With the Nordics’ biggest literary event, the Gothenburg Book Festival, scheduled for late September, publishers and other publishing stakeholders that would normally be signing up without a second thought are prowling nervously at a safe distance, the lessons from the debacle that was the London Book Fair (LBF) and Book Expo America (BEA) cancellations still fresh in minds.

While BEA gave the publishing community a little more notice than LBF, thanks to an extremely poorly judged postponement from May until July, both events insisted the show would go on, against commonsense and the reality of an unfolding pandemic, building up uncertainty and ill-will as, one by one, publishers were forced to take their safety and welfare into their own hands and withdraw from the event.

And then came the injury to add to insult as LBF offered an enfeebled 60% refund, while BEA, after first earning brownie points by at least saying refunds would be automatic, then offered only 80%.

This at a time when publishers are struggling, many for survival.

Both events have announced the shows will return in 2021, and have offered 100% carry-over of fees paid for those are willing to trust the organisers next year.

But trust is increasingly what’s at stake here.

And not just for the London Book Fair and Book Expo America.

Publishers globally that have seen event after event succumb to the coronavirus crisis, and that have watched in alarm as prestigious fairs like LBF and BEA prove to be less than reliable in decision making and in handling refunds, are now ready to demand future fairs they are considering participating in offer better safeguards.

Gothenburg is first in line, as Swedish and other Nordic publishers and stakeholders ask themselves if it is even realistic that the Gothenburg Book Fair can go ahead this year. And if it does go ahead, what measures will be taken to protect participants and visitors, and what measures will be taken to ensure no-one is out of pocket if the event is cancelled at the last minute.

Talking to Svensk Bokhandel (SvB), Swedish Publishers Association CEO Kristina Ahlinder said,

Many of our members are thinking: is it really possible to conduct a book fair that we have done in previous years? And is there a plan B?

The picture that the Gothenburg Book Fair has conveyed, which is very positive and enthusiastic, does not really match the picture that neither we nor NOFF (Nordic Independent Publishers Association) have received when talking to our members. Rather the opposite.

SvB reports that the Swedish PA and NOFF have jointly written to the Gothenburg Book Fair organisers demanding to know what the position will be. And they’ve set a deadline of May 1 to get the answers.

For the Gothenburg Book Fair itself, event manager Frida Edman has told SvB it fully understands the problems and will offer a clear timetable with a Plan A and a Plan B, all delivered by the end of April.

Edman explained,

Our hope is and has been for the Book Fair to be able to take place as planned, but we realise that we need to look at how we do the fair in such cases and what changes we can make. This is our plan A. Plan B is about reorganising the Book Fair and doing it more efficiently or in other formats.

It can be digital platforms or collaborations with other players to reach out on a broad front. We think we can find roads where we change the Book Fair if there can’t be so many people in place physically.

Edman insists there will not be an outright cancellation, and in response to concerns about refunds said that a clear refunds policy would be announced at end April.

Some clarity ahead, then for Gothenburg, that will help publishers make informed decisions.

For other autumn and winter events the jury is mostly still out.

Digital Book World has, to its enormous credit, already laid out some clear guidelines for its event in the USA, while others at best say they are monitoring the developing situation, or have yet to make a statement.

Among the latter is the Sharjah International Book Fair, which is lined up for November and typically draws crowds of over 2 million.

The UAE has been badly hit by the pandemic, with numerous events cancelled, and although with seven months to go things could change for the better, an event that attracts 2 million visitors somehow does not seem very likely for this year.

But the primary publishing event for this autumn is of course the Frankfurt Buchmesse, with still six months to go, but facing perhaps the biggest challenge of all, as the most globally focussed book fair of the year, expecting exhibitors and visitors from all over the world.

The most recent Buchmesse statement dated March 30, states:

Frankfurter Buchmesse (14-10 October 2020) would like to express its concern for all those who have been affected by the new coronavirus. Our thoughts are with all those colleagues from the publishing industry who have been affected. As decisions are made, the health and safety of our exhibitors and employees is always of utmost importance.

Based on current information available, we expect the Frankfurter Buchmesse to continue to take place from 14 to 18 October 2020. At the present time, we cannot foresee what health measures will apply in October, but our whole team is working steadily on planning halls, programmes and projects based on the idea that we will be able to host everyone in the fall.

We are aware that a trade fair involves economic risks for all parties involved and we will therefore make decisions in the interests of our customers with regard to all measures and further planning. You can be assured that we will keep our communication on this subject consistently up-to-date and transparent.

Will that be enough to assuage the fears of prospective participants?

That seems unlikely right now. The Buchmesse typically attracts around 300,000 visitors, but while Germany is by European standards handling the pandemic better than its neighbours, the notion that as soon as six months time international travel will be back to some semblance of normality , even if Europe’s borders are reopened and the worst of the pandemic is over, is unlikely

As is the notion that in as short a time as six months Europe will be comfortable hosting mass events on Frankfurt’s scale.

While of course no-one doubts the integrity of the Buchmesse, the issue for publishers and other stakeholders is that they need to be making decisions now about what might or might now happen in October.

As with the Nordic publishers regarding Gothenburg, it’s likely many Frankfurt regulars will need more than vague assurances before making commitments this year.