The month’s difference between the September Gothenburg Book Fair and the October Frankfurt Book Fair is no time at all in pandemic terms, and the decision to hold a hybrid in-person and virtual Buchmesse this year has raised many eyebrows.

Not so much that the announcement was a surprise – the Buchmesse organisers had already intimated the event would go ahead with a mixture of actual and virtual events.

But the expected scale of the in-person element of the Buchmesse has left many wondering if this might not backfire, as we saw spectacularly with the London and New York events, where the organisers insisted the show would go on, only to have to walk back their plans at the last minute.

The Buchmesse trade journal Publishing Perspectives offered us details of what form the 2020 Buchmesse would take.

Anticipating in-person participation from across Europe—and from abroad as travel restrictions allow—the fair will go forward, today called ‘part of the DNA of this city’ by fairgrounds executive Uwe Behm.

Following today’s approval by the supervisory board of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels—Germany’s publishers and booksellers association—Frankfurter Buchmesse president and CEO Juergen Boos has announced a plan to stage both a physical book fair and “an extensive virtual program.”

“Because of the coronavirus, the Frankfurt Book Fair 2020 is a special edition—a program on-site combined with future-oriented digital formats.”

At which point we may well be asking, what about public safety? No-one seriously believes the Buchmesse can carry on as in past years, so what measures are being put in place to reassure potential attendees?

Publishing Perspectives explains:

Organizers messaging the media from Frankfurt’s offices on Braubachstraße today describe the plan as utilizing space—both physical and digital—in unusual ways to accommodate the safety requirements of the pandemic.

“It’s planned to have the Buchmesse on the exhibition site,” they say, “and decentralized in the city of Frankfurt am Main—and at the same time virtually.

“The basis for the implementation of the on-site event is a detailed health and hygiene concept that implements the then-applicable protection regulations of the State of Hesse and ensures the safety of the visitors, exhibitors and employees participating in the fair.”

“The public order office and the health office of the city of Frankfurt,” say organizers, “were won over by the hygiene concept developed jointly by the book fair and Messe Frankfurt,” the latter, for those not familiar with the event, being the sprawling exhibition-center campus on which Frankfurter Buchmesse is held.

“Because of the dynamic situation,” organizers say, “the continuous professional evaluation of the overall situation and constant adaptation to the applicable legal requirements will be essential.”

Constant adaptation being the key phrase here, and one that simultaneously reassures and sends out worrisome warning signals.

Because the bottom line is, the Buchmesse is offering no guarantees about what form the in-person element of the event will take, and uncertainty is going to persist right up until, and even after, the start date.

Listing “Early Details: A Work in Progress”, Publishing Perspectives offers us vague outlines about what may happen in October.

Frankfurt is working with the leading German houses including the Random House publishing group, the publishers of German Bonnier, the Holtzbrinck publishers, and the Bastei Lübbe group. These publishing powers have initiated a new event concept, for which more details soon will be known. They’re working now with Buchmesse on that concept, its communication, and implementation. There are other proposals being put forward by parts of the world industry, as well, and they’re engaging now with Frankfurt on those.

In other words, the Buchmesse itself admits it cannot at this stage offer any degree of certainty about the form the in-person event will take, at a time when neighbouring and overseas exhibitors and visitors, even more so than German exhibitors and visitors, need to be making concrete plans now.

Many will have already incurred losses and disruption from the fiascoes that were the indecisive London and New York events. Few will want to risk a repeat of those debacles.

As this post goes live the New York Book Expo is happening online, but only after the BEA organisers led publishing stakeholders on a merry dance insisting it could see no problem with the in-person event, right up until the moment the problems with the in-person event became so glaringly obvious that even the blinkered tunnel vision of BEA had to bow to reality.

And the fear of many is that the in-person Buchmesse element is, right now, no more certain than Book Expo and London were.

One problem being that even if Germany were by some miracle of science declared Covid-19 free by October, or failing that if the Buchmesse could offer a guaranteed programme with guaranteed safety measures, there are issues surrounding travel, as well as the situation at home in each country considering participating, that make planning for October all but impossible.

Take the UK as an example. Under current Covid-19 measures anyone entering or re-entering the UK must immediately go into 14-day quarantine. There is no way of being sure such measures will not be in force in October in the UK, and which publishing industry stakeholder would ask its employees to attend Frankfurt and then go into quarantine for two weeks on returning home.

The measures outlined in Publishing Perspectives simply do not inspire confidence at this time, and the Buchmesse journal admits that,

a great deal of planning still is to come in terms of pandemic-related safety precautions and programming (expected at the end of June).

The Publishing Perspectives report garnered one response, which was widely echoed on social media.

In any given year, and I have attended every year for 36 years, the Frankfurt book fair has acted as a petri dish for illness and infection. There is rarely a year when some flu virus hasn’t either infected us during the fair or laid us low after. But we’d just be out of action for a while. We weren’t facing a life threatening illness.

So how on earth is this going to work? Many countries will still be in lockdown and others will demand that those who travel abroad go into automatic quarantine for 14 days on return. Would you want to have a meeting with someone from Brazil in October? The received wisdom is countries like Brazil will be lethal well in to November.

This bullishness is foolhardy. And it simply won’t work. All this should for health and safety be put on hold until next year. I hope we aren’t going to have to go up to the wire like we did with the London book fair, who only cancelled at the 12th hour. I very much doubt the Big 5 will risk sending staff to something the normal size of Frankfurt even by October.

To the extent that the Frankfurt Book Fair, for all its international reputation, is predominantly a German event it can be conceded the in-person element might attract enough domestic participants to be meaningful, so let’s not condemn the Buchmesse plans outright.

But it would be wise to put a lot more emphasis on the virtual elements of the book fair, where with some serious effort the Buchmesse could put on something ina league of its own, and truly spectacular.

But that needs the will to do so.

In Sweden, the will is there, with the Gothenburg (Göteborg) Book Fair deciding to have no in-person events at all, and to conduct the whole event online.

The Bokmässan, explains Sweden’s trade journal Boktugg,

has cancelled all live events and is going virtual. The fair will host 100 sessions for the public and professionals on its Bokmässan Play streaming channel, and an additional 50 sessions will focus on teachers, libraries and schools. An online literature festival is also being planned, with 75 events.

This year’s theme for the fair is Reading Promotion and Digital Culture. South Africa was scheduled to be the guest of honor at the fair and sessions will be live streamed from Cape Town and Johannesburg.

A full schedule of events will be announced on August 25.

Talking to Frida Edman, director of the Gothenburg Book Fair, Boktugg established that quality was a key focus and that all events, whether live or pre-recorded, will be professionally produced, freely available and targeting a much larger audience than the physical audience the regular Gothenburg event could attract.

The Boktugg post has a lot more detail, for those interested.

While the fair hopes to return to in-person events next year, it says the online elements will be a regular feature hereon.

You can’t put the digital genie back in the bottle.