We asked a number of agents and scouts attending this year’s Bologna book fair to talk about the trends they’ve been noticing: in themes, in genres, and in international demand. Their responses covered a wide range of issues.
Jill Grinberg Literary Management
Domestically, we’re seeing more marginalized voices across age groups, more graphic novels, more fantasy. But while we observe current trends, we prefer to follow our hearts—we’re drawn to and look for gorgeous voices and authentic stories with an emotional core. I think that we’ll be seeing some surprising and imaginative work in the near future, projects inspired by the presidential election and our current climate of unease, resistance, and protest.
On the international side, I love the years when there is no particular trend that publishers are seeking at Bologna: all of our books get similar attention, and it makes for animated conversation. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job directing foreign rights is watching the changes over the years in each of the markets: for instance, where YA sci-fi didn’t work a few years ago in Poland, or contemporary YA in Italy, they’re now safe bets; Italian publisher Il Castoro has even launched a new YA imprint, Hot Spot. And it’s so nice to be getting good offers again in Spain and Portugal.
My sense of things in the international market is that everything has gotten harder, especially YA, and there are far fewer titles selling into translation these days. There are obviously still big breakout titles, and always will be, but success in the U.S. doesn’t guarantee any kind of success in international markets. I think it’s particularly interesting that the reinvigoration of contemporary YA and middle grade has not, at least for me, been echoed in markets around the world.
As for trends in my own submission box, the big thing is diversity and [the] #OwnVoices [campaign]—though I really hate referring to it as a trend, because it’s more a collective awakening and opening of doors in publishing. I’ve been making a concerted effort to reach out to marginalized writers, and I’m sure that is impacting the number who are querying me. We’ve still got a really long way to go, but the efforts of groups like We Need Diverse Books, and the high-profile successes of authors like Nicola Yoon, Angie Thomas, Sabaa Tahir, and others feels like it’s not just opening doors, but smashing down walls.
In Frankfurt there were a lot of reimagined fairy tales, and stories set in space, but we’re seeing a bit less of those for Bologna. Middle grade adventure series with a magical element are still evergreen, but the bar is really high. Licensed properties are very competitive, especially books based on video games. More and more foreign publishers are looking at American graphic novels, specifically ones with strong narratives, and these are translating into film as well. I’ve been reading a lot of self-published fan fiction, mostly compulsively readable, guilty pleasure romances—some quite sexy—for the 18-plus space, or what we call “new adult,” and foreign publishers are publishing them on their crossover lists. Crossover in general is a big theme—older YA that adults may want to read.
Nonfiction is a real growth area in both YA and middle grade, with books that tackle issues like body image, bullying over social media, and sexuality, as well as titles about girl power and coding. Picture books are still of interest in Asia, especially in China, and for film clients looking to be inspired for animation. We’re still seeing a lot of YouTube stars writing nonfiction and fiction alike; I keep hearing that YouTube is “Google for kids,” which is actually true for my kids as well. Finally, we always see a surge in material that reflects the political climate—last year it seemed to be stories inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and I’ve been reading a lot more stories about the refugee experience, whether they are first-person or fictionalized.
We are having nice success with YA contemporary right now, both domestically and abroad. If it has a speculative twist, even better. I also see a small trend of YA historical heating up, again both domestically and abroad. I think fantasy can still work, but it has to be very different and fresh—I see a ton of fantasy submissions that are too similar to what’s already out there. We are also selling more middle grade abroad than we used to, but YA is still dominant, at least for our agency.
Curtis Brown’s children’s list is quite varied, but we continue to have particular domestic success with literary middle grade and YA fiction. In addition, publishers continue to express interest in finding diverse voices and unique presentations across the spectrum. For picture books, nonfiction, where unique people, places, and things can be introduced to a young audience in fun and original ways, is trending strongly.
In terms of the global market, middle grade works remain hot, continuing and expanding the trend we’ve seen over the past three years. Otherwise, a number of publishers (primarily in Western Europe and Brazil) are interested in publishing upmarket young adult works as crossover fiction. Picture book sales remain strong in Asia, with more scattered successes in other markets. Finally, correlating with the significant upswing in interest in graphic novels domestically, we are noticing that some markets seem more open to these works in translation than in years past.
In YA, I’d say everybody is looking for high-concept fiction with a voice that grabs you and never lets go. YA fantasy is still working, but it has to really stand out. The darker the better in all of these. We’re hearing that science fiction is difficult. Editors and houses are very focused on diversity, smartly and rightly so!
Middle grade editors seem to be looking for action and adventure. We’re doing quite a bit of younger middle grade (more 8–10 than 11–12); at the same time we’re doing older YA (protagonists are 18 and 19). We are bullish about narrative nonfiction and fun, creatively designed reference for middle grade.
Middle grade is certainly having its moment across many territories, mainly for series but also for the unique, exquisite standalone, especially when there is an element of fantasy or magic involved. There is fatigue with contemporary YA, as most markets have gotten very crowded with these titles over the last few years and still have many in the pipeline. The good thing is we are seeing publishers continue to invest in an author for their third and fourth books, but then it’s that much harder to get a commitment for a debut contemporary YA. Still, if the voice is really special or it has a fresh setup, there is still interest.
There’s been an uptick in children’s sales in the U.K. from the U.S. over the last two to three years, so one can assume that will plateau or decrease in the coming year, even if it’s just an overall feeling of uncertainty.
I think U.S. agents and editors are both apprehensive and excited right now. The political climate is generating raw, intense feelings, and we can’t help but wonder what kind of art will be created now. In YA, I’ve been hearing that most people want to avoid dystopias with escapist novels of family and heartfelt romance. But I believe that sci-fi and fantasy will continue to be on the rise and be redefined in ways that are shocking and new. People want to see life reflected in art, but they also want to see a life they haven’t seen before.
Foreign sales are well spread across the age ranges at present, with Brazil continuing to struggle, while China continues to power ahead. Brexit is being heavily discussed but has not yet had any noticeable impact on rights sales.
In young adult it seems everyone overseas is still looking for (but being very selective with) fantasy; contemporary is also a hot genre, though everyone wants something different. We’re seeing a large wave of requests for more diverse voices, which we’re thrilled to see is not limited to the U.S. On the middle grade side, series are selling better than standalones, and everyone is looking for that big, breakout fantasy or adventure story.
As we’re an agency that has been around since 1928, we work with a lot of estates and backlist titles. There have been great new opportunities in the foreign market for our classic titles, especially in China, Korea, and Japan. All of these countries actively look for and buy a lot of picture books, both classic and frontlist. The Thai and Indonesian markets seem to be growing. I’ve been working more with them this year on a variety of titles, from picture books to YA.
For frontlist, I’ve had strong interest in the U.K. and Europe for middle grade and contemporary YA. One of our titles that has sold in the most territories and still receives a lot of interest is a YA contemporary tearjerker. I’m not sure if I’d call this a trend or “hot,” but I’m having luck with contemporary YA right now. Big fantasy titles still seem to be going strong in the foreign market as well.
In tumultuous times around the globe, I find many books, across format, age range, and genre, adding themes of kindness, tolerance, and acceptance of “the other” to those of courage, determination, and defiance seen in recent trends. The setting may range from historical to contemporary and futuristic, the context may be one of peace or one of war, and the tone may be light and humorous or dark and ominous. It might be a little girl facing down her fears to save a wolf cub, or a middle grade zombie looking to fit in with his living classmates. It might be a story that connects multigenerational characters across different time periods, or one in which different sexual preferences, identities, and diverse cultures are naturally mainstreamed.
I also find the impact of social media in the lives of young people is being universally felt and increasingly woven into mysteries and psychological thrillers for older readers, who pay for their interconnectedness with a loss of privacy. And then there are those stories that bring readers to secondary worlds in which familiar rules do not apply, a recalibration of accepted thought is required, and a touch of magic may be friend or foe.
Overall, current trends in books for young readers point to tales that pose challenges to all-too-human characters to be overcome with strength and resilience, but also with heart and understanding.
Speaking to the American market, everyone is aware of certain key awards that can’t be won unless bookmakers are American citizens or residents. And so even just a few years ago, I saw a more nationalistic environment, with international talent sometimes being passed over in favor of Americans. But recently I’m seeing a resurgence in international enthusiasm. Publishers seem less preoccupied by award eligibility, and are instead sparking brightly around unusual and unfamiliar styles and voices. At least within the world of picture books—which is where I spend most of my time—my international clients are seeing bigger financial offers and more opportunities in general. “Culturally different” is replacing “award eligible” as a publishing priority, paving the way for more opportunities for foreign authors and illustrators in the American marketplace, and leading us into a culturally richer and more internationally united kids’ book world as a result.
I’ve noticed a good number of YA thrillers around so far this year, both new projects on submission and finished books starting to hit the shelves, and though there is interest internationally I think we still have yet to see foreign publishers fully embracing this trend on the children’s side—in contrast to their adult counterparts. Diverse reads and #OwnVoices books are very much in demand, and are perhaps more important than ever, as are refugee stories and those addressing the immigrant experience. Similarly, I’ve observed (and welcomed!) a minitrend of YA feminist stories—empowering contemporary ones as well as feminist-minded fantasies.
And in terms of the global market, from where I sit, Brazil and Scandinavia have been quieter markets so far this year, while there have been some fierce competitive moments in Poland and China. I’m continuing to cast around for projects that are going to capture that universal international appeal as we swim into the high tides of the prefair offerings, and as always am very much looking forward to catching up with my foreign clients and dear friends in Bologna in a few short weeks.