"Resist the storms"
Hervé, the Syndicat National de la Librairie Ancienne staged the very first virtual event of the rare book trade in April earlier this year, the "Grand Palais Virtuel". In September, SLAM ran the postponed Salon du Livre Rare at the Grand Palais and you are now offering a SLAM Virtual Winter Fair. What led you to this decision?
There are several reasons, but they all follow the same logic: the need to adapt to the situation and the will to demonstrate the continuity of our presence - by which I mean the activity of the antiquarian booksellers. The rare book trade, in spite of the lockdown, restrictions, and difficulties in moving around, has, I believe, been able to resist the storms of the last few months. The situations are difficult, that is undeniable. Nevertheless, collectors have never ceased to be present. After the panic of April and May, the auction houses were able to react and it is clear that the online sales in June and July, and even more so since the beginning of the autumn, are working well. Remaining invisible on the digital would be a major strategic mistake for our members. The role of our association is to gather energies and show our expertise, our skills, and the excellence of our label: it is here, and nowhere else, that our plus-value is greater than with auctioneers, and with respect to the jungle of online sales sites.
The organization of a virtual fair in December is for us a necessary transition, following the Grand Palais Fair last September. The idea is not to replace real fairs, quite the contrary: they are still as much expected and necessary. In fact, we are already working hard on the next edition, which we can already announce will be held in the second half of 2021, not in April. In view of the importance of our fairs, and particularly that of the Grand Palais, we must therefore find solutions to remain visible and enable our members to continue their activities under the best possible conditions. This is our role. And virtual fairs, which can take many possible forms, have become an interesting, if not essential, complement: the success of our digital event last April, which was the first of its kind, showed this clearly: nearly 20,000 visitors and impressive media coverage. During the confinement, customers were at home, available, and were present. I believe that, if the technological tools are aesthetically attractive and easy to use, these same customers will continue to attend our virtual events. They will be relevant if and only if they present interesting, attractive, fresh items on an interface that is neither boring nor complicated. On these last points, the cards are in our hands, and in the hands of the booksellers.
France went into lockdown earlier in the year and has been hit by lockdown again. How have French booksellers adapted to the concept of virtual book fairs and selling books online?
The antiquarian book trade has, in its DNA, a mode of functioning that has served us all well: the act of describing and cataloguing items. All members of SLAM are therefore normally experienced in working at a distance. For many, the difficulty consists in having or not having an up-to-date website, e-mail contacts, and a minimum of knowledge in these new technologies. I think that the current sanitary situation has closed the debate: yes, we have to be present on the digital world, each in his own way, each with his own vision. It has become absolutely essential. We can complain about it, we can try to do things differently - and that is quite possible - but I think that everyone is now well aware of a minimum degree of this digital presence. It allows us to keep in touch with our clients, to send and receive book proposals, and to maintain business and relationships, both business and sometimes very friendly, with our clients, when the restrictions have prevented any form of physical meetings. Regarding the fair that we organize in December, the decision was taken and the project was finalized, tested, and approved in a few weeks, without knowing the real approval of our members. But ten days before the opening of the fair, I can only congratulate ourselves on our choice: it is already a participative success, since we have registered nearly a hundred SLAM registrations for the fair, for nearly 130 exhibitors. This demonstrates the willingness to attend this event. At least for this pilot event. I hope that it will be followed by positive effects for the booksellers, and that the visitors will be happy. And the thirty or so registered ILAB exhibitors also prove the attractiveness of the French market.
How would you describe the situation of the French rare book trade since March this year?
It has obviously become more difficult, that's undeniable. Especially for those who had a lot of activity in the bookshop. The rental costs are expensive, and the visit of customers was often an important part of the activity, both for buying and selling. Everyone was able to adapt, I think. France, in economic matters, has implemented a very important policy of support and assistance, probably one of the most generous in the world. Many sectors have been helped. But I have to be transparent: none of our members have come forward to activate the government's aid schemes for businesses that had lost significant sales. The measures for employees (partial unemployment and aid for the self-employed) were sufficient to get through the two confinement schemes. This does not mean that there were no difficulties, but the Grand Palais in September on the one hand, and the work of everyone on the other, have had an effect. It's more complicated for those who work a lot with institutions and libraries, because the activity has been considerably reduced on that side. But quite frankly, and the activity among auctioneers shows it: the French market is very active. I have several members who, no more and no less, have achieved in a rather incredible way a very good year 2020! and for many, the loss of turnover will be less than 15%. Given the situation, it's quite miraculous, but that's the reality.
What skills or ideas do you think can be adopted in a post-COVID world?
A strong presence on the digital, but keeping in mind our specificities: we work on cultural heritage: the history of men, ideas, art, travel, religion, science, literature. Deeply human, intimate subjects. And unique objects, made of leather, ink and paper. That we must exhibit, photograph, and transfer from one owner to another, from the bookshelf of a bookseller to that of the collector who will host the item. It's up to us to find other ways to familiarize ourselves with the new tools: virtual fairs, social networks (Instagram in particular), newsletters, etc. Beware of the bulimic and time-consuming aspect of these tools. We have to be reasonable, and get organized. The year 2021 holds some surprises ahead of us, it's up to us to anticipate them. The League has a leading role in this current process, even if the main card is in the hands of the national associations, which must inform and advise their members. This, at SLAM, is our Roadmap. We already have several ideas to help them and propose concrete solutions to them.
Hervé, we thank you for this conversation and wish you and your committee at SLAM much success with the upcoming SLAM Virtual Winter Rare Book Fair "Salon d'Hiver Virtuel".