Organisers should rewrite the role of book fair
Each year, the Hong Kong Book Fair draws hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom queue for hours just to get in. The excitement surrounding the event is always a pleasant surprise in a city where book reading is low on the list of favourite pastimes.
This year, all signs again point to an impressive turnout. This is thanks to advance publicity for a book detailing the diet secrets of Joyce Cheng Yan-yee - local celebrity Lydia Shum's teenage daughter - appearances by Canto-pop idols and the buzz around satirical comics lambasting the local political scene.
Given its aims, the fair is successful. As a platform for marketing books to the public, it is a winner - this year's showcase has drawn more than 300 exhibitors, including some new foreign publishers. Comic books, one of the best-selling genres, did so well at the fair that they now have their own event. Most importantly, countless youngsters have been introduced to the joys of reading for pleasure.
Still, the fair's formula is one that could be improved upon, especially if its ambition is to grow. In catering to popular demand, organisers and publishers have over the years been sidelining other topics and works that might well deserve better promotion. The odd poetry reading might be scheduled but is lost in the crush of publicity about the latest celebrity autobiography or cookbook. But history buffs or science fiction fans, among others, get little acknowledgment.
Branching out need not be a purely altruistic move. Sales and attendance might increase if the fair's limelight were split among a wider range of subjects. Of the 400,000 or so visitors expected this year, there are likely to be sizeable numbers who would want to hear the latest best-selling novelist from the mainland or Taiwan. But they will not be able to because of the slant towards the lowest common denominator of taste.
Managed well, a shift to balance the fluff with more serious offerings could even turn the annual book fair into a major event on the tourist calendar, especially for the Chinese-speaking world.
Another question to consider is whether there could be a bigger, and profitable, trade element to the fair. What is now a consumer-oriented exhibition could add a complementary trade event by hosting seminars and meetings for publishers, agents and authors.
Now, such business might be done ad hoc in Hong Kong or at trade conferences in Singapore, Taiwan and Beijing. But the larger international book trade shows, such as Frankfurt and Chicago, illustrate that having an event at which to discuss industry developments helps provide focus as well as prestige.
None of these other Asian trade shows has a dominant position as a meeting place for the region's publishers; Hong Kong, as a geographical and cultural bridge between the markets, would seem a natural.