With all the ink being devoted to pondering the future of the metaverse recently, I was reminded of the ongoing publishing industry reflection on the future of book fairs. In many ways, this dialogue about the internet’s evolution from Web 2.0 to a more open, immersive Web 3.0 is similar to discussions in the global publishing industry now about the future of book fairs.

The global pandemic may ultimately be viewed as a watershed moment that catalyzed book fair innovation. Sparked by the global pandemic throughout 2021, we witnessed the transition of book fairs to a hybrid, digitally-enabled model — let’s call this shift Book Fair 2.0 — in response to ongoing barriers to in-person participation. As the pandemic stretches on, the industry has been struggling with how book fairs might need to adopt more permanent changes — a transition I’ll call Book Fair 3.0.

When I led the International Publishing Association’s initial research into the impact of the global pandemic on publishing at the end of 2020, several examples of Book Fair 2.0 innovation emerged in the face of event cancelations, travel restrictions, and supply chain disruptions. Book Fair 2.0 innovations were particularly important in countries where publishing markets are very reliant upon national book fairs for a significant proportion of annual book sales. In Georgia, for example, Tbilisi International Book Fair was hosted virtually with live stream coverage on social media and online sales. In the Philippines, Manila International Book Fair partnered with online marketplaces to host its book fair online and enable digital sales.

In the throes of the global pandemic, many global book fairs viewed event digitization and business model pivots as workarounds which would be made unnecessary once the global pandemic subsided. However, in hindsight, this now appears to have been wishful thinking.

My follow-up conversations with book fair executives and publishers at the end of 2021 for the International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience initiative revealed that many global book fairs are now considering permanently adopting hybrid and other more ambitious digitally-infused Book Fair 3.0 innovations. The industry leaders contemplating what Book Fair 3.0 may mean for literary events don’t just view digital publishing as the sole driver of change — they are also contemplating how macro tech trends, like the rise of the creator economy, influencer culture, gamification, Web 3.0, and the metaverse, might converge to shape book fairs.

If you look closely enough, the signs of the transition to Book Fair 3.0 are already there. For instance, in 2016, the Sharjah International Book Fair launched the world’s first virtual reality book called Baba Zayed, which is an immersive, virtual adaptation of a children’s book about the United Arab Emirates’ founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The 53rd Cairo International Book Fair, which will run until February 7, is also adopting for the first time a 3D virtual reality technology which will enable online attendees to navigate the exhibition, discover books through a click, and buy books online. Larger publishers are also experimenting with their own branded virtual events. For example, Penguin Random House’s hosted a virtual book festival called Book Your Summer Live involving authors, illustrators, retail partners, and readers in August 2021.

In particular, the concept of the metaverse could be a defining trend. In his 2021 Year in Review, Bill Gates predicted that today’s virtual meetings will move to the metaverse in 2–3 years. With virtual events being normalized due to pandemic-induced Book Fair 2.0 innovations, it seems the transition to Book Fair 3.0 might happen sooner rather than later.

While many in the publishing industry still prefer in-person events, the increased accessibility and ability for the publishing ecosystem to reach new audiences and for audiences to reach them with Book Fair 2.0 and of Book Fair 3.0 innovations could ultimately prove very persuasive to even the most diehard in-person event holdouts. It seems likely that Book Fair 3.0 may involve hybrid meta and physical events and events that offer attendees a range of in-person and virtual participation options — the transition is already happening.

It remains critically important that the publishing ecosystem continues to embrace the agility, flexibility, and solidarity which enabled it to make it through the pandemic. It is clear that the book fair of the future is unlikely to look much like the book fair of even just a few years ago. The rapid embrace of three-dimensional, collaborative environments suggests that some of the most progressive global book fairs are likely to embrace the metaverse sooner than we may have expected pre-pandemic.

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Bodour Al Qasimi

Bodour Al Qasimi

President of International Publishers Association; Founder and CEO of Kalimat Group, Kalimat Foundation and PublisHer network to empower women in publishing.