This morning, at long last, Reed Exhibitions announced the cancellation of this year’s London Book Fair. Publishing Twitter could finally stop refreshing for updates while, in rights teams up and down the book world, frustration and relief gave way to the frantic task of rethinking dozens of pre-booked rights meetings.
Rights deals bring in valuable income for publishers. Less obvious, perhaps, is that much of that income is high margin, meaning it can make a significant difference to the bottom line. Knowing what rights you hold has a real impact not just on revenues, but on how publishing companies are valued. Disrupting rights business is therefore a big deal for many publishers and agents.
Translations and more recently audio deals may be the staple of many rights departments, but that’s by no means the whole story. Our own agency, for example, focusses entirely on digital rights and licensing: an area that smaller publishers might not have the capacity to cover in-house.
Rights meetings at Book Fairs are short, booked at 30-minute intervals, but also packed with a long list of things to cover. That might include new title presentations, negotiating contract details, checking up on sales figures. Or you might be examining innovative library sales models and collecting market information. All this at the same time as building relationships of trust with your partner publishers and licensees.
Over the last week or so, more and more rights meetings have been cancelled, especially those with people who would have been travelling from outside the UK. We want everyone to keep safe above all, but even so it is draining to see a carefully constructed schedule evaporate, one meeting after another.
The closest parallel is probably 2010 when ash from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull caused numerous flight cancellations. But that year the Fair could still function, despite few US visitors. This year was clearly going to be different.
Dealing with cancellation
How, then, are rights people coping with the cancellation? Most of us, I believe, are simply getting on with rescheduling virtual meetings as much as we can.
The easiest way (where it works) is to try and mirror your existing schedule, then sit at your desk and run 30-minute conversations, much as you would at the Fair. In our own case that can mean successive meetings with a client publisher, a content aggregator and then a global ebook distributor.
Mirroring your original schedule won’t work across the board, for example people in other time zones may need to move to a different time. Sticking strictly to half an hour might also be more difficult remotely. However, people will understand if timings go a little awry – just like at real Book Fair!
If you need to move lots of meeting times, then appointment scheduling software can save you dozens of emails. You can even build in special parameters, such as a 5-minute break between meetings (I know, luxury!), and then leave invitees to pick a slot that works for them.
Sharing materials by email can be cumbersome, so using a folder on a cloud-based platform is a much better solution, even if displaying materials this way isn’t quite as elegant as doing it face to face.
Then, with time so tight, maybe it’s time to get realistic about the number and range of your meetings. Are there a few, even just one or two, that are (whisper it) not really necessary?
The future of Book Fairs?
Will the LBF cancellation signal a change for Book Fairs in the longer term? It’s probably too soon to be sure. But sometimes it’s good to have a bit of a rethink about the value of exhibiting, especially if you’re a smaller publisher, an agent or a micro consultancy.
In time, Reed will need to win back the confidence of bruised exhibitors and visitors but, even in these digital times, publishing is very much about human connection. And it’s still fun being part of the buzz and energy of the Book Fair.
Clare Painter runs digital licensing agency and rights consultancy Clare Painter Associates, helping publishers to grapple with practical and commercial digital rights issues. She is permissions consultant at Oxford University Press Journals, and contributing editor at Jinfo for information professionals. She holds a Postgraduate Diploma in UK, EU & US copyright law from King’s College London (2019).