What I learnt from the Bologna Book Fair

How the landscape for publishing and the potential for licensed publishing is changing.
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For anyone involved in the kids publishing business in the UK, British Summertime does not begin when the clocks go forward an hour; no, it’s ushered in by the annual Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

It’s a chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues emerging after the long winter with the inevitable talk of how the trade is looking and just ‘how was Christmas for you?’, a cocktail or two at the Baglioni and the first gelato of the year sitting on a concrete stoop between Halls 25 and 26.

Ah the joy, the happy memories... so arriving on a packed EasyJet flight in the rain with half of the licensing industry (trust me if that plane had gone down you could have wiped out Hit, Moshi Monsters, CPLG, TLC and eOne in one fell swoop, not to mention half the senior management team of Egmont UK) seemed somehow, well just wrong.

Rain for a start was not good and I spent ten minutes in the cab queue worrying I had brought all the wrong clothes and how stupid I would look sitting in the drizzle eating an ice-cream. Mind you things soon cheered up when I managed to get a cab quicker than normal and also got to share the ride with Titan magazines and Mind Candy. Having dumped the ridiculously heavy (and, most likely, pointless suitcase given the clothing dilemma) it was time to head over to the show.

It was great to see so many old faces in the first five minutes and to ease into the whole book fair vibe. Bologna is an institution in the publishing calendar. It’s altogether less formal than London – which this year followed hot on its heels – or Frankfurt which marks an end to the season, but while you can count on some things in Bologna always staying the same its a fair and a market that is moving with the times.

Bologna 2010 was awash with the gothic, thanks to Stephanie Meyer – you couldn’t move for vampires and werewolves - and all the talk was of E-Books. Bologna 2011, however, was a slightly more subdued affair. There was an air of caution in the halls, footfall seemed a little down and rights teams genuinely appeared less harassed than normal.

The UK market, I was constantly told, was “depressed”. We’d had the announcement that Sainsbury’s was planning to dip its toe into own publishing, we had lost 11 Waterstones branches as a result of the dire HMV Group results and nobody was trumpeting that they had made a million in 12 months from E-Books. “It’s like the 80s all over again,” said one publisher, “well at least for those of us who remember the 80s.” But like the 80s there were upsides – yes we may have had mass unemployment, but we also had Duran Duran right?

With the day at an end it was time for the first night of drinks and dinner and where better to start proceedings than at Le Stanze (actually I went two nights in a row thanks to Egmont throwing its annual bash there on the Tuesday night). After a few proseco and a general gossip it was time for food an all important part of the Bologna experience. Now, I’ve been doing Bologna for long enough to know that you can’t just wander in off the street and expect to get a table at 8pm for four, but armed with my new Smartphone (and subsequently an extortionate bill for roaming charges) I set about trying to locate our nearest eatery. After two failed attempts at getting a table I ended up admitting defeat and reverting to the tried and tested method of just wandering in and trying my luck.

My failure to use my Smartphone to its best affect, however, did get me thinking about the whole issue of technology and publishing. Unless you’ve been living on Mars with cheese in your ears and a blindfold on it is impossible to ignore the digital revolution. The pace of change has been immense leading more than one source to comment on how this is the biggest single change to the published word since the invention of the printing press.

But let me add a note of caution here before we of the licensing persuasion all run off and grant digital rights willy-nilly; we are still some way off seeing kids in their droves pouring over the latest picture book sensation on an iPad or choosing to do their colouring on a Kindle, but we do need to be ready to adapt to this market when the time comes.

It’s also true to say that kids publishing, from a retail point of view, has become dominated by the supermarkets whether you are an Egmont annual, a Puffin young adult fiction title or a Harper Collins activity book. Sure you can get volume, but what about value and what can publishers do to try and counter this? Step up to the plate licensing.

Of the publishers I and many of my colleagues in the industry had spoken to over the years who told us firmly, but politely ‘thanks, but no thanks, licensing is not for us’, a growing number of them are now welcoming us onto their book fair stands with open arms like the return of the prodigal child. “Our sales team are constantly being asked now what licences we have,” one such publisher told me, “so we’re going have to bloody well get some.”

Of course publishing and licensing have always been close bed-fellows, after all we are the respectable end of the market right, we’re books for goodness sake, but it means that we are now seeing the landscape of publishing and the potential for licensed publishing in particular changing. We’re seeing the emergence of a digital strategy and the move towards producing titles for a whole new generation of ‘digital natives’ and we’re seeing new players enter the licensing arena, players who are not necessarily new to publishing, but new to our bit of the playground at least.

I look forward to Bologna 2012 when we hope someone will have made a million in E-Book sales and be willing to share their secrets of success, where the sun will shine every day, where I won’t have to try 25 restaurants to get a reservation and when cocktails at the Baglioni will be free... well, one out four would be a start.

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