My Guide to the Bologna Children's Book Fair

Are you an author or illustrator heading to Bologna for the first time?

Maybe you're hoping to show your work to a publisher. If so, this blog post is for you. It's by no means a definitive guide, but it's honest and frank, and it's based on my own experiences of visiting the fair. 

But first, here are some facts. The Bologna Children's Book Fair is the biggest children's book fair in the world. Literary agents, publishers, translators, business developers, licensors and licensees, packagers, printers, distributors, bookstore owners, librarians, teachers and publishing services providers all flock to the event each year. All in all, around 1,200 exhibitors fill the halls. The fair attracts over 25,000 visitors from all over the world, and over 90 countries are represented there.

Many illustrators and authors visit the fair hoping to meet with publishers. I was one of them.

Based on my own experience, here are my tips for anyone hoping to get a foot in the door at this year's fair. 

bologna entrance 2015.jpg
I gave a talk at the Digital Cafe in '15. It's always worth checking out what's on at the fair. 

I gave a talk at the Digital Cafe in '15. It's always worth checking out what's on at the fair. 

1. Be prepared

Take business cards. You'll probably need no more than 50, but take 100 just incase you happen to start 'accidentally' dropping a few.

Put your favourite pieces in your portfolio.

If you've written and illustrated a story, present it in the best possible way. You could take a dummy book. Getting a one-off dummy book printed is easy, if you know where to look ( and are just a couple of online book printers) or you could put it together yourself.  Alternatively, create a PDF of your book and stick it on your smart tablet, if you're taking one. If you are taking a smart tablet, just be aware that some publishers might like to see your work in print.

You've left it too late to create a dummy book? Don't panic! I know from experience that sometimes all a publisher needs to see are a couple of good drawings, a sketch or two and the text (if you've written your own book). 

One of my books on display at the Hachette stand. 

One of my books on display at the Hachette stand. 

Whatever you do, don't underestimate your sketchbook. Take it with you. Yes, it's great to present your work in a polished and professional way, but editors love to see sketches. They love to see how you come up with ideas. Something in your sketchbook might catch their eye.

You'll need something for jotting down notes.

Wear something that makes you feel confident. Lucky underwear might help.

And mints, take some mints.

2. Take lunch, especially if you're a vegetarian

I learned this the hard way. The canteen is great if you love meat (and if you don't mind waiting ages for it). Carry a bottle of water, too.

3. Get a map (and lots of other freebies)

Ok, so you're all prepared, you've just entered the fair and you're feeling pretty good. Get a map. They're free, and they're normally at the entrance, but you may have to ask somebody at the info desk for one. There is so much to see at the fair, and you probably will get lost, even with a map. You'll also find that exhibitors are literally giving things away - leaflets, brochures, tote bags, stickers, magazines. My publisher, Hodder Children's, were giving away PLEASE MR PANDA tote bags last year. Take things. When you arrive back home you'll be glad you did. 

4. The Illustrator's Wall

Now that you have you're map, you're all set to explore the fair. One of the first things you'll see is the Illustrator's Wall. Everyone passes the Illustrator's Wall. It's a long sea of 'Look at me!' artwork. Illustrators stick on postcards, posters and business cards. Go ahead, stick something on the wall. Heck, stick a few things on the wall. You'll get a buzz from doing it. Just make sure your email address is on whatever you stick to the wall. You never know, your work might just catch a publisher's eye. 

My friend and fellow author, Elena, collected books for refugee children at the fair in '16. Read her blog about it  here . 

My friend and fellow author, Elena, collected books for refugee children at the fair in '16. Read her blog about it here

5. Choose the right publisher

In other words, do your research. There are several things you can do to get your work in front of an editor, but be sure to pick the right publishers to approach. Don't just pick any publisher. It's sometimes difficult to know exactly who the right publisher is. Just ask yourself, 'Who would I like to publish my work, and why?' 

Some publishers are more commercial than others. Some publishers are more highbrow than others. Some don't publish rhyming books. Some focus on series' and character brands. If you're an author-illustrator, is your work fiction or non-fiction? Some publishers don't focus on non-fiction. Some only publish non-fiction. If you're an illustrator, who would you love to illustrate for, and why? Do you mainly illustrate in black and white? Do you think your work is best suited to illustrated chapter books; or comic books; or graphic novels? 

You don't necessary have to stick to one country. I know authors from the UK that have secured deals with overseas publishers.

6. Get in line

Some publishers set aside 30 minutes or so to meet with illustrators and authors. Word gets around real fast about these open invites, and the queues soon build up. Keep an eye (and ear) out for these opportunities. Make sure you get in line early, or you might just miss your big break. Ask publishers. Sometimes that's the only way you'll find out about these sorts of opportunities. There's normally a person stood at the front of each publisher's stand who you can ask. Last year, many publishers did this, including Nosy Crow, Oxford University Press, Hachette Children's and several others (including overseas publishers).

7. Introduce yourself

I signed books at ZooLibri, my Italian publisher. 

I signed books at ZooLibri, my Italian publisher. 

Not all publishers set time aside to see hoards of illustrators, but that shouldn't stop you from asking if you can make an appointment. Just make sure you do this on day one, because most publishers will already have a jam-packed schedule, and some editors only stay at the fair for a couple of days. When I visited the fair in 2012, prior to being published, I approached several publishers, and I did manage to book a few appointments. If you do this, make sure your work is either visible (even if it's just slightly poking out from under your arm) or easy to pull out from your portfolio. The person you're speaking to might like what they see. As a result, they might be more inclined to offer you an appointment.

If they aren't able to see you, kindly ask who to send your work to. If you're lucky, they might give you a direct email address. If they do, ask the person you're speaking to for their name (or just look at their name tag). Don't forget this tip. Even if you don't manage to see many publishers, at least you'll know who to contact. I have a small stack of publishers' business cards from doing just that. When you get home, contact each publisher. Mention the name of the person you spoke to. For example, 'I spoke with Jack at your stand at Bologna and he recommended that I contact you.' Personalising your emails goes a long way. Just be aware that publishers will be dealing with lots of post-Bologna business, so it may be a while before you get a reply (if you get a reply at all). One thing I've learned about getting published is that you have to be very patient.

8. Describe your book in one sentence

Imagine you've just just bumped into a publisher (in the long queue to buy some meat at the canteen, let's say) and you literally only have one minute to pitch your book. This is when a one sentence synopsis can come in very handy. I can describe each of my books in one sentence. Can you? For example, PLEASE MR PANDA is about a seemingly grumpy bear that won't give his doughnuts to anyone who doesn't use the magic word. MONSTER IN THE HOOD is about a city monster who everyone is scared of, except for a brave trio of animals who discover things aren't always what they seem.

If an editor is intrigued, they might want to hear more. 

9. There's no need to queue for the loo

The line for the loos are ridiculously long. But what most people don't seem to realise is that that you never have to wait to use the loos near the entrance. 

10. Mingle and let serendipity happen

Luck is when preparation meets opportunity, right? It's true. You never know who you might bump into. You might meet someone that knows someone that knows someone, and that someone could end up publishing your work. I know it's sometimes hard to network, especially if you're on your own. I am not naturally outgoing, but during my visit to Bologna in 2012, I mingled and spoke to all sorts of interesting people. Bologna Children's Book Fair is buzzing with energy and inspiration. People who go there are passionate about publishing and sequential illustration and children's books, so you're in the best possible company, and most publishers are really friendly. Be sure to carry your business cards at all times, even in the evenings.

11. Will you be offered a book deal at the fair?

If you are offered a deal at the fair, don't sign the contract on the spot. It's always good not to rush into things. You don't necessarily need an agent (I know some published authors that aren't agented) but you might like to seek advice from an one, or you might know someone else in the industry you can ask for advice.

It's extremely rare to get offered a book deal at the fair. What normally tends to happen, if a publisher expresses an interest in your work, is this. The publisher will probably ask you to email them a PDF or some JPEGS of your work. This could possibly mark the beginning of a conversation that may very well lead to a book deal. 

It's ok to feel deflated if you don't manage to speak to any publishers or if the publishers you did speak to just weren't that into you. It's all experience, and I guarantee you that the experience you gain from your visit will prove to be invaluable in your journey towards publication. I didn't speak to one single publisher during my first visit to Bologna in 2011 because I was too nervous, but I did come away feeling super-inspired by the amazing work I saw on display throughout the fair. In fact, shortly after arriving back from my first visit, I came up with THE QUEEN'S HAT, and I truly believe that it was the inspiration I took from the fair that helped spur me on to complete the book. THE QUEEN'S HAT turned out to be my first picture book publication. 

My first book deal didn't happen as a result of visiting the fair. But I did meet my agent, Elizabeth Roy, at the fair during my second visit, in 2012.

I do know several authors that secured book deals as a direct result of meeting a publisher at the fair. And I do know a few that were offered deals at the fair, so it definitely does happen. 

12. Explore

There is so much to take in. There are talks and demonstrations and galleries. Try and make the most of what's on offer, and be sure to look at the fair's programme. The Illustrators Exhibition is always worth a look. One of the things I really love about the fair is exploring all of the different countries' stalls. It's fascinating and inspiring to see so many different types of picture books. Just bear in mind that most of the action happens in the first three days. The fourth day, things are much quieter and some publishers are already packing up.

13. Visit the city

Bologna is beautiful. For my first visit, I stayed in a hotel not too far from the fair. As a result, I really didn't see much of the city, and it didn't help that my Italian was limited. I stayed well and truly within my comfort zone. Now, I stay in the city centre. It's so nice to stroll through the streets and soak up the atmosphere. I'm not much of a foodie (give me pizza and I'm happy) but if you like eating out, you'll be spoiled for choice. 

14. Have fun

Last but not least, have fun! You're going to Bologna! See you there!

Here's your checklist just to make sure you've got everything before entering the fair:

- portfolio
- business cards
- something for the Illustrator's Wall
- sketchbook
- one sentence synopsis (if you've written a book)
- a list of publishers you'd like to see
- something for jotting notes
- dummy book (optional, but recommended)
- food and water
- mints
- your pass to the fair

Now take a look at this lovely video of last year's fair.