Notes from Bologna

The dust has settled, the manuscripts have been sent out, and I finally have a bit of time to sit back and take stock of this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

I hadn’t been to Bologna since 2012, and oh my goodness, I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it. I have this problem where I absolutely hate book fairs unless I am actually at one, in which case I love it and always have a wonderful time. This year was particularly nerve-wracking for me because so much had changed since 2012. Last time I was at Bologna, I was a rights executive for a major UK children’s publisher – which involved taking meetings on their stand from 9am until 6pm, with the occasional quick break to dash to the loo. This time, I was a free-floating agent, which involved a lot of meetings in the café at the agent centre, a lot of dashing between other people’s stands, and a little bit of wandering around the different halls and treating the occasional editor to gelato in the sunshine outside Hall 25. Last time I had a big binder full of new projects, plenty of illustrated proofs and advance copies to show off, and a big stand full of backlist books; this time it was just me and my tablet. It feels a bit more precarious this way, but also more exciting.

The Rights Factory presence at Bologna this year consisted of me and my wonderful colleague, Ali McDonald, who is TRF’s main children’s agent. I was mostly there in my capacity as foreign rights associate, so Ali met with English-language editors and I met with editors who publish in other languages (as well as with our foreign co-agents and literary scouts). Ali also travelled to the furthest reaches of the fair and brought me back pizza for lunch, because she is wonderful ❤ (the food at the fair is still mostly terrible except for the pizza).

I found this Publisher’s Weekly article pretty representative of my experience: people are still looking for the Next Big Thing, of course, but at the moment nobody seems to have a clear idea of what that will be, and as a result people feel delightfully open to the new and unexpected. My biggest books of the fair were the ones that were a little out-of-the-ordinary: a YA horror novel with the feel of a cult classic, a highly-illustrated middle-grade that blends fact and fiction, a classic sports story with a science-fiction twist. Contemporary YA is still very popular – I had a lot of interest in a couple of YA romances with great voices and very high stakes – and YA fantasy can work as long as it’s unusual and/or feels really ‘big’. A number of markets seem to be paying more attention to English-language middle-grade recently, with some only prepared to consider series and others looking particularly for standalones. I was surprised at the number of middle-grade editors saying that they didn’t mind what genre the book was, but they did want the main character to be a particular gender (maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was).

Outside of the fair, I went to lots of dinners and spent lots of time drinking with editors in bars and didn’t get nearly enough sleep. I reconnected with some old colleagues, who generously let me crash their dinner on the last evening of the fair, I consumed a reasonable amount of limoncello and in retrospect I didn’t get nearly enough gelato, despite it being perfect gelato weather. Oh well – it was a fantastic fair overall, and there’s always next year.

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