Book industry ups and downs

The index of ambiguous optimism

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The 33rd Guwahati Book Fair from 30 December 2020 to 10 January 2021|Book industry ups and downs
The 33rd Guwahati Book Fair from 30 December 2020 to 10 January 2021

In Europe and elsewhere, the Covid-19 pandemic is still characterized by hiccups in vaccination supplies, and series of lockdowns stemmed against what is being termed a third wave of virus infections. Consequently, the timid optimism that international book fair organizers have tried to keep up for more than a year now has started to crumble again.

Book fairs down and virtual

Book fairs postponed from 2020 to 2021 and then again from earlier dates to later this year are now being canceled one after the other. Unexpectedly, the first book fair to shut down its physical show this year was the Taipei International Book Exhibition, scheduled for January. Due to the sudden outbreak of Covid-19 cases in Taiwan, TIBE had to be canceled for the second time, reducing its activities to a series of professional online forums. 

In India, the Hyderabad and Jaipur literature festivals were the first to turn virtual, even as local book melas in Chennai, Kochi, and Guwahati maintained a physical presence despite the pandemic. In March, the National Book Trust and the International Trade Organization of India were compelled to stick to an online version of the New Delhi World Book Fair, a first-time experience. The 45th edition of the Kolkata Book Fair, postponed to July this year, may have to skip its busy outdoor event as well.

Brussels, Leipzig and Paris postpone to 2022

In Europe, the Brussels and Leipzig book fairs were the first to be reduced to a few literary street gigs, while organizers hope to resume their core activities next year. Paris’ Livre Paris fair followed suit in March, stating, “The decision to cancel this year’s show was finally made because it was considered unfeasible to mobilize thousands of people — exhibitors, publishers, authors, speakers, communities and ministries, partners from more than 50 countries — at a later date in the fall, which is still very uncertain.”

The London Book Fair’s fate initially shifted from March to the end of June, is still in limbo, as its organizers seem to keep to their late notice policy so heavily criticized last year. In November last year, LBF’s newly appointed director Andy Ventris said he was “committed to making a final decision by the end of March.” But on the last day of March, he issued a statement explaining, “We promised to update the trade about plans for the 2021 fair by the end of March. Given the continuing uncertainty around international travel, we are currently planning for all scenarios and will update with a final decision in mid-April.”

The statement was made three days after the UK government published a detailed timetable for gradually easing the UK’s different lockdown measures at five-week intervals. According to the timetable, the last legal limits on social contacts are to be lifted from 21 June at the earliest, depending on the country’s vaccination rollout, the effectiveness of the vaccination program at reducing hospital admissions and deaths, infection rates, and the impact of any new coronavirus variants. Many industry professionals had already agreed in November that the June target dates for LBF’s 50th edition were unrealistic. At any rate, for 2022, the fair plans to return to its usual spring dates.

Bologna, Jerusalem postponed to 2022

Given the pandemic situation in Italy, the 58th edition of the international Fiera del Libro per Ragazzi or Bologna Children’s Book Fair, also scheduled for June, is expected to focus on the online-only events that are already being prepared and to announce the cancelation of its physical show shortly. The BCBF’s organizers are already expanding its digital format, and mainly the Global Rights Exchange platform started last year. They are hoping “to support dialogue and international business throughout the year, helping publishers remain in constant contact and bridging the gap from one trade show to the next.” 

Israel’s leading book fair, the week-long Jerusalem International Book Forum, has been postponed until next year while limiting its presence in May this year to a digital program, even though half of its population has already been vaccinated. Madrid’s Feria del Libro proposes two alternative dates for June and September but is likely to be skipped this year too. So are most of the other book fairs in large parts of the world. 

FBF rethinking re:connect – preparing for a 2nd digital edition

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is so far holding on to a physical event in May, although it cannot expect to see any international participants by then. Under the slogan ‘re:connect,’ the Frankfurt Book Fair organizers are anticipating the improbability of a physical event this October. They are preparing for its second digital edition without participants on the ground. As far as we know, potential participants are doing the same. 

In the meantime, inspired by the success of their participation in what they call FBF’s “Fakefurt” rights trading platform initiated last year, a number of publishers and literary agents decided to organize their own ‘digital book fair’ before the dates that had been announced for the London and Bologna fairs. The last two weeks of March already saw such exchanges between Hachette, Pan MacMillan, literary agency Curtis Brown, and others.

Book sales up and down

Meanwhile, the book publishing industry has been less affected by the pandemic than was initially feared, at least in sales, but the situation remains highly contradictory. In most mature markets, general-interest (trade) book sales have been up over the past year, including audiobooks and eBooks, even as other categories such as textbooks, scholarly, academic, and niche publications have seen significant contraction. 

According to a survey presented at the recent Intergraf visioconference ‘Shaping the Future of Books,’ the printed books market in Europe as a whole in 2020 saw “the biggest volume rise since 2007.” In contrast, the Federation of European Publishers’ latest report estimates the industry’s overall revenue losses in 2020 at between 2 and 5% across Europe. In the UK, printed book sales grew by 5.2% in 2020 as compared to 2019. The Republic of Ireland saw overall book sales rise by nearly 10%, but, remarkably, sales of books by Irish publishers fell by 6%. In Germany, overall book revenue in 2020 was down 2.3%. Still, specific categories such as activity titles (cooking, gardening, do-it-yourself) were up by 5-6%, with more consumers spending time at home and eCommerce book sales booming. 

France’s book industry survived on textbooks and other professional categories, while the largest category, trade books, including digital sales, decreased by 3-4%. In Italy, trade book sales were up 2.4%, and all other categories suffered losses. In Spain, both trade and textbooks were down 4%, while its industry’s still relevant exports to Latin America dropped by 50%. The book industry in Eastern Europe reported declines between 10 and 20%; however, this was not as bad as predicted half a year ago.

As we reported in January, US book sales in 2020 had their highest growth rates since 2010, with an overall increase of 8% compared to 2019, and some categories such as juvenile fiction and juvenile non-fiction increasing by as much as 11 and 23%, respectively. Within one year, Amazon’s book sales revenue and net income have doubled, despite its initial deprioritization of books over other goods when the first lockdown measures led to massive online purchases of all sorts. In contrast, bookshops and small publishers are still suffering from the pandemic and lockdowns, and everybody in the industry is hoping that this will all be over soon.

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