The Bologna Book Fair Blog
Because I am living in Prague right now, I go almost every year to Bologna Book Fair. The first year, I made the mistake of thinking it would be like a book or writers festival in Australia. That is the mistake every author who comes to Bologna makes, the first time, and some, realizing the truth of it, do not come again.
The truth of the Bologna Book Fair is that it first and foremost a rights' fair. By rights, I mean its main purpose is for publishers like Allen and Unwin and Penguin Books and many many other publishers from all over the world, to showcase and sell the foreign rights to the children's books they have published. It is also a fair at which these same publishers will look at and perhaps buy the rights to books from overseas publishers. The latter can be English language books or titles that they will translate. Ditto many of the foreign publishers looking at Australian books will be looking at translating them.
I might mention here that I want to intersperse fair pictures with pictures of Bologna and (later on) Venice, as that is the other wonderful thing about the Fair- where it is and what you do and see on the way to and from and during the evenings - do not discount the true beauties of Bologna and of Venice, as a drawcards for those contemplating a trip to the fair.
Of course, many people who speak other languages also speak enough english to understand the things they might buy before they are translated, but the Australian, UK and US publishers will often not understand the foreign languages in the books they might buy. Of course the original publishers will strive to make sense of the text for the english speakers, but in the end, it lives or dies by the quality of the art. The story can be tweaked in translation - I do not know for sure if the publishers approach it in this way, but I strongly suspect it and I KNOW it from my own experience in reverse. Also translation is an art and the result can be something wonderful or something ghastly. Too big a subject for a little diversion here...
There is a brochure full of talks and presentations and other Fair events visitors can attend, but these are aimed at visitors to the fair, rather than at the serious attendees who are there to buy and sell, and who fund the fair. If you travel there as a person interested in literature, these events are what will interest you most, and the displays of illustrative artwork, particularly of the country being featured that year that fair.
Last Year the focus country was Australia, this year it is Portugal. There is always a very creatively set up display of illustrative artwork of the featured country, next to the Illustrators' Cafe, and wrapped around this area is a white wall, which by the end of the fair, is entirely covered in sample artwork and cards left by the many different artists who are among the main attendees of the fair. These walls are well worth a look, and you often see publishers, bedraggled and weary at the end of all the wheeling and dealing, photographing the artwork or the cards with them, to follow up later.
To my mind, one of the greatest pleasures of the book fair is to see the breadth and diversity of the artwork on display- my own favorites always seem to be the art in books from the Scandinavian Countries and from Korea and Japan, as well as other Asian countries. But the artwork from Italy and Spain is also very exciting. Of course I do not understand the texts, but in almost all cases the artwork is needs no translation. I have seen artwork that took my breath away at Bologna, and I always go, eager to see what is on offer, what visuals are appearing over and over- what colours etc.
The fair is a mecca for visual artists and art students, many Italian but a good number from other countries as well and all young enough to hope that they will be discovered. You can spot them in a moment- they are almost all beautiful, almost all wearing a combination of workman funk and cool high fashion put together in a way that is all their own. And they carry their huge folders of work. They are the ones that leave samples of their work and their cards, because in many cases, no one will see their work. Though there are always a couple of intrepid, wonderful publishers that put up a shingle saying they will look at new art from this time to that- Usually a couple of hours. Long before the appointed time, there will be snaking, endless queues of hopeful illustrators waiting for their five minutes.
And the hopes of those young illustrators may very well not be in vain. I know personally of at least three success stories over the years where young foreign artists (published and unpublished) were discovered and went on to publish in Australia and the world. In one case, the artist ended up moving to Australia with her partner. So, life changing things do happen at the fair. (It is said that once upon a time huge deals were struck at the fair, but this is no longer so – maybe because of the more and more business minded approach to books)
If the artists are bold and brave and watchful enough, and they have talent that is evident at a glance in their portfolio, they can also try to show their work to the publishers at the stands, but that is a little more tricky because of the way the fair works.
Each publisher buys space, and space is not cheap, so publishers usually occupy space in groups or in countries. In the past, Penguin Australia has grouped itself with the US parent company. There are huge Random and Bloomsbury stands too - of course there are halls and halls full of small and sometimes wonderfully enterprising publishing companies as well ... But the big groupings enable the participants to have receptionists to turn aside people who turn up hoping for a meeting, and to keep the flow of those who have arranged meetings, moving through. I am not sure, obviously, how this is all funded by the different parties, but I do know it is expensive.
This year, for the first time, Penguin joined the Australian Publishers Stand, which I liked very much. Penguin and Allen and Unwin book-ended the Australian Publishing stand, which uniquely includes (and has done for several years) an illustrators table where a roster of visiting published Australian illustrators do their thing where passersby can see them. Sometimes the crowd here is substantial- I remember when Shaun Tan came, the queue for autographs was as long as the queue of hopeful illustrators elsewhere, and it was made up by a good many of the same people. Shaun handled the flood with typical modest, charm and no visible haste. I remember watching him that day and thinking he knew how to stay himself no matter where he was.
To my mind, this stand, perhaps mostly because of this table, is the best thing about the fair. It is the only place at the whole often soulless horse-trading of ownership of books and wheeling and dealing of wheelers and dealers, where actual creation is going on. Even the talks are all only about creativity and different forms of telling stories. Perhaps that is why there is so often a crowd of people stopping at the Australian stand, first to watch the illustrators, and chat with them, often, touchingly to offer to show us their own work, and sometimes to leave a card and ask the illustrator to contact them, then they see that behind the table, there is a micro gallery of real illustrations, curated by the two dynamos from Books Illustrated, Jess Hadden and Ann James. It hardly needs saying that the latter is a brilliant, award winning illustrator in her own right, but she and Jess seem to spend so much time promoting and tending the work of other illustrators, with a generosity and energy that awes and abashes me, yet I also wonder when Ann gets time to draw... ( I might ask her as she and Jess are headed for Prague after the fair - that may well lead to a postscrip blog, once we talk and process everything that happened) )
Of course it is not all souless (but necessary) horse trading. Many publishers really do care about the people whose work they see, even when they are unable to publish them, and especially when they see them year after year. Helen Chamberlin, who was not there this year, had introduced me to a lovely Spanish illustrator called Beatiz, who had sent me some of her illustrations to look at after the last fair I attended. I sent her work, with Helen’s blessing, to Allen and Unwin and Penguin, certain they would be intersted, and they were. Allen and Unwin gave her a meeting at the end of one of the days, and Ann James also looked at her folio and made some brilliant suggestions about how her slightly static story line could be given more dynamism… I have no doubt Beatriz will eventually be picked up by one of the publishers, but that is just one example of what can happen - persistence, as always with creative projects, makes all the difference. Talent is never just enough, unless you are also extremely lucky.
- of course crass commercialism manages to get its fingernails in the cracks, everywhere and some people say that there is talk of ticketing Venice, so you would have to book to go there, as if it was another show!
I love sitting on the illustrators' table. I feel a bit of a fraud as I am not an illustrator. Having done some illustrations for the Little Fur series and The Red Wind, does not an illustrator make. But in the years I have been invited to the table, I have found the real illustrators to be generous and welcoming and we have all enjoyed the camaraderie of sitting and working together- more than once of us has observed how nice it would be if it could be like that sometimes back home - artists working together so there was sometimes someone to talk to. Not always, because you need your own special kind of solitude for the work you do, but just sometimes…
I find I can bear the fair and enjoy it, because of that table. It is a hub For the other Australian writers and illustrators who have come to the fair and are often lost as I was that first year. It is rare that a writer of older children’s books comes and even more rare for them to come twice, although they are of course represented by their publishers. I think that is probably a wise choice. There is no real place for a writer at the Bologna Book Fair- for their books yes, but for them in person, no. My first year, when there was no illustrators' table, I was only there a couple of hours each of the three days, and in between I went to Venice and looked around Bologna.
By the way, a side trip to Venice, which is only a couple of hours away by train, is a must for almost all who travel from Australia to the fair, and many people travel to and from Venice each day - I did the last time. And during and especially after the fair, you often find yourself bumping into people you know there.
From here, the images are predominently of Venice, which somehow seem to me an antidote to all the buying and selling.
Mortifyingly but hilariously one year I was making hideous faces through the train window at my then little daughter, who was leaving by train from Santa Lucia station with her dad while, unbeknownst to me (obviously) I was being watched by Matt Ottley and a number of other convulsed Australian authors and illustrators, who all later took immense pleasure mimicking me to myself...
Work does happen at the fair, of course. One of the things that impresses you is how genuinely hard the rights people and publishers work. (In the case of Australians, most of them have only just flown 24 to 30 hours from Australia and it is the middle of the night in their heads…) They are divided into those buying and those selling. The sellers sit on tables at their home stand and have a series of half hour meetings all day from 9 am to 6 pm, every day, during which they show their books to the prospective buyers and talk about them. As you can imagine, that means they must make the same enthusiastic speech again and again and again, though of course there will be some decision making about what to focus on, based on their knowledge of the buyers. The old hands really know what to say and who to show what because they all know one another… There is nothing impromptu about the meetings. They are arranged anything up to a year in advance and there are few no-shows and a lot of people cursing colds and flu, staggering around spreading germs, because they cannot afford to miss their meetings. (For a watchful artist there are some no-shows, and if you are quick and smart and polite you can sometimes fluke a meeting – the problem is that it is not the sellers you want to meet. But you can ask the name of the seller and try to approach them or at least to get their card and arrange a meeting for next year) In the case of Beatriz, the buyer was taking a rare meeting at the stand and I asked if she had time to look at Beatriz’s work. Because I had already sent the pictures to Allen and Unwin, she was willing- yet with all that still it did not lead to a deal for her on the day.
I should mention that Beatriz was published twice before in Australia, once with her own book and illustrations and once illustrating a book by Meredith Costain. Here is a cover image of the latter below), which gives you a little glimpse of her work. Both these books began with a meeting at the fair and clearly, for Beatriz, the fair is worth the fare.
As to me?
I don’t know if my books were sold to other countries this year. No one tells you anything because a lot of interest and excitement at the fair can fizzle before the cold gelid eyes of accountants back in the real world. But a real effort ws made. Metro Winds is so near to being an adult book, that I doubt any sales would have been secured. Yet mine was one of the few beautiful posters displayed on the little bit of wall space they have, and The Wicked Wood and The Wilful Eye were also prominent on the shelves behind the sellers. The big lovely Red Queen Poster was also prominently displayed on the Penguin annex wall, but I have not finished that yet, so they would be trying to use it to sell the series, along with the Little Fur books and The Red Wind all of which were there last year ...
I will know if anything happened, later when contracts are being exchanged.
But I do know, that Random good things do happen- excuse the pun. One year, although my work had been pitched to her and she had not bought it, the leading children’s publisher from Random House grabbed Billy Thunder and The Night Gate to read on the plane on the way home, and by the end of the trip, she later told me she had decided to publish it. She went on to publish all of the Obernewtyn books, the Little Fur books, Alyzon Whitestar – and all of that came about because of the Fair.
I also had my regular yearly meeting with Laura Harris who is my Publisher at Penguin. We always meet at the Neptune fountain and walk (via some shoe shops) to a coffee shop near the Piazza Maggiore, which has seen me in various emotional states over the years. We meet because living in Europe means we have little change to meet face to face. We have a whole morning, which is a lot, during a fair. This was a meeting with spread sheets and numbers, for a change and about E book rights which were in fact THE topic of the fair this year. As usual, I came away from the meeting feeling lighter and reassured on many levels, and Laura went away pleased (she said) to hear The Cloud Road is close to being finished. We also talked about me getting onto Darkbane by the end of the year...
Oh, and perhaps I should mention the other feature of the fair- every night of you may get an invitation to attend one publishers’ dinner or another or one of the big parties- my personal favorite is the Dutch Publishers Party that takes place in a truly sumptious ancient palace right in the centre of Bologna…
- I went large with these pictures (just happy snaps taken my me or Adelaide) so you can see in the background how gorgeous the palace really is! (Yes that is Alison Lester btw)
The socialising is the fun side for visitors, though for the publishing people, they often attend half stupefied by jet lag and a day of repeating themselves ad nauseum. Usually, you end up there at the end of any occasion, with the other visiting authors, who are not really working, either. Below are a few shots of a great Jazz restaurant we all went to on the Thursday (those of us who did not go to the glitzy Wimpy Kid party)
Last but not least, a couple of big prizes are announced at the fair.
The lucrative and very prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, named after the Swedish creator of Pippi Longstocking, which Sonya Hartnett won in 2008, went this year to Dutch children's author Guus Kuijer and the Hans Christian Anderson Medal went to Czech author and illustrator, Peter Sis.
The latter gave me a real buzz, as I love his work.
- Venice is like a beautiful dream- I didn't get there, this year, and I already regret it- next year...
Probably no need to mention that Jan Stolba took all of the Bologna and Venice pics, while I took those of the fair. An obliging waiter took the one of Laura and I having our meeting, and Jess took the ones I am in at the fair.
- here is a rare shot of the photographer at work (in Venice)
And now, as seems so often to happen when I have been somewhere there was a lot of talking and business and no real writing, I am sick. sigh.