With the news today via Boktugg that Norstedts is out of the Gothenburg Book Fair, with other publishers expected to follow, the autumn 2020 book fair calendar is in serious jeopardy, with the jewel in the calendar crown, the Frankfurt Buchmesse, now needing to deliver a clear game plan sooner than the June deadline it has set itself.

A look at the situation in Sweden will drive home the urgent issues facing the Buchmesse.

A meeting is expected tomorrow between the Gothenburg Book Fair organisers and major publishing stakeholders to explain its plans for the September fair, traditionally the biggest and most important of the Nordic literary events.

With no end to the coronavirus crisis in sight, and with the health and safety of employees and visitors in question, Norstedts is not waiting to hear Gothenburg’s proposals, but is voting with its feet. And others are expected to quickly follow suit.

Olle Lidbom, Norstedts’ Head of Communications, told Boktugg:

The fair should be a place of joy and meetings where the book and literature are at the center and we unfortunately believe that such a fair will be impossible to carry out in the fall. We are aiming to come back in 2021.

Norstedts tolfd its authors,

We do not think it is possible to conduct a fair that is safe and secure for writers, visitors and employees.

The Nordic independent Publishers Association (NOFF) and Sweden’s Publishers Association, reports Boktigg, have written to the Gothenburg organisers saying (auto-translation):

…Nothing indicates that the pandemic, or the risk of a second wave, would not exist in September. On the contrary, much indicates that the coronavirus will affect society for a long time. The absolute majority of our members therefore do not believe that it is possible to carry out a fair according to your alternative A and therefore say no to it. “

The associations emphasize that publishers cannot wait another month for information and it is clear that they do not consider that option A is feasible (and that it is necessary) to completely cancel the Book Fair 2020.

Bonnier has a meeting with the Gothenburg organisers tomorrow, but from what Boktugg reports, the decision has already been made.

Bonnier CEO Sara Börsvik told Boktugg:

We look forward to the Book Fair presenting alternative suggestions on how current authors and books and the issue of reading can generally be noticed at the end of September. This without having to worry about our writers, employees and the fair’s visitors, for their own and others’ health.

In other words, Bonnier will be happy to participate in a online event of some sort, but not the real thing.

With two of the biggest publishers in Sweden declaring they will not attend, it’s now safe to say the Gothenburg decision will be some sort of online event for this year, and a return to a physical event of some sort in 2021.

Which brings us to the Buchmesse.

The most recent statement on the Frankfurt Book Fair site, dated April 22, states:

Based on the information that is currently available, we expect Frankfurter Buchmesse to take place from 14 to 18 October 2020. What Frankfurt’s 72nd book fair will look like exactly, we cannot yet say. What is already clear, however, is that it will be a very special event.

We are incorporating the measures being discussed at the national and state levels into our planning on an ongoing basis, since our highest priority is the health of our exhibitors, trade visitors and the public. We will communicate any concrete developments as soon as they become known. It will probably be possible to provide a clearer picture as of mid-June.

In other words, there is no new information for prospective exhibitors, visitors and other participants beyond a re-wording of the previous statement which TNPS reported on earlier this month.

But as TNPS asked then.

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.

The issue for publishers and other stakeholders is that they need to be making decisions now, in April-May, about what might or might not 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.

And just updating those thoughts, as this post goes live Germany is way behind the UK, France, Spain, Italy and the USA, with “only” just over 6,000 deaths and ”only” 160,000 reported cases of coronavirus infection.

But therein lies the problem for the Buchmesse.

Because while Germany’s infection and death rates may compare very favourably with the five other countries mentioned above, Germany is still the sixth most infected country on the planet and holds seventh place for fatalities (Belgium sadly holds sixth place with over 7,000 dead despite only 47,000 cases).

Is it even remotely realistic to suppose anyone in publishing is willing to risk time and money, let alone risk people’s lives, to attend a book fair in six months time in a country right now among the worst hit in a global pandemic with no end in sight?

Per TNPS yesterday, Germany is among the countries attempting some level of lockdown easing, but for the publishing industry there will be no rush back to pre-pandemic business, in Germany or anywhere else around the world.

The Buchmesse will of course go ahead in some form, as the organisers have plenty of time to put together something online that will set the world on fire.

But as for a meaningful physical book fair… the Buchmesse has promised us a review in mid-June, but is that really good enough?

Very little is going to change in the next six weeks that might alter the course of the Frankfurt Book Fair this year.

Rather, if we are brutally realistic, we might even question the 2021 edition.

It would be in all our best interests this year for the Buchmesse to say what we all in our hearts know: that the Frankfurt Book Fair cannot meaningfully go ahead as a physical event in 2020, so let the organisers and publishers and other stakeholders set aside the uncertainty and start preparing now to participate in what can and will be the world’s best online publishing event, ever.