We asked agents and scouts attending this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair to tell us about trends they are seeing, both in content and demand.
Director of children’s scouting
Franklin & Siegal Associates
"I think we’ve stopped looking for a silver-bullet trend going into book fairs, by which I mean there’s no one genre that everybody’s throwing their money at. We have seen a small bubble of projects about royal families, in light of the engagement announced last year. I’ve noticed a handful of books featuring witches in some capacity, but I see that as more of a coincidence than a trend.
I’ve been excited to watch many titles that would have quietly been labeled “issues” books a few years ago breaking out of fusty industry constraints and reaching huge audiences. Titles touching on topics such as pregnancy, mental illness, or abuse don’t necessarily make those matters a central or didactic focus, but rather a catalyst to a universal story about friendship or family dynamics, for example. And books that feature a variety of cultural influences and identity experiences, whether reality or fantasy based, are publishing with well-deserved and hard-fought fanfare. I want to make clear that this isn’t a trend, but a sea change in the U.S. market that’s gaining traction overseas as well. Young readers are hungry for more, and I know I am too."
Marietta B. Zacker
Co-owner and agent
Gallt and Zacker Literary Agency
"With the continued interest in publishing work based on authentic experiences, creators whose work typically has not made it to the shelves are feeling more confident that we are here for them. Given that, I continue to see manuscripts and illustrations that more accurately reflect the world we live in, especially ones written from a place of firsthand knowledge. Admittedly, there are still not nearly enough of them, but it is refreshing to continue to find them in our in-boxes. It is also clear, and not surprising, that a focus on creating content that helps readers tackle issues surrounding the importance of truth continues to permeate the work of creatives.
On the publishing end, art directors are working overtime these days, in the best of ways. There are a lot of conversations among publishing professionals about ways to fill the space on the page differently and using visual storytelling in new and creative ways, which means that graphic novels of all kinds keep piquing the interests at home and abroad. I should also add that novels and picture books where the creator provides a bit of escapism, whatever the genre or topic, are attracting plenty of attention."
Founder and agent
Greenhouse Literary Agency
"YA fantasy with a unique hook still rules in the U.S., especially if by an underrepresented author. I’m also doing well with YA that crosses genres, has an interesting structure or perspective, or generally does something different. I think there’s a sense that fiction either needs to reflect the issues we’re grappling with in our grim real-world situation or offer a refreshingly fun antidote to that. In middle grade, heartfelt quality fiction never seems to go out of style, especially if it hits all the notes for kids themselves, librarians/educators, and the book clubs. We are also seeing middle grade at the forefront in the U.K. and internationally, where there’s now rather more caution surrounding YA, and it’s become a lot harder to sell from a partial manuscript.
Nonfiction has had a meteoric rise in the U.S., and I’m now doing good business in both picture book biographies and narrative nonfiction: interesting stories about little-known people, or little-known stories about well-known people. Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a lot of interest in stories of strong women who’ve done something remarkable, though I anticipate that in the next year we may see the market getting a bit glutted in this area.
Vietnam, Poland, and Eastern Europe have all been busy markets for us this year."
Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency
"Internationally we have seen series take off again in both the middle grade and YA spaces—especially if they have strong nonconformist female characters. Nonfiction, for all age ranges, has been big in the U.S., and the interest for these kinds of books has also been growing in translation. We have seen Spain come back strong in kids and Australia stepping up its game in YA as well.
Our sales for picture books has been on the rise this past year, and so we will be going to Bologna with a large selection of illustrators both in the adult and kids arenas. Illustrated all-ages books that cover language, science, and other nonfiction topics with humor and whimsy have been a growing area of sale domestically and abroad, with our biggest sellers in Japan and China."
Subsidiary rights manager
"I’m continuing—and very pleased—to see a broad spectrum of voices and identity-driven themes spanning the YA space. Many of these fall on the realistic and contemporary side, but I’m really excited to see these timely and engaging topics also framed in fresh, hooky sci-fi and fantasy. The real key, on either side of the coin, is punchy, honest characters that speak to the reader without patronizing them.
Humorous, illustrated middle grade still continues to be a huge success globally, particularly those titles with deceptively sophisticated wit. We’re also seeing a lot more middle grade adventure with ragtag groups of outsiders and Stranger Things–esque elements of fantasy and nostalgia."
Director of international rights
Sanford J. Greenburger Associates
"We’re noticing a strong surge of nonfiction for kids. With the rise of activist movements around the world, parents and kids are getting involved in the call to action and education, and authors are personally motivated to use their voices to create books with powerful messages for all ages. Given the popularity of issues-related books such as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and The Hate U Give, we can see that publishers—and readers—are responding to authors who offer unique, compelling perspectives on timely topics including diversity, immigration, feminism, sexual consent, the environment, and other social justice themes.
Mainland China continues to be an active market, especially for picture books. While we hear that Chinese publishers are trying to rebalance their lists with more local authors, we find that they are committed to authors who have established proven successes with previous works."
Taryn Fagerness Agency
"In terms of current trends, I would say, feminism. This can range from picture books all the way up to YA, and adult too. Books that feature strong female characters who are tackling issues such as misogyny, rape culture, etc. In picture books, empowering books aimed at girls are working. This interest in feminist work, I think, is a direct result of what’s going on in our culture right now: the women’s marches and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. There was some interest in these types of books last year as well, but it’s even stronger now. And I think this interest can manifest in contemporary work as well as fantasy or science fiction.
I’m also seeing more interest in books with diversity thanks to the #OwnVoices movement, but this can get tricky when it comes to the foreign market. While a hot book about, say, an Indian Muslim teen girl living in the U.S. can garner a lot of attention here, it’s a harder sell to foreign publishers. They can find that experience to be “too American.” But diversity in fantasy, which can avoid the “too American” problem, seems to be on the rise."
Director, foreign rights
Defiore and Company
"I’ve been having great success with middle grade fiction. Middle grade seems to have stories that translate across territories. Where we are as a nation and the times that we live in, I think, means success for books with heart. You can see that with the incredible success of books like Wonder. Female-led fantasy is traveling well. Chapter books are still strong. However, picture books remain a challenge. I’m finding that countries like Italy and Spain are picking up again. China continues to acquire at a steady pace. "
The Gotham Group
"Across all platforms—film, TV, streaming—execs are still looking for the usual trifecta of properties: classic titles, current bestsellers, and name-brand authors. The entertainment industry remains ever-hungry for “presold” material, ideally anything with a rabid fan base. Another consistent set of requests is for thrillers and suspense, elevated genre fare, especially grounded sci-fi. Such properties tend to be more high-concept and can play more easily around the world.
That said, the times they are a-changin’. In addition to studios, networks, and production companies looking for diversity among casts and crews, buyers are proactively searching for diverse stories. This can mean stories that highlight the American experience for women and people of different colors, abilities, sexual identities, religious backgrounds, et cetera. It can also mean stories set around the world, featuring different geographies, cultures, and mythologies. I also see more companies looking for lighter fare, and more inspirational stories, no doubt a reaction to the current social and political climate.
In terms of demographics, there are a few more buyers actively looking for projects that would play primarily to kid audiences, which tend to be at lower budgets, as opposed to the expensive four-quadrant films like Jumanji, which every studio would love to have. The recent successes of Paddington and Peter Rabbit continue to goose industry interest in live-action/CG hybrid films.
In television, be it animated or live-action, the networks seem eager for character-driven comedy. Shows need to feel contemporary and relatable, but still fun, adventurous, and offering some wish fulfillment. Over the last few years, kids’ programming has continued to evolve away from just pre-K and six through 11 to include “bridge programming”—ages four to seven. The cable channels are also trying to capture that family audience at home, where multiple generations will watch together. Comedy tends to win the day across all ages."
Associate literary agent and manager of subsidiary rights
"Fortunately, for the third year in a row, the talk of the industry is still diversity, so we all hope it means underrepresented voices and stories are here to stay. That is not to say nothing has changed over the course of these years. From the initial issue-driven contemporary narratives that aimed to establish this as a relevant conversation, we are now seeing an interest in different genres written by authors from diverse backgrounds or containing feminist themes and nonconforming casts—just look at the ALA Award–winning titles this year. There is also an openness to narratives from other cultures, as opposed to the former focus specifically on the U.S. immigrant experience. A good example is the various fantasy manuscripts inspired by the folklore and myths from different regions of Africa. As a former acquisitions editor in Brazil, I’m really excited to be at the other side of the table presenting diverse stories that have a greater chance of appealing to international readers."
"What’s notable about this moment in publishing is that there isn’t a trend, unless you count the push for diversity. And if you ask me, diversity shouldn’t be a trend; it should be a staple of our business. Publishers seem hungriest for graphic novels and children’s nonfiction, stories featuring nonbinary or trans characters, and inclusivity.
We’ve seen a decline in multi-book deals as buyers want to focus on one book at a time—even if they eventually buy a six-plus book series one book at a time—and good writing/compelling narrative are outselling worldbuilding/high concept.
Realistic contemporary YA seems to be a growth market. And there’s more of an appetite for 'very American' stories overseas. Two years ago at Bologna, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner seemed like a hard sell: three American kids living in rust belt America, dreaming of escape. One German publisher even commented during the pitch that German teens don’t yearn to leave their small towns. But now we’ve sold in 11 countries—including Germany—and optioned for film.
In nonfiction, we’ve had success with Girls Who Code, Quiet Power, and others. We’re doubling down on quality, not chasing a trend. And in terms of specific markets, Germany seems more cautious than in years past, but it can still be a powerhouse for YA, and other markets are still reliably enthusiastic, such as the U.K., France, and Holland. We still see most of the graphic novel interest in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and occasionally Brazil. In general, YA still sells better abroad than middle grade."
"Last year, most of the foreign editors I met with were eager to see more middle grade projects, so our rights list is MG-heavy—mostly contemporary, with some element of mystery or magic, and not much high fantasy. In young adult, we’re seeing editors both here and abroad looking for engrossing fantasy with diverse worlds and stories that speak to a global culture. I think what’s intriguing and exciting is the proliferation of graphic novels for middle grade, but also how that’s trickled down some, with more middle grade authors trying chapter books, and more interest in that category. I’ve always loved and sought out contemporary YA romances, but that’s a tough sell in most foreign markets, unless it’s a big-enough hook or an American name that will overcome the very European shrug of, “Eh, we’d rather publish a German/French/Italian writer on the same subject.”
But I always love being surprised in Bologna, and I never mind if all of my expectations are upended, and everyone is looking for teen contemporary romance."