For a remarkable fifty-four straight springtimes, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF) has been held in this most delightful of Italian cities. Long considered the most important international event for children’s publishing, the 2017 edition coincided with the Illustrators Fair, Digital Media Fair, and Bologna Licensing Trade Fair, all serving to attract a broad collection of industry professionals: publishers, authors, illustrators, translators, literary agents, tv/film producers, licensees/licensors, printers, packagers, and distributors.
This year’s April 3 – 6 event brought in close to 35,000 visitors, according to show organizers, including 26,743 trade personnel (up 2 percent), of which 11,752 hailed from countries other than Italy (up 15 percent). Similar to 2016, 1,300 exhibitors traveled from seventy four countries.
Over the years, my wife and I have attended fifteen or so BCBFs from our positions at Foreword Reviews and Children’s Books USA. And while we love the grand annual book events in Frankfurt, London, Shanghai, Beijing, and New York, if for some reason Bologna was crossed off the list, we’d quickly get walloped with a nasty bout of despair.
What’s so special about Bologna? Well, let’s start with the dozens of high quality ristorantes, trattorias, osterias, drogherias, and pizzerias sprinkled around the city. Bologna is the capital of the agriculturally blessed Emilia Romagna region of north-central Italy—think Parmigiana Reggiano, Parma prosciutto, Barilla pasta, Modena balsamic vinegars, Lambrusco, Sangiovese, and other top wine varieties—so its food scene is off the charts.
In addition, Bologna is the home of Maserati, Lamborghini, Ducati, Ferrari (Modena), and other legendary automotive/motorcycle brands. The rich agricultural and industrial history attests to the city’s prosperity, and to walk the streets is to see some of Europe’s most beautiful buildings and architecture, much of it dating from medieval times. Not to forget the University of Bologna: dating from the 11th century, it is considered the oldest university in the world. The school’s library and some of its oldest buildings have been converted into a city-center museum displaying historic surgical equipment, old books, marble busts of past professors, and other scholastic artifacts.
My point is, with so much to experience in the city, nearly as much business gets done after hours over Prosecco and spaghetti Bolognese as is done on the show floor. Talk to most any longtime book show attendees and you’ll hear repeatedly that Bologna is numero uno of fairs around the world.
The 2017 fair encompassed six halls at Bologna’s modern, heavily glassed exhibit complex, including four international halls, and two additional halls hosting the Digital Media Fair and Licensing Trade Fair. Scattered throughout the floor space were areas and exhibits devoted to literary agents, translators, and illustrators. Annually, the BCBF features dozens of educational seminars covering all aspects of international publishing. In all, the 2017 fair held 396 events.
Catalonia and the Balearic Islands served as this year’s Guest of Honor, under the banner Sharing a Future: Books in Catalan in Bologna 2017. While less than ten million people speak Catalan, the language has a rich history and even boasts Europe’s longest continuing publishing operation in Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, dating from the fifteenth century. The Guest of Honor activities and book fair displays featured many stunning examples of Catalonia and the Balearic Island illustrations, as well as children’s books in Catalan.
Foreword’s Stacy Price, my wife (Victoria), and I spent two days at a not-so-hectic pace setting up the Children’s Books USA stand prior to the opening of the fair. For those unfamiliar, CBUSA is a thirty-three year-old Bologna Book Fair concierge and exhibit service for established US publishers including National Geographic, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Charlesbridge, Peachtree, Holiday House, APA/Magination Press, and Creston Books. With all those publishers, it’s a pretty hefty booth to construct, and upon first arrival at the fairgrounds on the first set-up day, there’s always an anxious minute or two as we count boxes to assure everything has arrived and that the proper number of tables, chairs, shelves, and lights are in place—but there were no surprises again this year.
Foreword’s Indie Press Collective was part of Children’s Books USA. The Collective displayed more than one hundred individual titles from approximately seventy different small US publishing houses. The presence of the more established houses in CBUSA, along with their rights people working through a long list of half-hour appointments, drove a significant amount of traffic into Foreword’s vicinity. HMH’s Candace Finn met with over sixty different clients over three and a half days, as did Farah Gehy at Peachtree.
Others, like Anita Eerdman, reserve a couple hours each day to scout for projects to acquire in the Italy/France/China/Japan/Argentina and other foreign halls. At any given time in our CBUSA booth, an ever-changing handful of translators and illustrators will be offering their services or reconnecting with one of the US publisher reps. For an hour on Monday and Wednesday afternoon, Holiday House hosted an open forum for freelance illustrators to show their work in five minute segments, and upwards of thirty different young illustrators from around the world took advantage of the opportunity each day.
As with any international book show, printers from China and Korea frequently stop by to chat about their companies and leave literature.
Trends and Show Floor Buzz
At some Bologna Book Fairs there’s a few major book titles, trends, or publishing news everyone is talking about, but this year, not so much. In fact, the lack of a narrowly focused trend seemed to allow a variety of projects to shine. Some of the chatter was about marginalized voices and diversity. Others conversations centered on magical themes and graphic novel formats for kids. YA and middle grade nonfiction was often discussed. Topical events like Black Lives Matter, the US presidential election, immigration, and climate change also drove many of the discussions about the types of projects making their way around the show floor.
At our stand, a handful of different visiting publishers asked about books on mindfulness for kids. To be sure, visitors always express interest in beautifully illustrated children’s picture books and middle-grade/young-adult fiction. As in years past, books with a foil seal on the cover (whether it be a Foreword INDIE Book of the Year Award or another award program), reflecting recognition of any sort, continued to be a draw, particularly with the Chinese, as did science, green ecology, lesson-based titles, and travel-related titles, particularly those in a series. We also met with a number of representatives from North American publishing houses who were trying to find good independently published books to augment their lists and expand distribution opportunities.
Much of our business at the fair is in the form of walk-bys (an agent from Sony Pictures Studios was spotted in front of the booth), and to further increase traffic to our stand, we send emails in advance to agents from our database. We let them know of our location, along with a list of the titles we’re displaying. Many of these agents are subscribers to Foreword Reviews, and they stop by because of ads or featured reviews they read in the magazine. They often share success stories with us regarding those magazine leads. We also gave away hundreds of Foreword’s March/April issue and our recently released Children’s SIP (Special Interest Product) to agents who are too busy to have a conversation at the booth. Historically, scores of publishers are contacted directly after the fair through magazine leads or Foreword’s Online Rights Catalog.
At the end of the fair, all the hundreds and hundreds of books (if they weren’t passed along to interested agents on the last day) displayed in the CBUSA stand were donated to Arianna Guerri of the B School in Lucca (English international school), serving students from three to eighteen years old. The gift of so many books is eagerly anticipated and greatly appreciated by the students each year.
For children’s book publishers of a certain size, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair is a must-do event. Smaller independent presses, in particular, have found the BCBF an excellent venue to begin a rights program. Compared to Frankfurt, the Bologna fair is modestly sized and manageable. As mentioned earlier, beyond books and the book fair, Bologna offers a long list of additional attractions.
Ciao, for now.
Matt Sutherland is Editor In Chief at Foreword Reviews. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.