Following our research on and report on the efficacy of digital book fairs for rights professionals , we thought you might be interested in this research carried out by Preetika Sihag, who has carried out her MA Publishing dissertation research on digital rights platforms.

Preetika was originally a law graduate. After a short stint at a law firm, she decided to pursue her love for books at a higher level. She is currently enrolled on the MA Publishing Programme at London College of Communication and is working part-time as a permissions administrator at Hodder Education. She is a publishing ‘hopeful’ and aspires to get into the industry full-time.

Is Digital the New Normal?

Understanding the effectiveness of virtual bookfairs and e-platforms for trading rights

Book fairs have been pivotal in the trading of rights for as long as we can remember. This year saw a radical change in their organisational setup – for the first time in history, book fairs were held virtually. The majority of them offered an online platform to facilitate the trading of rights; their effectiveness however, is being seriously questioned by publishing professionals.

Whilst the industry appreciates these virtual platforms for keeping the rights trading going in these trying times, they’ve not been very successful in generating the ‘buzz’ which surrounds actual book fairs. In theory, these online rights trading platforms seem to offer a convenient, accessible and cost-effective alternative to book fairs by allowing publishers to a buy or sell rights from the comfort of their homes. In action, they suffer from some very fundamental problems. As part of my MA research, I spoke to a few rights professionals, to understand the efficacy of such platforms. A majority reported fewer meetings this year. A rights director from an independent publishing house reported as low as one visitor on their designated profile on FrankfurtRights and did not have any rights deals concluded via this online platform. Many were of the opinion that while negotiating deals with existing customers online works fine, pitching to new customers virtually is where the real problem lies. It is mainly because selling rights is seen as a long-term business; it’s not a one-time transaction. Customers need to have a relationship of trust with the person they’re buying from. This relationship of trust becomes difficult to establish in a virtual environment.

An important insight which came to light through the interviews is that, although these platforms have managed to sign up a large number of publishers, they have failed to gather enough buyers. There needs to be a balance between the number of buyers and sellers to generate an active environment for trading rights. This major drawback is one of the reasons that has prevented platforms like PubMatch, IPR Licence (now FrankfurtRights), Nakiri and the like from gaining necessary traction in the past and continues to do so, even today. Another reason why such platforms are not widely popular amongst big publishing houses is that the majority of them have full-sized rights departments and the experienced rights staff are expected to know their customers directly; it’s a major part of their job. In a scenario like this, using intermediate platforms as the main source for buying or selling rights internationally does not seem necessary or viable.

The fact that these virtual facilities have in a way pioneered a more accessible and feasible platform for trading rights, especially for independent and smaller publishers, who previously could not attend book fairs in person, is very much appreciated. However, the problems of discoverability and visibility faced by smaller publishers at book fairs, continue to persist on such online platforms as well. For a smaller publisher to get noticed amongst thousands of registered users becomes even more challenging online, especially because they miss out on the occasional serendipitous encounters or the ‘walk-by traffic’ which can be very beneficial for their business.

Despite these challenges, there is a plus side to virtual book fairs. A number of rights professionals claimed that they were able to attend networking events which they would have otherwise missed out on owing to a packed schedule at book fairs. Virtual book fairs are more environmentally friendly and cost effective compared to physical book fairs. The money saved by not attending book fairs this year is actually keeping some smaller publishing houses afloat, considering the break in regular functioning of companies. The inclusivity it offers is the biggest advantage, allowing a wider reach that is not limited by geographical barriers, and an opportunity for smaller companies to sell what they have to offer.

When asked ‘do the publishers see themselves using such platforms, even after the return of physical book fairs?’ the majority of them answered in the affirmative, but said that it would be contingent upon the costs involved in accessing these services in the future. An important factor which seems to have influenced a positive answer is the fact that all the platforms associated with book fairs like Beijing, Bologna and Frankfurt, offered these trading services free of charge, thereby providing publishers with another window to make their products visible without incurring any costs. All mentioned that such methods would only be used supplementarily, book fairs remaining as the main points of focus for conducting business.

What becomes clear from these discussions is that although there is scope for such virtual platforms to rise in the future, they can in no way be considered as substitutes for book fairs.

The ideal scenario for most publishing professionals would be a hybrid model allowing access to physical book fairs with a day or two assigned for virtual meetings. Some industry professionals, like Alexander Skips of Germany’s publishers and booksellers association, have also recognised the need to incorporate digital elements in the book fair products and events in the future.

Therefore, to answer the question ‘Is digital the new normal?’ Yes, it is, but in no way does that mean it will replace book fairs. It merely implies that the use of such digital platforms will definitely be more normalised with time.