On 7 December took place an Aldus seminar on innovation models in book fairs, organised by Ediser, the services company of the Italian Publishers Association, at Più Libri Più Liberi, the Rome Book Fair dedicated to small- and medium-sized publishers. Chaired by journalist Stefano Salis from “Il Sole 24 Ore”, the event, called “Book fairs and exhibitions in Europe”, focused on different book fair experiences, presented by Holger Volland, Vice President of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Henrique Mota, President of the Federation of European Publishers and Member of the Board of the Portuguese Publishers and Booksellers Association, and Antonio Monaco, President of the Small Publishers Group at the Italian Publishers Association.
Mr Salis opened the discussion by remarking how the Rome Book Fair had become an international appointment and how he had witnessed changes in the publishing market throughout the years there. He stated that as the book industry was changing, also in the ways books are produced and promoted, book fairs were more and more the highlight events of this most advanced cultural industry, where professionals meet, exchange ideas and find out what’s going on. He then introduced the speakers, stressing that the Frankfurt Book Fair is the most important in the world, the Lisbon Book Fair has developed in interesting ways, and the Rome Book Fair is a rare example of its kind.
Mr Salis first asked Mr Volland to describe the experience of the Frankfurt Book Fair: what it represented, what was currently happening and how it was accompanying the changes in the book sector.
Mr Volland introduced the Frankfurt Book Fair as a very old one (more than 500 years) and stated that all innovations in book fairs generally reflected innovations in the industry. To illustrate the point, he explained that 500 years ago books were shipped in barrels, thus requiring a lot of shelf space; hence the first innovation in Frankfurt was a fair with bound books instead of barrels. In recent times, 540 years later, the Frankfurt Book Fair shifted from a bookselling fair to an occasion for booksellers to order books, so it had to move towards a professional event. Then again, some 10 years later, it had to change again, as on one hand the internet hugely facilitated the placing of orders, while on the other were looking for a place for trading rights (translations, etc.); hence the Fair launched its Literary Agents & Scouts Centre (LitAg), the largest rights and licensing centre in the world (with more than 500agencies present, in 2016 more than 100,000 individual meetings took place there). The next big innovation was the e-book – Mr Volland explained – so the Fair invented the Hot Spots, to bring the technology to the publishers. Then, 8 years ago, they noticed many visitors came from the film and game sectors, and were interested in buying stories (20% of Hollywood blockbusters are adaptations), so they created a section for this kind of exchange as well, an exhibition area called Storydrive. Finally, in 2016 the Fair introduced The Arts+, the furthest they ever got from the notion of book fair, dealing with cultural content in general. Mr Volland concluded expressing the hope for this not to be the end of the Fair’s innovations and announcing that they will carry out a survey among creative sectors to ask how they do business development and innovation.
Mr Salis stressed that other fairs were more focused on the public, and asked Mr Mota to explain the constantly shifting concept of the Lisbon Book Fair and to provide some ideas to inspire other fairs.
Mr Mota first recalled that the Lisbon Book Fair had started in 1931, and never stopped. He explained that it had grown slowly but steadily, evolving from 8 stands in a square in central Lisbon to 280 stands, with some 600 publishers/imprints participating and some 500,000 visitors yearly in 18 days (5% of the Portuguese population). He clarified that the main purpose of the Fair was to sell books, but that the programme also included many cultural activities, which made it one of the main cultural events in Portugal; 1,500 events are indeed foreseen for the 2017 edition, and more than 100,000 titles will be on display. The Fair entered a new phase of expansion since 2012, when it launched a series of innovations. It is now estimated that some 500,000 books are sold yearly (one per visitor on average). Innovative features include specific activities organised since a few years for children, such as “Happy Readers”, sponsored by McDonald’s; and “Camping with Stories”, for children to spend a weekend at the fair with an author/illustrator. An app is available for people who want to buy books to organise their list and find the books they want. During “Happy Hour”, Monday to Thursday between 11 pm and midnight, a 50% discount applies to books outside the fixed book price regime. Visitors usually spend at least two hours at fair. Booksellers are not too happy with such a long fair, so there are initiatives involving them starting in April (more than a month before the fair) aimed to mitigate the negative effects; for example, booksellers are allowed to sell books on the street during the fair. According to surveys, the majority of the public comes from Lisbon and the surrounding area (10-15 km), most visitors are 35 years old or younger and well educated, and the retention rate is above 90%.
Mr Salis then addressed Mr Monaco, defining Più Libri Più Liberi a “small Italian miracle”, and asking him what a formula not so obvious at the start had taught to Italian publishing.
Mr Monaco confirmed that the Rome Book Fair, in place now for 15 years, was the only fair in the world for small- and medium-sized publishing at national level. He explained how this related to a number of Italian specificities, as small and medium Italian publishers built themselves a cultural identity as opposed to big publishers. The movement started in 1975 and peaked in the early 1990s, when the group proclaimed its identity and became organised, with the birth of the first association of small publishers; this entered the Italian Publishers Association in the late 1990s and soon promoted the launch of Più Libri Più Liberi. Another feature of Italian publishing, the way large publishing groups operate, pushing vertical integration, was influential as well, and introduced a further element of contraposition that contributed to shape the fair. Più Libri Più Liberi’s features take into account how for small publishers visibility is essential: the fair’s modules/stands are very standardised to help comparability; diversity is valorised through the representation of all forms of publishing (small publishers tend to be specialised); a lot of emphasis is placed on professional formation; great attention is dedicated to data (identity comes from the soul but it needs materiality, some kind of objective description). Mr Monaco concluded by explaining that in a country like Italy, where 85% of fairs’ participants usually come from the same province of the fair venue, this had become a remarkable event, which had even driven the development of Roman publishing.
In a final round of comments, Mr Salis asked about the Frankfurt Book Fair’s move towards content in general, to which Mr Volland replied that they had created the new brand Arts+ to keep their strong “book” brand intact, and were covering yet new fields under another brand. To the question of what could be expected from a network of book fairs, what ideas could circulate among these different experiences, Mr Mota stated that diversity was the main element; he explained that the many European fairs were different and the idea was not to make them similar, but to see what was done well in other fairs to draw inspiration. He added that another key dimension was for all to underline the importance of the book; for example, in such events the book industry lets the public and policy makers know that it is there, that it does not need public financial support but just the respect of some fundamental rules (such as copyright) and of our ecosystem. After all, book publishing is the largest cultural industry in world and Europe is leader in the sector. Mr Salis then noted a possible problem of perception of the sector as an industry and of misperception of the dimensions of the e-book phenomenon. Mr Monaco first stressed the importance of promoting exchanges as the Aldus project meant to do, and pledged for the Rome Book Fair to cooperate actively, also as a way to accompany a redefinition of the nature and image of the EU. He stated that an improvement was needed in the relationships all along the book value chain, through the development of concepts that gave a place for dialogue to all stakeholders. He concluded wondering whether the possible move of the fair to a much larger venue would challenge the concept of having standardised stands, and in general what other consequences it could have.