The ink was barely dry on the Buchmesse statement announcing a hybrid in-person and virtual event this year than the Exodus began.

HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Bonnier were among many stating they will happily participate in the online event, but have no intention of in-person participation this year.

Initial responses surveyed by the UK trade journal The Bookseller offer no surprises, and we can expect the sentiments from HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Bonnier to be echoed across the global industry.

In a nutshell those sentiments being that the Buchmesse has misread the global mood and few if any publishing stakeholders from outside Germany will be putting lives at risk this year for the sake of a book fair – not even the trade colossus that is the Buchmesse.

Bonnier Books UK CEO Perminder Mann told The Bookseller,

While we normally have a big presence at the event, we won’t be exhibiting at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year. The health and wellbeing of our people must come first.

For Pan Macmillan, CEO Anthony Forbes Watson said much the same thing:

After careful consideration and with the health and wellbeing of our colleagues top of mind, we have decided we will not take part in Frankfurt’s physical book fair. We will happily continue to engage with the Frankfurt organisers about new ways in which we might promote our authors, illustrators and books digitally under the banner of the fair this October.

And HarperCollins UK had this to say:

HarperCollins will not be taking a stand or sending representatives to the Frankfurt Book Fair this year as we are limiting business travel for the safety of our staff.

Buchmesse CEO Juergen Boos confirmed to the Bookseller that Random House and Holzbrinck, both based in Germany, would have “a presence” but would not be takings stands at the event.

Boos advised,

Don’t think of Frankfurt as it used to be. It’s going to be a completely different Frankfurt. Everything we are going to implement now, not only for this year’s special virtual tools, we are going to use these tools in the years to come. So what you’re going to see in the years to come is actually a different, improved and hopefully even more international book fair.

With a full five months before kick-off, the Buchmesse has ample time to refocus itself on the virtual event and minimise the in-person element to bare-bones, and that could yet make the 2020 Buchmesse the most international and most valued book fair yet.

Whether that will happen depends on how far the Buchmesse team is willing to risk eclipsing the value of the in-person event not just for this year but for past years.

Because if we’re honest with ourselves, most of the deals announced at Frankfurt and similar trade fairs do not actually happen at the event but have already been set-up long before, and Frankfurt or whatever the event may be) is just the celebratory showcase.

Likewise while the chance meetings in between the stands and over evening drinks and meals are of course a valuable part of any trade event, and of course its nice to actually meet face to face the person at the other end of the phone or email that we’ve been dealing with all year, the main reason we still have such huge events in the second decade of the twenty-first century is that this is the way we have always done things, and publishing famously does not embrace change lightly.

The real danger here is that these virtual events being forced upon the industry this year will prove, as we’ve already seen at Bologna –

…and Tolino-

to be an improvement on the old model in terms of audience reach and engagement. And it will not take much work, just some serious commitment and lateral thinking, to make these virtual events more profitable for all parties.

As and when we see a book fair that has gone digital this year turn around and say they will be abandoning digital next year because it didn’t work, then we can begin to feel comfortable that the status quo is unchallenged.

But all indications so far is the virtual book fair is going to be a firm part of the New Normal, leaving unanswered the question how far the in-person event will fade into the background.