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A Buzz-less Bologna
Diane Roback and Herbert R. Lottman -- 4/27/98
It was a relatively quiet show, but most publishers reported good, steady business

Once again, for the 35th year, the world's children's book publishers -- more than 4000 of them, from 80 countries -- gathered in Bologna, Italy, for their annual fair. The weather was mostly sunny and the springtime air warm as old friends greeted each other al fresco or inside the Bologna Fair's four international pavilions.

The "big book" proved elusive this year, disappointing those who enjoy the search-though it didn't faze many whose business d s not depend on tracking down such an animal. According to Ken Geist, v-p and associate publisher at Disney/Hyperion Books for Children, "There were not many big books for sale. I wanted to be a picture book sleuth and find a really great one, but it just wasn't there." DK Ink publisher Neal Porter was of the same mind. "All I want is to fall in love with one book," he said, "and it was very hard to find one I felt that kind of emotional attachment to."

What did they find? A host of projects that were "nice, but nothing to yearn for," as one editor put it. And there were a lot of books on what Dutton publisher Karen Lotz called "some really unusual and strange subjects," including autism, child abuse and several books on underwear.

S&S Children's president Rick Richter commented on an ongoing picture book trend. "Everyone's loving each other still -- 'I love you more than that other book says it loves you.' Oddly, that sentimentality d sn't fit in many countries. And you can pretty much guess that trend's days are numbered when everyone is crowding in."

There's a lot more to Bologna, of course, than just finding that one perfect picture book to bring home. There are licensing agreements to iron out, co-productions to arrange, nonfiction and educational series to add to. Many publishers told PW that they no longer conclude deals at the fair, but go home to sift through offers and make a rational (rather than espresso-fueled) decision.

Random House's Janet Schulman, a longtime Bologna attendee, reflected on the different nature of the fair. "When I first started coming here, I needed books for my list, and I got some wonderful books. But lists have been cut back. Now if you buy two, you're doing well."

Stephen Roxburgh of Front Street Books described other changes in the air. "On the American side, there's a different perception of Bologna. The heady days are gone and I'm glad. People are now saying, 'No, don't send it to me.' When I first came here I felt I had to buy something. Auctions were taking place and people were scurrying around; everyone was jazzed up. Now I enjoy the fair a lot more than I used to, and I think I do better business, too."

Heard on the Floor

BDD's acquisition of Random House was announced the week before the fair, and many publishers arrived in Bologna filled with questions about the implications for the various children's imprints. But none of the players had answers, so speculation died down fairly quickly.

And speaking of acquisitions: British packager David Bennett canceled all appointments just before the fair, announcing that his company had just been bought. Right after Bologna it was reported that the purchaser was Collins and Brown, which bought Pavilion out of receivership last year and also owns Belitha Press.

Many had their first glimpse of the TV phenomenon known as Teletubbies at the fair. At Bologna, BBC announced a deal with Bonniers, which bought rights for all the Teletubbies books for Scandinavia. Scholastic, which has the Teletubbies license in the U.S., will be taking four of the books in the BBC's publishing program, and is developing original ideas of its own. According to Bernette Ford, publisher of Scholastic's Cartwheel imprint, Scholastic met with several packagers at Bologna to develop ideas for the line. "The buzz seems to be really positive," said Ford, "though I know we may get some criticism for taking a license for a TV show aimed at babies."

Internationally, Ford observed that the market for preschool and board books in general seems to be growing, though in the States she finds the market is glutted. "Right now everyone is so cautious," she said. "I'm doing a lot more originating [than buying in], because it makes more sense financially, and you can do more things with a project when you own it than when you're borrowing it."

In addition to Teletubbies, another kids' TV show grabbing attention at the fair was Bear in the Big Blue House, on the Jim Henson stand. Currently airing in the U.S. and in several countries on the Disney Channel, Bear stars a cast of Muppets that "educate and entertain through childhood exploration." In the States, publishing rights have been bought by Little Simon (storybooks and novelty books) and Random House (coloring and activity books, beginning readers, workbooks); Casa Autrey bought rights to all the books for Mexico.

Also on the tie-in front, DK was selling rights to its two Star Wars books due out this fall: Star Wars Ultimate Cross Sections and Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary. DK will sell them directly in the U.S., U.K. and Australia; deals in Canada, Germany and France were firmed up at the show; and offers were made from Japan, Spain, Italy, Latin America, Denmark and Sweden, among others.

S&S Children's will be launching a list in the U.K. next spring, according to Carol R der, v-p of sub rights and international markets. The first list will be anchored by Rugrats tie-ins; R der is hiring a two-person team to work on the list, which will consist of "original paperbacks and a lot of Little Simon merchandise and novelty."

Also changing its Bologna focus was U.K. publisher Barefoot Books; managing director Nancy Traversy called this year "an entirely different fair" from previous ones, since she and partner Tessa Strickland have recently set up shop in the States. "Because we weren't selling any American rights this year," Traversy said, "we put a lot more energy into selling to the Europeans."

Several Canadian publishers have begun to sell directly into the States as well, such as Kids Can, Stoddart Kids and Groundwood. Groundwood foreign rights manager Karen B rsma also found the fair a different experience now that she wasn't seeing the Americans. "We're expanding our range and contacts," she said, though she pointed out that it is difficult to sell picture books in the European market, especially when many of Groundwood's titles are text-heavy. "Also, at Frankfurt," she said, "I was hearing from many publishers that they were only interested in series, but there seems to be a slight movement away from series now, which is good news for a publisher like us."

Many American editors stopped by to check out U.K. packager Working White, which had dummies for its first line of interactive titles. They've had immediate success, placing books with Millbrook, Smithmark, Running Press, Reader's Digest and Dial, according to director Louise Jervis. Their focus is "books-plus," Jervis said, adding "we tend to make all of our stuff look very book-like. We don't do many things like boxes or kits. Kits are much harder to sell, and we like books better."

becker&mayer! had several of its own book-plus kits on display. Half of its 60 books a year are for children, half for adults, a rarity among packagers. Drawing a lot of attention was the just-published Enter If You Dare electronic kit (Troll has taken 150,000 for this spring), which had strong interest from several European countries. Europe is finally starting to warm up to book-plus merchandise, said partner Jim Becker; "they're where we in the U.S. were 10 years ago."

Though most large American trade publishers have gotten out of multimedia, educational CD-ROMs were on display at a large stand taken by the U.S. Department of Commerce. According to organizer Barbara Lapinir, nine U.S. educational software producers were represented, and the idea was to hook them up with international distributors and partners. "All of the European markets are hot right now," Lapinir said. "There is heavy technology investment right now across Europe, and European companies are looking to adapt American software."

Proprietary publishing on the part of U.S. retail outlets seems to be flourishing, if activity at Bologna is a criterion. "At three different appointments while I was looking at projects," one American editor said, "I was told 'Borders bought that already.' They're buying 20,000 or 30,000 copies and bypassing the publishers entirely." Representatives from Barnes &Noble, AMS, Price Costco and Discovery Toys were all on hand, according to another publisher, who said, "When I see them I wonder, 'What the hell am I doing here?' Publishers ought to look at this as a relatively terrifying development. When bookstores start creating their own imprints, it's not too far a stretch that it might affect our core business."

Projects for Sale

It was a golden Bologna for Robie Rogge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: at the fair she upped her fall print run of Gold: A Book and Kit to 105,000 copies, after RMN, the French organization of museums, came in for 20,000 (S&S will take 60,000 copies in the States, and the Met will print 12,500 for itself, as will the British Museum).

Two other projects of Rogge's that got much foreign interest were The Gifts of the Magi (packaged with real gold, frankincense and myrrh), which Bulfinch is taking for 50,000 copies in the U.S. (the Met will print 10,000 also); and Origami, which Viking won at auction last fall, and which had strong interest from French, German, Spanish, and even Japanese houses. "If I can sell an origami book to the Japanese," Rogge said, "I've done about all I can do."

Random's Janet Schulman told of a fall 1999 picture book called The Mailbox Mice Mystery by Julie Mahr, illustrated by Graham Percy. Random U.S. will edit and manufacture the book, while Random U.K. will sell the foreign rights. The book -- which stars mystery -- solving mice and features such interactive tricks as clues found in real envelopes -- has been bought by Seuil Jeunesse in France and received "interest from more than a dozen other countries," Schulman said.

Dial publisher Phyllis Fogelman bought two picture books from Hutchinson: The Wonderful Secret by Henrietta Branford, illustrated by Chris Baker, and The Little Angel by Jan Pacheri. Fogelman also bought a novelty from Bodley Head, called X-Ray Mabel and Her Magic Specs, by Claire Fletcher, and is in the process of acquiring two books from Bloomsbury.

One British picture book that caught the eye of several U.S. editors was on the Hodder stand: Little Bo Peep's Library Book, a first book by Cressida Cowell. It stars a collection of childhood characters (Mother Goose, the three little bears, etc.) who end up in a library; the shelves of the library contain three mini-books to pull out and read. "The Americans kept coming back and back," Hodder's Nancy Miles said, though the winner wasn't announced at the fair. Hodder will publish in the U.K. next April. Another title that elicited strong interest from several U.S. houses was Quentin Blake's latest, Zagazoo from Jonathan Cape, though it was not sold at the fair either.

BDD sub rights director Jeanette Lundgren spent a good deal of her Bologna time concentrating on a fixation of many a teenage girl: Leonardo DiCaprio. Most of the major countries have already taken BDD's two mega-selling Leo books, though at the fair Lundgren sold the Leonardo scrapbook to Egmont in Turkey, and made four separate Chinese deals for Modern-Day Romeo, proving that the Titanic craze is truly worldwide.

As for fiction, on the sales end many Americans found demand high. "Fiction continues to be big," said Andrea Cavallaro, sub rights manager at Harcourt Brace. "Every country is looking for something different. Some eat up fantasy, for instance, and some won't touch it. Our NBA winner [Dancing on the Edge] has gotten a lot of attention here, and several publishers are looking at it very seriously."

Karen C man, sub rights assistant at FSG, reported a lot of foreign interest in a first novel, The Sacrifice by Diane Matcheck, which she called "a literary work with some commercial potential." C man, a first-timer, said the fair had been a "crash course," but she found it "very, very stimulating to be surrounded by people who are so passionate about children's books."

Elsewhere Around the Globe

As for the rest of the world, U.S. agent Sheldon Fogelman found the atmosphere just right. "It's the first year in Bologna that I haven't heard any British publisher complain about market conditions," Fogelman said, "apparently thanks to the Labour government's pledge to support public libraries. The French seem very strong, and they definitely want to buy. In Germany changes in personnel are creating new editorial tastes, and East-West integration seems to be coming to pass after all."

If Italy remained a small market for Fogelman's stable of 60 authors and illustrators, demand in the Netherlands was holding up -- "a small country but they do more units than Italy." Scandinavia was also showing new strengths. In the Far East, Taiwan was not Fogelman's best customer, while Japan had become a tough market.

Indeed, Japan's plight seemed to be on everybody's mind. A Japanese veteran of nearly a quarter century of Bologna fairs -- but who wished to remain anonymous -- painted a dark picture of domestic scandals and bank failures -- all with a direct effect on the book trade. And then the two largest distributors in Korea -- one of them responsible for 60% of all books sold in the country -- went bust in February. "As we Japanese sell many books in Korea, we have to expect to be hurt."

Japanese attendance was off -- but the scaling down (notably of stand size) had begun a year or two earlier and so was less noticeable. PW met with Bologna regular Masaki Imamura, president and CEO of children's imprint Kaisei-Sha (150 titles per annum, nearly two-thirds of them illustrated, up to a third acquired from abroad). He pointed out that the slump had begun in the early 1990s, even if it took a few extra years for the dampened market to bruise the book trade (and children's publishing was the first to hurt -- both because of increased recourse to libraries and electronic competition).The paradox was that recession had little effect on Japanese buying from abroad. "Sometimes it costs less to adapt a foreign book than to create one," explained Imamura.

Akiko Kurita, founder and president of the Japanese Foreign Rights Center, that country's leading exporter of rights, was certain that Japanese participation was off-apart from producers of those ubiquitous comics. In all, Kurita came to the fair with a selection of recent works from 21 publishers, for a total of 200-plus titles. "Foreign publishers never come in on the first run," she explains. "They avoid costly Japanese production."

A comparative table prepared by the fair for PW showed how good or bad news on home markets affected fair participation. Japan was down, but so were Brazil and Mexico. France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.K. brought more exhibitors this year than last. In all, 1393 imprints were present on individual or collective stands, 1160 if Italy is excluded.

Mathias Berg, president of the Working Group of German Children's Book Publishers, described a stable domestic market (some $280 million at wholesale prices), stable in a negative sense: no growth -- and frank decline in upscale publishing. Berg himself is managing director of children's book imprint J.F. Schreiber, which happens to be doing well, helped by being part of the Klett educational group. Some 20% of production is translated -- usually books strong in text, while Schreiber prefers to create its own illustrated books.

In the French enclave, Hachette's Alain Germillon noted that French juvenile publishers tend to think of their output as part of the general market for entertainment and culture, so the competition is from other leisure-time products. The total children's book market comes to something over $200 million, of which about a third is illustrated story books -- largely dominated by a Disney-Hachette joint venture.

It's a stable market -- and has been for the past decade. "There's something positive about that -- it means we are holding our own against fun and games," Germillon said. Hachette was in Bologna with a large stand, a contingent of 20, and some print on paper designed to combat Nintendo, like a new series of short fiction called "40 Minutes," and a line of interactive books featuring a printed screen and a printed mouse.

In the Netherlands publishers were congratulating themselves about the 12% increase in trade turnover last year. And children's books were an even stronger growth sector, with an 18% rise. As Meulenhoff group director Laurens van Krevelen explained it to PW, the industry was in crisis a decade ago because libraries then did all the buying and lending. "Now people want these books at home." Today on the domestic market Dutch originals account for most production and sales -- which wasn't always true. And the Dutch, like their Flemish cousins over the border in Belgium, export their illustrated projects all over the continent.

Speaking for Spain, Gloria Gutierrez of the Carmen Balcells Agency described a serene market, thanks in large part to the fact that most children's books are produced by companies that also do textbooks. They do tend to publish more native originals than one might expect from an advanced European nation, but that's because the school side of the business calls for national authors. This is changing, for Spanish authors don't go out of their way to write for children.

Gutierrez had come to town with an impressive collection of projects from her U.S. and U.K. principals; she found little difficulty in placing good writing, even if picture books sold with more difficulty because Spanish publishers prefer to work with their own illustrators (and printers for that matter). Series (like horror) are in growing demand, as is nonfiction for teenagers.

Pedro Sureda, deputy managing director of Barcelona's Ediciones B, confirmed the value of series publishing (say, the R.L. Stine books), notably for Latin America, where this Spanish house makes 40% of its sales of children's books (a figure expected to rise). Ediciones B acquires all of its children's books -- about 100 new titles a year -- from abroad, and eight out of 10 are acquired in the United States, notably the highly marketable Disney line, published by the house for Latin America as well as Spain. Indeed, Sureda revealed that his company is now negotiating for a Disney license to do Spanish-language production for the U.S. market as well.

A dozen Argentine houses worked from a collective stand. PW met Alfredo Vercelli of Atlántida, trade arm of that country's number one media group, who explained that his family firm has taken on some powerful foreign partners (including Citicorp), which will facilitate expansion elsewhere in Latin America. Atlántida's Pía Cagliardi, marketing director for children's books, reported a soaring sales chart, and Vercelli expects that children's books and textbooks together will be the industry's best growth sector in the coming years.

In the maelstrom of Italian publishing -- a problem sector because of overproduction -- the children's branch is one of the best, "or least bad," said Giunti's Sergio Giunti. He ranks the leaders as Mondadori (with or thanks to Disney), Dami (tops in storybooks), Catholic imprint Piemme, and his own Florence-based Giunti group, which is a major force both in school and trade publishing, with 150 titles annually.

In fact, the Italian children's book sector -- estimated at $95 million-plus -- is some 15% of total book turnover, and it is growing 5% a year, in contrast to a stagnant adult trade market. So explained Cristina Cappa Legora, editorial director of children's books at De Agostini. Half of De Agostini's 180 annual titles are translated; Cappa Legora imports one-shots, but prefers to produce ongoing series in-house. Britain is her main supplier, especially for the youngest ages, while books showing technical prowess (such as pop-ups) are of U.S. origin.

Summing up Scandinavia, Kurt Fromberg of Denmark's Gyldendal spoke of highs and lows -- Denmark and Norway being the most promising trades just now. His own company -- Denmark's largest general publisher -- had a great 1997, largely thanks to upscale books, and children's books outperformed everything else. He explained that, as in other countries, with reductions in school and public library budgets, parents concerned about their children are buying more today than in a long time.

At Gyldendal six books in 10 are brought in from abroad, many from neighboring Nordic states, many more from the U.S. or the U.K. But Fromberg was impressed at the fair by the rise in quality in other countries' offerings (the Netherlands and Italy, for example).

Sweden's Rabén group, whose 25% market share puts it on a par with Bonnier's Carlsen, now publishes children's books under the imprints Rabén &Sjögren and Tiden (the latter acquired five years ago). Of 120 new children's titles published each year, some 30 will be translations.

Although Sweden has been described as a struggling market, Rabén group managing director Kjell Bohlund told of a notably improved business climate, despite problems such as a declining birthrate and reduced welfare benefits that limit disposable income. "But we've got a tradition of fine books for children. When municipal authorities reduced spending for libraries, our national government stepped in." He expects a good 1998.

Some still smaller markets packed extra punch this year. Belgian Flanders mounted a major campaign to promote its "Flemish Giants" (with some truly large caged rabbits spoiling everybody's appetite alongside the fair's main outdoor cafe). Israel was present via Nilli Cohen's Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, which, thanks to promotions, newsletters, translation subsidies and its own stable of authors, is responsible for a significant rise of translations of children's books from Hebrew (44 last year compared to 20 the year before).

An impressive collective display run by China's publishing administration served to demonstrate both the potential, and the limits, of that nation's opening to the world. The stand housed 34 people representing 19 publishers; books of 24 additional publishers not attending could be examined. In fact only one of the publishers met by PW seemed prepared to speak English, the lingua franca of the fair; the stand's overseer, director of the Shanxi Copyright Bureau in Taiyuan, was also (according to his card) director of Leading Party Members' Group and a member of the Shanxi Political Consultative Conference; he indicated little knowledge of the book trade.But one could also talk (through an interpreter) to Shang Wan Chun of the China Children's Publishing House in Beijing, which sells 90% of its printings outside the capital. Shang's company is one of the country's market leaders, along with the Shanghai Juvenile and Children's Publishing House. Participants had come both to look for books and to sell their own production, but they also saw their presence as a fact-finding mission -- to see what and how the rest of the world publishes.

Next year's dates: April 8 to 11 (Easter Sunday falls on the 4th).
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