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We're Off to Bologna to Sell Kids' Books Foreign Rights; Here are a Few Tips

Bologna Book Fair

After a whopper spring snowstorm that delivered twelve inches of wet, heavy snow to our neck of the woods in Traverse City, Michigan yesterday, I am dreaming of sunshine and short sleeves in Italy April 1-4, at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF). But more than the weather (oh, and the food), Bologna’s the annual kickoff to international trade show season for most publishers, and the Italians really know how to welcome publishers and illustrators in a creative environment.

The best foreign rights exposure for children’s books publishers is the BCBF: nearly 25,000 international professional trade reps and agents from seventy-five countries scout for gems and do deals on a 20,000-square-meter show floor. In Bolognese book-speak, children’s books means board books, picture books, young adult fiction and nonfiction, and everything in between. Plus, the show floors of the Bologna fair are awash with some of the most astounding art and artists anywhere.

Late last year, I began agenting (through Champagne World Rights Agency) to help indie presses that don’t have rights departments follow through on the interest they get at the fair. To that end, I’ll be meeting with my Chinese coagent next week to pass along my first signed contract, and collect another that’s been in the works since last August!

Foreign rights is a relationship business. Hosting appointments all week long at the Foreword Indie Press Collective gives me the chance to catch up with my Chinese friend and other agents I’ve built alliances with over the last eighteen years at fairs we’ve also attended in London, Beijing, Frankfurt, and Shanghai. Foreword is a now a part of Children’s Books USA, the largest pavilion-type stand for North American children’s publishers including National Geographic, the American Psychological Association’s Magination Press, Charlesbridge, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Peachtree, Holiday House, and more.

In addition to myself, representatives from Foreword also direct agents without an appointment to the appropriate shelves (books are arranged by genre) and collect business cards and contact information when interest in a certain title is expressed. We will then pass on the contact info to the corresponding publisher. If you decide to send your title(s) with us, you will also receive a listing in the online version of the show guide, rigorously studied by agents before and after the actual event.

The hardest part? Predicting which books are going to attract the most attention. Often, I’m surprised to see books that would turn off the average American reader gain traction and eventual deals in Bologna and the other fairs. You just never know what somebody is going to fall in love with. Even so, here are a few tips to consider before committing yourself to selling foreign rights.

  • Foreign publishers want a storyline with a lesson or universal values, particularly for children’s books.

  • Books in a series are very attractive and lucrative.

  • Award winners garner a lot of attention—foil seals on front covers are like agent-magnets.

  • “Untraditional” books only need one interested agent to make a deal, and it often happens!

  • Prepare for the show with collateral materials like a sell sheet, watermarked PDFs, and patience.

  • Understand the follow-up process and accept that it may, but probably won’t, happen as quickly as you would like (read: don’t count on the revenues immediately after the fair!).


Victoria Sutherland

Victoria Sutherland is the publisher of Foreword Reviews. You can e-mail her at victoria@forewordreviews.com.

Victoria Sutherland

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