ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Bologna Bookfair 2019

The 2019 Bologna Book Fair was busier than ever, John Shelley reports from the Fair, and talks to  SCBWI members who were attending.

Once more this year's Bologna Book Fair was a magnet for attendees across the globe, with Fair attendance up by 5% on the previous year. The resulting statistics are mind boggling:

(@ Courtesy Bologna Book Fair)

There was no SCBWI stand this year, as we alternate years with the upcoming Europolitan Conference, the next Bologna stand will be in 2020. Nevertheless there were many SCBWI members at the Fair, British Isles being especially well represented. Apart from myself, Mike Brownlow and Trish Phillips from our BI illustrators committee were present, Trish being one of the displaying graduates of the Anglia Ruskin MA course, whose stand was, as always, very busy indeed. I had many encounters with other SCBWI attendees, and saw lots of books on display with familiar names!

Trish showcasing her dummy books at the Cambridge Stand
Having been to BCBF before never lessens the impact of walking into the fair and to be confronted by such an awesome array of stands packed full of books and walls of illustrators cards and work.

This year is extra special; being  represented by the Cambridge school of art having just graduated from the Children's Book Illustration MA is a real boost to one's confidence - someone to fight your corner, although it is still nerve racking touting oneself around the publisher stands.

But there is such a buzz and thrill about Bologna it will draw you back year after year to see who's doing what, whats new, checking out the publishers and joining in workshops and talks.
(Trish Phillips)
SCBWI Member Julia Woolf with her editor at the Faber Stand (her latest book Calm Down Zebra displayed top right in pale blue)

For me there didn't seem an especially strong theme or stand-out attraction this year, though I loved the large and fascinating display to the showcased country Switzerland, home to many amazing writers and illustrators. As always, the juried Bologna Illustrator’s Exhibition took centre stage at the entrance to the Fair, with a wide variety of styles, though as last year I thought the decision to display artwork flat on tables rather than upright on panels was somewhat awkward for visitors to view.

The Swiss Books Display
Illustrator's Exhibition

The entrance area also exhibited works by Igor Oleynikov, illustrator of the Annual cover 2019 and winner of Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration in 2018. He gave a talk about his work in the Illustrators Cafe on Tuesday.

Igor Oleynikov

The multiple illustrator pin-up promo walls seem to be organically expanding with each year, every surface covered with illustrator promo’s. Passing through these takes you onto the trading halls themselves, from the first very sunny morning business was brisk.

"Aged 22 I was asked to go to Bologna Children’s Book Fair - I don’t remember by whom - but didn’t go; being an almost-graduate with no spare funds, and with plans afoot to hit the ground running as soon as I did graduate, I dismissed the idea and never went. 25 years later I found myself at my first Bologna - and it was as if that quarter century had disappeared!

"The Fair immediately brought to life all those studenty feelings of excitement, anticipation and mutual support; people from all over the world united by a love of books gathered in one, enormous, coffee-scented spot. At Bologna, I felt new, that ‘Anything Was Possible’ for me and for anyone else with an idea or a pencil raring to go. The event has an energy and a warmth I’ve only felt a handful of times in my life, with its large lists of publishers, editors, agents and commissioners offering support and willingness to listen or look at whatever you’d brought with you.

"Whether new to the business or new to the fair - or both - there was the obvious joy of nerding off for three days straight, and although all of my appointments were booked very last-minute, I found people were very happy to ‘squeeze you in’ if you were OK to wait around a bit or perch on the concrete benches in the sun. But no-one seemed jaded or bored; artwork, new books and coffee stands were EVERYWHERE, and delving into the further-flung bookscapes such as Korea, Australia and Russia was an enlightening indulgence. I can’t count how many different nationalities I enjoyed saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ to!"
(Sarah J Coleman)

The prospect of Brexit loomed large in the thoughts of many involved in UK publishing, however, in the aisles of Bologna at least there was little overt reference, apart from a particular title on the Macmillan stand…

The Macmillan stand, Axel Scheffler relaxing in the background after live-drawing on the first day.

This year was the 20th Anniversary of The Gruffalo, which Macmillan was eager to showcase.

Publishing for under-represented groups was a very prominent theme, from representation of different groups, countries with active, yet under-funded publishing networks finding a broader market, or wider distribution, in the UK especially, of books in translation (there was a good event on this arranged by Booktrust), these themes appeared in many talks.

I asked editors what they thought were the big things going on, and several agreed the growth of the Chinese publishing market was significant, and not only in the increased number of stands. Holiday House, one of my publishers in the US has recently been given a major cash injection from a large Chinese investment corporation, and the same group is now bidding to buy other US publishers, so for some companies at least things are definitely on the move with a lot of optimism. Nevertheless it certainly doesn’t hold that the bigger the stand the more exciting the books - many of the nuanced gems I found were from the smaller stands, yet on the big display panels the more commercial books were very prominent. Perhaps rather too many themes about bums and bodily functions for my personal tastes, but at Bologna at least, there is room for everything. Rubbing shoulders with the Book Fair was the Bologna licensing fair, and there was a lot of cross-over.

Butt Out
O-shiri Tantei (Butt Detective)
At the same time more intimate picture books were on wide display. For me the most impressive books often tend to be from Europe and this year was no exception, but there was also amazing work from the Far East, especially picture books from Korea and Taiwan. Illustration seemed to be everywhere this year, for some illustrators I spoke to it was quite overwhelming. In contrast, to my eyes, visually at least there seemed to somewhat less showcasing of older fiction.

Last year was my first return to the Fair in a number of years, and one of the big changes I noticed was that the ‘Illustrators Cafe’ had been supplanted by the much expanded 'Illustrators Survival Corner'. This year the 'Corner' took up a large section of Hall 30, with at least four conference rooms, and was a constant buzz of workshops, portfolio reviews and presentations, plus a scribble wall, another exhibition space and info desk. Unlike my last visit I was able to attend a broad selection of events, which really made this year particularly notable, not only talks for illustrators, there were a string of symposiums and talks in the writer’s cafe, the translators’ cafe and other locations relevant to anyone involved in books.

Illustrators Survival Corner
In the ‘Meet the Laureates’ event it was interesting to hear Lauren Child talk about her early submission failures until she stopped thinking about the children’s market and a began working on a personal film screenplay, which ended up as Clarice Bean. Morris Gleitzman talked about how too many adults regard children’s books merely a way to learn reading and then move on from, “whereas there is nothing more important than giving children a rich and broad reading experience”.
The ever-increasing number of illustrator attendees was clearly evidenced not only in the expanded events and ‘illustrator walls’, but also the queues in the aisles. UK publishers only send limited numbers of editors, and those that do go are often not around for the whole Fair, most staff are Rights specialists who are there to make deals, not to view portfolios. With a growing disparity between the objectives of the attendees and that of publishing staff, it's a common sight now for publishers to set aside specific 'portfolio viewing' slots on days when art directors are present. The queues for these can be long, I've heard instances of artists queuing for hours only for the publisher to run out of time before their turn and end the session. One art director confided that in the past they gave 15 minutes to each artist, but with increasing numbers that was cut down to 10, and this year were they being asked to consider just 5-minutes to view each portfolio.

Illustrators queuing for portfolio reviews at the Flying Eye stand.

Nevertheless, there are undoubtably opportunities, but it's advisable to make at least some appointments before setting out to Bologna, and if you’re a more seasoned creative with published books and dummies to show I think it's essential to get a proper meeting!

"Bologna was overwhelming in the best way! This was my first year going and I wasn’t disappointed. At first I was nervous about portfolio reviews but was pleasantly surprised with how welcoming and encouraging the publishers were." (Sarah Noble)
"This year felt a lot busier than the previous three years - so many first-timers.  I didn't bother with queuing for portfolio reviews this time (some folks queued for quite some time without being seen in the end), but I did make sure I gave a selection of postcards of my work to publishers I am interested in.  I noticed the illustrators' wall at the entrance had increased in size so didn't need to fight for poster space quite so much! However, some folks need to stop with the A2 size posters!" (Camille Whitcher)

So, what is the chief attraction of Bologna for illustrators? The workshops and events? - yes. The global spectacle? Oh yes! The chances to meet people in the industry, those moments of serendipity and chance meetings that lead onto new opportunities? All this. But for me the greatest value is that Bologna gives you a sense of perspective, of where you fit in, of your place in publishing, whatever your level of experience, in an atmosphere of creativity and friendliness rarely seen at any other major book fair. And it’s ALL about children’s books, how great is that?

I'll end with this summary from Mike, another seasoned pro illustrator visiting for the first time.

"The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is big. Four aircraft hanger-sized halls crammed with people from all over the world selling books for children big. I enjoyed talks at the Illustrators’ Cafe, and the Illustrators’ Survival Corner. Unfortunately the former was situated near the entrance and the latter about as far away from the entrance as it was possible to be. I was glad I brought my hiking boots.

"Highlights were talks by Rod Biddulph, the Bright Agency and three Cambridge/Anglia Ruskin students. I was impressed by the variety of the exhibitors from around the world, and must have riffled through hundreds of beautiful books. I was interested to hear the Children’s Laureates from four different countries explain their roles.
Vicki Willden-Lebrecht of the Bright Agency (photo: Mike Brownlow)

"I managed to catch up with my agent, but not the teams at OUP and Hachette. They were too busy. What I hadn’t properly appreciated is that Bologna is there principally for publishers to sell books to other publishers. The people who create the books — the writers and illustrators — are of secondly importance. That’s not a criticism, merely an observation. Yes, some publishers will look at your portfolio, or listen to your pitch for a new project, provided you book in advance. But mostly my impressions are of sales and rights teams beavering away in their enclaves, trying to make deals and sell books from dawn to dusk, which of course is how the publishing industry survives and thrives. 

"At Bologna Airport, an older gentleman sat down besides my wife and I, and asked if we could tell him what time our plane back to Gatwick was due to board, as he couldn’t find his glasses to read the display. I recognised him as Klaus Flugge, legendary publisher of Andersen Press, who I’d last talked to at an SCBWI Conference a few years ago, and we had a very pleasant chat about books and book-selling for half an hour. It turns out he’s been coming to the Book Fair since the very first one in 1963. He stays in the same hotel just off the Piazza Maggiore every year, and about twenty years ago Bologna made him a freeman of the city for his services to publishing. He invited me to come and see him sometime at Penguin/Random House, which was very nice of him. I decided it best not to mention that he’s twice turned down book proposals of mine in the past." (Mike Brownlow)


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently 'A Purse Full of Tales', a book of Korean Folk stories, for Hesperus Press. He's twice been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, in 2018, and again in 2019.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks John, Mike and all for a great account - felt I was back there! I heard from my French publisher that for the 1st time there was a Bologna award for a ‘toddler’ book. Did anyone hear about that or see it?


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