Courtesy Printed Matter.

Reminisce with me, for a moment, about all the fun of the book fair. A meadow of tabletops unfolds across a large hall, and the scent of new books is infused with the sweat of the trendiest nerds. You’ve approached a table having judged a book by its cover and find yourself face-to-face with the book’s publisher, or perhaps its author. It’s part-speed date, part-vegetable market, with all the thrill and awkwardness of both interactions. You buy the book. It’s a series of photo portraits of eggs and you love it. Hours slip by following the same pattern as your eye is caught by Mexican zines, queer chapbooks, revolutionary journals, minimal magazines, whimsical catalogues and feminist anthologies from publishers down the road and others across the globe, elbow-to-elbow with thousands of other paper hoarders. 

These days, it’s hard to imagine. Like concerts, readings, gatherings, raves, parties, festivals and other events you used to enjoy, the book fair has, for now, slipped into the risograph-printed hand-stitched reams of history. Few mourn this shift more than the team at Printed Matter who have been running the New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs (typically held in September and April respectively) since 2005. “It’s a massive event,” explains Sonel Breslav, Director of Fairs at the New York-based non-profit. “Not just on the New York art calendar or creative community calendar, but the international calendar at this point. People travel from all around the world to participate.”

You buy the book. It’s a series of photo portraits of eggs and you love it.

As the spread of COVID-19 first took hold at the beginning of last year, Breslav and her team took the heavy decision to cancel the 2020 LA fair just over a month before it was due to open. They have spent much of the subsequent months working towards the Printed Matter Virtual Art Book Fair which launches online on Wednesday, February 24. 

The virtual fair is free to access and is organized into different digital spaces for exhibitors, public programming, and an enigmatic arcade. Exhibitors are displayed in a directory which can be sorted using a tagging system that mirrors the way the physical spaces would be curated by the Printed Matter team. Photobooks, for example, are placed near photobooks. The key and most dauntingly ambitious innovation in all this is a collaboration with website building platform Cargo, whereby each of the 418 exhibitors has built a new website especially for the fair. Each site features a uniform header and footer, featuring a clock showing local time and a chatbox as well as contact information, while the rest of the site is open for the exhibitors to design and, hopefully, sell their books. 

“When each exhibitor comes to the fair, they have a table,” explains Breslav. “That table is a format where they display their books as they like. They can use our simple grey tablecloth, but they can also make their own or not use the tablecloth. It’s a presentation. We replaced a table with a website.” 

It’s a curatorial masterstroke that allows for the diverse characters and styles of the different exhibitors—from more than 40 countries—to be felt under the same roof of the Printed Matter fair. The sites show everything from stacks of covers to simple illustrations or team photos echoing the friendly face-off across the fair table. Others, like the Zurich-based Edition Taube recommend other exhibitors alongside their own wares, and Ecuadorian Terminal Ediciones’ site includes an embedded playlist to soundtrack your perusing.

“We replaced a table with a website.” 

“There have been some exhibitors who are more prepared for something like this and others who are totally analogue in their creative practice, so it’s been really challenging for many,” says Breslav. “But the outcome, from what we’ve seen so far, has been really extraordinary.” As with previous editions, a full public program will run for the fair’s five days and features talks on mutual aid, community building, and the work of legendary Indian photographer Dayanita Singh, amongst myriad others. 

The difficulty of replicating the atmosphere and experience of a book fair is clear and the impact on sales for publishers remains to be seen. But Breslav says there are benefits to the virtual fair which are likely to change it for good, even in a post-pandemic context. “I don’t think we can go back to how it was,” she explains. “There are so many positive aspects specifically related to accessibility that we have been learning. We knew this was something we wanted to do, but we didn’t have time for it, or we weren’t prioritizing it before.” 

With participation fees, travel and shipping costs and more, attending the book fairs in pre-Covid times was a costly affair. Meanwhile the virtual fair is much more accessible for small publishers, not to mention for potential visitors who cannot make it to New York or Los Angeles. As a result, the virtual edition of the fair has more exhibitors than ever, with 418 selected from over 1,000 applicants. “I hope that exhibitors experience some of the things that they love about the fair through this. I hope they can embrace being a little bit challenged and creative in this activity that we’ve given them and they can connect with each other and their audiences.”