Waiting for the Plane Tickets: Rights Pros on Digital Events

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

How do online rights events organized by literary agencies, publishers, and others compare to the physical book fair experience? We hear from several rights folks on how it’s going so far.

At Brussels’ rights center for independent publishers, Talentueux Indes, in its first outing in 2020. Image: Foire du Livre de Bruxelles, Timote Meesen

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Popup Rights Events: ‘Fairs’ and Meetups Online
Almost every time you look into your inbox, another invitation has arrived to a publishing industry event online, right? And as you may have noticed, the specialized rights sessions appear to be gaining on many of the other types of programs vying for your attention.

As the impact of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic wears on, more and more niche rights events are being produced, and they’re drawing increasing levels of participation among agents, scouts, editors, and even rights-savvy authors.

Today, for example, Finland’s Oulu Writers Association has opened its two-day event for rights professionals, focused on northern Finnish writers and their works. We were alerted to this one by Urtė Liepuoniūtė at the Helsinki Literary Agency and the program, Black Hole: Books Meet Rights, offers one-on-one business meetings Saturday (February 20).

What we’ll do today (February 19) is hear from some industry players about how these programs work for them—and how they compare to the physical book fair, rights center, and trade show experiences made impossible for a year now by the pandemic. And we’ll look at several other events coming up this spring.

What the Pros Think

At Brussels’ rights center for independent publishers, Talentueux Indes, in its first outing in 2020. Image: Foire du Livre de Bruxelles, Timote Meesen

We were pleased to hear from a number of our regular rights-focused readers when we asked about their opinions of the quickly developing trend toward online rights events. Some of these programs are mounted by single companies, while others may be produced by associations and even national literary and cultural organizations. In some cases, the platforms used are as simple as Zoom, while in other cases, the “room” sites such as Brella provide more segmented and subdivided events.

What we were looking for is how successful rights professionals find these events and how they see them in relation to the major physical events that are expected to return, of course, in our vaccinated future.  Here is a select look at some of their answers to us.

LeeAnn Bortolussi at Giunti Editore

Giunti Editore international rights manager LeeAnn Bortolussi in Milan says that in her experience, smaller events online seem to be working better than the larger ones.

LeeAnn Bortolussi

“They’re more personal,” she tells us, “and I’ve actually met new people this way.”

These digital events, Bortolussi says, “can never replace physical events, but I’m thinking that in the future if one is busy and a long trip to a far-away event is not possible, then a virtual trip can be an excellent way to participate.”

When asked what the key difference is for her between a physical in-person event and a digital one, she says, “We’re all saying that online is not good for meeting new people and making new contacts and that the serendipity of a physical fair can be lost; on the other hand, we’ve had some great, long and in-depth meetings via video chat that would not have been possible during a chaotic fair.”

And her verdict? Bortolussi sees a place for both kinds of events once the physical fairs are re-engaged. “We’ll find a perfect balance and blend of both methods as they both have positive qualities.”

Michele Young at Macmillan Children’s Books

In London, Pan Macmillan Children’s Books rights director Michele Young tells us that her team “responded quickly to the changing circumstances brought on by the coronavirus.” Her comments are quite indicative of what we hear from many, and Young parses the pros and cons succinctly.

Michele Young

“We immediately embarked on the virtual Bologna book fair in March 2020,” she says, “followed in the year by virtual sales trips to assorted markets undertaken by different members of the team, and then the virtual Frankfurt 2020—by which time our meetings had more than doubled compared to the virtual Bologna across every time zone. We’re now preparing for a virtual Bologna 2021, and virtual fairs have now become business as usual for us.

“We’ve worked closely with the publishers to develop new-style digital sales materials, including video content to showcase our preschool and novelty offering.

“We’ve also expanded into celebratory online events with our international partners,” Young says, “We marked our bestselling picture book The Gruffalo reaching 105 translations.

From Axel Scheffler’s ‘Gruffalo’ illustrations. Image: Pan Macmillan

“We were joined by 115 guests who participated enthusiastically in online chat. Some of these guests would most likely not have been able to join in on a physical celebration, so this virtual moment gave us the opportunity to reach more customers and to stay in touch.

“Our online meetings are less hectic than the 30-minute-or-less rushed meetings at a physical book fair,” she points out, “and we can have more in-depth conversations. But physical fairs allow for chance meetings in exhibition halls or at social events after the fair with new or old customers—or an opportune sighting of a book on a stand which a customer falls in love with.

“Digital fairs can never replicate this,” Young says. “While we’ve adapted and embraced this new virtual way of working, we know that our business thrives on our close relationships and that there will always be a place for face-to-face contact.

“And we look forward to that returning.”

Burcu Ünsal at Kalem Agency

Handling children’s books and illustrators at the Kalem Agency in Istanbul, Ünsal points out that the agency created the first digital edition of the ITFF, the city’s international literary festival, as an online event last year. So the group has had extensive experience with digital presentations.

Burcu Ünsal

“As a literary agent selling rights of children’s books,” she says, “I arranged my online meetings during Frankfurt Book Fair week. The pandemic was at its peak during the Bologna Book Fair, and publishers were mostly waiting and trying to see how things would turn out. After months of silence, things started to turn back to normal with the beginning of Frankfurt” in its digital edition in October.

“It was a good chance to catch up with publishers and have a brief book fair experience from our living rooms and studies.”

Ünsal says she finds that the physical and digital fair experiences are “completely different.”

“Online meetings are surely better than nothing,” she says, “but can’t be compared to running all day long from hall to hall in book fairs, bumping into a good friend on the way to a meeting, and attending dinners with authors in the evenings. And doing it all over again even though you think you are getting too old for this.”

Quickly before she ages any further, Ünsal adds, “The best part of online meetings is having a face-to-face meeting with publishers that you normally don’t have the chance to see at book fairs. For example, in general, only the founders/owners of most small-scale publishers attend book fairs. But for the first time after many years I had the chance to meet with the editors that don’t generally visit book fairs.

“It’s the same case with publishers from across the oceans that don’t generally have the time or budget to attend book fairs in Europe.”

Stephanie Barrouillet at SB Rights Agency

Familiar to many in young readers’ books, Tel Aviv-based Stephanie Barrouillet is normally one of the best-traveled agents in the business, joining her colleagues at events everywhere.

Stephanie Barrouillet

“My impression is that most of the exhibitors on the Bologna book fair platform,” she says, “were there to sell rights, and I don’t know if editors browsed the platform looking for new titles. By the time the digital Bologna book fair happened, I’d already rearranged all my London and Bologna book fair meetings to digital meetings. However, I still participated as I think it was a brave initiative at the time and an important one as it planted the idea of digital book fairs, which we had never considered before.

“The announcement that the Frankfurt Book Fair would be just digital was a trigger to arrange meetings,” Barrouillet says.

“I arranged my meetings outside the book fair platform throughout a month and a half, but some people arranged back-to-back meetings during the actual book fair dates to maintain the book fair buzz. The meetings were good and numerous as during a physical fair, so I think it worked and that publishers needed it.”

Barrouillet makes an interesting point about the programming of a fair, which many agents in a normal physical setting have very little chance to see.

“The digital Frankfurt book fair,” she says, “offered a broad range of informative panels raising important questions. As most of them were recorded, it was possible to watch them afterward, which was new to me as normally there’s no time to attend panels during fairs with back to back meetings.

I recently participated in the Angoulême Rights Market Festival. Publishers also arranged meetings themselves but, as it is a smaller event, it was easier to browse and see who was exhibiting on the platform. There was a mixture of sellers and buyers which led to additional meetings with new contacts.”

And when it comes to the comparison between physical and digital, Barrouillet says, “What’s lacking is the spontaneity of the fair—meeting someone in the aisles, networking, and the possibility to exhibit books which is particularly important for illustrated books.”

In the future? “I think it will be a mixture—publishers who live far or cannot afford to send all their staff to book fair will be able to participate virtually.”

Rights and Related Events: Coming Up, Briefly

At Brussels’ rights center for independent publishers, Talentueux Indes, in its first outing in 2020. Image: Foire du Livre de Bruxelles, Timote Meesen

As covered in our look this week at book fair dates affected by the pandemic, many large events are being moved this year out of their usual springtime dates and into the summer, in hopes that travel and physical attendance will be possible. Two major such trade shows include Bologna Children’s Book Fair, now June 14 to 17, and London Book Fair, June 29 to July 1.

What we begin to see now is a jump in online spring events to try to capture some of the presentation power of those shows while the spring book season still is in sway.

Tuesday (February 23): The Brussels Book Fair, the Astier-Pécher Agency and Nakiri are staging Talentueux Indés, the Talented Indies is a program of francophone independent publishers, brought together this year in an online digital rights market. Laura Blanco Suárez tells us, “Talented Indies 2021 will take place online and be fully integrated within the European Rights Market—also digital. During the event, nearly 60 Belgian, Swiss, Québecois, French, and African publishers will be able to introduce their catalogs virtually to acquiring publishers and to scouts from all over the world, who will then be able to request individual virtual meetings with the Indies of their choice.” This one promises 12 fiction publishers, 12 nonfiction publishers, 12 children’s publishers, and 12 comic book publishers. Four “rooms” will offer programming in fiction, nonfiction, YA and comics. More information.

March 4 and 5: The Books at Berlinale, annual program of curated book pitches to film producers in connection with Germany’s Berlinale film festival is a digital affair this year, with registration for participation ending Monday (February 23). See our story here for complete details.

March 9 and 10: The UK’s Independent Publishers Guild holds what it’s calling an International Publishers Forum with conference sessions and various paid-packages for meetings online, even digital exhibitor stands in cyberspace. See our story here for complete details.

Monthly: Not quite rights, but pertinent: The Dutch Foundation for Literature has begun holding The Editors’ Hour on a monthly basis, in English. This one is more social than business, it seems, with Letterenfonds’ Mireille Berman explaining that she and her colleagues hope to recreate “the chats while waiting in line for the coffee” or “at dinner parties in London or Frankfurt. In this case, Berman says, pitches are not present. “The idea is,” she says, “that publishers from all over the world are craving informal, purposeless meetings—especially without titles being pitched.” More information.

Beyond these specific offerings, there are many programs being offered by agencies and publishers in the United Kingdom, and you can be in touch with the companies involved for more information. (We welcome full details and information on these and other events, please contact Porter@PublishingPerspectives.com) Briefly, and with preliminary details at this point, we are outlooking these, most gravitating to the latter part of March:

  • Curtis Brown agency, London (a nine-day “rights fair” in the second half of March)
  • Peters Fraser Dunlop agency, London (“Meet the Authors,” March 8 to 12, and a “Mini Book Fair” starting March 15)
  • Aitken Alexander agency, London (described as two weeks of Zoom calls in the latter half of March)
  • RCW agency, London (rights meetings and calls in the latter half of March)
  • Hachette UK, London (March 8 to 19 rights presentations across the Hachette international system)
  • Clare Painter Associates, London (March 15 to 26 phone and video meetings to discuss licensing markets)

More from Publishing Perspectives on rights and licensing is here. 

More from us on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the publishing industry is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.