The success of the Buenos Aires Independent Publishers Fair during the second wave of contagions
In Latin America, as in the rest of the world, the publishing industry is resuming its normal rhythm, and festivals and on-site fairs are beginning to reappear on the calendar, which in the pre-pandemic era were a fundamental pillar for the sale of books and meetings with readers.
Carlos Rojas Urrutia, a communication strategy designer at Lecturable, talks to Victor Malumian about the Buenos Aires Publishers Fair FED21.
The first weekend of October, in the middle of the second wave of the pandemic in Argentina, the Publishers’ Fair (FED) was held in Buenos Aires, a fundamental reference for the region in terms of meetings that make visible the work of publishers and independent booksellers. In this edition of the FED, held in an open-air space and marking the return of «normal» activity to the fair calendar in the Southern Cone, the results give cause for optimism: in three days more than 16,000 people attended and 42,000 copies were sold, almost double those sold in the previous in-person edition, that of 2019.
We talked to Víctor Malumián, editor of Ediciones Godot and who, together with his partner Hernán López Winne, organizes this event every year, to share with Publishnews readers a balance of the results of FED 21.
What is the balance you make of this FED21 in terms of audience, sale, and atmosphere?
It is very positive. Some 16,300 people attended; we estimate that 7,500 titles were on offer and more than 42,000 copies were sold. In the previous in-person fair, which we did in 2019, around 25,000 books were sold. Another relevant fact is that the average sale of each participating publisher was 260 copies when the investment of participating in the FED is paid by selling about 20 books. By the first day, all participants had recovered their investment. The FED weekend was a party. We had this feeling of great joy at meeting friends again in unexpected ways because they were there, but you hadn’t planned to see them again.
What feedback did you as organizers receive from the FED participants?
Everyone was very appreciative of the organization. Think that the FED was organized in the middle of the second wave of the pandemic in Argentina. While the contagions were rising, we were sending each other almost ridiculous e-mails, where on the one hand we were warning each other not to leave home, but on the other hand, we were deciding which would be the assigned place for each editor. It was a mess and the most frequent question we asked ourselves was whether people would attend and books would be sold. Publishers and booksellers went along with the idea, but they were as hesitant as we were. There was a lot of uncertainty. It has been the biggest book fair since the pandemic began. Those that follow may be better, but for us, since the pandemic started it was a super challenge.
«By the first day, all the participants had recovered their investment. The FED21 weekend was a party. We had this feeling of great joy at meeting friends again in unexpected ways because they were there, but you hadn’t planned to see them again.»
Throughout its development, the FED has faced many vicissitudes. Does the experience of this edition make you think differently about how to conceive an Independent Publishers Fair?
This year we also made a hybrid fair, in the sense that there was an online store, which was in charge of a bookstore, as well as a program of digital talks that had nothing to do with the face-to-face activities, but were conceived so that people who could not attend the Fair would be interested in them; an experience for the digital visitor that we will try to enhance in the next editions. In addition, a special agreement was made with distributors to give a greater discount for online purchases and to make shipping free of charge, something that is important in a country like this one, which is territorially very large.
The pandemic also marked our guild in ways that were not entirely negative: the work of independent booksellers and publishers became more visible, and we began to think more about collective work and equity. Did these themes, which have circulated widely in discussions about the book, influence the conception of this edition of the FED?
The theme of equity for us has always been present in what we do. At FED, the spaces are designed in such a way that there is a single path with equality for an artisanal publisher or a medium or large publisher. We have not changed much, because we had this view from the beginning. The will to incorporate bookstores did grow. That is why the digital sale was made by a bookseller and not by the FED itself. This is something we will continue to do.
«This year we made a hybrid fair, with an online store and a program of digital talks that had nothing to do with the face-to-face activities, but really conceived so that people who could not attend FED21 would be interested in them; an experience for the digital visitor that we will try to enhance in the next editions.»
What would you have done differently for this edition of FED, the first one in face-to-face format to take place in Buenos Aires after the beginning of the pandemic?
I think we have to accentuate the effort for a more limited cultural proposal and start measuring reception rather than a proposal. At the FED we give around ten talks and no more. We are not interested in saying that we made more than 200 presentations, but to make a few of high quality and to know how many people come to them.
Another thing that worried us, purely logistical, was that when we have an open-air fair we have to keep and take out the books that go to the stands every day. We didn’t think it was viable for publishers to crowd into an enclosure to store their boxes, so the fair team had to move more than a thousand boxes of books every morning and every night. For next year’s edition, we will definitely look for roofed venues.
What are those little details that you keep from this edition of the EDF?
It is very nice the moment when the Fair closes and there is spontaneous applause from all the fairgrounds. Another key moment was Friday night when we found out that 90% of the participants had already recovered the cost of their investment and still had the two strongest days ahead of them.
«At the FED we do about ten talks and no more. We are not interested in saying that we made more than 200 presentations, but to make few, of high quality and to know how many people come to them.»
In your opinion, will the fairs continue to be the pillar of the Latin American industry, which means sales and meeting with readers?
It’s too early to say anything, but I think that any event that brings us together will continue to be a pillar. Tomorrow it may take a different direction. I once saw a poster at the Frankfurt Fair that said something like: «We don’t know what will happen in the future, but we know it will happen here». This avant-garde intention, of being alert and looking ahead, already down to our Latin American realities, means losing the arrogance of doing things as they have always worked. So far they have been done in one way, but we must look at how they can be done differently. Right now, any space that brings us together and challenges us will be a pillar. I don’t think it will change in the short term.
In Argentina, the book industry is facing crises beyond the pandemic itself… Has the local industry already turned the page to face other challenges beyond the health crisis?
We are more relaxed but the problem is not over. Here we are in the midst of an economic crisis all the time. There is an inflation rate of between 40% and 50% per year. This is not a minor issue, because the price of books has been falling for years and is running behind any other product. Costs continue to rise and profitability is becoming smaller and smaller. I have no idea what is going to happen. No idea…
«Right now, any space that brings us together and challenges us will be a pillar. I don’t think it will change in the short term».
Carlos Rojas Urrutia is a journalist and founding partner of Lecturable. He was general director of MVB Latin America, a Frankfurt Book Fair company whose objective is to share innovative solutions for the future of book marketing. He has worked in the promotion and encouragement of reading for Fondo de Cultura Económica, Educal, and Gandhi bookstores, where he currently serves as marketing manager.