A week ago, I attended the sixtieth Bologna Children’s Books Fair. The fair was a four-day event from Monday, 6 to Thursday, 9 March 2023, and I participated on Wednesday and Thursday. Even though wisdom has it that the fair is not worthwhile for self-published authors, I desired the experience of visiting a book fair for the first time. As an author of children’s books, this fair was my perfect initiation. Below are my observations from the two days.
What to bring
Save registration time by buying and printing your ticket/badge beforehand. Price is cheaper on the last day (Thursday) due to the earlier closing time. Proceed to the entry gates and collect your lanyard. Unfortunately, they had no lanyards left on day three (Wednesday). That didn’t matter as I had access to the venue and the business cards did the introduction.
Bring business cards and anything else that has your contacts. If illustrator-author, carry your portfolio. I brought postcards highlighting my three-book series Lamellia (not illustrated by me), and a one-sentence pitch/synopsis. In addition, I had copies of some of my books.
Carry something for jotting down notes. As I juggled with the rucksack and a winter jacket in my arms, it was convenient to type notes on my phone.
Remember to stay hydrated and bring enough water for the day. You may also wish to avoid long queues by packing lunch and snacks.
Wear comfortable shoes. You will do more walking and standing than sitting.
Dress professionally and in layers, as it may get hot inside and cold outside. You can walk or sit outside between the halls for fresh air or eat. There were concrete slabs to sit on, whereas others chose to sit on the ground. Italians love to wear sunglasses, and you will fit right in if you need to wear a pair due to dry indoor air.
Finally, ensure you have a backup charger for your phone. I opted to walk back to the hotel to avoid the long taxi queue. My phone needed charging and I couldn’t use Google maps. I asked a fellow participant to check the map from their phone, and she offered to walk with me in the same direction.
The illustrators’ wall is an inspiring space and a maze of pin-ups where one hopes to be seen and discovered.
Bring posters, postcards, business cards, and stickers with something you can use for pinning or gluing. I brought postcards and business cards and forgot to bring cardholders, glue, or tape. Sometimes, I asked others to share their tape. If it wasn’t obscuring others’ work, I used found empty and blank holders. Mostly, I laid the business cards and postcards on the floor.
Meeting the Publishers
This fair is well known for publishers to be flexible on meetings. Bring a list of publishers you want to meet. Some publishers will have a list of meeting slots at their reception desk. I decided against a list of appointments and walked around the halls to soak in the impressions.
During my rounds, I discovered some publishers had jars for collecting business cards, and I dutifully left mine. On the last day, I met two publishers without a prior appointment. As the fair ends, publishers are more relaxed about holding a meeting. However, be mindful as they will also be busy packing.
This fair is for children’s book publishing. Whether self-published or not, I encourage you to visit the fair for inspiration and to understand the publishing industry, particularly licensing trade. Consider it a date or holiday to nurture your writer self.
Upon your entry, get a map of the venue. For authors, the fair is more enriching by attending lectures and workshops unless you are an author-illustrator, then you have more options. The programme of events is on the BCBF app and some are on the exhibitors’ walls. I quickly realised the need to focus on the Authors Café and Illustrators Café and alternated attendance between these two spaces. The Survival Corner offers portfolio reviews, master classes, and workshops. For an author, the latter two may provide valuable insights.
Pay attention to opportunities that prod to nurture your creative skill differently. Although I have illustrated one book only, I do not feel confident to call myself an illustrator. I saw blank blocks of paper on the wall encouraging a live illustration to mark the sixtieth birthday of the fair. My heart raced as I took a marker and did a quick sketch in the presence of assuming proficient illustrators. But I did it!
One exciting finale of the event is that publishers will pack on the fair’s last day and won’t take all the displayed books. You can buy (some at a discount price) or even get some of your favourite books or rare titles in other languages for free.
As a writer, I cannot imagine feeling jaded at this fair. However, when that happens, you can visit the Tourist Desk for options to tour the city for two or three hours. During the fair, the city of Bologna hosts other children’s literature events. You can visit one of the many stunning libraries. I recommend the main public library Biblioteca Salaborsa, located close to other main attractions, and entry is free. Children under eighteen are not allowed at the fair, and Biblioteca Salaborsa is an excellent experience for small children.
Glaring Observations and Reflections
Being a global event, I assumed a more prominent African presence. Eleven countries attended the exhibit representing Africa, and out of these, five countries brought in multiple publishers. Regardless of the regional representation, I wished to have seen more countries represented. Is it expensive? Is it perceived as more western, and if yes, why other Asian countries had dominating presence? Why is Africa not forming strategic partnerships like China has?
Curiosity led me to look around the room during one lecture to see if anyone looked like me, and we were only two. Along the corridors, it was a similar reality. Who are the targeted participants for this fair, and why?
The international bookshop in Hall 26 was a curated selection of books highlighting the 2023 programme, mainly in the Italian language. I would have loved to see books in other languages, including English. Perhaps the lack of other languages was due to my late attendance, i.e., on the third and fourth days.
Would I attend the fair again? Yes, but I would space it out and not immediately next year. Hopefully, I will confidently say I am an author-illustrator in the subsequent participation.
For your planning purpose, next year’s fair dates are 8 to 11 April 2023.