Did You Go Virtual?

The most interesting phenomena of the last month or so, at least from a bibliophilic perspective, has been the arrival of a new way to buy and sell books online: virtual book fairs. The idea followed in the wake of the cancellation of multiple traditional physical book fairs as a result of the coronavirus.  By my count there have already been at least seven virtual fairs, beginning with a digital version of the Paris Book Fair opening on April 23 and followed by fairs organised by IOBA, PBFA, Marvin Getman, ABAA, ABA (“Firsts”) and, most recently, the Rose City Virtual Book Fair.

For those who did not join in, the fairs were basically of two types. The first group consisted primarily of  a listing of “exhibitors” with links to PDF catalogues available for browsing.  This replicated the fair lists that are now regularly sent out by many of the dealers as a preview of what they will be offering in their booth at a traditional physical fair. For many dealers the sales generated by these lists often exceed what they receive at the actual event.  In this way the virtual fairs were able to do much to compensate revenue lost when planned-for fairs did not take place.

The second group consisted of books that were aggregated into a joint data base where each exhibitor was able to include a fixed number of items  (12 to 50) that could be searched, sorted and filtered in a variety of ways.  This is not too distant from the group search engines that we are already familiar with, except that here the individual dealers are given much more prominence and are better able to present themselves to potential buyers than in the search engine venues that people are already familiar with.  Buyers were also encouraged to believe that the books that were on offer were all new to the market.  Those who took the time to double-check this on Google, or even viaLibri, often discovered that this was not always the case, but it was for sure that at most of the fairs the sellers made an effort to put some of their best or most unusual items onto their virtual stands.

Most of the data-driven fairs were also interesting because they left the sold items on display, still priced, but flagged to let you know that someone else beat you to it. Unlike traditional fairs, I doubt if there were any books that passed through 2 or 3 virtual stands before the doors first opened to the public.  And given the number of sold stickers I saw at some fairs it is clear that, at those fairs at least, there were many sales taking place. I will admit that I had limited expectations regarding attendance, and the organisers apparently did too.  The ABAA and Firsts fairs were overwhelmed by visitors at their openings,  which in both sites being virtually frozen for at least twenty minutes, if not more.  Whether those visitors waited, came back later, or just gave up, I don’t know. But I think the prospects for future online book fairs are very good.  Several of the sponsors of the recent fairs have announced that they plan to have monthly fairs in the future.

I am very interested in hearing the comments from other buyers and sellers who participated in any of the VBFs that have just taken place.

Did they find them a good way to buy or sell?

Will they show up at future fairs?

Will the old-fashioned  book fairs return to their same prominence after the call for social distancing has been revoked?

4 thoughts on “Did You Go Virtual?”

    1. Exactly. That’s the perfect analogy.

      But there was also my great, great grandparent who once built horse drawn beer wagons in New York City. I imagine he had no interest in those noisy and ugly infernal combustion engine-powered beer trucks that came out of nowhere while he was still feeding oats to his Clydesdales. But in the end, prohibition was his coronavirus and it was the virtual horses that prevailed even though they had no strong legs or fancy tails.


  1. I attended several of the VBFs (yet another damnable acronym added to our vocabulary) and found them useful but nothing like a book fair. The ABAA fair had a site that was well organized and easy to navigate. The virtual aisles mechanism devoted to booksellers from different parts of the country was interesting but — in my case at least — not useful. Other such organizing mechanisms built around book types, or broad collecting interests would be well received, I think. By comparison the Firsts London site was a clunker and difficult to understand/navigate. Even if one sets aside the failure-to-launch due (one assumes, kindly) to traffic overload, the general layout and usage was difficult to understand. If you knew your booksellers, then you could navigate to their virtual stand and find 12 books described. Twelve! The use of the work “Highlights” led me to believe there were more books listed somewhere – but there weren’t. In the end, the Firsts London website functioned as little more than a gateway to individual bookseller websites or listings on metasites. Looking for specific things required using the usual search-and-find mechanisms; hardly different from going to AbeBooks (you’ll forgive me, I’m sure) or ViaLibri and doing a search. Though the bookseller photos were a nice touch.

    These VBFs need to embrace much more deeply what website technology can offer. This burden cannot be placed on the booksellers, but needs to be taken up by the VBF organizers/sponsors/hosts. It would be a good investment and the equity obtained in building (much) more elaborate sites could be reused, year after year.

    And VBFs need to made more of an **occasion**:
    -Webinar(s) presented by bookseller(s) on subject(s) important to collectors, scheduled during the time of VBF
    -Scheduled Q&A sessions
    -Live chat (though this is fraught with difficulties)
    -There needs to be considerably more emphasis on VBF *visitors*. Such as virtual places and mechanisms for book buyers to chat, compare, brag, and question. One reason I attend book fairs is to see, meet, and talk with fellow collectors. Perhaps there could be a place on the VBF site for visitors/collectors to register and make connections in some virtual fashion with other collectors, to show-and-tell books in their collection (see next point).
    -Webinar(s) presented by book collector(s) on aspects of their collection or on specific books.
    -Webinars need not be live. They can be recorded and made available for playback on the VBF site.

    If a greater emphasis is placed on VBF *visitors* there will be more traffic, making whatever expense is involved for the book sellers a better investment.

    These early attempts at VBFs are interesting and should be encouraged — but they have a long way to go. It may be that instead of being produced by any of the various associations now involved, commercial impresarios will emerge to offer much more elaborate VBFs. In the meantime, once virus house arrest ends, I will continue to attend real book fairs.

    1. David,
      I’m with you on nearly all the points you make, both positive and negative, especially in pointing out the “need to embrace much more deeply what website technology can offer.” Most of these VBF sites were created as replacements for traditional book fairs that are being forced to close because of coronavirus. They start from the premise that digital fairs should be designed, as much as possible, to replicate the physical ones. That is the source for things like “virtual isles.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with these per se, but in the end they mostly just point you backwards rather than forwards. Other better “organizing mechanisms,” as you call them, are what we really want if we are going to sell or buy our books off of pixelated screens instead of wooden shelves. I do think the ABAA fair did do some interesting things (and sold some books) but I do also anticipate still more interesting and elaborate things to come. For me, the future possibilities are even more interesting than what we have seen so far. It sounds like you agree.

      Making VBFs into occasions as much as marketplaces fits in with that idea. I expect to see it happen before too long.

      In fairness to the ABA, you should not forget that even though their major annual fair was closed at the last minute by events beyond their control, they still managed to salvage something worthwhile for their exhibitors by running a last-minute virtual fair in its place.

      As for having booths where all the books were “highlights,” I suspect that this was the result of needing to quickly adapt for use with the virtual fair the same software that was originally intended for use with the physical one. With the traditional ABA book fairs there are normally also 12 highlights for each exhibitor, each of whom gets to choose that many items to display on the book fair website. Of course, at a regular fair each dealer brings far more than 12 books, but only a dozen of them are highlighted in this fashion. In that context, having “highlights” makes perfect sense. At a virtual fair it only served to confuse.

      Lastly, I agree completely with the importance of emphasising the needs of the *visitors* over the those of everyone else. That much should be obvious, but in my experience it is not always so easily done

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