What happens at a Book Fair

If you’re on social media and follow many people in publishing, you might see a lot about the Bologna Book Fair this week. And you’re probably thinking a book fair sounds fun, right? In a lot of ways it is… if you know what’s going on. But it is first and foremost a trade fair, which means the focus is on business.

There are several key book fairs throughout the year, but the main ones for UK publishers are the London Book Fair (pictured), Bologna Book Fair and Frankfurt Book Fair. I’ll mostly be talking about those in this post, but for the English-speaking audience it’s also good to note America’s Book Expo, which is a slightly different type of fair.

While Frankfurt Book Fair, which happens every October, is the largest book fair in the world, Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the largest one focused entirely on children’s books (at least until recently, when they introduced an element for adult books). This gives Bologna a very different vibe. It's more colourful and the entrance to the fair is a huge hall where illustrators are invited to post samples of their artwork for publishers to peruse. Also there’s a gelato stand… but that’s a whole other topic.

All three of these fairs are predominately focused on the sale of rights. This means agents selling books to publishers and publishers selling books to other publishers. Publishers and agents from different countries also have the opportunity to meet and show each other their work, and decide if there are any books they want to acquire the rights to publish and translate into their own language.

For countries without a huge market, these rights sales are vital to the success of a publishing house. Even in the UK, picture books can be so expensive to make that rights sales become necessary for the book to make a profit. And buying rights also makes it easier for smaller publishers to access high quality content and production values without having to do much origination work before getting the book onto the market.

I started my publishing career working in rights, so find all of this fascinating. But if you’re just a book-lover walking into a book fair environment, what you’ll encounter are a whole bunch of stands with people having meetings, and halls with people rushing back and forth. You can’t really walk around perusing books like you’d think. Most of the larger stands (for the biggest publishers) are designed in a way that you can only enter them past a reception if you have an appointment.

If you’re an editor, sales person or agent holding meetings at the fair, the days are long and exhausting. You usually schedule meetings of 30 minutes, back-to-back, from 9am to 6pm. If you’re lucky, you have your own stand and all your meetings come to you – otherwise you’ll be dashing around a massive venue, usually running late to every meeting. And if you’re really lucky, you might manage a lunch or bathroom break within that time. Then you’re expected to go to dinners and parties with publishers and important clients the rest of the evening – which sounds fun, but when you think about doing this non-stop for three days in a row, it’s no wonder most people end up with the mysterious Book Fair lurgy. And this would be a successful fair. Still sound fun?

This is why I don’t recommend going to a book fair if you’re an author. It’s not a place where you’ll be able to meet with agents easily, as their focus is on selling books they already represent. Every book fair I hear stories of agents and editors having an author approach them with a manuscript and it is always awkward for everyone involved. So don’t be that person.

That said, Bologna has designed itself to be a fair to celebrate illustrators, and many publishers and editors have scheduled times where you can come to their stand and show them your portfolio. But be prepared: the queues are long for the most popular publishers, the meetings are incredibly brief, and there’s always a chance you won’t be seen. Many illustrators go to get inspiration from other illustrators, though, and with the incredible hall of illustrators at the entrance to the fair, it’s easy to see why.

If you’re still thinking this all sounds fascinating and you want to check out a book fair, I recommend first going to the book fair’s website and seeing what they offer for visitors. Make sure you’re clear with your expectations: you should not be going to meet agents or publishers, but to improve your knowledge of the industry and potentially network. London Book Fair has started running some seminars for authors interested in getting published or self-publishing. Some book fairs, like the Leipzig Book Fair, is designed for readers. Just make sure you know what the book fair is actually for, and don’t expect to be able to meet with lots of agents and editors unless there’s a clear offer for that.

I mentioned Book Expo America as being slightly different, and that’s because it’s a fair mostly aimed at the American market. The US is so big that publishers don’t have to worry about rights sales as much, although there are some international publishers who attend. It is still a trade fair, though, but along with people within the publishing industry, tends to be attended by librarians and book retailers. However, there is BookCon, which is aimed at the general public if you really want to go to something that celebrates books.

So for the main fairs, remember that they’re trade fairs. While they might be informative in many ways, you’re still better off trying to find an agent in the traditional way. And if you can’t get yourself to a fair for one reason or another, don’t feel like you’re missing out. They’re really not for everyone!

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