With the last few Bologna Book Fairs somewhat clouded by economic uncertainty, fairgoers found the mood at this year’s fair decidedly lighter. Simon & Schuster’s children’s publisher Jon Anderson said, “This was easily the liveliest Bologna I’ve been at in years. It’s very heartening. There's a palpable sense that things are looking up.”

Several attendees remarked on the fair’s businesslike vibe; part of that business now includes digital, or at least exploring more about its implications, kicked off by the Tools of Change conference, held the day before the fair began. Since the fair is made up of many thousands of one-on-one discussions, digital concerns naturally made their way into many – though not all – conversations. Random House’s Beverly Horowitz found people saying during appointments, "'Here are some books, now tell us about what’s happening with America and e-books. We know we’re behind you but we want to know what to expect.’ I tell them to get ready to digitize their backlist.”

As far as discussions of e-book rights during meetings, Disney rights director Molly Kong reported, "No one brought up digital and I didn't ask about it. It inserts itself at the contract stage." E-rights are currently "a legal minefield," said Allen & Unwin rights director Angela Namoi. "E-books have been made corporate. U.S. publishers are assuming they have e-book rights, which puts the onus back on us, and it's taking a long time to do contracts."

Not everyone has jumped into apps and e-books, of course, and Bologna remains at its heart a rights fair for print books. But even traditional picture book publishers, such as Markus Weber of Moritz Verlag in Germany, said they were “keeping an eye on what was happening” in the digital space, and how that continues to evolve.

Book and app publisher Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, which announced partnership deals before the fair (Candlewick) and during the fair (Gallimard and Carlsen), has 25 books and five apps in its first year. The balance of her business is still print, Wilson emphasized; she was demo’ing apps throughout the fair, but her company was also assembling several print co-editions, “which continue to be really important to us.”

Though doing deals on the eve of the fair is not a new phenomenon, this year was notable for the sheer number of advance deals for big YA properties, including Level 2 by Lenore Appelhans (bought by S&S), Mobius by Tamara Ireland Stone (bought by Disney-Hyperion; German rights sold at the fair) and Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood (bought by Putnam). Some U.S. rights directors said they’d be selling right for specific books in selected countries, but that would take place after the fair. Upstart Crow Literary’s Michael Stearns spoke of the “changing face” of Bologna, saying that though the fair is still in the “epicenter,” there’s much more activity directly before and after it as well. “It used to be much more compressed.”

Content-wise, paranormal seems to have run its course in terms of what's being shopped, especially vampire books. "Paranormal has been overpublished," said Kong at Disney; "no one wants to hear about it and they say 'We have enough on our list.' " But there was still plenty of YA dystopia on offer. Random House U.K’s Becky Stradwick said, “I literally had six dystopian novels land on my desk a week before the fair. People are feeling the need to create a feeding frenzy, a ‘book of the fair.’ ”

But most were in agreement: this year there was no book of the fair. A few auctions were being held for a book in a specific country, but there was no one novel or picture book that everyone was buzzing over. “Something needs to be spectacular and original for me to add it to my list," said Random House’s Horowitz. “I still have to balance it with my own list, and with things that are similar.”

Stradwick gave word of a time-travel adventure, The History Keepers by Damien Dibben (“the anti-dystopian novel”) which RH UK bought from Conville & Walsh in February, and which has sold to 18 countries in four weeks – it’s still on submission in the U.S. Moira Young’s Blood Red Road, which Marion Lloyd is publishing at Scholastic U.K., has sold in over 10 languages already, and Ridley Scott has struck a film deal.

Some publishers reported a shift on interest to fiction for younger readers, in a swing away from YA dystopia. “The standalone middle-grade novel is back!” proclaimed Chicken House’s Barry Cunningham. Also in his camp was Anderson at S&S. “Middle grade is ready for its growth spurt,” he said. “It never really went away, but people turned so much attention to YA that it didn’t really get much of its own.” However, Greenhouse Literary Agency founder Sarah Davies commented on how there was “so much derivative stuff” on the market right now. Everyone says they want middle-grade, but the 'small but nice' middle-grade novel isn’t going to fly.”

As an alternative to dystopia, Horowitz said, “Everyone’s asking if I think the realistic novel is coming back. ‘It’s never gone away,’ I tell them. These books are still selling, they’re just not getting the same attention.”

Elizabeth Law at Egmont was sent “probably 10” dystopian novels before the fair, but said she saw none on the first day of Bologna. Her other pithy observations: “Novelty’s on the rise. Lots of boys’ action. And turtles are the new pandas.”

Another distinguishing point to this year’s fair: the editorial ranks were noticeably thinner, especially on the American side. Also, fewer heads of houses and heads of divisions were in attendance than in some years past. Among those who did attend: Random House’s Markus Dohle, Anthony Forbes-Watson of Pan Macmillan, Marcus Leaver of Sterling, and Dick Robinson of Scholastic. Jon Yaged made his Bologna debut as the new president of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, and was talking up several forthcoming titles, including a new Lane Smith picture book, Grandpa Green.

And new blood keeps being added to the ranks; several fairgoers mentioned both the number of first-timers this year (“it was wonderful to see how welcoming and helpful everyone was to a newcomer,” said Marietta Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Agency), and the larger-than-ever number of film people, on the hunt for properties.

Several authors were feted by their publishers at parties and dinners, including Brian Selznick, for Wonderstruck; John Stephens for The Emerald Atlas; Ruta Sepetys for Between Shades of Gray; and Melissa Marr, for her Wicked Lovely series, which has just concluded.

Brigitte Périvier, who runs her own rights agency in Paris, said she had missed the London Book Fair last year, as had so many others, and commented that being back in Bologna reminded her how important it is to meet with people face-to-face. “It’s just not the same with e-mail,” she said.

Speaking to this year’s arrival of the digital world at the heretofore very traditional Bologna fair, Paula Allen, senior v-p for global publishing at Nickelodeon, said she believes that ink on paper “will continue for a long time, but I think digital e-books will be a new business model for publishers. I don’t think publishers should be frightened of it. The next generation doesn’t have the hang-up about print vs. digital – they love digital, and the experience can be just as rewarding.”

Next year’s fair dates: Monday, March 19 through Thursday, March 22.