Our thoughts on Virtual Book Fairs

It has not gone unnoticed that this summer has marked three full years since the first virtual book fairs suddenly arrived on the bookselling scene and attempted to fill the vacuum created by COVID 19. At that time there was widespread concern within the book trade that the resulting universal closure of book fairs would bring in its wake the end of bookselling as we knew it. Much panic and moaning inevitably ensued.

In retrospect we can see that the COVID-related anxieties of June 2020 proved to be a bit inflated, at least with regard to antiquarian booksellers. There is, of course, no published statistical data on the subject. Looking at our own data, along with the anecdotal information we were receiving from others, tells me that the first year or two of lockdown was, in fact, profitable for many and manageable for most.

This pleasant surprise was due, I think, to the fact that while nearly everyone we knew had little or no trouble imagining the likely disastrous outcomes that would result from cancelling the fairs, few had yet anticipated the many good things that would occur when all the complications and constraints of physical book fairs were removed and alternative events arrived to take their place. It did not take them long to do so.

In the beginning the tactile and olfactory pleasures of handling old books were regularly cited as an essential feature of bibliophily. These are, of course, fine things and no one denies them, but the opportunities for appreciating them is restricted to those lucky collectors who are fortunate enough to find themselves regularly within travel distance of the locations where traditional book fairs regularly take place.

For booksellers who regularly exhibit at book fairs, geography also places constraints. To sell books you must travel. For the smaller fairs there is loading and unloading; packing and unpacking; petrol and, as often as not, a rented place to sleep. For the large international fairs convenient hotels are expensive while the merchandise will usually need to be shipped globally at an ever mounting cost.

In other words, physical book fairs are expensive, not to mention a lot of work. But in spite of it all, they were almost always popular, and even profitable – bearing in mind, of course, that many exhibitors are there mostly because of the opportunities to buy rather than sell.

Before COVID, all of this was taken for granted. Once the closures and quarantines had begun many collectors and dealers cautiously turned their attention to the internet where they soon began to notice that there were definite benefits to hunting for books online.

Librarians and archivists were especially responsive to the benefits of virtual fairs. They rarely have the time or budget for the kind of travel that regularly attending live book fairs requires. None of these restraints apply when the book fair is taking place right on your desk, or wherever it is that your other professional obligations may require you to be.

Of course, this applies to collectors as well. They have their own set of frustrations. Among these is the awareness that, while the retail customers are patiently waiting outside for the doors to open, the exhibitors inside have already been busy buying and trading for hours, if not days. I don’t fault them for this. The time required to unpack and prepare one’s booth makes it unavoidable. But it does give the insiders a tactical advantage over those who must wait patiently for the doors to open before they can begin.

There is much else that can be said on this topic. Shortly after the first wave of virtual book fairs went online in June of 2020 I published a blog post on this subject (https://blog.vialibri.net/did-you-go-virtual/). I was curious to hear from our users whether or not they were happy with this sudden innovation and so solicited their opinions about what had just taken place. I was also curious to hear what suggestions they might have to offer regarding what they would like to see when next era of virtuality has arrived.

I think that this time has now definitely come. I don’t have an official count showing how many virtual fairs are currently taking place, but what statistics I do see all show that attendance at individual digital fairs is significantly larger than at comparable live events. This is certainly the case in the U.S. and I expect that the trend will continue in other places as well.

We now have more than three years of experience with virtual fairs built on a variety of digital platforms.I cannot help being curious to know what an updated survey would tell us about how our users now feel about the current state of digital bookselling and the future direction they would like to see it take.

But I must confess that I am motivated here by more than mere curiosity. If, as I believe, online virtual events will be an increasingly crucial part of antiquarian bookselling in the future then this is something that viaLibri will want to participate in. And we have plans to do just that. As you may guess, this is an important motive behind soliciting input from our users today.

If you are like us and have your own ideas about what the next transformation of internet bookselling should look like then please share your thoughts with us here.

16 thoughts on “Our thoughts on Virtual Book Fairs”

  1. Jim, I am in agreement with you – more is more. I turned to online buying way before covid due to time constraints…and misanthropy. Another story. The fair is different from sites like this, naturally, but the path to bringing the “next generation” into collecting is exposure, exposure, exposure. Meanwhile, I have busted my budget repeatedly in the dead of night, when non-biblio’s are sleeping. Predicting future tech is futile, we have learned that: but for now, I promise everyone who may be reading this the web, regardless of format, will grow, and grow, and…

    1. Thanks for commenting. I’m pleased to see that I am not alone, and I have had several similar off-line comments with the same reaction.

      Your point regarding next generation collectors is spot on. Indeed, I see many are already getting on board. I see it every day, and the younger buyers are leading the way. I assume you are a collector. I am sorry if viaLibri causes you to lose sleep and exhaust your overdraft.

      From where I am sitting the future looks good. I’ll see you there.

  2. I’m in favor of virtual fairs, but from observation I believe their usefulness may be waning. None of it is statistically significant, but this is what I observe in late 2023:

    – The number of established, high-end dealers is diminishing as they return to physical fairs.
    – Increasing difficulty in finding new-to-market fair-quality material on a quarterly basis.
    – Many sellers of quality material have a poor sell-though ratio that doesn’t cover the ‘booth’ fee.

    1. Hello Michael,

      It is definitely hard to generalise while the market seems to be moving at once in opposite directions. The easiest observable trend is, of course, the growing market for ephemera and “paper.” More significant, I think, is the ever increasing importance placed on rarity. Both of those are especially well served by virtual venues. If it were as easy and cost efficient to sell at live book fairs as it is at the virtual ones then the situation would probably be different. But I think, in the end, that it is another apples/oranges choice. The best analogy might be live concerts versus digital recordings. Given the choice between a concert hall and a DVD I would almost always choose the former, but how often am I given that choice? The same applies to “live” versus digital book buying. And how many buyers live some place where that choice is ever possible at all?

      I think that reality will define the economic future of book collecting more than anything else that happens in the near future, and I’m eager to see it come.

  3. The advantages for a physical book fair include :
    – unexpected discoveries
    – the pleasure of seeing (and touching) books that we will never be able to buy
    – the immense pleasure and satisfaction in talking face to face with dealers, collectors and others about rare books
    The pleasures of virtual book fairs:
    – being able to “visit” dealers who we would othersie never meet
    – the comfort (and zero cost) of viewing from home
    For me a visit to a physical bookfair is a memorable experience and a great pleasure. A visit to a virtual bookfair is ephemeral and just a variation on a visit to a bookseller’s website. How could the experience be improved ? How about virtual chats with booksellers ? Online presentations by rare book experts ? Booksellers putting many more items with a lot more information and photos online ?

  4. As a long time member of the trade [3+ decades], and as a one-man-band advancing in years, I welcomed the VBF as an alternative to the time, effort & expense required to physically exhibit at a fair. And in the 3 years since their inception, I have found the VBF phenomenon to be a viable, profitable adjunct to the physical event, and believe it here to stay [e.g. Marvin Getman has announced he will no longer promote physical fairs, just VBFs]. In short, the trade will accommodate / embrace both.

  5. I’ll confess that I might never have the funds to purchase anything at a physical book fair — let alone be able to travel to one — but as a window shopper I do enjoy examining virtually items that I would otherwise never know exist. And my own (admittedly naive) opinion is that the more people who learn not every collectible book is priced out of reach, the more the market will grow.

    1. Geoff, what you have said is so true and I am exceedingly glad that you made the effort to write and post it here. We all know that the future of book collecting will be dim if we cannot find a way to introduce the next generation to the kind of books that can and should be collected. But how can we do this? Can we expect them to feel comfortable and motivated enough to pay for admission to an international book fair? Do we believe they will readily sacrifice a weekend afternoon and travel some distance in order to peer into glass cases and delicately examine unfamiliar books they can’t afford? I think not. Those who would will already be on their way. But there are others who have not yet made that discovery. A virtual book fair is place where that can happen and the education of a new book collector can easily begin.

  6. If virtual fairs attempt to purely replicate the physical fairs, then I fear they are doomed to be a second rate experience by comparison. But if someone is able to offer online fairs which are more intuitive, and able to offer a fresh, digital and informative way of dealers and buyers coming together, then they could become an important future element in bookselling, in the same way that online auctions have become a tool in the buyer and seller armouries. From the innovative way that Vialibri changed the way we search for books, I am sure you are in a good place to effect this change.

    1. I agree. Although I will admit that when the first virtual fairs were launched it was only natural to call them that because that was the thing they were expected to replace. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is that a thing that was new and revolutionary (VBFs) will be evaluated chiefly in terms of the thing that it was built to replace. Familiarity is often the measure against which progress is judged, and here we have a prime example of this. There will be progress, but in the end not everyone will need it or want it.

  7. Hello
    There are far too many virtual fairs. It is therefore not possible to participate in all or else we must drop other things . Moreover, many customers admit to me, after the period of discovery, be overwhelmed by individual or collective proposals on their mailbox . And he is still happy that there are physical fairs where you can buy! I already spend too much time in front of my computer at the expense of my knowledge of books, my rest, my garden and my friends. Excuse my bad English this is not my mother tongue. D. Delecroix .

    1. As I explained to Chris, I am not ready for the idea that there are too many fairs, virtual or otherwise. Although It might be possible to have too many booksellers, I also doubt that this has happened yet.
      I do think it is likely that the number of virtual fairs will increase over time, not because the buyers prefer one way of buying over another – though they may – but because the economics of the alternatives are becoming increasingly unsustainable.

  8. A very interesting article, and I would certainly agree that online bookdealing has surged since covid, as sales from our own website show. In my experience though there have been diminishing returns from virtual fairs now that the novelty has worn off and punters have returned to physical locations. There are too many virtual fairs offering similar experiences and familiar stock, and I wonder if the market is saturated, or if we need to become more creative?

    1. I am not yet prepared to support the idea that
      reducing the number of book fairs – of any sort – will expand and strengthen the market for old books.
      In my experience the opposite is just the case and for serious collectors there are never enough books to buy or places to hunt for them. The virtual fairs are just expanding those possibilities. They may not be as useful to the older and more established booksellers who are well invested in the way things are supposed to be. But saturation is not my worry. Nor creativity. The marketplace will take care of them regardless.

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