ILLUSTRATION FEATURE The Bologna Book Fair 2018

This year's Bologna Book Fair saw a marked increase in the number of exhibitors and attendees, Words & Pictures' Illustration Editor John Shelley was there amongst the crowds and gives this overview. 

I suppose I'm a bit of a Bologna Book Fair veteran by now, having attended five times, but it's been six years since my last visit, a long gap in publishing terms, so the 2018 Fair was full of surprises and revelations.

The relocation of the European and South American / Asian stands to new halls caused a bit of confusion and some extra legwork, but visually at least the Fair was pretty much as anticipated. Big, glamorous, appointment-only corporate stands rubbed shoulders as ever with intimate smaller presses eager to show lovely new books. It's impossible to cover all the activities in a short report, so this is chiefly my reaction as an illustrator/reporter.

The Illustrator's Exhibition

I'll start with the Bologna Illustrators' Exhibition as it's the first thing you see when you arrive. The exhibition is noted for a sophisticated art-focused tone, that doesn't necessarily meet the requirements of commercial publishing, but the quality is always high. This year seemed to me to have a high percentage of layered print works (as opposed to painted). A few pieces I really liked, many, though fine pieces in their way, I admit I passed by. The show was laid out flat on tables rather than walls, long sets of displays of gradually shortening length. This certainly gave an intimate experience of the work, but there's only so much area for people to stretch over to look, so I may have missed some pieces.

The "Illustrator's Wall" (or rather walls) in the entrance area are more extensive than ever, every inch of them, including doors and frames were plastered with flyers from Day 1. An illustrator I know (I won't say who!) describes this as the "Wall of Desperation", but people were taking photos, picking up cards and flyers - if you were there and hear from someone who spotted your promo on the walls do let us know!

China was the Guest of Honour country, so there were displays, exhibitions, ink painting demonstrations and expanded stands heralding publishing in the country. I recollect China did not have a particularly strong presence at Bologna in the past (perhaps a consequence of the one-child policy), and even now, the enormous stands, though impressive, seemed somewhat light in the number and range of actual books on show. Nevertheless the energy in this widening market was very clear, children's publishing in China is rapidly expanding.

So onto the Halls.

Susan Eaddy's promotion at the SCBWI Stand

The new, enlarged SCBWI stand is now directly opposite the collected US publishers, with a symbolic backdrop of Koinobori (Japanese Carp kites) and western kites, which beautifully framed the programme of activities. It was my particular pleasure to run the final sketching duel with Paul O Zelinsky, responding to stanza's from the winning picture book manuscript by British Isles member Zoe Armstrong. Well done to Zoe, and many thanks to all the Bologna Team! There are lots more photos on the SCBWI Bologna Facebook page.

Sketch-duelling with Paul O Zelinsky (photo ©SCBWI Bologna)

Treading the halls for four days takes it out of your feet (note to self: wear your most comfortable shoes next time!), other than reporting for Words & Pictures I was there to show my new stories, catch up with my US / Japanese editors, seek out a nook in British publishing, and soak up the creativity, the inspiring books, the vibe.

Prizewinning books

The prosecco flowed at Macmillan's 175th Anniversary, the Irish Publishing stand, the Cambridge Anglia Ruskin MA Student stand, and the ALMA stand, these are just the celebrations I hob-knobbed at amidst the many (SCBWI had one too, but I missed it!). The programme of activities at the Illustrators cafe included the announcement of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and (for me crucially!) the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, for which I'd been honoured with a nomination. It was hectic, I regret missing some important events, especially the New York Times conference, which I heard was fantastic, but unfortunately clashed with the busiest day of the Fair for me.

Japanese storytelling theatre kamishibai is now gaining popularity across Europe - this from the German publisher Edition Bracklo

Picture Book Trends? I noticed a lot of very fine books that explored mixed media (digital and analogue), beautifully made non-fiction seemed to be particularly prominent, as were new or revived ways of story telling, especially in the European stands. But as an editor confided, there didn't seem to be any dominant themes, it's as if editors are almost waiting for something big to happen (the editor's words not mine!).

Is it worth the investment to go?

Bologna is not cheap - there's the flight, and the accomodation, and the entry fee (unless you're associated with some activity in the Fair). I would say, if you're in the early stages of your career then weigh the costs vs benefits. Bologna is a lovely city, the Fair offers a fantastic spectacle of children’s publishing across the world, there are incredible books that never make it to the UK high street. You'll meet lots of people, and even if commissions elude, you’ll be inspired and definitely gain valuable advice. Chance encounters are everywhere, I lost count of the number of unexpected bump-into's.

So yes, it's unique, it's worth it, if you've the budget. Where else can you find such a concentration of children's publishers across the globe? And then there are the events. But so many illustrators attend now the competition is very high, so prepare well beforehand - sort out your appointments before you go, because the number of creative staff attending is fewer than ever, those that are there tend to stick strictly to their timetable of meetings.

Hectic meetings at the Oxford University Press stand, beneath a banner of new work from SCBWI's own Mike Brownlow

If your career is a bit more established then the attraction is all the stronger. To make real headway it's good to have something to market beyond your portfolio - it's a Business Fair after all. New projects/dummies, rights to books etc, Bologna will sweep away wooliness in your business approach.

I noticed many more publishers were running "portfolio surgeries" for illustrators now, long queues of patiently waiting young artists were common. I wasn't seeking portfolio advice at Bologna, I wondered how many of those queuing would actually find work from these mini portfolio consultations, I'd like to hear if anyone does! Though they weren't for me, I'm sure they were very valuable to some - let us know if you had some successes!

Well how did I get on? Aha! That's another story, which you can read here!

For more on this year's Bologna Fair see also SCBWI member Anya Kuvarzina's excellent 'Ultimate Guide for Illustrators', and the SCBWI Bologna Facebook page.


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently the picture book Magic for Sale with words by Carrie Clickard (Holiday House). He was one of the UK nominees for the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

1 comment:

  1. I've still not visited and your report whets my creative appetite more than ever John. Thanks for such a colourful round up.


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