On 29 October 2019, the Federation of European Publishers, in cooperation with Boek.be – the book industry association of Flanders – organised an Aldus event “Aldus Focus on Book Fairs”, as part of the FEP Autumn Meeting in Antwerp. Several colleagues from publisher associations shared experiences regarding the organisation of book fairs from all over Europe, all belonging to the Aldus Network.
Vé Bobelyn, a publisher and newly elected President of the Flemish book organisation Boek.be, presented the Antwerp Book Fair, Boekenbeurs, in her quality of Director of the fair. Mrs Bobelyn talked about the complexity of managing a book fair and the need to find sponsors for such events; the fair has partnered with the port of Antwerp (one of the biggest in Europe), as – she explained – both entities engage in connecting people in a changing world, and they organise several joint initiatives. Mrs Bobelyn summed up the mission of the fair connecting authors with readers to create a unique experience.
The Director of the fair provided figures showing that Boekenbeurs is truly a book festival: the 2019 programme includes 560 authors, more than 300,000 books, and 1,029 book signings, for example. She then highlighted the difficulties with drawing more attention to the authors, which the fair has tried to overcome by trying innovative formats: an audio tour of the fair; putting debut authors “in the picture” – having new authors do presentation videos to post on social media to let people know them in advance (very successful); meet & greet with the authors – the possibility for a small group of people, sometimes journalists, to discuss with authors in a bar at the fair, having a coffee or beer, often followed by photo sessions or captured on video and shared on social media; portraits of authors, to reveal the personality of authors on top of their books, also through interviews and videos. Everything that works will be repeated, and the audience will be surveyed through a questionnaire.
The fair increased its international stature, with several international authors participating in events in a new hall that can host 800 people – guest starts include Bill Bryson and Donna Hay. The experience component, very important for attendants (and especially kids), is also being enhanced, with focus areas and many activities – such as setting a new Guinness World Record (for the largest display of origami fish). A family discount ticket has been introduced, very successfully; a free model would not work, though. Several book award ceremonies enrich the programme and contribute to attracting readers.
Mrs Bobelyn illustrated the new vision for the fair’s floorplan, which gives more visibility to stages and authors and relies on a recognisable look and feel. Most successful are the areas of focus – and in particular the children’s literature area, with lots of activities: readings, workshops and more. There is a comfortable area for people to read, too. The events agenda is packed, with some events being hosted by partners of the fair. The calendar includes a new B2B concept, with the fair being the framework for a national mobility conference.
Rūta Elijošaitytė-Kaikarė, Executive Director of the Lithuanian Publishers Association, presented the Vilnius International Book Fair, which, since its inception in 2000, has become the biggest book fair in the Baltic states and the most important cultural event in Lithuania. Over 500 cultural events are held annually in the fair’s four days and the event attracts more than 60,000 visitors, focusing on books and culture, as well as on the possibility for authors to interact with their readers. Mrs Elijošaitytė-Kaikarė provided figures about the 2019 edition, supporting this notion: over 4 days, 360 exhibitors from 8 countries occupied the 5 exhibition halls, while 18 different event areas hosted 516 events, with 54 guests from 21 countries; there were 68,430 visitors, including 87 organised school groups.
Mrs Elijošaitytė-Kaikarė explained that such success had been unexpected, and that the current organisational capacity of the fair was stretched to its limit. She added that the international component was small but growing and that events were very well attended. The 2020 edition, scheduled for 20-23 February, will focus on the work of Lithuanian artist Jonas Mekas and his message of openness and living without formulas, thus prompting a new start and innovation drive for the fair. The fair will invite visitors to engage in a search for new ways of self-expression and to take an open look at the world.
Mrs Elijošaitytė-Kaikarė illustrated some of the distinctive features of the fair. The Children’s and Young Adults Book Hall is the presentation area for novelties in children’s literature, as well as a space where young readers can read, talk or play. The Creative Studio invites visitors to take part in the creative workshops, readings, meetings. The Forum is the main area for interesting conversations with well-known Lithuanian and foreign representatives of culture, art, business and science; the fair’s Discussion Club invites participants to enjoy here a cycle of intellectual discussions. The Lithuanian National Television and Radio Hall is the event area, where Lithuanian National TV and Radio broadcasts the most interesting and unusual happenings. The Music Hall showcases novelties of Lithuanian music publishers and performers with live music shows, and has become the biggest music industry event in the country. The Book Cinema Hall hosts screenings of the latest movies made after well-known novels, and documentary films about writers, poets and artists. Library Open is a friendly and modern space devoted to reading and networking for young people created by the Lithuanian Librarians Association. There are also events in the city: book presentations, exhibitions, meetings.
The first day of the fair is dedicated to a professional programme, and schools are invited (for free if they come as an organised group). Mrs Elijošaitytė-Kaikarė stressed the support of Aldus in organising the professional programme, including synergies with the European Union Prize for Literature. The international profile of the fair is significant, as the list of guests proves, although not many countries have stands yet. Events are usually fully booked, and this year saw the organisation of a late evening event with poetry and music in which 500 people participated, giving very positive feedback.
The fair is organised by the Lithuanian Exhibition and Congress Centre LITEXPO, the Lithuanian Publishers Association and the Lithuanian Culture Institute. The cultural programme is supported by the Lithuanian Council for Culture of the Ministry of Culture and the Vilnius City Municipality is a partner; among other benefits, free buses from the city centre are available to reach the venue.
Renate Punka, President of the Latvian Publishers Association, spoke about the Riga Book Fair, starting with a historical overview: the Baltic states had no book fairs until the mid-1990s – there was no need for a fair in Communist times, when books were in higher demand than they were produced by the few existing state-owned publishing houses –, then joint Baltic biannual international events were launched (1995-1999), and soon after all three countries established their annual national fairs, due to the success of the experience. In Latvia this has happened since 1998; the time was moved from April to February in 2006, and the Latvian Publishers Association has been in charge of the cultural programme since 2015. In addition, a Riga Book Festival is organised every year in the autumn in the city centre, for the Christmas book promotion; since 2019 it is hosted in the Latvian National Library.
Mrs Punka illustrated the venue and main features of the fair: the setting is a single-space large international exhibition hall – convenient, though possibly a constraint in terms of holding several events at the same time. An exhibition company does most of the organisation and gets most of the revenue. The event is organised jointly with an educational fair, which is good as librarians and schools are mor likely to visit, although it limits the possibilities to expand or to differentiate the offer of events. Lasting 3 days and hosting some 120, the fair has a cultural programme, with events distributed between the main stage, the Fun Reading Room, the Writer’s Guestroom and the individual stands; and there is also a professional programme, with seminars and conferences for industry professionals – including initiatives dedicated to the European Union Prize for Literature – which has strongly benefited from being part of the Aldus network, with events focusing on trending topics like reading promotion and technology, and the synergy with the EUPL and the Creative Europe programme.
Mrs Punka provided some figures about the fair: attendance is around 16,000 visitors per year, with steadily increasing numbers of guest – currently over 100. Opening hours are relatively short, compared to other book fairs. Challenges include attracting both communities of Latvian citizens (Latvian speakers and Russian speakers), funding the cultural programme, increasing attendance – visitors’ numbers are stable, although they tend to stay longer – and trying to innovate, meeting the expectations of the audience, if any. Coming next will be branded venues (sponsorships), more involvement of publishers and authors and possibly more digital and a stronger social media engagement. The next edition will take place from 28 February to 1 March 2020.
Pedro Sobral, publisher and delegate to FEP of the Portuguese Publishers and Booksellers Association, presented the case of the Lisbon Book Fair. The current model was launched in 2008, after the old one, with only booths and no animation, seemed to have been worn out; book industry players found it was time for a change and pushed for it. Mr Sobral provided some figures: with half a million visitors – 27,000 per day – the fair is the biggest cultural event in the country. Publishers have freedom in organising their spaces and additional income is sought from commercial sponsors – rather than institutional – which can activate their brands in the fair.
After a historical overview – the fair was first held in 1930, in 1980 moved to its current location in a big, central public park (Parque Eduardo VII) with easy parking and well served by public transport – Mr Sobral listed some main features of the event: a big open air show, it hosts two large food courts and several smaller ones; there is a large stage and concerts take place every evening. As a result, the fair is growing, even though the book market is not, and attracts the interest of institutions, authors, public authorities; in the last 10 years, stands increased by 49%, and participating publishers by 72%.
The venue also hosts a show cooking area, four conference squares, a Lisbon libraries area, a space for pop-up events and a space for sponsors. The event lasts 17 days between May and June, and organisation requires a lot of resources, human and financial. Funding comes mostly from publishers, but partnerships are in place – first and foremost with the municipality of Lisbon – and sponsorships are important. 1,600 events were organised in 2019 (up from 550 in 2012), including autograph sessions, book presentations, conferences, debates, show cooking, illustration, music, cinema, theatre and more, and involving some 1,200 authors.
A big live tv show is broadcasted every evening from the fair, and several other broadcasts take place from there; the media impact is very significant, on all channels, online and offline – reaching levels of publicity that publishers could not afford, were they to pay for it. Promotion is big also via paid for advertising, including on social media, where the fair has a strong presence. Many activities take place at the fair, especially for children – including ‘Camping with stories’, an opportunity for kids to spend a night camping in an enclosed are at the fair and participating in readings, theatre shows with authors and more.
Visitor satisfaction is very high, as surveys show, and the level of visitor retention is quite significant. Mr Sobral explained that publishers make big sales at the fair; the latest edition saw sales of more than one book per visitor. The core concept of organising a single event on books, but with all other kinds of activities and events around it, to make people attend and attend again, has proven successful also in making people buy books, even those who were not used to reading. The 2020 edition will run from 28 May to 14 June.
In conclusion, participants exchanged views on book sales at fairs and how this can impact booksellers, and on strategies to encourage children to attend book fairs.