Coronavirus: The Brussels Book Fair Manages To Go Forward

In News by Olivia Snaije

Unlike many publishing events, the Brussels Book Fair has been able to run on time—with medical personnel on-site and a careful eye on the coronavirus.

At the 2020 Brussels Book Fair, a discussion on the guest of honor Morocco stand. Image: Olivia Snaije

Editor’s note: A bright spot among so many stories of canceled and postponed publishing events, the book business in Brussels was able to open its annual fair as planned, running through Sunday (March 8). We’ll have further updates about it in our forthcoming Spring Magazine. Here is our report from the show’s opening last week. And you’ll find our coverage of other events and issues in the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak here. —Porter Anderson

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘Our Priority Is Public Health’
While many publishing trade shows, fairs, and festivals have had to be canceled or postponed amid the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, the Brussels Book Fair has opened and is running. It’s scheduled to close Sunday (March 8).

It opened Wednesday evening (March 5) to a joyful Gnawa music performance celebrating Morocco as this year’s guest of honor.

Some attendees embraced and shook hands, while others simply bowed. But in general, the atmosphere was relaxed and a relief, said many international attendees, from a growing atmosphere of panic in their home countries.

Vincent Montagne, head of the Syndicat national de l’édition, the French publishers’ association, took the train from Paris to attend the Brussels opening. As Publishing Perspectives has reported, on March 2, his organization canceled the Salon du Livre de Paris in response to the French government’s cap on 5,000 as the maximum number of citizens allowed to gather for an event.

‘Very Attentive to Hygiene’

From left, the outgoing fair director Gregory Laurent, the incoming director Marie Noble, and the Librebook shop’s Antonio Parodi. Image: Olivia Snaije

Gregory Laurent—who spoke to Publishing Perspectives a year ago about the fair’s “forward-thinking projects”—is now the outgoing director of the Brussels fair. The new director, Marie Noble, will transition into the role in April.

Laurent said that as the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in Italy and Barcelona’s World Mobile Congress was canceled—having been set to open February 12—he put together a crisis unit.

“Our priority is public health,” Laurent said. He’s in touch daily with the federal public health service in Brussels, and as of March 4, no decision had been taken by leaders of Belgium’s governments to cancel public events in Brussels.

Laurent said he hadn’t ruled out closing the fair early if necessary, even after it had opened, as Paris’ agricultural fair, the Salon International de l’Agriculture, had to close on March 1. But in Brussels, events were running on schedule. Batibouw, Belgium’s largest home development trade fair opened on time to run through Sunday (March 8) with an anticipated 260,000 people expected, while the book fair usually has approximately 70,000 visitors.

“We’re very attentive to hygiene,” Laurent said. “We have medical personnel on hand, and every morning the Red Cross holds information sessions with fair employees and exhibitors.

“The coronavirus is everybody’s business. People need to ask themselves where they’ve traveled, and who they’ve been in contact with. Of course, a zero-risk situation doesn’t exist, but for the moment, airports and trains stations aren’t closed and universities are open, as well.”

Multimedia, Diversity, Oral Storytelling

Anne-Laure Vial, left, and Delphine Bouétard of Paris’ ICI bookshop. Image: Olivia Snaije

Of the 150 authors invited by the fair, 12 canceled, although there were additional cancellations by authors publishers had invited as well. Many of those would have been coming from Italy or had spent time recently in Italy.

Otherwise, however, events continued as usual, with two firsts for the fair—a European conference on the book industry held on the afternoon before the official opening, and a European rights center that opened Thursday morning.

At the book industry conference, there was talk of using multimedia platforms to attract more readers. Those comments featured Claude de Saint-Vincent, CEO of Média-Participations—one of France’s largest publishers—and Jean Spiri, recently named the secretary-general of Editis.

Kate Wilson, managing director of the British children’s book publisher Nosy Crow, spoke about her company’s economic model. Ways of keeping bookshops alive and evolving were discussed by Delphine Bouétard and Anne-Laure Vial of Paris’ independent ICI bookshop and by Fabian Paagman, a bookshop owner and head of the European and International Booksellers Federation.

On the guest of honor stand, conference subjects included linguistic and cultural diversity in Morocco, and the importance of dreams in oral storytelling. Author signings were scheduled to include Leïla Slimani, Mohamed Berrada, Youssef Fadel, and Zakya Daoud.

Many participants—whether traveling 90 minutes by train from Paris, or flying in from Greece, Hungary, Finland, or Morocco—seemed to be in a festive mood and agreed that even in these difficult times, it was worth the trip to meet.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the coronavirus outbreak and its effects on international publishing is here. More from us on the Belgian market is here.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.