Back in March, I was watching Twitter like it was a countdown, waiting like so many others for the inevitable to happen and for the London Book Fair to be cancelled.
And so it was. Covid-19 hit the world and unleashed disruption like no other. The cancellation of physical events at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair comes as another sad but expected result. However, Frankfurt will push forward with an extensive digital programme, as many other book fairs have begun to across the world. The loss of the physical events has been tragic for both organisers and attendees, but as a writer, I think the enforced move towards more digital content is an overdue and welcome development.
The value of book fairs has long been accepted by publishers, agents and booksellers. For writers, not so much. Bookfairs are driven by their marketplace nature, full of business wrangling that revolves around writers but in practice doesn't directly involve us. Despite this, fairs present a brilliant opportunity for writers to get a behind-the-veil look at how the cogs of the industry turn.
When I first attended LBF, I was awestruck by the sheer size of it all. Thanks to the dedicated Author HQ area, I attended numerous seminars that gave me an insight into the industry’s preoccupations and processes, networked with other writers, and met with representatives of book organisations such as the Society of Authors (which I joined) and BookTrust (which introduced me to BookTrust Represents, an initiative which promotes and supports authors and illustrators of colour).
None of the fairs can provide me with the exact numbers for how many writers attend, but I suspsect it’s not nearly enough. A lot of this will be down to the cost of tickets, accommodation (if needed) and travel, inevitably to London – but I also think that book fairs do still possess an aura of exclusivity and an ingrained sense that they are only for publishing professionals, despite the author-focused content on offer. How can this be overcome?
Well, digitisation certainly helps. For example, LBF 2020 offered a livestream on book rights where I learnt a great more about how rights, translations and contracts operate within publishing. It attracted people from around the world and it is such a vital topic for writers to understand as they navigate the world of publishing. The Bologna Children’s Book Fair took its operations online with a virtual version of the fair which included a global rights platform, a TV channel for video elements, a gallery platform showcasing illustrative work as well as its programme of events. The Nigerian Book Fair used Zoom to host talks on topics such as book industry sustainability and library services in the era of Covid-19; important areas that writers should educate themselves about. The Miami Book Fair - which is aimed more at authors and readers – will go completely digital using a mix of live streams, pre-recorded events and live Q&A sessions. It proves just how hungry writers are for this sort of wider industry content – if it’s made more accessible.
Going digital does incur additional costs for organisers in developing technology infrastructure, producing and editing content, but the benefits include considerably de-risking attendance for writers, and therefore potentially helping to demystify an industry that far too many writers feel is shrouded in arcane practices, entirely out of their control or just “not for them.”
Of course, physical book fairs are still crucial when possible. Digital sessions should be considered a powerful addition, not a full replacement, to their programmes. The face-to-face interaction at fairs is priceless and ultimately there will always be a need for a real-life space to facilitate the networking, business and educational aspects of book fairs. My hope is that organisers will see for themselves the importance of maintaining and developing a permanent digital offering alongside the main event. It’s a long-term chance to boost author engagement, upskill writers in industry knowhow, and, crucially, encourage more diversity - both in writers and in those who work in all roles within publishing.
Davina Tijani writes genre and speculative fiction for adults and children, and is represented by Davinia Andrew-Lynch of the Andlyn Literary Agency.