An Expert's Guide to Bologna
Nancy Gallt -- 3/6/00
Bologna, as every guidebook tells us, is known as il grosso, Bologna the Fat, because of its incredibly good food. It helps explain why nearly everyone gains 10 pounds every April, at the Bologna Book Fair. It is also an old city, a university town even during the Dark Ages, which may account for the fact that each year everyone always looks a little older (except for me and you).
This will be my 20th Bologna. I don't quite go back as far as those who can remember when the fair was held in the Palazzo near the Piazza Nettuno and a small select crowd of editors--no subsidiary rights people!--celebrated an intimate, multicultural exchange of books. By the time I started going, the Fiera had already moved to the outskirts of town, with three pavilions: one for the British, one for the U.S. and Italy and one for the rest of the world. And it was already making the shift to business, rather than being solely a place for the leisurely exchange of ideas.
You can date yourself by where the American hall was on your own first Bologna. If it was hall N, you are antica, Hall 29 nearly vecchia, Hall 28 a mere bambina. (If this is your first Bologna, we've prepared a simple glossary and pronunciation guide that should be helpful.)One thing to bear in mind is that Bologna is like any other convention, except for being held under beautiful Emilia Romagna skies, surrounded by an ancient, musical language and fabulously old architecture and plumbing.
Certain things are immutable: you will marvel upon arrival at the shabby hotel of yesteryear to find that the entire lobby has been redecorated, probably with your previous year's bar bill.
You will not see the sky for hours on end, except if it's raining, which is when your next appointment will be across three courtyards. Your lunch hour--the only brilliant sunshine of the day--will be spent waiting in line for the one remaining toilette not chiuso for cleaning.
The air will still be unbreathable within the halls, filled with the dust of tearing down the previous Fiera (the book fair is but one of many fairs held there each year), and since there are no non fumare rules in Italy, the smoke and ash from 1000 portocenare.
Your feet will still ache from the incredibly hard floors. Your head will ache from too much food and drink, too little sleep and the kind of frenzy that sets in at all conventions--packing too much with too little time and energy.
Grappa will still taste like dirt, no matter how fancy the bottle. Averno is not medicinal.
If you're a rights person, your 2:30 appointment“the one you cut lunch short for“will arrive with the news that her company has cut back on buying in picture books. You will put aside your foot-high stack of dummies, proofs and original art and launch into a rousing discussion of the one new novel for which you have foreign rights. She will decide that a hilarious conflict between high school football cheerleading teams in a small town near Omaha is"too American" for her market.
As an editor, you may not get the project that your heart was set on, but when you find out that the winner had to buy 80,000 copies, you will find some consolation. And your new contact will remember you when the next project from that same author/illustrator gets turned down because the winner had to remainder 75,000 of those 80,000 copies.
You will spend more time trying to decide on how much to spend for the coat made from the "hides of unborn calves" than you will on the 30,000-copy print run for a picture book. After all, the coat costs you your own money.
It will take you the entire fair, or longer, to figure out the exchange rate and realize that the borsa you scored at the open-air market actually cost you twice what it would at home, and still comes from China.
You will never figure out why the taxis never charge you what is on the meter or how the surcharges are calculated--number of people? briefcases? stops? destination?--or whether the tip is incluso.
On Saturday, a rumor will spread throughout the fair that all buses, trains, airplanes and Vespas are going on strike on Monday, the day you absolutely must be at Malpensa airport for the predawn check-in. You will rent a car for more than your airfare costs, and will hear from friends, when you are back home, that the "strike" never materialized.
You will not meet everyone you need to, nor everyone you should. That is why they invented phones, faxes and FedEx. And why Bologna, grazie a Dio, is an annual event.
Arrivederci a Bologna!
Things We Love (and Hate) About the Bologna Fair
When a trusted friend at another publishing house tips you off to a wonderful book
The shopping: the leather goods, the sh s, the chocolate, the Armani store
That rare moment when someone breaks an appointment and you get to sit outside in the afternoon sun
The gelato shop on via Montegrappa
The blood orange juice
Kissing on both cheeks
Late night drinking at the Palace bar, especially the impromptu Scandinavian songfests at 2 a.m.
The flea market by the San Stefano church (and the church itself)
Coming across a real find from a publisher you've never met before
The Sangiovese wine
Sneaking out of the fair early when your 5:30 cancels in advance
The espresso and the cappuccino
Strolling through the deserted Piazza Maggiore late at night and feeling like you could be back in the Middle Ages
The fluorescent green punch at the "party formerly known as Dell"
The taxi lines at the end of the day
Four-hour dinners three nights in a row
Having a book sold out from under you
A 5:30 appointment who shows up after your 4:30 and 5:00 have blown you off
Being served hors d' uvres that you could swear you met last year
Having a publisher tell you they've seen work by the illustrator you're showing them at five other stands
Being told yet again by European publishers that we Americans are far too prudish and literal
Getting faxes from your office detailing problems you have no way to fix
Publishers who smile politely and ask you to send proofs for every book you show them, when you know full well they're not going to buy anything
Arriving at a restaurant only to find it filled with everyone you'd been hoping to avoid
Publishers who get indignant when you tell them that a book isn't right for your list
Trying to access your office voice mail from the rotary phone in your hotel room
People who steal books on Day One
The shower drains at the Royal Carlton
Being offered 400-page novels in Dutch and being asked to carry them back home
The fluorescent green punch at the "party formerly known as Dell."
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