Conducting business out of doors (weather permitting) is one of the Bologna Fair's true pleasures. Photos: Mario Ventimiglia.

The state of the U.S. economy hung over this year’s Bologna Fair, as American publishers found the market tough for buying, but great for selling (see our story in last week’s Bookshelf). Despite the sunshine and a busy schedule, Francesca Dow, managing director at Puffin, said, “The underlying mood felt quite sober. The state of the U.S. dollar certainly makes buying anything from Europe even tougher.” Adam Lerner, president of Lerner Publishing Group, added, “The exchange rate is making it more expensive to buy British books. We’re less reliant now on U.K. packagers—we have to be.” On the other hand, as first-timer Chris Boral of Chronicle Books put it, “It did seem like there were a lot of shoppers, and we were the store!”

American agent Edite Kroll heard grumbling from foreign publishers in smaller markets where picture books cannot be produced without coproductions: grumbling because “despite the low dollar, American publishers are either uninterested or add on such high overhead that they are impossible for small publishers.”

The New Zealand jacket for a hot book at the fair.

There were some bright spots, including buzz around the world for a first novel called Genesis by Bernard Beckett, a thriller in which “ancient philosophy and future history collide,” according to its publisher. Just before the fair, Melbourne’s Text Publishing sold world rights to Genesis, which has already won two major prizes in the author’s native New Zealand, to Quercus in the U.K. Quercus is still a relative newcomer—its first list was only launched at last year’s Bologna—but with this title the company got firmly onto the international map. “It was magnificent to see Genesis take off so quickly and to hear people’s passionate responses to it,” said Roisin Heycock, the new editorial director. Rights head Emma Ward said that Italian and French rights had been pre-empted, and she’d be going home after Bologna to sort through a stack of offers.

Newly minted agent Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency, with offices in Washington, D.C. and London, found that editors “aren’t looking for regular fantasy” any more, observing a lot of interest in “the paranormal dark Gothic romance,” and

Greenhouse agent Sarah Davies (r.), and Sarah Hughes, publishing director for fiction at Puffin.

reporting that “two Americans have said to me that horror is the new fantasy.” The title of hers that she believes hit “the sweet spot” is The Devil’s Kiss by Sarwat Chadda, which Puffin bought the week before the fair. With U.S. rights sold to Hyperion and foreign rights being snapped up quickly, this was another of the fair’s strong fiction titles.

Wave, a picture book by artist Suzy Lee, proved an “international favorite” for Chronicle Books, Chris Boral reported, saying they’d had interest “from numerous countries,” and had sold Italian and Spanish rights before the fair. “The Italian edition was out in bookstores as well as at the publisher’s stand,” she said, “and that drove a lot of traffic to our booth. During the show another Spanish publisher wanted to publish it and when it was announced that we had already sold Spanish rights, Bill Boedeker, trying to be funny, suggested, ‘How about printing it in Catalan?’ After all, it’s a wordless picture book….”

Winning the BolognaRagazzi Award was a great boon for Tara Publishing in India. A presentation about the creation of the completely handmade The Night Life of Trees wowed a large crowd. The book’s print run is completely sold out; sharp-eyed fairgoers were able to nab a copy at the children’s bookstore on the Piazza Maggiore, though there were none to be had by fair’s end.

That's Scholastic's Ellie Berger (l.) and Suzanne Murphy, and agent Barbara Marshall behind those Foster Grants.

Two topics seemed to come up repeatedly for Random House’s Beverly Horowitz, in conversations with publishers around the world. The first was “finding a way to get fiction or nonfiction that deals with the ‘go green’ interest but does not sound agenda driven—not so easy!” And the second: “the need to let tweens and teens know about our books via digital and online markets and sites that are the mainstay in the life of kids today. We all know we need to do this—the question is how to do this successfully. No one seems to have an easy answer, but at least we are asking the same questions.”

Agent Kroll characterized this year’s Bologna as “a good working fair without highs and lows: steady, loads of interest in non-fantasy books, even original picture books, a couple of offers.” She found “lots of optimism” about children’s books around the world, except for the U.K., “where gloom and cautiousness seem to prevail. Not surprisingly, lots of editors and agents from various countries were looking for books with humor and boy characters. Books that will become backlist

Showing his wares: Andrew Smith of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, with Nathalie Maitenaz of Éditions Nord-Sud in Paris.

classics were mentioned a lot, even if initially difficult to sell in some markets.”

It was the first Bologna for Penny Hueston at Text Publishing in Melbourne, and among the highlights for her were “running around like an athlete in training, spotting all the spotters from the studios on the lookout for the next great book-into-film project, and the agents sitting at their rows of desks like so many students doing exams.” She was excited to see publishers “falling over themselves” to get a copy of Genesis, which she published in Australia and sold to Quercus “for a goodly sum,” saying, “There is nothing so wonderful as a fair in which you’ve just sold the hot book.”

Australian artists Gregory Rogers (r.) and Wendy Binks draw for the crowd.

Though Bologna, unlike BEA and ALA, traditionally does not showcase authors, there were a number of writers and illustrators in attendance this year, including Rick Riordan, Peter Sís, Liz Kessler, Scott Westerfeld, Neal Shusterman, Michael Rosen, Tony Ross, Justin Somper, Gregory Rogers and Isabelle Carmody.

Fiona Kenshole, v-p, development acquisitions for the Portland, Ore.-based film production company Laika, noted the emergence of a trend: increasing darkness in children’s books, even in picture books. “Publishers are not afraid to explore the darker side of human nature, even playfully,” she said, adding that fellow film scouts concurred that they, too, had noticed a rise in titles with darker themes for ever-younger readers. As examples, Kenshole and her Laika colleague, development producer Cath Hall, cited the Harcourt picture book Bone Soup by Cambria Evans; The Funeral Director’s Son by Coleen Paratore, a middle-grade novel represented by Adams Literary, about a 12-year-old who does not want to take over the family funeral home, his ability to talk to the dead notwithstanding; and a couple of works-in-progress involving orphans. “Every publisher has at least one such title on their list,” Kenshole said.

Together under the Macmillan roof: (from l.) Simon Boughton of Roaring Brook, Michael Eisenberg of FSG, Neal Porter of Roaring Brook, and Jean Feiwel of Feiwel & Friends.

For Edward Necarsulmer IV, director of the children’s department at McIntosh and Otis, it was a good fair, though it “seemed to be a bit of a smaller one, due in part, probably, to economic factors and [because the new agents’ center] seemed to quarantine the agents in a rather bizarre way. All in all, it seems that even many of the smaller territories are looking for what we might refer to as ‘just the big books.’ ”

Jacqueline Miller of the Jacqueline Miller Agency in Paris offered an observation about how technology is changing the way business is being done (and not for the better). “To echo distress calls from top French publishers, submissions via electronic manuscript attachments are getting out of hand. And the speed of Internet submissions accompanied by demands for an offer within two or three days in some cases is playing havoc with the serious consideration required to decide whether and how best to publish even the most promising book. These ultra-urgent submissions are so piled up in some houses that they are resigning themselves to possibly missing out on a wonderful title but, as one editor told me, ‘We cannot stay up reading all night two or three times a week to meet these incredible deadlines.’ Super-title submissions aside, there is a pile-up of electronic manuscripts of books deserving consideration not as blockbusters but as excellent books publishers would be happy to add to their catalogues. But these electronic manuscripts tend to get lost or overlooked in the voluminous daily inflow of electronic submissions. No doubt the strong euro accounts for some of the wild precipitation via electronic submissions, but the goose laying these golden eggs is panting!”

Erica Wagner (l.) of Allen & Unwin in Australia looks over the Holiday House list, with HH's Barbara Walsh.

Eddie Gamarra from the management/production company The Gotham Group relayed frustration he was hearing from publishers and agents alike, over what they perceive as an increasing trend of producers trying to get free options in order to package projects. “Obviously, the economy is rough,” he said. “Like publishing, there has been consolidation of some of the major buyers. The WGA strike really hit hard and everyone is going to continue feeling the repercussions for a while. Both industries are increasingly fiscally conservative and would rather lay down what little money they have on what they perceive to be ‘solid bets.’ It often feels like the studios want to know what they are getting, so they practically want the book, the writer, the director, the star and the financing all in place. Sometimes it seems like they need a completed film before they’ll option a book! Packaging a book with some element can certainly give a project a better shot at getting set up, but I also respect that rights holders can’t afford to let their material get tied up without some kind of compensation for taking it off the table.”

The always crowded Illustrators Exhibition, a fixture of the fair since 1967.

Harry Potter, Gamarra believes, “skewed many Hollywood folks’ understanding of what makes a book a success. We spend a lot of time educating film folks about how publishers track their sales and why their numbers are not necessarily useful for generating the ideal talking points when selling to a studio. That’s always a big point of mutual frustration between the two industries.”

And he also pointed out an issue that’s specific to Hollywood, which publishers may not understand. “Some authors report that editors pressure them to tone down the prominence of adult characters in children’s lit. Hollywood needs castable roles for bankable actors. There are very few bankable child stars. This issue was another big point of conversation as book folks ask me to explain what the heck Hollywood is looking for and why.”

There was some news from London at the beginning of the fair. Publishers, authors, librarians and celebrities gathered at 10 Downing Street last Monday evening for the launch of the National Year of Reading. “Everyone here has done something special to support the 2008 National Year of Reading,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the crowd, adding that his own contribution will include writing a 366-word story for Wow! 366, a collection of stories that Scholastic will publish as one of its contributions to the Year. Designed to reach readers of all kinds, the government-backed initiative is led by Honor Wilson-Fletcher, who said, “The NYR aims to remind everyone that reading is an essential for daily life.” Beyond the many activities which are planned for the year throughout the country and across many industries, the intention is to create a shift in the U.K.’s national reading culture.

The finalists in the U.K.’s Best New Illustrators competition, designed the “best rising talent in the field of illustration today” were revealed at the fair by Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen. They are: Alexis Deacon, Polly Dunbar, Lisa Evans, Emily Gravett, Mini Grey, Oliver Jeffers, David Lucas, Catherine Rayner, Joel Stewart and Vicky White.

A busy morning at the stand of Dutch publisher Querido; that's Belgian author Bart Moeyaert, front right.

As far as British picture books on offer, Macmillan’s success with Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s forthcoming The Gruffalo’s Theatre shows there no waning in the appetite for this character. “We’re likely to see a first print run well in excess of 100,000,” Viviane Basset, Macmillan’s head of marketing and publicity, said. “Ahead of the Gruffalo 10th anniversary next year it is great to see that this property is still seeing growth and interest in any new formats that we are publishing.”

Following the success of Claire Freedman and Ben Cort’s Aliens Love Underpants, which has sold over 200,000 copies in the U.K., Simon & Schuster was showing blads of the followup title, Dinosaurs Love Underpants, for the first time. “There’s a feeding frenzy for both Pants books in the U.K. trade and internationally,” Ingrid Selberg, director of children’s publishing for S&S U.K., said. “All U.K. retailers, supermarkets and book clubs are in for big numbers. The U.K. print quantity is 140,000 and rising prior to publication in June.” S&S also found success for its new pop-up Predators. “A number of publishers mentioned that it was the most spectacular pop-up they’d seen at the Fair,” Selberg said. “Subject to costs we’re expecting deals in at least nine markets for the first printing in 2009. The print run could be 80—100,000.”

The new agents gallery, which certainly had people talking.

The relocated agents’ center came in for a good deal of criticism from its inhabitants. Edite Kroll said it resembled a “spaceship, suspended above two halls.” In fact, she found little to like about it: “The agents’ tables were arranged as in a schoolroom and all agents were far removed from the reception, which meant the attendants had absolutely no control over who was seeing whom, and whether those agents were busy—or even there. Nor was there any place for editors with appointments to wait—no chair, or sofa, only the banisters of the escalator. In addition, one needed roller skates to get to the snack bar, which meant one couldn’t quickly get coffee or water or a sandwich for guests. And getting to and back from the nearest bathroom meant at least 15 minutes since it was far and there was always a line. Last, splitting the literary agents from the licensing/TV area meant some editors were always looking for agents in the wrong place.”

But Necarsulmer at McIntosh and Otis reported some positives. “We did feel a bit away from the fair, but there was definitely more space to move around. I actually thought it was fine and especially enjoyed not having to yell over other people as I made my pitches. I think the ceilings were higher and there was more room in the aisles. And the sun didn’t come flooding in around 3:00 in a debilitating way.”

Next year’s dates: Monday, March 23 to Thursday, March 26.

With reporting by Julia Eccleshare.