LBF21 might just manage to hobble forward this summer, but the right thing to do is to put it out of its misery now, and focus on the new normal that will be 2022, by when we just possibly might have the pandemic in the rear-view mirror.

End-March was when Andy Ventris, the new director at the London Book Fair, said the trade would be given a firm decision about LBF21, scheduled for June 29 through July 01, having been put back from its usual March dates.

That June date itself was farcical, being just one week after the UK government is proposing to lift all restrictions, based on an extremely unlikely country-wide compliance with virus control measures that so far shows no sign of happening.

Quite the opposite, in fact. As this post is being written UK PM Boris Johnson has stated clearly that the vaccines do not offer 100% protection and that friends and family are not yet allowed to meet indoors, where the risk of infection is much higher than outdoor meets.

The LBF Olympia event is of course 100% indoors and less than twelve weeks away. Anyone seriously believing it will be safe, even if the UK government declares it so, and that international travellers are going to be rushing to attend, is living in cloud cuckoo land.

At which point, enter stage left, LBF director Andy Ventris, who instead of taking a bold decision and declaring the LBF dead in the water for 2021, has put back the final decision until mid-April.

Which will leave just ten weeks for the trade and the event organisers themselves to act on whatever nonsensical format Reed Exhibitions and LBF will by then have cobbled together.

Because while yes, an all-digital or a well-planned hybrid partial-in-person–but-mainly-digital event might have made sense had that been planned for back as this year began, it is given that with ten short weeks to go neither the organisers nor the trade can get their act together in any meaningful way such as can now redeem the London Book Fair 2021.

The exodus has already begun, with HarperCollins among the Big 5 players that have made clear they will be setting foot nowhere near Olympia this summer.

While they have committed to participating in whatever digital substitute Ventris manages to stitch together – not too challenging for a company on the Big 5 scale – it’s just more confusion and lingering doubts for smaller players without the resources and financial muscle of a Big 5 publisher.

Ventris said this week,

The past year has presented challenges unlike any other, and we are having to respond to a very fluid situation both here in the UK and internationally. We promised to update the trade about plans for the 2021 fair by the end of March. Given the continuing uncertainty around international travel, we are currently planning for all scenarios and will update with a final decision in mid-April.

Which is of course utter nonsense. There will not and cannot be any serious improvement in the international travel situation over the next two weeks, and if Ventris cares to take a look at the news he would understand that. France has just entered total lockdown, again. The US is experiencing its fourth wave. As Boris Johnson’s comments today make clear, the UK’s hopes of removing all restrictions in June – just a week before the LBF’s current set date – are little more than wishful thinking.

On this same day the UK had added four new countries to its red list meaning no-one may enter the UK from those countries. The total is now 39 and likely to rise as the pandemic rides out the spring climate.

France is among the countries that would have been red-listed but for the small problem that France is the UK’s primary corridor into Europe, where it still does most of its trade despite the Brexit mess.

Last year, of course, as early as February, TNPS was running headlines like this:

By the time LBF finally admitted defeat it was too late. The event organisers and then director had lost all credibility.

Andy Ventris might have been the man to have turned it all around, but in fact has proven just as indecisive and a candle-in-the-wind as his predecessor.

Maybe the LBF will still go ahead in late June in some form, but the damage is already done.

Frankfurt last year was able to redeem itself with some serious last-minute pivoting and pulled off a successful all-digital Buchmesse event against the odds.

LBF seems to have learned none of the lessons from 2020, and unlike the Buchmesse does not have the UK government on standby to finance any digital pivot Ventris might now be thinking of making.

LBF21 might just manage to hobble forward this summer, but the right thing to do is to put it out of its misery now, and focus on the new normal that will be 2022, by when we just possibly might have the pandemic in the rear-view mirror.