By most accounts, this year’s Bologna Book Fair was a vibrant one, with packed schedules and continued excitement for fiction. Unlike two years ago, when Hervé Tullet’s picture book Press Here was the title everyone was talking about, attendees didn’t crown a book of the fair, and were by and large pleased about that. As Wernick & Pratt agent Marcia Wernick put it, “There was no buzz book this year, and it’s been really nice. Everyone can focus on getting stuff done.”

The heartbeat of the fair has shifted in the past few years to the literary agents center, which is perched above the pavilions and filled with sunlight and book chatter. Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown Ltd. pronounced the center “the fullest I’ve seen it in my five years of going to Bologna. Children’s books are cementing themselves as a huge, important, driving force of our business.” She also remarked on a “real sense of optimism this year from almost all markets.”

Back at Bologna after a five-year absence, Steve Geck, now editorial manager for Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, noted that “agents and rights directors seem very excited about the titles they were representing. I saw little paranormal, some dystopia, and a lot of thriller/espionage. I’m also looking forward to reading several funny tween projects that were pitched to me.” First-timer Margaret Coffee, v-p of sales at Albert Whitman, said, “I was impressed with how easy it was to navigate Bologna in terms of hall size compared to BEA and Frankfurt. It was great to see so many longtime industry friends. The gelato and chocolate were as good as everyone told me. The bathroom lines were as bad as everyone warned me.” Another first timer, Charlesbridge’s Megan Quinn, pronounced the show “fantastic,” adding, “It’s nice to see the children’s book world on a larger scale.”

French publisher Gallimard celebrated its 40th anniversary at the show, with a party at a palazzo in town. CEO Antoine Gallimard recounted the highlights of the company’s last four decades to the party’s attendees, who raised their glasses in tribute to French agent Jacqueline Miller, a longtime Bologna attendee who died on March 16.

Abrams used the fair to announce the publication of the seventh Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, which will pub simultaneously in seven countries in November, and author Jeff Kinney was on hand for the announcement and to meet his foreign publishers. Several other authors and illustrations were in attendance; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt threw a party for Lois Lowry, to celebrate the fall publication of Son, the final volume in the fantasy quartet that began with her Newbery-winning novel The Giver. Jill Grinberg Literary Management held a cocktail party in honor of Cinder author Marissa Meyer (sold for translation in 18 countries), while Adams Literary feted debut author Veronica Rossi (Under the Never Sky), whose book has sold into 26 countries and is in development at Warner Bros.

The SCBWI booth was both a base of operations for visiting authors and illustrators and a hub of activity, with events like illustrator duels, consultations, and author appearances throughout the show. Several previous winners of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, including Katherine Paterson and Sonya Hartnett, were also at the show to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of that award; this year’s prize went to Dutch author Guus Kuijer. Also spotted around the stands: Huck Scarry, Barbara McClintock, Paul O. Zelinsky, Jon Klassen, Axel Scheffler, Vladimir Radunsky, and author/SCBWI cofounder Lin Oliver.

Klaus Humann, publisher of Carlsen in Germany for 15 years, was spreading the word of his new venture: he has stepped down to become publisher of a small startup list called Aladin. It will be a sister company to Carlsen, both owned by Bonnier. “I really wanted to go back to editing,” Humann said. He’s starting out with a staff of six, and will publish picture books and fiction up to age 11. On his first list, which launches next spring: picture books by Chris Van Allsburg, David Wiesner, Peter Sís, and Maurice Sendak’s Bumble-Ardy (most of Sendak’s backlist titles are out of print in Germany, Humann says; clearly he hopes to change that). When fully up to speed, he’ll be publishing up to 40 books a year.

Another new venture for Bonnier, Hot Key Books, headed by former Bloomsbury Group editor-in-chief Sarah Odedina, was showcasing its first list, due out this fall. It’s fiction for ages 9-19, according to Odedina; everything the company publishes, she said, “will publish simultaneously in p and e.” One big title on the launch list: Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, the story of two boys, one dyslexic, set in an imagined society where undesirables live in a separate zone. It has very short chapters and will be published simultaneously with an app, with such features as a doodle pad, meant to appeal to dyslexic readers. There have been offers in France and Brazil, an auction in Germany, and “a lot of U.S. interest.” Odedina praised Bonnier for its support, saying, “I feel as energized as I have in the last 20 years.”

The Shifting YA Scene

As PW previously reported, fiction – both YA and middle-grade – remained the strongest area of interest, though there were encouraging signs on the picture book side, too. In the YA world, there’s definitely some paranormal and dystopian burnout, with thrillers and science fiction poised to become the next big areas of focus. “One German editor told me, 'I’m really tired of dystopia, but I don’t think the kids are,' ” said Tracey Adams of Adams Literary. “Lots of dystopia is being offered even though this genre is struggling a bit,” said Henny Holmqvist, publisher of the Swedish house Wahlströms. “Dystopian novels [have been] mostly from U.S. authors, but I have a feeling that U.K. and Europe authors are now writing more dystopian. There are even a few really good Swedish dystopian novels.”

The overall sense: it’s getting harder to sell new dystopian projects with so many out or in the pipeline. “I think everyone is feeling that the search for dystopian has waned,” said Suzanne Murphy, v-p and publisher at Disney Publishing Worldwide. “But I think that’s because many of us have amazing books on our lists right now and in the next couple of years that will satisfy fans of dystopian and capture new readers, young and old, who are coming to it via The Hunger Games.” Bethany Buck, publisher of S&S’s Aladdin and Simon Pulse imprints, reported “seeing a lot of things with bells and whistles – paranormal with this... dystopian with this...” And Ginee Seo, children’s publishing director at Chronicle, was hearing a lot of “dystopian but” – as in, “We’re all sick of dystopian fiction but I promise you, this is really truly better than all the other dystopian stuff that’s out there.”

Agent Catherine Drayton of InkWell Management pronounced the paranormal and dystopia genres “overcooked.” Instead, she and others noticed that more and more publishers were looking for realistic fiction. “I personally think that thriller/suspense with some romance is the way to go,” she said. “One of the foreign publishers I saw said they were banking on chick lit making a comeback.”

For Seo at Chronicle, this is “the year of the dead people, and I don’t mean zombies. Every sub rights person I talked to about notable fiction would wax poetic about the writing and lyricism of the prose, and when it got to the plot, there was invariably at least one dead person in the story whose memory haunted the protagonist. By Tuesday, I was cutting to the chase and asking, ‘Do you have any beautifully written novels that don’t have dead people in them?’ just to see what the answer would be.”

And for Kristin Delaney, associate director of subsidiary rights for Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, “Thriller seems to be the word of the fair.” Little, Brown’s contribution to that category was Allen Zadoff’s forthcoming Boy Nobody and the kickoff to a new James Patterson series, Confessions of a Murder Suspect, out in September.

Signs of Life for Middle-Grade and Picture Books

“Middle-grade seems to be back in many markets, particularly in the U.K., which is great to hear,” said Ginger Clark at Curtis Brown about the fiction scene for younger readers. And Murphy at Disney noted that she saw “a lot more middle-grade adventure and fantasy this year than the past two years. I think historical fiction is picking up for middle grade and YA.”

“People are looking to expand their lists, and are looking for middle grade,” concurred agent Josh Adams. “Their YA list is getting full.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean things are full steam ahead just yet. “Both a British and a German publisher told me, ‘We’ve been paying so much attention to YA, we want to see middle grade,’ ” said Adams’s wife and fellow agent, Tracey Adams. “But they’re still putting their money into YA.”

“There’s been more optimism regarding picture books in general,” said Laura Godwin, publisher of children’s books at Henry Holt, and several publishers reported finding receptive audiences for their big picture books at the show. For Candlewick, that was Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back and his recently announced follow-up, This Is Not My Hat. “We’ve had a great international response,” said John Mendelson, senior v-p of sales and digital initiatives,” who estimated that the first book had 15 translations (and counting). “And I think [This Is Not My Hat] will be at least as strong if not stronger,” he said, adding that “having a Candlewick author here has been a great way to draw attention to the list overall.”

At Little, Brown, Patrick McDonnell’s recent Caldecott Honor for Me... Jane helped propel interest in his forthcoming picture book, The Monster’s Monster, which is scheduled for September publication. And Chronicle was having luck with Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle (which features a girl and flamingo dancing under and on top of flaps) and Open the Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier, illustrated by Suzy Lee, which contains multiple books-within-books of decreasing size.

Hot Markets, Troubled Markets

With some concerns about the stability of the euro hanging over the show, agents and publishers reported that certain European countries were having a tougher time this year, while others remained strong. “Portugal and Greece and the Italians are struggling more,” said Chronicle’s Almqvist, and Jean-Christophe Boele van Hensbroek of Lemniscaat noted that the Dutch market is “slowing down a bit. Children’s books and cookbooks are the things keeping booksellers afloat. The problem is getting books to the people, not people to the books. Less and less people are on the shopping street.”

In terms of trends, the Belgian market is “quite similar to the U.S.,” according to Clavis publisher Philippe Werck. “These things go up and down. Chick lit is out, fantasy is back in again. We try to follow the trends that are worldwide.” One of Clavis’s earlier purchases, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, recently went on sale in its home market, and the publisher hopes to expand into fiction in the U.S. in the coming years. “Belgium is a small country,” Werck said. “The smaller the home market, the bigger the rest of the world around us.”

For agent Josh Adams, Spain, Portugal, and Greece are proving tougher markets, with Germany, Poland, and France stronger. “Brazil seems to be on a tear lately,” he said. “I met with a new YA publisher from Brazil, and I had only one title to show her because everything else has been sold.” Adams also mentioned hearing from a sub-agent that Malaysia is opening up to translation.

Speaking about the Asian market, Dutton subsidiary rights director Donne Forrest said that Korea is “still very busy,” while Japan feels “relatively quiet, though they were still interested in seeing books.” She saw more publishers from mainland China this year, who were interested in both picture books and fiction. Japan’s interest was primarily fiction, she found, while Korean publishers were looking at “mainly picture books.” Elsewhere, she called Brazil “busy busy busy,” while commenting on the “really difficult” market in Britain. She saw a few Russian publishers, too, and found them more interested than in years past. Her favorite comment was from Leah Thaxton at Egmont UK, who said she was looking for “joyful” books. “They don’t need to have a happy ending,” Forrest recounted Thaxton saying, “but they have to leave you with a good feeling.”

Sheila Barry, co-publisher at Groundwood Books in Toronto, who observed that “YA fiction is still hot – there’s still a market to feed,” sounded a cautionary note: “The recession is making library markets tougher, not just in North America,” she said. “There’s some apprehension about whether government funding will allow libraries to keep buying kids’ books. It’s new to me, to hear that concern from European publishers.”

The E-Scene

Preceding the book fair was O’Reilly Media’s second annual Tools of Change Bologna conference, at which questions regarding platforms, formats, sales, and distribution were discussed in panels and presentations all day Sunday. The overall vibe, both at TOC and at the fair: digital children’s publishing is still in the early experimental stages. “The reality for us is that we have to change our thinking,” said Lemniscaat’s Boele van Hensbroek. “We’re just at the beginning of seeing the possibilities of the Internet.”

During the fair itself, there was “lots of talk about digital, but no one is revealing any results or sales figures,” said Holmqvist at Wahlströms. Agent Marietta Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency observed, “I think foreign publishers are going through what we went through in the U.S. as far as e-books are concerned. How do we define x, y, and z? How do we define it in contracts?” For Rob Schaeffer, director of sales and marketing at Blue Apple Books, Asian publishers were far more interested in digital products and tie-ins than their European counterparts. “Europe wants physical books. Not a single [European] publisher talked to me about ‘e,’ ” he said.

Chintu Parikh, CEO and founder of SachManya, a creator of apps and e-books, predicted that “the readers’ market is going to be e-books,” as opposed to apps. “Not every book needs to be an app,” he said, drawing a parallel to the relationship between books and film. “Not every book becomes a movie, but a lot of movies get their start as books.”

Sourcebooks CEO Dominique Raccah, an early e-adopter, said she wasn’t “seeing as many new ideas on the e-book side. There are lots of me-too ideas. If we don’t do things that are fresh in a fresh form, do we lose the opportunity? One thing I love about publishing is that we are able to re-invent the form.”

Elsewhere Around the Fair

In the last few years, the number of attendees from film companies has been notable, with demand for YA (and younger) fare on the upswing in Hollywood. Fiona Kenshole, who now scouts for the Gersh Agency, and is setting up to be “the first children’s literary agent in the Pacific Northwest,” observed that there were actually fewer film people apparent at the fair than last year, “but I think last year was exceptional.”

Nonetheless, Kenshole said, “steady business is being done, and I think we all agree it is an unmissable event on the calendar.” In film, she said, “everyone wants the next Hunger Games, of course. They still tend to like the high concept idea.” She reported on a multitude of sightings of her colleagues: “I spent time with Chris Kuser from DreamWorks who was looking for stories with a strong female protagonist. The Fox scouts traveled in a pack of three. Jason Lust was scouting for Prana, and there was a new scout for Henson. I heard there were scouts for Universal and Warner but I didn’t see them.”

Holt at Godwin pointed out a micro-trend she was tracking: “England is still obsessed with meerkats,” she said. “Last year I thought it would be a passing trend but it seems to be here to stay. And it’s clearly contagious, as Feiwel and Friends has taken on its first meerkat project – a series called Ninja Meerkats, coming out in winter 2013.”

Amazon Children’s Publishing was in attendance this year for the first time: Amazon Publishing head Larry Kirshbaum, along with Margery Cuyler and Tim Ditlow. Kirshbaum said he found the fair "very uplifting," in his first-ever visit. “The attendees were in a supercharged, optimistic mood. The children's business is on the digital runway and about to take off.”

Of course, the greatest charms of the Bologna fair are enjoyed after the last appointments of the day: the centuries-old streets to wander, and the justifiably renowned cuisine. Holmqvist at Wahlströms said she had had “several lovely dinners with lots of book talk, and those are just as important as the fair itself.”

Murphy, who attended a Disney reception in a palazzo on the town’s main square, told a story that gave a sense of after-hours priorities during the fair. “I was standing with a group high above the Piazza Maggiore, overlooking Neptune in his fountain, a glass of wine in one hand, my BlackBerry in another,” she said. “A waiter came by with a tray and jostled me, just as I was making some observation that had me gesticulating. BlackBerry and wine glass went into the air, and over the ledge my BlackBerry went, sailing toward Neptune. “#%$@!” exclaimed the group in six languages, with several hands reaching out to save... my wine glass. I love the Bologna Book Fair.”

And summing up, at the end of the long four days, agent Edward Necarsulmer of McIntosh & Otis said, “I left the fair feeling encouraged. I got the impression that things – in the largest markets, anyway – are stabilizing a bit, and people want to buy books that will endure.”

Next year's dates: March 25-28, 2013, as the fair celebrates its 50th anniversary.