Why cancelling LBF was the right decision, and what it means for publishing

Neill Denny
Opinion - Publishing Wednesday, 04 March 2020

LBF has gone; will other industry events fall victim to the same pressures?

This morning's decision to cancel LBF cannot have been easy for anyone involved, but organisers Reed had little option but to pull the plug. The rot really set in yesterday when Hachette, PanMac and then PRH all pulled out, and the straw that broke the camel's back may have been HarperCollins' decision, announced this morning, also to abandon the event.

There was little choice for Reed. An LBF with giant voids on the floor of Olympia, where the massive stands of the big publishers normally dominate, was unthinkable. Although it feels raw and painful now, the decision to can the event is surely the right one.

When it pulled out, Italian publisher Gruppo Mauri Spagnol released an extraordinary statement about the Rights Centre, saying: 'Hundreds of people from all over the world who each have 40 appointments in three days vis a vis are by definition the nightmare of epidemiologists.' Not good.

Had Reed gone ahead, it laid itself open to the charge that it was putting money ahead of people's health, risking infecting its own customers in a reckless pursuit of profit. Better to take the hit now.

The real decision-makers in all of this are the big international publishers, and they were no doubt reacting to the fears - real or misplaced makes no difference - of their staff. Did people want to breathe recycled air on a plane flying to London, then spend three days in a building surrounded by potentially infectious people from all over the world, then go on to crowded parties in the evening? And all to do deals that could, in the main, be done by email or Skype?

The next question of course is the money. Will exhibitors get their money back if they decided to pull out of the fair before it was officially cancelled? And does Reed have insurance cover for cancelling an event under these circumstances? A lot of money on travel and accommodation will already have been spent, and most of that can never be recouped.

Of course, there are wider implications for the trade. What price Hay? Author parties? The IPG Conference? The Nibbies? If people are scared to sit in a room in Olympia in March, will they feel the same way about other industry events, particularly when, as seems certain to happen, the virus spreads?

Given the projected curve of the coronavirus epidemic, which sees infections peak in 3-6 months, the status of this year's Frankfurt Book Fair must now be in some doubt too. The go/no go decisions about attending will be made in June/July, just as the infection may be peaking, and the same calculations that doomed LBF 2020 may come in to play. All of which would mean of course, that LBF 2021 will be in a position to reap an ocean of pent-up demand.

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