First it will mean divesting the notion that FIL Guadalajara will be virtual “for this year only”, and to think about a future where a hybrid model in which digital plays a central role, is the new normal

We’ve known for a while now that major players like Penguin Random House and Cal y Arena would not be participating in the planned in-person FIL Guadalajara this year. But in the tradition of London Book Fair, New York Book Expo and Frankfurt Buchmesse, the organisers thought it would be fun to push ahead with the in-person option in the face of clear evidence it would at best be a poorly attended shadow of the real thing, and at worst not allowed to go ahead at all.

The problem being, with over 800,000 visitors in recent years –

– there was too much at stake if the event was cancelled or forced to pivot to digital. So the FIL Guadalajara organisers decided to ignore the exodus of exhibitors and push ahead with the in-person event, even as the pandemic began its second wave across much of the world.

“a difficult and painful decision”

Three months on and reality has struck home. FIL Guadalajara will be online only, following the example of the Hay Festival Querétaro in September.

Described by the organisers as a “difficult and painful” decision, it means the event will be digital, with no guest of honour. And because there will be no exhibition stands to charge for there will be an expected financial loss of 24-28 million pesos ($1.1 million – $1.3 million).

FIL Guadalajara 2020
FIL Guadalajara 2020

Raul Padilla, President of FIL Guadalajara explained that international travel restrictions and limits on large gatherings together made the book fair impossible to hold in-person “for this year only” – words that may come back to haunt him.

But the outcome is that FIL Guadalajara will happen online from November 28 to December 6, with the programme to be presented in late October.

Why now?

All of which begs the question, why now? It leaves barely three weeks to put together and announce the programme. And just eight weeks to put everything in place to make it worthwhile. Guest of Honour Sharjah has been told it will now have the slot in 2022.

Some shifts to digital had already began, albeit reluctantly, simply facing up to the realities of the global new normal beyond Mexico’s borders. But the bottom line is these were secondary considerations to compliment the in-person event, and never intended to be the basis for a fully-fledged digital event.

Explained Padilla:

We are aware that digital does not replace the face-to-face, what is important is the proximity of readers with their authors from different latitudes, as well as the annual meeting of the Ibero-American publishing industry. However, we will keep FIL’s flame alive with a program that will undoubtedly give something to talk about.

“not a single penny from the federal government”

But as Padilla said, they will not have “a single penny from the federal government,” in stark contrast to Frankfurt where the federal government is effectively footing the bill for the Buchmesse’s digital alternative with a $4.7 million subsidy.

Might this prove to be a blessing in disguise for FIL Guadalajara? That depends on the attitude of publishing stakeholders now the die is cast.

In Mexico the publishing industry has already been making that shift to digital to counter the worst effects of lockdown and consumer spending drift.

And with a firm decision to be fully digital at FIL Guadalajara the industry now has the chance to pull together and make the leap to further digital engagement.

Big players like PRH that pulled out of FIL Guadalajara back in late July are now able to play a significant role and will surely do so.

The potential now, despite the totally avoidable short-notice, is for FIL Guadalajara to attract an audience it could only dream of with the in-person event, because going online means the prospect of encompassing not just the entire Spanish-speaking world, but the whole world.

It’s down to the organisers now to throw off the shackles of analogue thinking and embrace, in the next eight weeks, an opportunity to straddle the globe.

But first it will mean divesting the notion that this event will be digital “for this year only”, and to think about a future where a hybrid model in which digital plays a central role, is the new normal.

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