What is a book fair? (Publisher edition)

Whether you're already working in publishing or looking to get into it in some capacity, you may have heard about some of the annual book fairs that are a huge focus for publishers. So what are these book fairs and why are they so important?


Firstly, it feels a little bit odd to write this post during a pandemic, because book fairs are currently not what they were pre-lockdown. So, this post very much focusses on what book fairs were (and hopefully will be again), but it perhaps goes without saying that right now all meetings are virtual and no one is actually travelling anywhere (sad face).


Now, before I go into an overview of the three main book fairs, I'm going to take a moment to talk about rights, because you'd definitely be forgiven for not knowing what they are. When a publisher buys a book, they (after much negotiation) buy the right to do a number of things with that book. They may buy the right to print the book in hardback, paperback, board book and eBook. They may buy the dramatisation rights for the book. Or the audio rights. Or, they may buy translation rights, meaning they can give permission to a foreign publisher so that said publisher can publish/sell the book/audio in another country and language.

(Similarly, an agent may choose to retain any number of rights for a book if they feel they can do a better job of exploiting them than the publisher.)


The success of any book isn't based solely on its performance in its originating country – a publishing team will work hard to sell a book through as many channels as possible in as many countries as possible (I mean, there's much more consideration and strategy to it than this, but you get what I'm saying). And whether rights are being sold by a publisher or an agency, the Rights team is the group of people who will actually do this.


So, back to the fairs.


Let's start with Bologna Book Fair (BBF). BBF is a children's book-focussed fair and, as I'm sure you've gathered by its name, it takes place in Bologna, Italy – usually in March or April. This simple fact means one thing: it's definitely the fair that everyone wants to go to (hello, pasta, ice cream and Prosecco). Historically, BBF used to be the first book fair of the year for children's book publishers, but in recent years London Book Fair has been scheduled a little earlier in the year and so has been coming first in the line-up.


London Book Fair (LBF), of course, takes place in London – also in March or April. But while children's book publishers do have stands there, so do all other types of publishers, so it's a bigger fair than BBF. Which makes it similar in tone to Frankfurt Book Fair.


Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF) is held in Frankfurt, Germany, and always takes place mid-October. FBF is a juggernaut of a fair. Massive! And while the weather won't come close to the balmy highs of Bologna, it is the world's largest trade fair for books.


So, before anyone even steps foot in an actual book fair, a Rights team will spend months prepping for it. They co-ordinate with Editorial, Design, Marketing and Production to create sales materials showcasing the books, and, as you can imagine, all of this takes a lot of hard work, organisation, time, energy and creativity.

So when the fair actually happens, all the work is already done, right?


Er... no.


When the sales material is ready, the selling can start.

Having gone to each of the above book fairs as an editor (who doesn't have to actually sell anything), I can tell you that I am in AWE of what Rights teams do during the fairs. Each member of staff has SO MANY meetings. Sometimes a meeting every fifteen minutes, from 9am to 6pm - sometimes starting earlier and/or finishing later - sometimes with breakfast and lunch meetings too, and with meetings before/during/after dinner as well.


If you work in Rights, you'll develop great working relationships with foreign publishers. You'll learn the types of books those publishers like – because, just like publishers in the UK, foreign publishers have their own personalities too – so that, when you pitch them books, you pitch the ones they're most likely to go for rather than drowning them in a selection of books they're never going to commit to. You'll build negotiation skills, because getting the best deal possible is the name of the game, and you'll figure out a way to be tough but fair with customers while still nurturing your working relationship with them.


So, at book fairs the days are long. But somehow every person I know who works in rights manages to stay switched on, smiling and focussed on selling books in the best possible way. It's a seriously impressive set of skills.


And once they're back from the fair, they can relax, right?


Um... no.


After the fair, comes the post-fair follow-up, because not all deals are done during the fair – lots of them conclude after a bit of time, energy and negotiation. And I'm not joking when I say that even before one book fair is over, the next one is already being planned.


So, what's the whole point? Well, one of the benefits of building a "co-edition run" (which is a number of co-editions all grouped together on one printing) for a book is that, with a bigger print run, the unit cost of the book reduces. If the production costs go down, a book becomes more profitable. Co-edition deals earn authors and illustrators more money, and help them earn out their advances more quickly, as well as raising their profiles globally – as co-edition deals can also lead to international travel for authors and illustrators if their foreign publishers are willing to pay for publicity-related trips. The rights slice of the pie is one piece of a larger whole – and a publisher needs to optimise every piece to ensure that each book is given its best chance in the competitive marketplace.


Book fairs are a hive of activity, and they are definitely some of the most important moments in the publishing calendar. So if you'd like to work in Rights/another publishing department, or even if you've just heard about book fairs but had no idea why they're important, I hope this post gives some initial insight into what book fairs are.


Bologna Book Fair on Twitter. Bologna Book Fair website.

London Book Fair on Twitter. London Book Fair website.

Frankfurt Book Fair on Twitter. Frankfurt Book Fair website.

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