The 2015 Bologna Book Fair may not have had a must-acquire “book of the fair” or even a Next Big Thing trend. Instead, publishers seemed to be seeking out books that would stand out from the pack, either because of an inventive format, narrative hook, or an element of diversity.
“I thought it was a refreshing fair,” said agent Jill Grinberg of Jill Grinberg Literary Management. “It wasn’t so much ‘Show me your big books’ as ‘Show me your special books.’ " Publishers seemed less interested in slick and commercial and more interested in distinctive.” Grinberg’s most requested books were either original in format (such as a YA novel about a girl artist that interweaves text and art), content (a novel about a pregnant teen virgin), or approach (an unblinking, stream of consciousness chronicle of first love).
“It seemed as if the trend was that there was no trend,” agreed Jessica Regel of Foundry Literary + Media. “Publishers were looking for something special in any genre.” Regel also noted that several editors were asking for a funny contemporary voice in both YA and middle-grade. The Explorers Club by Adrienne Kress, first in a MG series that Delacorte is slated to publish in the U.S. in fall 2016, “was one of our most asked-about projects,” she said.
“It occurred to me there were several ‘old’ titles that were still being pushed hard at the fair,” said Hannerlie Modderman, commissioning editor of children’s and YA books at Uitgeverij Luitingh-Sijthoff in Amsterdam. “And why not? After several years of financial crisis in which most publishers bought less and less, there are still beautiful titles to discover.” Modderman noted that she was pleased to see that titles her house had bought at the 2014 fair, such as All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and Half Bad by Sally Green, are “big titles now” and have been bought by several countries. “Overall, I think there was a lot of diversity: from literary and commercial to fantasy and realism. For every kind of reader there are nice books out there!”
“Everyone is saying they’re looking for something original,” said Elise Howard, publisher at Algonquin Young Readers. Novels with unreliable narrators and hook-y premises were doing well for her, including Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us, which published the week before the fair, as well as Yvonne Prinz’s forthcoming If You’re Lucky (which like The Walls Around Us features unreliable narration), and The Girl in the Well Is Me by Karen Rivers, a book whose premise the title makes clear. “Everyone seems to know what they want,” said Howard. “I have heard publishers say they are trimming their lists. They’re not looking for a lot of books.”
“The fair was a bit quiet this year with no obvious big book, but still a lot to read,” said Yael Molchadsky, director of children’s and YA books at Kinneret Zmora Dvir Publishing in Israel. “I guess that YA realistic fiction is in the lead, and one could discern a mini trend of gay and transgender lit. There were quite a few books with transgender issues, and many more with gay characters.” One such title was picture book author Brie Spangler’s first novel, Beast (Knopf, fall 2016), a transgender love story that was attracting interest at the fair, according to agent Joanna Volpe of New Leaf Literary & Media.
Along similar lines, agent Marietta Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency noted, “The conversation around diversity is just as hot internationally as in the U.S. It’s been a delight to see it’s a global conversation. And it’s not just for show. We know the diversity in this world and it needs to be highlighted, needs to be shown in the books.” Zacker was seeing strong interest in a debut novel from author Randi Pink, tentatively titled Toya (Feiwel and Friends, spring 2016), about a black teenage girl who wants to be white.
For Holly Hunnicutt, deputy director of subsidiary rights at Macmillan Young Readers Group, one of the titles attracting the most attention was Jessica Brody’s A Week of Mondays, which Hunnicutt described as a kind of YA Groundhog Day; she had German and French offers before the fair, and she received Italian and Spanish offers during the fair. On the picture book side, Hunnicutt made a late call to bring Lane Smith’s forthcoming picture book, There Is a Tribe of Kids, which had just been featured at Macmillan’s spring 2016 launch. “How can you not?” she said. “I put it in people’s hands, and they would just smile.”
Several attendees, including agents Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown and Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary, called it a “quiet” fair. “The ‘trends,’ such as they are, remain the same as they were last year,” said Stearns. “A desire for ‘big’ books – preferably with a movie tie-in – and a dread of tired genres such as dystopia and paranormal romance.” Margaret Raymo, senior executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, said she was still having conversations about post-apocalyptic fiction, even if people were avoiding the D-word: “ ‘It’s set in the future.’ ‘Is it dystopia?’ ‘Well...’ ” Meanwhile, Sourcebooks editorial director Steve Geck said he was “surprised at the amount of fantasy I saw for young readers and teens. It struck me as being a bigger category than I’ve seen in recent years.” Marie-Ann Geissler, editor of Fischer FJB, the crossover and YA list at S. Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt, found that “contemporary romance with a special twist or hook was still important and also books with an LGBT-perspective – especially transgender, since there haven’t been many novels about it in the past, I think. There is also still a lot more dystopia and ‘near-future-fiction’ on offer than I would have guessed.”
One book with a movie tie-in was Michelle Cuevas’s middle-grade novel, Confessions of an Imaginary Friend. “I think it will be a big commercial success, thanks to the people who fell in love with it prior to the fair,” said Molly Jaffa of Folio Literary Management. “20th Century Fox Animation optioned film rights in a nearly six-figure deal, and we did big preempts in France, Italy, Spain, and Brazil in the days before Bologna.” Also popular for Jaffa was Julie Murphy’s YA novel Dumplin’ (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Sept.). “Publishers adored the curvy, almost iconic illustrated girl on the cover, and felt a sea change was coming in terms of female representation in YA novels. ‘If you got it, flaunt it’ is one of the novel’s taglines, and it was so special to see it embraced the world over.”
On the picture book side, Holiday House v-p and editor-in-chief Mary Cash said she was having success with two 2015 titles, Owl Boy by Brian Schatell and Is That a Cat? by Tim Hamilton. Calling the fair “upbeat,” Cash said that she had spotted the artwork of a Taiwanese illustrator on display and had met with him and one of his publishers. “We don’t know what his books would be called in English, but we’ve fallen in love with the artwork.” Clarion Books publisher Dinah Stevenson observed, “In picture books, pigs were everywhere, with meerkats gaining ground.” Agent Edite Kroll was pleased about the attention one of her client’s pig books had been getting at the fair: Emma J. Virján’s What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig (HarperCollins, May). “B&N took a strong position” on the book, said Kroll, and Virján agreed to adjust the trim size and format of the books, as well as to finish three more books in the series by February. “We had agreed on two, and the editor said, ‘Don’t you think we ought to talk about a third?’ ”
At Peachtree, subsidiary rights director Farah Géhy felt that the mood at the fair was “a little more optimistic than in previous years. I think the economic situation is a little tough, but spirits are still high.” Géhy had been having success showing a pair of spring picture books, Julie Paschkis’s P. Zonka Lays an Egg and Rodeo Red from Maripat Perkins and Molly Idle, as well as a fall YA novel, Believarexic by J.J. Johnson.
Bologna attendance was up this year, though in keeping with the idea of a “quieter” fair, Julia Marshall, publisher of New Zealand’s Gecko Press, said, “I did notice slightly fewer people around. I thought there were some really original books being made, though. I saw a few options for ways to link digital and print, and more interactivity in books for younger children in general. Like many others, I am always looking for books with a really great story as well as wonderful illustrations and they are never easy to find.” U.K. scout John McLay, who said he was “really pleased that the U.K. books on my hotlist were competing well with the books on the hotlists from the U.S. scouts,” also noted, “I’ve never seen so many authors and illustrators in Bologna before. There are always a lot, but this year you couldn’t walk down an aisle or step onto a stand without bumping into a publisher’s special guest.”
For Molchadsky at Kinneret Zmora, a speech by one of those special guests – Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey – at Monday’s Scholastic reception was one of the fair’s funnier and more memorable moments, as well as an inspiring one. “We publish his and Jeff Kinney’s books, and both receive horrible criticism from adults and enthusiastic response from young readers,” she said. “Another funny moment was the announcement by Il Castoro of the Latin edition of Wimpy Kid. I can’t imagine Greg Heffley speaking in Latin. Next step is a Yiddish translation!”
Of course, in many ways the real work begins after the fair – “the big waiting game,” as agent Barry Goldblatt described it. “I have a lot of follow-up to do,” said Maria Kjoller, director of rights, special sales and international distribution at Lerner, who was representing Egmont USA’s frontlist and backlist titles at Bologna for the first time, as they are being folded into Lerner’s imprints. “It’s really exciting for me, and it’s fleshed out my list. With the [Carolrhoda] Lab list, we only had four books per season, and we often didn’t get rights,” she said. Added Raymo at HMH, “I said yes to tons of novels. We’ll see what happens.”
Next year's dates: April 4–7, a week after Easter.