Up, up and away

March 19, 2009

I think I’m going to make it. It was touch and go at times, but I prevailed. The fog has cleared, I’ve climbed up the tree and can almost see the plain below . . . Yes, there’s scope for metaphor in the hectic days leading up to the Bologna Book Fair!
Some of you will know all about Bologna, others of you will have vaguely heard that something bookish happens there. But still more of you may be thinking . . . Bologna? What’s that? Here then, in my first-ever self-interview, is a guide to everything you need to know about the Bologna Book Fair. Including the bits that most professionals will never tell you.

So, Sarah, what and where is Bologna?

Bologna is a very beautiful town in northern Italy – in fact, it is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, located between the Po River and the Apennines. It was founded by the Etruscans in c. 534 BC and has had a long, varied, and at times rather bloody history since then. It is home to the oldest university in the world – the Alma Mater Studiorum, founded in 1088. It is also, apparently, consistently rated one of the most attractive and desirable Italian cities in which to live and . . .

Sarah, do us a favour and shut up. What we REALLY want to know is – why are you going there? After all, you’re supposed to be a literary agent of children’s books, not a medieval scholar.

Doh, you Philistine. OK, Bologna is also home to the annual international children’s book fair, which is held each Spring in a gigantic complex of exhibition halls just outside the city. Publishers, agents and other industry professionals flock to Bologna for about 4 days to do business, to talk about business they might do, and to make and cement the networks of connections that could enable them to do business in the future. It is a melting pot of people, information, images, languages – and business cards are the currency of this huge international melee.

Wow! But why do you need to go all that way just to see people? Aren’t internet and email good enough?

You’re a spoilsport, aren’t you! Though you’ve got a point – or you would have if this business was a science and not an art. You will never get around the fact that this is an industry lubricated by the oil of relationships, and (as in any business) you tend to engage in commerce with those you know – and like. You chat with them, and you know their tastes – so you submit work to them. They’ve seen your wares – so they ask to see something you’re representing. You pick up ideas, information and tips ‘on the wires’ (you might say). What is hot, what will be hot, what’s out there, who’s snapped up something good. It’s a buzzy business and it’s the job of publishers and agents to be up to date with the buzz. Plus, actual deals are often done at the fair (though not so much with fiction, which requires a longer read), with a lot more in the subsequent follow-up. Bologna can be worth thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars or pounds to a publisher. It’s a trade fair, it’s about buying and selling – it’s not a writers’ conference (though some organizations like SCBWI have events running alongside).

OK, enough already, you’ve convinced me. But what exactly is being bought and sold? Not actual copies of books, surely.

You’re right! Every book is a Work – an intellectual property in which there are numerous ‘rights’, which are sliced up and sold in different segments. These segments are what are sold at Bologna – or in which interest (with a view to sales) is solicited. For Greenhouse, being a transatlantic business, the most important segments are the US/Canada and UK/ Commonwealth chunks. Then there’s the ‘translation rights’ chunk, represented (usually) by my colleagues in Rights People. Film/TV (aka ‘dramatic’) and merchandising rights are further chunks, which we always retain to be sold separately, while audio (physical and non-physical formats) is up for debate, often but not always falling in with volume rights, along with electronic. All these chunks are of interest at the fair.
I pitch some Works at Bologna which haven’t even been submitted to publishers yet, while chunks of the rights in others have been sold already. Last year the baby Greenhouse had only sold one author by the fair – this year we have a whole portfolio.

How does it all work, what does it look like, and who goes?

Imagine rows and rows of exhibition halls, a bit like warehouses. There are grassy bits with benches in between the halls, where you can grab a cappuccino or panini and sit if the weather’s good. If it’s bad you run between them. US and UK have a couple of halls, with European halls adjoining. The further you go the more exotic it all gets – Iraq, Africa etc etc. I’ve never been to the furthest reaches, but it’s a real eye-opener to the sheer scale of the industry. The halls are packed with publishers’ stands, most designed so you can’t see inside (for fear of piracy), and with giant ‘panels’ of book jackets on display. Agents have an area all their own, with lots of small tables for one-to-one discussions. Mostly, attendees schedule their days in half-hour slots, often without a break from 8.30 to 6pm. Sellers tend to remain on their stand; buyers walk miles between stands.

Who goes? Publishing rights-selling staff (they sell – and are the engine-room of the fair), senior editorial staff (they want to buy – and are looking for new projects), scouts (both book and film), agents, representatives of more niche businesses – whether marketing, ebook/electronic, retail. And trade journalists. Though this year will be leaner than most, due to the global economy. Authors are sometimes hosted at the fair – if they are a really international property. This year Greenhouse is taking Sarwat Chadda (DEVIL’S KISS) for 24 hours. It’s a brilliant opportunity for him to meet face to face nearly all his international publishers in one place and at one time. Even if we all have to go to Italy to do it! But then, from London it’s a very quick hop.

Come on, Sarah, we know this is really all about great food and lots of fun, isn’t it?

Well, it’s true that you won’t starve at Bologna, and the evenings are a highlight. You scramble back to your hotel for a very quick turnaround, then usually out for drinks/dinner at one of the city’s many great restaurants (you have to book early!). The food is fantastic, usually lots of little courses, and it’s fun dining out with people you don’t normally get to see – especially when they’re from different parts of the world. I’ve been to around 10 fairs and have got to know a lot of people. I always say this is a very international business, and at Bologna you live and breathe that.

So, go on – tell us the bits that most people don’t know. Like you promised?

Aha, I knew it! You want the good stuff. OK:

The Pink Bar: This is down at the bottom of the Via Independenza and is where the hard-core, cool people hang out till the early hours. By midnight I can hardly stand up I’m so shattered, so you’ve got to hand it to anyone who’s still up for it at 2am. Often you can see quite famous authors there, looking a bit wild.

The Bologna Haircut and Outfit: It’s lost in antiquity, but everyone (well, everyone female) knows you have to get your ‘do’ done just before Bologna. And there must be at least one new item in your suitcase. It’s just law. Could be because we pasty-faced, lumpy-looking Brits and Americans have to stroll up and down past the fabulously beautiful Italians, all chic little Armani suits, tans and black manes of hair. It’s tough in a place where even the bus drivers could model for Vogue.

The Book of the Fair: This is what you always wish you had. This mythic Work that is so hot it’s practically sizzling, that sets the halls a-buzz with envy and speculation. Who’s got it, who wants it, what they have paid for it or would pay for it. Believe me, if you’ve got The Book you just float as people lurch up to you with wine-glass in hand hoping to stand in the shadow of your greatness.

The Bologna illness: It’s guaranteed. You’ll get it before, during, or after. Take your pick. This year I’ve chosen before. Or it’s chosen me.

The Lost Luggage: Ha ha! Always gleeful schadenfreude when it happens to others – as it does every year, to Americans. Because there’s nothing more horrific than imagining oneself at the fair without even a spare pair of underpants.

The Dark Glasses: What you see on the faces of many ‘industry professionals’ as they sit in Bologna airport, waiting to fly home. If you talk without ceasing for 18 hours per day for 4 or 5 days, stay up much too late and get up much too early, drink too much prosecco and eat way too much mascarpone . . . well, only enormous dark glasses can save you now.

Thank you, Sarah, though why I should thank you for going to Italy, I don’t know. Rumour has it that you’re even going off on vacation after the fair to an Undisclosed European Destination. Tell me it’s not true or I’ll hate you even more?

Er, actually it is true – but only for a few days. Back in the hotseat on April 1. See you then! Ciao!