Bologna Children’s Book Fair: An Ultimate Guide for Illustrators

There is a lot of advise out there about getting your work published as an author and illustrator. However, some of the recommendations yield little or no results.

Over the years I have read many books and tried many approaches to get your illustration portfolio in front of the right people. In this article I will show you the useful and not so useful things you can do to get your picture book published.

What is NOT likely to get your book published

An old fashioned way of approaching the publishers by going to their websites, seeing submission requirements and sending a manuscript rarely works. First of all, most publishers these days do not even accept any new submissions. And even if they do, the waiting list to get your work seen is too long so you will probably have to wait months to get a reply.

The biggest problem with this approach is that editors have well established relationships with agents and “big” illustrators already. It is extremely hard to get your foot in as a beginner illustrator this way.

There are some better ways of getting your picture book project in front of the big editor’s eyeballs. These are approaches that worked for me personally.

What works to get your book published

1. Bologna children’s book fair

Bologna Children’s Book Fair is a fantastic event for anybody interested in the publishing industry, and particularly for illustrators.

Bologna Fair hosts over 1,390 exhibitors from the international children’s publishing world, including publishers, agents, and artists, giving attendees over a thousand potential opportunities in children’s publishing.

I attended the fair every year for three years in a row religiously and it yielded me great results. This is what you get if you visit:

1. Opportunity to meet publishers in person
2. Learn more about industry trends in children’s publishing
3. Great place to meet agents and get a portfolio review

Plus, it’s a very social place to get to know other illustrators and make international friends.

So, now that you have already decided to attend next year’s fair, I want to share my special tips to help you hit the ground running so that you get the most out of your days in Bologna.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare

A portfolio is essential. Only bring work that is relevant to children’s publishing. Include colour and black and white illustrations. Make sure there are some examples that show your narrative and character skills – the publishers want to see that you can create a well-developed character. Include handwritten typography samples if it’s your thing.

Dummy books are desirable. I believe that dummy books can be executed in any way, shape, or form. They can even be unfinished as long as the main idea is clear and there is a short summary, I recommend that you write the text out on a separate sheet. Any extra sketches and character development is a bonus. If you don’t have a dummy book, then a portfolio will be sufficient. You will still get valuable feedback and make personal contacts.

You don’t have to print your portfolio out, but if you do, then keep the size to A4-A3. Personally I have always brought an iPad with me and only one publisher ever mentioned that they preferred to see work on paper.

In fact, I had a meeting with an illustration agent there and got signed (my dream come true), just by showing her illustrations on my iPad. Make dummy books (if you have any), print postcards and business cards to give away.

2. Get business cards and postcards printed.

These are great to leave behind following meetings and give away to the publishers and agents. Print as many as you like, roughly 100 should be enough. If you use services like Moo, you can print different designs in one order. Vistaprint is another popular choice. Make sure you include your name, website, email, and all your social media handles.

3. Set appointments with publishers if you can.

Here is my top tip and it’s a biggie. To find contacts of publishers and agents, go on Twitter. Start searching through the #bcbf fair official hashtag and you will find posts by editors and agents who attended in the past. If you know their name, you can then find their email address. Try to email them well in advance to set up a meeting. You will also that summer publishers offer timed slots for portfolio reviews. Definitely try to book one, they are usually published a month or two in advance. The same goes to portfolio reviews in what is called “illustration corner”. These are super valuable so keep your eyes opened for them around February-early March.

4. Attend portfolio reviews if you want extra feedback

Walking through the fair, you will see long queues of illustrators with portfolios. I
have a very mixed feeling about these. These sessions are useful for new illustrators. You will get some feedback but you will rarely land a commission or a book deal.

To find out about the times of portfolio reviews, make sure that you follow publishers on twitter. They publicize times up to a month in advance. Also, provided you get to the fair early, you can have a quick walk around to see if there are signs on the actual publishers’ stands with review times.

If you don’t feel that your work is ready, but you have a portfolio to show, it might be worth attending anyway as you will get pointers on how to improve. Please don’t worry about leaving a bad impression on the publisher with your half-baked portfolio, chances are they won’t remember you, and you will be able to see them again next year to make a better impression once you have made improvements.

5. Just come up to the publishers

I hear loads of advice given to illustrators to never approach the publishers directly, because they are busy selling rights. I find this advice very bad for illustrators. It makes illustrators look like some begging minions.

If you are an illustrator, remember that you are part of the industry and a professional, that’s why you are part of the fair. It is totally fine to just walk up to the stand and request to see an editor. Most big stands have a “doorman” person who will book you a meeting or turn you away. But please don’t feel like you are interrupting some big important people with your little portfolio. Obviously, be polite and respectful but feel free to ask for a business meeting. Because you CAN!

6. Advertise your services on “The Wall”.

 “The Wall” literally refers to a big wall (or a few walls to be precise), where illustrators leave their posters, cards, and flyers.  There you will be able to post any promotional material you have for everyone to see (note – bring something sticky to attach your work with). From my experience, having A3 or A4 sized posters with a strong image that looks like a book cover works best. I personally know a few people who got commissioned and even published from publishers noticing their work on “The Wall”.

P.S., Don’t get upset if another illustrator covers up your work with theirs,
it’s part of the game. Treat the wall as a living, breathing thing and check on your flyers from time to time and add more copies if necessary.

7. Take part in the illustrators’ competition (and win).

The illustration competition is organised by The Bologna Fair and is open to every illustrator: published and unpublished. The deadline for submitting your work is usually in October, so make sure to put it on your calendar. Submitting your work to the competition also gives you a free entry ticket to the fair, cha-ching! If you are shortlisted, your work will be exhibited in a beautifully presented illustration gallery right at the entrance of the fair. And if you win, then you will participate in the award ceremony, adding to your professional credo. Which will put you in the spotlight for future commissions from big publishers.

2. Anglia Ruskin Picture Book Illustration MA

If you want your book published, have a year or two to spare and a lot of cash, then go and treat yourself to an MA. Doing a masters is a luxury in the current climate but it will give results. That particular course attracts top publishers to its degree show and a good percentage of graduates get snatched up by top publishers and agents. Yes, it’s not a fast route but as a bonus you will improve your storytelling skills and have a fun time studying in Cambridge.

3. Get a literary or illustration agent

Again, not the quickest route, but super effective for getting published. You can approach illustration agents at Bologna fair. Or, try to find the name of individual agents and follow them on twitter and linked in. Attend professional fairs like TopDrawer, Surtex, Spring Fair etc. Make real connections with decision makers in your field.

Yes, the road to getting published traditionally is not straight forward. But it is possible.

Work on your social media presence, get your work in front of people who make decisions and you will succeed.

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