The lowdown for the uninitiated
The last couple of weeks have seen two major book fairs: one in Bologna and the other in London. You may have seen our silly selfies and panoramic pictures on Facebook but they don’t really give much away about the inner workings of one of the biggest events in the publishing calendar. So what actually is a book fair? Maybe you’re vaguely imagining a few sparsely arranged tables and a tombola in a school hall or a muddy field adorned by a stage. Not so! This year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair featured 1,278 exhibitors from 74 nations. As such, a book fair shouldn’t be confused with a fayre or a festival – it is in a category all of its own and is, quite simply, central to the publishing industry.
What exactly is a book fair?
If we were to describe a large book fair like Bologna or London more accurately, we would probably call it a ‘trade fair’ or, better yet, a ‘foreign rights’ fair. And what – I hear you ask – are foreign rights? When an author signs a contract with a publishing house, he or she often grants that publishing house the right to license his or her work to publishing houses in other languages and territories. A publishing house in Spain, for instance, may seek a license from the original publisher to translate an author’s books into Spanish. Alternatively, a UK publishing house may feel that it lacks distribution networks in Australia, for example, so may wish to offer an exclusive license to an Australian publishing house to publish and sell its books in their original language throughout this new territory. Selling foreign rights is a fantastic way for a publishing house to increase its revenue and to enable an author’s work to reach new readers. Since it incurs few extra costs for the original publishing house, much of the revenue from sales of this nature goes directly to the author of the work, meaning that foreign rights sales are also a great way to maintain a happy and productive relationship between a publishing house and its authors.
So, what happens at a book fair?
Selling the rights to your books to foreign publishers is a conversation that occurs predominantly in the period leading up to the fair. When you sit down with the foreign rights representative from a publishing house at the fair itself, they will already have seen a copy of your book – at least in electronic form – and a translation if necessary. You will have discussed what changes they may want to make to the book, in order to ensure that it will sell in the particular market that it is destined for, and perhaps even started thrashing out the terms of the contract. The meetings that occur at book fairs, and there are meetings in every nook and every cranny of every stand, are really the culmination of a considerable amount of searching, checking and evaluating that takes place in the months before each fair, predominantly while sat at a computer.
Do rights deals work the other way round too?
Historically, the UK has been very slow to publish other countries’ books in translation, with translations making up only around 5% of Britain’s publishing output. As a children’s publisher with a strong focus on diversity, however, we at Lantana believe that publishing picture books in translation is one of the key ways to increase the number and quality of diverse children’s books available to UK readers. It’s not only a great way to share stories that have captured the imaginations of children living in countries other than our own, but also a fantastic way to involve ourselves in a cross-cultural dialogue that is as much about translating cultures as it is about translating languages. With today’s uncertain political climate, it is more important than ever to make books that promote cultural understanding accessible to UK readers. If we find a book we like, we will negotiate with its original publishing house to buy the rights to translate that book into English and to print and publish it under our own imprint.
So is it all champagne and after parties?
The ‘glamorous’ part of buying and selling rights, if such an adjective can be applied to this notoriously geeky industry, is in fact really a time to formalise agreements that have been forged via countless email exchanges. Both the publishers selling the rights to their books, and the publishers buying those rights, look forward to book fairs as a place to discuss the final details of a contract face-to-face. So yes, there may be the odd glass of champagne here or there and the odd slightly raucous after party – mainly to congratulate everyone on all the hard work they’ve been doing behind the scenes in the lead up to the fair.
What else can you find there?
At no other time do so many publishers and companies involved in book production come together under one roof. By wandering up and down the aisles of a book fair – and there are so many aisles that a lot of wandering is required – you really begin to get a feel for what’s in and what’s out. Your book fair ticket is really an invitation to survey the the industry from the inside out.
And it’s not just publishers who meet face-to-face. Book fairs are not only populated by those buying and selling rights to books, they also provide a venue for other sectors of the industry to exhibit their wares. At the London Book Fair last week, you could find companies who print books, companies who transport books, and companies who market books to list but a few. In an era in which the day-to-day running of a business can be done almost entirely sitting at a computer, it is very reassuring to be able to meet the people who handle the logistical side of producing books.
The Bologna Children’s Book fair in particular is the place to be if you’re an illustrator. The large Illustrators’ Exhibition showcases the work of over 75 emerging artists from all over the world. There are walls for illustrators to post prints, postcards and other samples so that some eagle-eyed publisher may spot their work from among the crowd and commission them for their next picture book. If you win the International Award for Illustration – as Mexican illustrator, Juan Palomino, did this year – you really have hit the jackpot and are likely to have a long and successful illustration career ahead of you.
Are there any other reasons for going?
As the years go by, book fairs tend to get bigger and bigger. If the main fair is the heart of the industry, in the arteries you will find countless conferences, seminars and presentations. Pick a person from the crowd at the London Book Fair, and you could meet an author listening to advice on character and plot development, a data analyst discovering advances in bibliographic referencing systems, or a literary agent passionately extolling the virtues of their author’s new novel. In fact, you could probably find the answer to most questions about publishing if you studied the events programme hard enough.
To put it simply, book fairs ‘work’ by bringing together publishing professionals, auxiliary companies, authors, illustrators, agents, journalists and students to the same place so that they can benefit from developing relationships in person, sharing ideas, and learning from experts. And without these book fairs, the publishing industry would be far less dynamic than it is now!
Now to prepare for next year’s book fairs…
Caroline and Alice