An upbeat Bologna Book Fair this week saw a strong US presence and a notable upturn from the past two cautious years, with publishers willing to buy, albeit selectively.
Agent Caroline Sheldon said the mood was "very buoyant, both from the UK and US". Anne McNeil, publishing director of Hodder Children's Books, said: "There's a sense people are out in force and there's a willingness to trade." However, by the third day [Wednesday], no "book of the fair" had emerged in the same way John Stephens' The Emerald Atlas [HarperCollins] did last year.
Dystopian fiction has taken over from paranormal romance as the genre du jour for the young adult (YA) market, following the success of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Game. Simon & Schuster paid six-figures for a YA dystopian trilogy by Andy Fukuda, with Venetia Gosling buying UK and Commonwealth rights, and the first book, The Hunt, due in spring 2012.
"People are very positive about dystopian fiction as a genre, and booksellers are very keen," said Bloomsbury publisher Sarah Odedina. But scout Nicolette Jones warned the 2012 market looked saturated with tales of post-apocalyptic disaster.
Meanwhile, time travel yarns could be the latest trend, with international excitement at the fair over Damian Dibben's The History Keepers, for the 11-plus market, featuring time travellers preventing villains from tampering with history. Random House Children's Books will publish in September. Continuing the trend is Eoin Colfer's new series for Puffin, announced at the fair. WARP will feature a Victorian boy on the run in 21st-century London to escape a ruthless assassin.
Classic picture books also saw an upturn of international interest, with the suggestion that novelty and pop-up books are now too hard to cost to be attractive. However Cat Banks of Bertrams praised a strong UK novelty and sound books offering from publishers including Usborne and Macmillan.
Start-up Nosy Crow concluded "major" rights deals for its full range of storybook apps with German publisher Carlsen and French house Gallimard Jeunesse. They came after vigorous debate at Bologna's inaugural Tools of Change conference ahead of the fair (Sunday 27th March), at which the financial risks of app creation were highlighted to delegates from 27 countries.
Mondadori m.d. Laura Donnini said the publisher had sold just 2,000 copies of its most successful app. She warned: "You cannot break even if you spend €20,000 or €40,000 on your app with developers. Do not spend too much money." Nosy Crow m.d. Kate Wilson, delivering the keynote speech, said: "The downward price pressure is impacting on creative investment and experimentation. The pricing decisions and content decisions you make now will decide whether we have a market."
Publishers were urged by several speakers to use the new technologies selectively where they work to link readers to the story more closely. Deborah Forte of Scholastic Media said: "Content is the driver of all of our businesses, and the person who comes up with something really great, whether expensive or not, will drive the market."
The conference also highlighted the digital "language divide", with revelations that Italy had digitised just 7,000 titles by the end of 2010. Despite plans for 2011 expansion, Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries also lag well behind their English-language counterparts. Brian O'Leary of Magellan Media addressed the many dilemmas of digital "co-editions", suggesting there were advantages to publishers adopting digital-first publishing, including unencumbered worldwide rights and the option to publish as digital-only in small markets.
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