We spoke to two agents from the U.K. in the run-up to the fair; Madeleine Milburn of Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film (above, left) and Jodie Hodges of United Agents told us about their hopes for Frankfurt 2022.
How important are the fair and others such as Bologna to you and your clients? Did you miss them during the Covid lockdown?
MM: It is absolutely exhilarating to have everyone together in the office again, championing each other and our brilliant roster of clients. Ideas are sparking, every agent is doing unprecedented deals, and our rights team are on fire globally. We are all so excited for Frankfurt, for faceto- face meetings and dinners, where we can develop our relationships even further and feel the all-important buzz of the big debuts that make publishing tick! Lockdown felt like we were caught in some strange time warp; deals were being made, books being published, but without being able to see colleagues, publishers or authors, nothing felt real.
JH: I won’t be there, but the UA rights team will be out in full force and it’s obviously also a significant moment for all the publishers’ teams selling co-editions in the illustrated books I represent. I’ve been seeing a really pleasing uptick in rights sales since we went back in-person at Bologna and LBF; it seems obvious, but it makes a huge difference to be able to show international publishers the beauty of illustrated books in real life.
Co-editions and translation sales can be hugely important to children’s creators’ incomes as the advances are often relatively modest to start with, so we’re all hoping the challenges of production being experienced at the moment don’t negatively affect this. Color books are having a very trying time with shipping disruption and knock-on costs; creators are of course feeling that, with shortened schedules and unforeseen problems and delays.
What are your hopes for the fair?
MM: I want our agents to be reunited with editors that we have long-standing relationships with, to strengthen our ties internationally, and of course to meet new publishers. Interaction in person is even more important in a post-Brexit landscape which, together with Covid, sent a shockwave through international rights departments. Even though we feel closer to editors now, through the delights of Zoom, meetings in person will always be more rewarding and memorable, with more business generated.
JH: This autumn I’m excited to see Rob Biddulph’s second Peanut Jones novel published—Rob has upped the ante in terms of illustrations in this middle-grade book. Macmillan has sold rights in 15 territories already, so I’m sure will be hunting for more at Frankfurt. David Fickling Books will showcase Jamie Smart’s new comic series, Max and Chaffy, for readers younger than those of his bestselling Bunny vs Monkey series, and OUP has Emerald, the second spin-off series in the four million copy-selling Isadora Moon world.
The industry seems to have weathered the Covid crisis. But now we’re facing an economic crisis. How do you think we’ll cope this time?
MM: I think publishers will become even more risk averse as readers buy fewer books. Trends will be led by TikTok, and bigger investments made in high profile authors and books with strong propositions that are guaranteed to sell. It’s a worrying climate, but I feel the MM Agency has all areas of the market covered, and what I find reassuring is that we specialize in those books that have a wide demographic reach, in that literary commercial sweet spot with multi-generational appeal. We’ve also made a huge effort to diversify our lists so we can reach even more readers. There’s a lot of development on the film & TV side, too, with multiple projects now in production set to hit the screen next year. Ten years in, and it feels like we’re on the brink of something very, very exciting.
JH: Obviously, the economic crisis is concerning, but historically children’s books have fared pretty well. Covid has ignited in lots of parents a stronger awareness of and interest in their children’s reading— let’s hope that continues. There’s some truly exceptional publishing happening, though discoverability remains a huge hurdle, especially if consumers are tightening their belts and not browsing in bookshops. Supermarkets would do a lot to address this if they widened their ranges. What is most difficult is knowing that households that will be hit hardest simply won’t be able to afford books, meaning progress in reaching new readers will suffer. It makes our libraries all the more vital.