The past few weeks have been a busy period for the publishing industry, with important international fairs held in Bologna and London while one of the largest conferences for independent presses and self-published authors took place in Salt Lake City. In fact, the tight schedule of the shows, particularly the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, which took place April 4–7, and the London Book Fair, held this year April 12–14, caused headaches for some U.S. children’s publishers and agents who either went straight from Bologna to London or opted out of the U.K. fair. In 2017, there will be much more of a gap between the events, with the London fair set for March 14–16 and Bologna scheduled from April 3–6.
The near overlap of Bologna and London didn’t appear to dampen attendance at Bologna, which was up more than 9% over last year, according to BCBF officials. There was no big title or dominant trend this year, but the overall consensus from publishers and agents was that the fair was very productive. “Upbeat and buzzy” was agent Sophie Hicks’s take on the event. Holly Hunnicutt, deputy director of subsidiary rights at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, reported a “good fair.”
A new addition to Bologna this year was the Digital Hall, which featured digital service providers, companies offering software solutions, and independent producers. Microsoft Education and Google Play had the biggest presence in the hall.
As always, numerous authors and artists were at the fair to meet with their international publishers and bring visibility to upcoming projects. Debut author Katherine McGee appeared in advance of the August publication of her novel, The Thousandth Floor, which currently has 24 publishers around the world. Other attendees included Mac Barnett, Jason Reynolds, Veronica Roth, and Sergio Ruzzier. Rick Riordan had what was likely the biggest event of the show; beyond meeting with his numerous foreign publishers, he spoke to a crowd of 1,200 on Tuesday evening at the Teatro Duse in an event organized by Mondadori, his Italian publisher. Riordan signed some 1,000 books at the event.
After a few rough years, improving sales in 2015 for publishers translated into an energetic 2016 London Book Fair. “If you look at a three-year snapshot, 2013 and 2014 didn’t make for very happy reading,” London Book Fair director Jacks Thomas said, referring to sales declines in most major markets in those years. But 2015 saw a return to sales growth in a number of countries, including the U.K. “We are now going in the right direction,” Thomas declared.
Her sentiments were echoed on the show floor. Bloomsbury’s Richard Charkin used the word “confidence,” as did Hachette U.K. CEO Tim Hely Hutchinson. “Confidence is good; people are pleased to see the market is stabilizing and that the print market is up.”
Ahead of the fair, optimism was also expressed at the 31st International Publishers Congress, which featured keynotes from Penguin Random House U.K. chair Gail Rebuck, author Philip Pullman, and Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry. In his brief talk, however, Nourry said there were some “threats” to be dealt with, specifically sounding a call to European publishers to fight copyright reforms proposed by the European Commission, which he said would devastate European publishers. Nourry also stoked a minor controversy when he questioned whether China, which was brought into the International Publishers Association last fall, was prepared to defend the freedom to publish, and freedom of opinion, citing recent events in the news.
Self-publishing was also a subject of interest at the fair, with the popular Authors HQ once again facing overflowing audiences for its presentations on best practices and services, how to find an agent, and more. Emerging technology was also prominent, with sessions on virtual reality, and on artificial intelligence, including a keynote at the pre-fair Quantum digital conference by Nick Bostrum, director of the Strategic Artificial Intelligence Research Center at the University of Oxford. In his talk, Bostrum tried to show how far we are from a world where books might actually write themselves (spoiler alert: pretty far).
In her speech at Quantum, Rebuck nicely set the tone for the 2016 fair, noting that technology cuts two ways. “Our job as publishers is made easier, and infinitely more sophisticated, by terabytes of digital research,” she noted, adding that the same technology can make it harder for many authors “to be seen or heard in the vast sea of information in which we now live.” But after two decades of “seismic changes,” Rebuck also sounded a note of confidence. “Books,” she said, “remain the DNA of our civilization.”
In Salt Lake City, approximately 230 independent publishers and self-published authors turned out for the IBPA’s 28th Publishing University, held April 8–9. The event took place a few days after the Ingram Content Group completed its purchase of Perseus Books Group’s distribution division and the news that Partners Distribution was closing. Against that backdrop, potential changes in the distribution landscape were a big topic among attendees between the various panels and at cocktail receptions.
The well-received keynote speech was delivered by Newbery-winner Kwame Alexander. Before being signed by a major publisher, Alexander operated his own small press and, at one point, self-published his work. Along the way, he told the audience, he learned the value of taking chances in marketing. He took big publishers to task for believing there is only one way to sell books when, in fact, “there are hundreds of ways.” When sales of his first self-published book were slow, for example, Alexander took to showing up at farmers’ markets up and down the Middle Atlantic states, often selling $1,000 worth of books in a day.
Self-published authors and independent publishers can’t think like large publishers, he said. “You have to do what you have to do to sell your books.” Even after Houghton Mifflin Harcourt acquired The Crossover, Alexander’s middle grade novel, which won the 2015 Newbery, Alexander said he continued to aggressively market his titles. “To be an author is to be active,” he said.