a business and emotional cost to not running such events, and Reed was right to tread through this thicket of implications, and least-worst scenarios, carefully.
Some will note the timing of Reed’s decision, following the government’s listing of coronavirus as a “notifiable disease”—making losses as a result recoverable from insurers—but it will not be alone in looking closely at insurance documentation over the next few weeks. Putting profit over people is an easy accusation to make, but it is not the giant Reed Exhibitions which will fall over as a result of this crisis, or the bigger trade publishers. Despite the best efforts of those talking about a virtual fair, reverting to Skype calls and/or re-arranging meetings, there are deals that will not now get done and businesses, many international, who will struggle to make up the difference. There is a knock-on too. As publisher Lennie Goodings writes in her retrospective on the women’s press Virago, profit may not always be a goal in itself, but it is a very clever way of avoiding “scrutiny” from on high.
LBF will need to bounce back for 2021, and strongly—its 50th year provides an obvious rallying point. But there is a lot to come between now and then, with coronavirus likely to bring with it an economic shock comparable to 2008’s banking crisis, after which the trade went into a three-year decline. The next few weeks will be vital—the publishing sector is best when it works together, with a care for all of the constituents that make up its world, from staff who will need support as they navigate this disruption; to authors, whose books thrive on the oxygen this busy period—from LBF to World Book Day—provides.