Do You Like Virtual?

The most interesting phenomenon 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?

12 thoughts on “Do You Like Virtual?”

  1. Interesting article, but not all of the fairs promised new or fresh stock only—for example the IOBA fair ran on the same model we use at in-person fairs: curated items for sale of interest that may or may not have already been listed online. Personally, this “new stock only” phenomena ( a requirement at some fairs) seems a bit over the top to me. Why shouldn’t I be able to offer my finest books showcased at a fair just as I would in person?

    1. I agree. The books do not all have to be making their online debut in order to be of interest. Any items re-exhibited at a different venue will be fresh to many, if not most, of the customers who see them there. Nevertheless, you cannot avoid the fact that collectors are always eager to be first in line when the doors open at a traditional book fair. The same applies when books are being offered on the internet. A good mix of the special with the fresh will probably produce the best results for both the buyer and the seller.

    2. Of course – as ‘Uncommon Works’ suggests – there is absolutely no reason why booksellers should not offer their “finest books” at fairs, virtual or otherwise; previously ‘seen’ or not. Though as a buyer, you the seller presumably wish to attract me; sell what you have and survive. Not my business, but is not true to say that an item returning to your market place multiple times is less easy to sell?
      The single point I make, with the certain belief virtual fairs will predominate during the plague years: is please virtual fair organisers, get ahead of the curve and provide a faultless and unmissable product.
      Graham Carlisle

  2. Dear Jim,
    As the producer of the first virtual book fairs, having had to place my live fairs in the northeast U.S. “on hold”, I find the comments following your post most useful. I have just produced the second of my monthly VBFs and experienced an increase in “attendance” of 34% from the June fair and an increase in total item sales of 48% and an increase of total dollar volume sales of 65% +. These numbers are a welcome sign to someone who spent 3 months designing and a big investment in developing a platform to emulate, as closely as possible, the experience of visiting a live book fair where the attendee travels from booth to booth and previews items the dealer considers their best or freshest stock to entice you to take a closer look. One thing is for certain, more people can attend a virtual fair than a live one and can do so from the comfort of their homes. I have received several notes of thanks from librarians who could not attend one of my live fairs but can now attend a virtual one. And, they can make very efficient use of their time by making use of the robust search capabilities. Dealers who could not attend fairs outside of their geographic location are now able to have their offerings viewed by people from all over the world. In fact, dealers have made sales to people from far distances. So the efficiency of scale for both seller and buyer is one very valuable thing to come out of the new VBF world. I decided early in the planning to offer monthly fairs limiting the number of dealers so as to keep the fairs workable for people on a time budget. I look forward to to the time when a working vaccine is discovered and available to everyone who wants to be inoculated so that we can produce live fairs once again. In the meantime, I know that book sellers will have a way to sell inventory and buyers will have a way to satisfy their thirst for rare books and ephemera. And, I do believe VBFs will outlast the pandemic as buyers and sellers become accustomed to their advantages.

  3. Like David Chambers, for me the attraction – perhaps the main attraction – to travel from Buckinghamshire via train, tube to ‘Firsts London’; are the people. Familiar faces, booksellers, acquaintances and friends. This incidently, in the full knowledge that books and prints within my sphere of interest might well have been traded on – several times – before the doors open! Where else by the way, does this kind of thing happen without, apparently, a second reputational thought?

    So, full of optimism I was finally allowed to enter the virtual fair where I could be confident that I stood as much chance as the next person to buy that rarity, that ‘highlight’, which had not passed through several hands before the doors opened.
    But hang on, weren’t some of these books familiar? Had I not seen them before on ABE, Biblio &c &c.?
    Booksellers: a big rethink is needed; provide your customers with a good product. Along with the exodus of many businesses from London, traditional book fairs are debatably dead in that city. Get used to it: this is a virtual world, the pandemic has seen to that.

  4. The ABA fair was a disaster — limiting the number of books to only 12 meant that visitors had only the most expensive items to consider, whereas the PBFA first fair simply listed all their members, with a limit of I think 50 books, and you could work through those dealers with a good number on offer and who seemed likely to have interesting items.
    The search mechanisms need more thought — period of publication in centuries is most useful, nature of the request (poetry, novels, cricket, private press etc) and specific titles and much more careful thought into what is being searched for. We are interested in the first place in finding as quickly as possible what we need — and the rest is just for fun and some luck.
    I bought one ‘expensive’ (for me) book at the first PBFA fair, but the interesting part was running through most of the rest that took three or four hours. Ten top books at a time is useless and I only wait for the resumption of real fairs, talking to dealers and other friends is an enormous part of the whole affair.

  5. As a consumer – for several decades – of the product that you sell, I found the ‘virtual book fairs’ a disheartening experience. Sadly, and in comparison with other fairs, the offering by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association under the relatively new banner of: Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair was particularly galling. An hour of my time was spent just trying to get through the door! The investment – time and money – in data flow capacity and design was clearly far too low. With the imminent threat of worldwide economic depression, history might judge this to be a do or die moment for the old book trade…

    1. I agree that the crash that opened the fair was unfortunate, to say the least. I assume that the overload was a result of under-estimating the number of visitors who would come. It would be interesting to know how many were waiting when the virtual doors first opened and how that compares with the number online at last years “Firsts.”

      I suspect that there were more than a few who lost patience at the start and never came back. But clearly a lot of people wanted to come in the first place. I understand that a second virtual Firsts is scheduled for next May. I hope their servers will be ready.

    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.


  6. 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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