For my first visit to Bologna in 17 years, I roamed the halls seeking to re-familiarize myself with old friends and a new world order. The size of the fair felt similar, the tone just as spirited and intimate as I had remembered, but lacked the big book frenzy. The new agents center is now brightly lit, well placed and quite abuzz. So, I tried to resist my tendency toward introspection and sought the opinions of folks from around the globe

The political explosion of Yugoslavia with book fair booths actually blood-splattered by protestors remained in my memory, as did the bifurcation of Czechoslovakia, the reunification of Germany and the end of the USSR. The former Yugoslavian countries on the Balkan peninsula are now represented by very strong collective stands for Slovenia and Croatia and a modest presence for Serbia. Now both the Czech and Slovak republics have strong group stands. Czech publishers now number 4,583, up from a mere 50 before the Velvet Revolution of 1989. They published a total of 1,144 books in foreign languages in 2009 including 752 in English. 1,367 (19%) of the total output is of children’s titles.

Russia had just emerged from the USSR and now has an incredibly vital capitalist book publishing community. Alexander Voropayev of the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications and head of the Department for Book Fairs & Reading Promotion presented a children’s book study of the Russian market’s growth at the fair. Voropayev was quite enthusiastic about the outcome of the Bologna Fair which began a cycle of heavy promotion (see supplement) as Russia prepares to be the guest country at both next week’s London Book Fair and at BEA in 2012.

The Baltic countries appeared for the first time during my last visit; Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are all still present with multiple publishers. I also recall with fondness the first appearance of a post-apartheid South African publisher translating to Zulu. South Africa, alas, was not in attendance, nor were many of their fellow African countries. Rwanda, which suffered the genocide of 1994 and is struggling with its reconciliation, was represented by a single publisher, Bakame Editions, and a single series. Only Senegal, Zimbabwe and Egypt had stands of their own. Benin and Cameroon shared the African Collective. Given the tumult it was no surprise that North African countries and many Middle Eastern countries were absent. The Gulf States were represented by the Sharjah and Abu Dhabi Fairs. Japan, too, had cancellations due to the natural disasters that it has recently suffered.

For the host country it seemed as robust or even more so than I recalled. Italian publishers held a meeting where results of the Associazione Italiana Editori study were released (a full translation will be available shortly). For the first time Italian publishers sold more children’s titles than they bought; a 25% increase in sales to 1,607 titles paired with an 11% decrease in purchases to 1,283 created a unit gap of 324. Not surprisingly only 4% of Italian title/sales were to North America. Fiammetta Giorgi, editor-in-chief of Mondadori’s children’s division, shared that “even local bestselling authors like Licia Troisi do not sell into the U.S. market.” Troisi has nine titles translated into 17 languages; in an effort to make an English-language sale, Mondadori plans to translate her work on spec. “In fact, Fiammetta reports that “we have not sold any title to the U.S.” It is quite a statement that a company of Mondadori’s size and quality output cannot find a place in the U.S. children’s market.

On the other hand, Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca Entertainment, has created a worldwide phenomenon with Italy’s own Geronimo Stilton, for whom they launched a seven-country web and social media platform with many more to follow. Commenting on this year’s event Luisa Bianchi, her publicist, statedthat “everything is becoming extremely hectic, opportunities are multiplying, content digitization has forced all of the publishers, even the most conservative, to accept the new situation.” Previously, she said, “you could do only books, but now everything has changed, amplified, the offer is completely different than in the past.” For Atlantyca’s cross-media platform that is quite desirable.

Europe was well represented with large collective stands from Germany, Austria, Britain, France, and the Nordic countries. Spain had collective stands, by region, including Andalucia and Valencia and in the cases of Catalania and Galicia by language. Galician is spoken by some three to four million people in northwestern Spain and parts of Portugal.

Bastian Schlueck of Thomas Schlueck Literary and Art Agency reported that “over the last years, more German publishers/editors/agents are coming – more foreign clients either added juvenile literature to their list or expanded their YA lists and are coming now, too. So the number of our agency meetings improved. Over the last two or three years German adult publishers are now here as well and are looking for the same material that pure YA publishers are interested in. So there is more competition.”

Schlueck found the mood of the fair positive. “It seems that the publishers are a bit more cautious to commit for multiple titles of a series right away,” he said. “They seem to be happy to hear about standalones and to review realistic topics. But this is only a slight shift so far. Of course supernatural/urban trilogies and series are still very successful in our market. However, since many projects are in the pipeline, it needs to be seen how big the ‘all-age’ market really is and how many of these series can be successful.”

John Erik Riley of Cappelen Damm, Norway’s largest publisher, noted, “For us, every book fair is a good one, but some are more exciting than others. Last year’s acquisition of The Emerald Atlas comes to mind. A quick decision had to be made and both I and our editor, Hege, spent sleepless nights reading the manuscript as fast as we could. We landed the deal just before the fair and the excitement lasted throughout. Generally, however, the children’s book fair in Bologna is less hectic than Frankfurt. We see a lot of good stuff but rarely have to put in bids right away.”

“All in all,” Riley said, “Bologna always blows me away, particularly when it comes to illustration. There’s always a lot of good stuff out there. When it comes to innovation, things go in waves. There seemed to be less innovation this year. We were presented with a lot of dystopian titles and a lot of titles with a so-called paranormal twist. Nonfiction titles for children also seemed to be in a slight slump. There’s a lot of talk about digital publication and things are certainly changing. Most publishers are working hard to get things in place. We saw a few apps here and there that sparked our interest. All in all, though, the fair was about books in the old fashioned sense of the word.”

Lippo Luukkonen, publisher of children’s books at Finland’s WSOY, echoed his sentiment, saying, “For all children’s publishers Bologna is the key event as well as the most beloved event of the year. Two years ago the fair was quiet, last year there was a huge hype around The Emerald Atlas which was the book everybody wanted to have and some got (with too high price, I think, after losing the auction for Finnish rights). This year there wasn’t anything that extraordinary going on, but it looked quite healthy, more people coming from many European markets which are recovering after the recession.

Luukkonen finds Bologna both the “most hectic and interesting” week of the year, “like a tunnel for which you enter in the beginning of the week and come out exhausted but happy at the end of it. You try to maximize the contacts you are able to build, the information you can share with your colleagues, and the presence you can build in the international publishing society. And, of course, maximize the fun of getting to know so many new and interesting people. Rights-wise this was rather average Bologna: we bought one U.S. YA book and two more are under evaluation, got lot of new information concerning the future plans of our existing authors, and received enough nice picture book proposals that we are going to evaluate after the fair. My highlight event for the fair was the dinner party we organized for the international publishers of one of my bestselling Finnish authors, Timo Parvela. We rented a medieval tower and toasted on top of it over Bologna at night. I think every publisher as well as the author himself will remember this event for a long time. This just as a example that at least European publishers are acting in many roles in Bologna, buying, building brand for their own authors, and networking.

Turning to the digital outlook, Luukkonen noticed that many publishers were only for the first time “actively promoting their first proper enriched e-books for tablets. I find it quite amazing how relatively late this whole branch internationally have awakened for this change. For the first time now it looked as if this change has been accepted broadly everywhere. It is of course true, that in many markets there is now a need to actively speed up the change, but these new formats create so many new business opportunities, that I would have expected at least some publishers to take more radical changes and concentrate only on that. However, the content itself will remain and publishers are needed in this digital reality as well.”

Martin Vydra, an editor at Ikar in the Slovak Republic, called business “very competitive” these days. “Many titles are being sold as non-complete trilogies (tetralogies, x-logies, etc.) which is strange because you never know if follow-ups will be as good as the first book or if they will be done at all. But since there is no leader in the market right now (Twilight gone down), nobody knows what will be the next big thing. It is kind of a lottery and I hope I have acquired the right title. [We are] just waiting to see which one it will be. As for e-books, we are starting on May 1. Audio books did not work well in Slovakia. So I am quite curious about this. Still we are a leader in the market in Slovakia so it is natural that we do not want to stay behind.”

The Asian publishers had no larger presence than the Korea stand, reflective of their highly acquisitive children’s publishers. Nearly 30% (11,681) of all Korean titles published each year are translations, with Japan being the number one trading partner and U.S. number two. Hyo Jin Kim, program coordinator for the Korean Publishers Association, producers of the upcoming Seoul Fair (June 15-19), reported that last year’s fair had 194 exhibitors (32%) from 23 countries reflecting their increasing importance. She, too, spoke quite favorably about the activities at this year’s Bologna Fair.

Yuko Nonaka, foreign rights manager for Kaisei-sha Publishing of Japan, noted how “active and strong” the Korean publishers have become in Bologna. “They had a wider collective stand compared to previous years, and our Japanese area was squeezed. Moreover, two Korean titles won the Bologna Raggazi Award. I think that it means they are gaining in global recognition. My colleague had a half-day meeting with Korean publishers, and said it was great and interesting. We have always had a selling meeting with Korean publishers every year, but this year was the first time to have so many buying meetings with them Masayuki Sebe's 100 series was still popular, and some publishers keep waiting for his next titles. Taro Miura’s The Tiny King, which was introduced in PW, also got reaction from foreign editors. Some American editors checked PW before the meeting, so it was good for me.”

Nonaka reported that “some Japanese publishers skipped this year’s fair because of the earthquake and radiation problem. I don’t know which is good or not, but attending the fair was a good opportunity for me to tell foreign friends that we are safe and fine. And I was so moved by many foreign editors who worried about us and Japan vicariously.”

Paulina Lin of the Taipei Book Fair Foundation, organizers of the recent Taipei Book Fair, said that “the mood was much more favorable [than in recent years]. When we first attended in 2009 I seriously questioned the purpose of our presence but now am quite satisfied.” Robert Lin, chairman and CEO of Children’s Publications Co., said that the fair “was quite good in the last two years,” and that they have partnered with most of the top tier U.S. and U.K. companies.

Publisher K.T. Hao and foreign rights manager Diane Ho of Taipei-based Grimm Press related that only 8% of their writers and illustrators are actually from Taiwan. Their Telly Bear electronic children’s toy comes equipped with a library of some 100 children’s books and unlike their iPad apps it does not allow the child to wander away from reading via all the tempting alternatives online. Heryin Books was represented on the Taiwan stand but also had a booth in its new home with the American publishers. They recently opened an operation in Alhambra, Calif.

Hospitality from the Canadian publishers kicked off the fair with a Sunday night dinner underwritten by the Ontario Business Development Council, where each participating publisher invited publishing partners from around the globe. The Quebecois had a separate presence at the fair near the other Canadian stands, representing the interests of the French-language publishing community.

Peter Whitfield of New Frontier Publishing in New South Wales, Australia, observed that “the fair was alive with a buzz it hasn’t seen for five years. This was in stark contrast the flat vibe of the fair last year. This year was the opposite. Publishers are trying to find new avenues to drive their content into the hands of readers and all seemed ready to jump on the e-book, e-pub, iPad, I-don’t-know-what-is-coming-next electronic bandwagon.” Nosy Crow with its The Three Little Pigs app, he said, “came across as one of the leaders in app development. Bloomsbury has initiated a new library lending approach that has been successfully trialed. They are now inviting other publishers to take part in this scheme, which allows library subscribers to view book content online. Publishers are being more innovative than ever, and more willing to accept new challenges.”

Whitfield gave word of difficult news from back home. “There is no doubt that the way we do business is changing. In Australia it has just been announced that 16 Borders stores will be closing leaving only nine still open. Sadly 510 staff will lose their jobs. It is a trying and oft-tragic time for those in the bookselling industry. Booksellers have to work harder than ever to combat the online selling. Niche independent bookstores seem to be fairing better and their stores managing to stay afloat. They are the ones with the loyal customer base and have innovative programs. With change comes opportunity and it seems that many in the industry are forging ahead determined to find new ways of delivering content in an easy and accessible format to the reader. The successful publishers, booksellers and librarians are optimistically banding together towards a brighter future for the book, in all its manifest forms.”

All in all, it was a true pleasure to be back in Bologna, where fair manager Roberta Chinni puts on a wonderful week, and to see old colleagues like Nancy Gallt or Dick Robinson and enjoy their generous hospitality, and make new acquaintances like Markus Dohle and Jack Jensen. And to have the opportunity to meet so many new publishers from around the globe and from home, including a secret dinner high atop the hills outside Bologna with fine cuisine and a lively cabal of great spirits…. Arrivederci Bologna, see you next year.

Photos: Mario Ventimiglia.