Middle Grade titles have been the hottest properties at this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair, though some publishers and agents have reported spikes in picture book sales and green shoots for the Young Adult (YA) market.
Most of the biggest deals of the fair—including Kereen Getten’s The Last Girl on Sycamore Hill, Ross MacKenzie’s Evernight, Jenny McLachlan’s The Land of Roar and Hana Tooke’s The Unadoptables—have been MG titles. Yet there has been strong interest in some YA, such as Caroline O’Donoghue’s All Our Hidden Gifts and Laura Bates’ The Burning.
In the run-up to Bologna, many observers said it was a slow period for submissions, perhaps owing to the fair’s close proximity to the London Book Fair. Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson said: "It’s a bit quiet, possibly because of the ordering of the fairs. People at London were saying they were seeing a trickle of submissions rather than a flood."
Yet business has picked up at BCBF. Catherine Bell, co-m.d. of Scholastic UK, said international publishers were on the hunt for funny Middle Grade, but her firm’s rights team was also doing well with picture books: it sold the Axel Scheffler-led illustration anthology Kind into nine territories at the fair. Bell added: "There has been a lot of interest in Sarah McIntyre’s Grumpycorn, and Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson’s next picture book, The Smeds and the Smoos. It’s their first book set in space and we’ve sold it in more than 26 languages." She added: "The fair is incredibly busy and there are lots of illustrators here. Our rights team is booked up all day, with very few no-shows. People are buying. It’s busier than last year."
Scout Natasha Farrant called the atmosphere "realistic and workmanlike", adding: "It’s steady. My clients are not offering money they can’t afford and they are very focused on what they buy." Yet she sounded a warning about YA, particularly in non-Anglophone territories: "Quite a few of my northern European clients say young people are reading YA in English, so unless they can publish simultaneously, YA is often not worth their time. It’s making the YA market more difficult. I went to a bookshop in Amsterdam recently and most of the YA was in English."
Agent Ben Illis said: "Middle Grade reigns supreme... Lots of publishers want younger fiction, they want more interesting stories, nothing formulaic—stories that adults would like to read, too."
Egmont UK rights director Tracy Phillips noted a decline in the number of staff on its publisher partners’ stands. "Publishers are cutting back on how many [staff] they send to the fair, but those who are here are here to buy. Business is busy," she said. But Karen Ball, founder of consultancy Speckled Pen, said one of the blessings of being in Bologna was that: "I haven’t had any depressing Brexit conversations." She added: "A proposal for a contemporary retelling of a fairytale has gone down well. I’m seeing a lot of interest in Middle Grade and younger fiction, and people are at least willing to look at YA."