Editorial by Thomas Minkus, VP, Frankfurt Book Fair
NEW YORK: We in the publishing community tend to take book fairs for granted: dreading the preparation and extra work, facing questions about how much time and resources are necessary to attend, arranging for time away from the home and office. Only unforeseen events that disrupt our attendance, like 9/11 or the Icelandic volcano eruption, make us realize and appreciate what we miss by not getting together.
It’s the same reason that now that airlines are flying again, and people have every excuse not to go, some of us are still scrambling to get to Greece for the Thessaloniki Book Fair and others are hustling to Argentina for the Buenos Aires Book Fair. Our own fair director, Juergen Boos, spent two full days to get to Argentina, as it was essential he be there for their fair, as Argentina is the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2010.
It comes as no surprise that I am a big fan of book fairs and, of course, it can be argued that it’s my job to be a book fair fan boy. But even before I became part of a fair organization, I never missed any of the key trade shows.
Book fairs like those in London, Bologna, New York, Frankfurt and others are not only fixtures on publishing calendars, they are also the most important business enablers for the global publishing industry.
Looking at people’s appointment books, it is not uncommon to find 16 to 20 scheduled meetings per fair day, not counting receptions, dinners and parties. Not only do we miss the scheduled meetings and seminars, but also the welcome random encounters with friends and colleagues in the aisles, what PP editor Ed Nawotka describes as “book fair serendipity.” Chance encounters at the coffee shop or sharing a taxi are just important as the 30-minute meetings.
A few years back at the World Education Market (when it still existed), I went out for a cigarette (when I still smoked) and happened to meet a fellow smoker from Singapore. We started talking about business, and that discussion eventually turned into the largest licensing deal my company worked on that year.
Every agent and publisher has a few good stories to share how important books were acquired or sold through random encounters. Book fairs attract these large crowds and create the hustle and bustle, the excitement and energy that make these run-ins possible and consequently valuable.
During the 2002 Frankfurt Book Fair, I was introduced to a group of people at the Maritim Hotel bar. We met again in London for dinner, a tradition we’ve continued ever since. It’s fair to say that all of us have found new business opportunities, expertise and contacts as a result of our friendship. And this year, I missed that. (Yes, me too, my flight to the London Book Fair was canceled.)
Friendships, especially international ones, last because they are renewed in person a few times a year during book fairs.
With meetings postponed, decisions delayed, and deals not happening, those of us who couldn’t attend London this year missed out on business opportunities — some that we might not even have known existed.
However, some people did try to make up for that by meeting in places around the world. In Cape Town, authors and publishers who couldn’t get to London arranged the “Not the London Book Fair” gathering. In Helsinki, the Finnish publishing professionals organized their own London Book Fair substitute.
But why go to such lengths to meet up with each other? Ever since the invention of telex and fax machines, people have argued that digital communication can take the place of flying around the world to meet with someone.
The quality of a Skype video call is most impressive and many of us rely on digital channels on a daily basis to get our jobs done. However, as much as people suggested that missed meetings might be replaced by video conferencing or online chats, I maintain that no phone call, no video conference, no IM, no tweet can be a substitute for a personal meeting in the real world.
Only face-to-face interaction -– face time, in the parlance of my American colleagues — allows us to read and interpret body language, the tone of someone’s voice and, most importantly, facial expressions. Reading and processing these subtle nuances in human interactions are key ingredients to building lasting relationships. Spouses in long-distance relationships can attest that relying on telecommunication, no matter how sophisticated, cannot replicate that quality and trust of face-to-face exchange.
Business relationships are probably even more threatened by insufficient communication between the partners, especially when language and cultural barriers have to be bridged. The opportunities for regular and credible personal interaction, which book fairs create, are pivotal for successfully conducting international business, creating trust and understanding between both parties. This process often takes years, but again, technology can only support it, not replace it.
READ: Nick Morgan’s Trust Me for tips on improving your communication skills.
DISCUSS: Will BEA be busier because of trouble with London?