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Inaugural edition of Inspire! book fair a mixed bag

INSPIRE! Toronto International Book Fair Announces Lineup

Expectations were high heading into the inaugural iteration of Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair, as were anxieties.

Initially intended as a combination trade fair and consumer event, the fair morphed into a consumer showcase, attracting more than 200 exhibitors and featuring over 300 hours of programming. Big-name authors graced the various stages arrayed throughout the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s north hall, including Anne Rice, Sylvia Day, Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, and Margaret Atwood, in her first public Canadian appearance to promote her recent story collection, Stone Mattress.

The fair, which ran from Nov. 13–16, was the brainchild of co-executive directors John Calabro, former president of Quattro Books, and Rita Davies, formerly with the Toronto Arts Council and the former head of culture for the city of Toronto. Along with co-executive director Steven Levy, whose credits include the One of a Kind craft shows, the Interior Design Show, and the Festival of Canadian Fashion, Calabro and Davies conceived of an event intended to allow publishers to interact directly with consumers, and to spotlight some of their marquee titles heading into the all-important Christmas buying season.

From the start, there were worries about how the fair would transpire. Indigo Books & Music was brought on as official bookseller for the main stage (where all the brand-name authors would appear), provoking consternation among independent booksellers and publishers (as did the notion of a book fair luring buyers away from bookstores during the most lucrative season of the year). The convention centre was seen as an uninviting location for a consumer-oriented event, and publishers questioned whether the potential sales would be sufficient to recoup booth-rental costs, which ran anywhere from $500 to $8,800.

Though it is too early to determine publishers’ ROI – most are still crunching the numbers – anecdotal evidence suggests that things at the fair were a bit more sluggish than anticipated. A generally sunny article in Publishers Weekly quotes Davies as saying that attendance for the weekend was in the “ballpark of between 20,000 and 25,000,” well below the promised 50,000 attendees.

“I hate that 50,000 attendees figure,” Davies told Q&Q. “All year we used 30,000, and I don’t know how that got into a late media release.” This is disingenuous, to say the least. An Inspire! press release dated December 20, 2013, announcing the addition of Nicola Dufficy as programming director for the fair, includes the headline “Four-Day Fair to Captivate 50,000 Readers with Programs Dedicated to All Things Books.” Davies’ name and contact information appear at the bottom, so it’s hard to understand how she was unaware of where the 50,000 figure came from.

Regardless, 25,000 attendees – which Davies suggests are accounted for by advance ticket sales, scanned tickets at the door, and a manual tally of children (who were given free admission to the fair) – falls well below expectations. Wandering the fair floor on Sunday morning was particularly disheartening, in large part, one suspects, because many potential fairgoers chose to attend the Santa Claus Parade instead.

St. John’s poet and children’s author George Murray, who was programmed on the kids’ stage on Sunday morning, found the experience “a little deflating.” Though grateful for the opportunity to present his recent children’s book, Wow Wow and Haw Haw, to a Toronto audience, external competition provided stumbling blocks. “The downtown was a traffic mess and virtually all the kids were lining the streets outside,” Murray says. “So I read to about three children and a smattering of adults.”

Low attendance levels were not the only hiccup in the fair’s first outing. The convention centre did indeed prove a tricky venue, though not entirely for the reasons anticipated. The north hall essentially amounts to one cavernous room, which meant that the various programmed stages were constantly competing to be heard over the general din, and over one another. Authors presenting their books on the Spark Stage, located at the west end of the pavilion, had to contend with noise from kids’ programming on the TD Children’s Stage, which was virtually contiguous. Introducing her memoir The Temporary Bride on the Discovery Stage on Saturday afternoon, author Jennifer Klinec was completely drowned out – to the mortification of everyone in attendance – by a booming voice resounding through the entire hall, enticing people to come to the Main Stage for Sylvia Day’s appearance. (Full disclosure: I was onstage to moderate the panel that was interrupted when Klinec was speaking.)

The nature of the room, and the set-up of the various exhibitor booths, made navigation difficult; large publishers with central booths – like Simon & Schuster Canada, Penguin Random House, and Scholastic – were easy to find, but Coach House Books, in the Discovery Pavilion, was tucked behind a pillar that virtually obscured the press from sight, and I never was able to locate the Humber School for Writers. Nor were the various stages clearly adorned with schedules delineating author appearances and times.

“I wasn’t sure going in if the convention centre was really the best venue to draw in readers, and particularly our readers,” says Coach House publisher Alana Wilcox, “and in the end I don’t think it was. … I had hoped, too, that it would draw an entirely different demographic for us, one that wouldn’t have bought those same books at local booksellers, but I’m not sure that’s true.”

Despite the hurdles, some people were optimistic about the weekend. Clare Hitchens, who does marketing and publicity for Wilfrid Laurier Press, says that the fair was a “positive” experience overall, providing the out-of-town academic press with the opportunity of “putting our titles in front of a broader set of readers.”

“Contributors to our Indigenous Studies series [including Neal McLeod, Lee Maracle, Joanne Arnott, Armand Garnet Ruffo, and Daniel David Moses] were well represented in the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Literary Circle,” Hitchens says, “and those conversations were invigorating.”

The First Nations programming was, by all accounts, one of the highlights of the fair: the stage was well attended overall, and the anecdotal response coming away from this aspect of the event is almost entirely enthusiastic.

A number of publishers I spoke to pointed out the benefit of having a chance to network with contacts from the Ontario Arts Council, the Ontario Media Development Corporation, and other professional associations, leaving the impression that the trade aspect of the fair was underutilized and could afford to be given greater attention should the event recur in future years. “I was under the impression it was to be more like a rights fair, like Frankfurt or London,” Murray says, “but I didn’t see any evidence of that.”

A few “tweaks” aside, Davies seems convinced that the inaugural edition of Inspire! will not be the last. “We’ll look at some of the floor plan, where we might send our marketing,” she tells Q&Q, but she doesn’t anticipate “any major changes.” Whether that will be enough to entice publishers – including HarperCollins Canada and House of Anansi Press – who stayed away this year, or whether there is a chance of achieving that magic number of 50,000 through the gate, remains something of an open question.

This piece is cross-posted at That Shakespearean Rag.