An Illustrator’s Guide to Bologna Book Fair

If you’re planning on going to Bologna Book Fair this year and you’re anything like me then you’ll have trawled the internet looking for every piece of information and advice about the fair that you can find. While I don’t know if I have anything new to share, and I’m by no means an expert, I thought I would shed light on my experience going to the Bologna Book Fair last year for the first time as a third year illustration student. I hope this will help any nervous illustrators out there in their preparation for the fair, and also help me in preparing to go this year.

Preparing a Portfolio

The first step in preparing for Bologna Book Fair (besides booking flights and accommodation!) is putting together a portfolio. Last year I brought an A3 portfolio from Prat with 22 sheets of my best work. My tutors at university recommended Prat Portfolios as they’re sturdy, long lasting and have a good reputation. I’ll be taking my A3 portfolio again as it was pretty pricey but if I could go back and repurchase I’d definitely choose A4. While at the fair you are on your feet all day and an A3 portfolio quickly begins to feel very heavy- and I noticed most people had A4 portfolios. This really depends on your work so go with what you think will display your work best but I would not recommend going any larger than A3. I also bought a carrying case from Cass Art and then promptly ditched it after day one in favour of a tote bag (for my portfolio) and back pack (for my dummy books and other necessities) as the carrying case was large, heavy and awkward.

I can go into more detail about how I prepared my actual portfolio in another post if people are interested, but for now I don’t want to make this blog post too long!

Arranging Meetings

Arranging meetings with publishers, art directors and agencies can be really scary- especially if you have no contacts and no clue where to start. Putting together a list of contacts isn’t fun, it involves a lot of time searching the internet for Linked In pages and guessing the emails of art directors for many of them to not email you back. I bought a (not so little) book called The Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook which is a great book to have if you’re serious about being a children’s author or illustrator. It has many insightful essays and interviews as well as a discovery of publishers contact info. This is where I started.

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By checking which publishers were going to be at Bologna Book Fair, I made a list of those whose work I thought mine would fit with. Then I hunted through the big green book for any contact details for that company. Many art directors (understandably) won’t put their direct emails into these books any more however with a bit of snooping you can find their emails. There’s a few ways to do this:

  • Using the contact phone number in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook you can ring the publisher, give a quick explanation of why you’re ringing, and ask for the email of the art director. If you use this method it’s definitely advisable to do a bit of research and find out the name of the art director first. If you’re lucky the person on the other end of the phone will give you their email.
  • Search the publisher’s website. Sometimes they will have a Staff page and if you’re lucky they’ll list contact emails. If you’re very lucky the art director’s email will be listed but don’t fret if not! There are other ways…
  • Take a gamble. If you can find the email of anyone else working at that company (which is usually quite easy using the above method) then you can take a guess at the art director’s email! Many companies follow the same formula for their work emails, for example firstname.lastname@company.co.uk. If you can find out the name of the art director then you can take a guess at their email. You’d be surprised how often this method works!

After you’ve put together a list of contacts you can begin emailing. I included a quick sentence about myself and my work, a sentence about the company I was emailing (so they know it wasn’t a mass email) and asked if we could arrange a meeting to look at my portfolio. Include a link to your website and maybe even attach a low-res JPEG of one of your favourite pieces to immediately catch their interest. Please understand that art directors are very busy people. Many aren’t at the fair to see illustrators and their schedules are very full so do not be disappointed if you don’t get a reply. There will be more chances to make meetings in person at the fair. Last year I arranged three appointments in advance, however at the fair I made eleven appointments.

What to Bring

You’ve perfected your portfolio, you’ve booked your flights and accommodation, and you’ve send hundreds of emails. The time has finally come. Now it’s time to pack your bags! Here is what I recommend bringing:

  • Very comfy shoes! This is so important- I was doing between 20’000 and 30’000 steps every day at the fair, and by the end of the week I was exhausted (although I did walk 45 minutes from my AirBNB to the fair each way every day!)
  • A back pack and a tote bag. As I mentioned before, I found having a tote bag for my portfolio (and with some tear sheets and business cards so they’re easy to hand!) and an additional back pack for my dummy books, water and lunch etc. was the easiest way to distribute the weight of what I was carrying around my body. I even saw some people with wheelie suitcases!
  • Water and a packed lunch. You’re in the fair all day, if you don’t bring water and a packed lunch you’ll end up spending a lot of precious fair time queuing for overpriced food. I stayed in an AirBNB which had a small kitchen which made is easy to prepare lunches.
  • Tear sheets and business cards! Tear sheets are A4 sheets of paper with your contact details and a few examples of your work on them (They’re basically giant business cards which you can print at home if you have a decent quality printer and paper). I’d say bring at least 50 business cards and maybe just as many tear sheets. You might not use them all- I brought 100 of each to be safe last year and that was definitely over shooting the target! But it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Arriving At the Fair

The Bologna Book Fair can be a bit overwhelming. It’s huge; there are so many different things to look at. It took two full days of exploring the fair to feel comfortable navigating my way around. My very first tip for your first day at Bologna Book Fair is to arrive early! This was my intention, however I got hopelessly lost walking around the Bologna Fiere district (the main entrance is not very well marked!) and ended up arriving 45 minutes after I planned. However I did manage to meet another lovely person, the director of a company who brought children’s books from the UK to China, who was lost too. By the time we found the fair entrance we had swapped business cards, it really is that easy to network in Bologna so don’t be shy!

The Illustrator’s Wall

I’m sure if you’ve read anything about Bologna Book Fair you will know about the Illustrator’s Wall. It’s exactly what it sounds like- a huge wall where illustrator’s can pin up their work and leave business cards in the hope that an art director might see it. By the time I arrived at 9.30am (with the fair opening at 9am) the Illustrator’s Wall was already brimming with work. It’s the first stop for most illustrators entering the fair. I made the mistake of bringing only A4 sheets; my work was drowning among A3 and bigger posters. If you want your work to stand out definitely bring something large and eye catching! Also bring your own adhesive as there aren’t pins provided. I brought double sided sellotape.

Arranging Meetings at the Fair

On your first day it’s great to get a feel for the fair, however you also have your best chance of making meetings with publishers this day. Most publishers will have a little stand with a receptionist. Don’t feel shy- go up and ask if the art director is seeing any illustrators. If they say no don’t fret, all the publishers will accept business cards and tear sheets even if they can’t see you. Some even have a dedicated ‘post box’ for illustrators to pop their business cards into.

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Many publishers put a dedicated time aside for seeing illustrators (usually an hour or two). This involves queuing for any amount of time between half an hour and two hours to see a publisher so make sure you arrive early! I’d recommend arriving half an hour early. Queuing isn’t a waste of time; it’s a great time to take a breather, people-watch, sketch and network! There are so many other interesting illustrators around you. I found it was a great time to get to know other people and see their work. You don’t just have to have your portfolio reviewed by art directors. It’s great to have it reviewed by other illustrators too. Don’t forget to always ask for business cards!

Talks and Seminars

There is also a great selection of talks and seminars available for you to attend at Bologna Book Fair, I went to a few last year (including one which I didn’t realise until I got there that it was in Italian!) but would love to attend more this year. You can find an itinerary online so before you go make a list of the ones you’d like to see (I don’t think it’s been released yet for this year). Last year I attended some helpful seminars by the A.O.I on contracts and self-promotion. Just make sure the seminar is going to be in a language you can actually speak before you go!

After the Fair

I recommend you write up notes on all of the meetings you have, or even have a friend attend the meeting with you to make notes during it (I’d run this by the art director first but many won’t have a problem with it). This allows you to really reflect on the feedback you’ve been given. Make a spreadsheet of any new contacts you’ve made and wait 2-3 weeks after the fair before emailing them to say thank you for the meeting and sending them your website. Some might even have asked you to send PDFs of your work. Don’t email the first week after the fair as publishers are very busy tidying up after the fair and your email may get swept under the rug.

I also want to add- don’t be disappointed if no work seems to come from the fair. I had no work come from the fair last year however that doesn’t make the experience any less valuable. I got so much great feedback and I felt so refreshed and inspired after visiting the fair. In the 9 months since I visited the 2017 fair I feel like my work has improved vastly and I don’t think my work would be where it is now if I hadn’t have attended the fair. One of the things that struck me while visiting the fair last year is that I am so young. I was 21 and in my final year of university and felt like time was running out- however I didn’t meet anyone at the fair younger than me. Most people were impressed I’d come to the fair while I was still a student. It made me realise that there is so much time for me to work on my illustrations and that I don’t have to become a published illustrator straight out of university- very few people do!

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Bologna the City

Don’t forget to spend time actually enjoying the beautiful city of Bologna! Spend time in the evenings exploring, eating great food and going for drinks. The city will be brimming with illustrators, art directors and publishers. With so many interesting people around there’s a good chance the networking won’t end in the fair! The fair closes at 6pm, however don’t feel like you have to stay till this time every day. You don’t want to burn yourself out. I visited the fair from 9am – 3pm/4pm every day, giving me some time to go back to my AirBNB and re-energise before heading out for the evening. By the end of the week you will be exhausted so take time to look after yourself and have some fun. If you are able to you could even take the chance to explore more of Italy while you are there. My partner and I are visiting Venice first before traveling to Bologna this year (an hour and a half away by train).

Thoughts for Myself

While I had an amazing time last year there are a few things I’d like to keep in mind and do more this year:

  • Talk to even more people: I’m quite a shy person at first, this year I’d really like to make an effort to get out of my comfort zone and meet more people.
  • People-watching and sketching: I was so busy bustling about trying to squeeze everything in last year that I didn’t get much time to relax. Italy has an amazing café culture and I’d love to spend more time sitting out on the streets and drawing some of the beautiful people and scenery. I might possibly even make a travel journal.
  • Visit more International Publishers: Last year a lot of my focus was on British publishers as I feel like my style of working is very ‘traditionally British’. This year I’d love to explore the International Publishers more and possibly receive feedback from them as I’m sure it would be very interesting to see how children’s books differ across different countries and cultures.

This post is getting very long so I better stop. I think I’ve included everything I wanted to talk about and I hope you find this helpful if you’re attending the fair for the first time. If you’ve attended the fair before it would be great if you could share any more helpful tips in the comments!

Best wishes and good luck!

Erin

www.erinmcclean.com

@eriberart

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