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Actualités Antiquarian Booksellers' Association Peter Harrington

"How can we ignore virtual fairs with numbers like these?"

Pom Harrington, Vice President of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association ABA and Chairman of FIRSTS London
Articles Pom Harrington Firsts Interview

Earlier this year, the ABA announced to run virtual fairs on a quarterly basis and has just finished its 3rd virtual fair of FIRSTS ONLINE. Why these additional virtual events and what is your feedback after running three fairs?

Virtual fairs including Firsts Online have provided a vital lifeline for many booksellers to showcase their stock to an international audience when many of their physical bookshops were shut during the pandemic. As mentioned, while virtual book fairs will never replace the in-person experience, Firsts Online has allowed our (ABA) members and colleagues to reach new and existing customers, trade between booksellers, and create awareness of their businesses.
We have worked hard to create a user-friendly experience for visitors to our Firsts Online website with improvements being made after each of the three fairs. Feedback from ABA members and exhibitors has been increasingly positive about the platform, demonstrating that we have a great online tool moving into the new year. We are making further adjustments ahead of the winter edition of Firsts Online fair running 18-23 February 2021.
The feedback from Firsts Online exhibitors has been that the we are getting mostly professional buyers, so dealers, librarians and the more committed collectors. The challenge moving forward into the new year will be to try to attract more new customers and a consumer audience to online book fairs.
Although we do not have a completely accurate count of business generated, we believe the June fair brought nearly £1m of trade, September over £500,000 and November £750,000. The majority of the exhibitors did some sort of business either during or after the fair. The top sales include several over £100,000. These numbers I think are significant, especially considering a stand only costs £150. For the future, how can we ignore Virtual Fairs with numbers like these?

What potential do you see in virtual fairs alongside physical fairs? Will you keep the virtual fairs running when physical fairs can take place again?

While we are all hopeful in-person book fairs will return in 2021, there is still a benefit of running these low-cost online book fairs for those who might not be able to travel abroad however do still wish to participate. At the moment, we are working with other ILAB associations to create a cohesive physical and online fair schedule for 2021 and ensure booksellers can continue to participate in book fairs in one form or another.

As to how the physical and virtual work together needs to be thought through carefully. You don’t want virtual cannibalising the physical. Also there is a matter of organisational resources. Running any fair is a serious amount of work, running two side by side will be a challenge!

Do you feel virtual fairs have changed the booksellers’ selling behaviour? Can you see long-term effects?

The concentrated nature of these events, only allowing up to 20 items forces the dealers to be more selective and thoughtful to what they are offering. I have overall been very impressed with the quality of material offered at Firsts London. It might make some more thoughtful how they present themselves at all fairs in the future.

We all want the fairs to be part of our life again. FIRSTS London will move to the Saatchi Gallery in May, an exciting new venture for the ABA! What can booksellers expect?

We are thrilled to be hosting Firsts London at Saatchi Gallery from 21-23 May 2021, where we expect to call the venue home for the foreseeable future. The decision to move to Saatchi Gallery followed overwhelming feedback from ABA members and exhibitors to secure a higher-profile location for the fair. We are very positive that the gallery's museum-quality spaces and large cultural following will offer a superior platform for exhibitors to connect with their customers. Due to the enduring effects of the covid-19 pandemic, we are working to ensure the latest health and safety guidelines will be met and the fair is safe for both our exhibitors and visitors.