Has digital debunked the book fair?
on Dec 06, 2021
Ask anyone who trades the international rights to books to name the most important days in the rights calendar and, despite technological developments creating a more connected world than ever before, they’ll say the Frankfurt Book Fair,’ says Airlie Lawson. Having been doing it for twenty years, Lawson is well positioned to take a look at how the virtual book fair has altered the landscape of trading rights – and what that might mean for Australian authors and publishers in a post pandemic market. Lawson presented the paper, The high cost of trading international rights, at the recent Small Publishers Network conference. ArtsHub sat in on the discussion.
IS THE TRAVEL WORTH IT?
Lawson gave a helicopter view over the current landscape of rights, using the lens of cost, both financial and environmental, to offer some future lessons. She spoke of [first] attending the Frankfurt Book Fair 23 years ago, a month after 911, and the past two fairs with 2020 as a fully virtual fair and 2021 as a hybrid event, offering similar milestone moment to rethink how rights are traded. ‘Security was high, and the Americans largely stayed away. There were no iPads or smartphones. Computer connections were bad, manuscripts were printed, rights guides were produced. And when I say produced, I mean they were colour printed and bound. Hotels were the place to trade rights to books. And the way to do it was in person.’ Lawson ‘gets it’. Despite travelling half way across the world, book fairs have always been about getting ‘to know people offline, so to speak, by having a coffee, drink, dinner, and to impress people by saying how long the flight was. That is to say it wasn’t just fun, it was an effective way to do my job, albeit expensive.’
Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID 19 pandemic, one of the industries most important rights fairs went virtual, ‘but many of the usual suspects including the multinationals, Penguin Random House and Harper Collins stayed home,’ said Lawson. Did that perhaps present a different playing field, or tip the scale in other ways? Lawson explained: ‘The Frankfurt Book Fair is considered by the Australian publishing industry, an important conduit to selling brands. But for many on this side of the world, attending them is just not worth the money. They either don’t make enough income from rights to justify the expenditure, or like many small publishers, they simply can’t afford to.’
But many believe fairs should be central to any rights strategy. ‘Pivoting to virtual, while necessary, has, in theory, democratized the Frankfurt Book Fair giving more people an opportunity to take part,’ she continued. Lawson recalled speaking to someone from one of the big publishers who added that, it’s useful because she can take more members of her team along. So more people can take more meetings and increase their reach. For many publishers, it is much more affordable. PUTTING THE COSTS INTO PERSPECTIVE Lawson unpacked what ‘taking part in a book fair means in reality. ‘In a nutshell, it means meetings, formal and informal, arranging them ahead of time, usually in half-hour slots, ideally with a lunch and coffee break; talking for six days straight, saying the same thing over and over and over again, as you perfect your pitch and talking again at breakfast and dinners and at the bar.’ She added that ‘while fairs give you the opportunity to bring your books to the attention of editors and scouts, they are also overwhelmed with choice, so “in-person access” to get to know their tastes for future reference, as well as learn about the markets, can be key. There’s no two ways about it, physically attending international book fairs is expensive. Putting that ‘overload’ into perspective, Lawson reported that the year before the pandemic (2019), over 300,000 visitors attended Frankfurt Book Fair, with over half of them trading, or 7,500 exhibitors and 780 agents attending from 147 countries. Based on 2020 figures, the short answer is yes they are still attended but it was about half the digital exhibitors.
HOW INTERNATIONAL SALES HAVE CHANGED To take it virtual, the fair created the Frankfurt Rights Platform. ‘If you choose to use the Frankfort Rights Platform, where – in inverted commas, I’m quoting their promotional blurb – “all the players in the rights and license trade come together”, there were just over 4,000 accounts on that [in 2020]’, explained Lawson, adding that there were over half a million page views on over 30,000 individual new titles. She continued: ‘There were actually over 400,000 titles from 91 countries … and there was also digital matchmaking.’ ‘And it’s worth noting here that discoverability virtually is where Frankfurt’s worth performed, remember it has that 400,000 titles, brand authors, to start with.’ Lawson continued what was particularly interesting about the virtual fair was ‘the interest in the backlist titles, [which] was so strong, and Penguin Random House do have a large backlist. They’re putting together for catalogue of titles published between 10 and 20 years ago, by category.’ What she’s really saying is the virtual fair has had an impact on right’s business. It has, however, thrown up other surprises, said Lawson. ‘When it comes to selling rights it wasn’t about the fair, but the market and that varies by country. The Dutch lockdown was severe, for example, with all the bookstores closed, which impacted on its spending, but paradoxically, Penguin Random House in Australia had a great year in Italy in 2020, a country initially extremely hard hit by the pandemic,’ said Lawson.
Overall though, she says all markets reporting book sales were doing well, but here’s the key bit – by particular categories. ‘Kids books, they were working, the theory was keeping kids occupied. Self Help for surviving the pandemic, obviously, self improvement to use the time to learn to be your best self. [but] debut fiction was really hard hit without the ability to market, and with no discoverability – so not walking into a bookstore and seeing an eye catching cover, for example.’ Lawson added that ‘we’re not seeing the drop off and that we’re holding strong. And while there were more deals, many of these deals were renewals, which is really interesting… but the renewals and the interest in the backlists point to a conservative approach to acquiring. As we put it, no one is taking chances.’ Lawson concluded: ‘Overall, we believe the virtual pivot will change the way Frankfurt and other fairs continue to work’.
‘It’s also not just travel, that’s the issue. This year also saw the Beijing Book Fair being postponed the day before the fair due to a local COVID outbreak.’ Speaking with Publishers Weekly VP, Rebecca Gardner, and rights director of a US Government agency, Lawson said she suggested it’s going to be years before we can count on international travel with any confidence, adding that the ‘virtual experience means she’ll change her approach, scouting agents virtually in the weeks before the fair, among the editors at the fair itself, and [use] the extra time to attend the professional training available at the fair and matches being offered now [in the virtual space]. All in one place, information flows more quickly, yet without people at the fair talking, you lose a sense of momentum around the titles, and that sense of building buzz, according to Lawson. But rights sellers the shift online, the new tools on offer and the global familiarity with those tools, does offer a new way of thinking about selling rights at a much lower cost for publishing professionals. And when all those air miles are taken into account and everything else that is wasted in Frankfurt, research will be needed to find out how this plays out, Lawson concluded. Lawson presented the paper, ‘The high cost of trading international rights: Technological developments, environmental impact and pandemic-influenced changes to global practices’. The Small Publishers Network conference was held 25-27 November 2020. ArtsHub was a media partner of the event.