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The Bologna Children's Book Fairy Tale, Or, is It Really About Books?

Russsell Bekins attends the Bologna Children's Book and finds so many licensing opportunities that it's an event that's not just about books.

At The Bologna Children's Book Fair, one begins to ask the question just what is being bought and sold... Photo credit: Russell Bekins.

A Lovely Little Fairy Tale...

Once upon a time in a European country not so long ago or far away, all of the animation films and TV series were made from books. It was a safe little world where properties were well established by the publishing world before they would grow up and become a beautiful animation feature.

And the Big Bad Book Fair...

The Bologna Book Fair is one of the key international book fairs of the year for the publishing business. What is new is that it has become an essential stop for the business of creating and selling intellectual property, where the book has morphed into the product, which might have been generated by... anything.

The amazing thing about the fair is that it is really four or five fairs in one. Since 2003, the fair has organized encounters, shows and workshops for each type of visitor so that it has now become important in a number of categories once considered as services to the book industry, but now gaining a status of their own. If you participate in these meetings of category, the tail seems to be wagging the beast.

The Illustrator's Corner allowed illustrators to post whatever they liked in a glorious chaos of images.

The show floor still consists of editorial houses flogging their product in order to find new distribution channels for their intellectual properties -- to just call them books seems so quaint. There is also a showplace for illustrators, a piazza for authors to pitch book agents, a meeting place for translators looking for work, and a bustling marketplace for rights agents to auction off ancillary rights -- those lovely pink plastic bags with your favorite character emblazoned. Perhaps the best metaphor for it all might be the floor of the stock exchange, where all manner of things are bought and sold at a dizzying pace.

Another way of looking at the fair might well be a vegetable market where the properties are weighed off on a scale for consumption later. The TV & Film Rights Centre of the Bologna Book fair boasted a Catalogue of Properties that weighs in at a good four pounds. The Annual 2007 Bologna Illustrators Exhibition of Children's Books has a three-pound heft, and Kazachok's Italian Licensing Guide was a svelte two pounds, but it's in a first edition. The book and DVD set of Animation Studios and Broadcasters: Commitment, Market and Content Development Policies was not so heavy as it was bulky. After the first day of the festival, I abandoned my usual convention shoulder bag for a daypack and began calculating my load as a percentage of my body weight as if I were engaged in long-distance backpacking. A week after the fair, I am still absorbing the content of these extremely useful tomes and trying to figure out where to put them.

The Illustrator's Exhibition was impressive in the variety and quality of the work.

The Animation Corner

For those in the animation business, the TV/Film and Licensing Rights Centre was the best hangout.

This corner of the fair has undergone explosive growth. The number of registered licensing agents there had nearly doubled, from 30-60 in the course of a year. Their catalog of available properties (the weighty tome mentioned above) has gone from 300 to 800 properties since 2003.

Bologna-based Kappa Edizioni organized a presentation of the principal Italian companies doing animation in the current market. Participating were Stranemani, Demas Partners, Enarmonia, Lanterna Magica, Gertie, Grupo Alcuni and Maga Animation Studio. "We look at merchandising as the bridge between broadcasters and production companies," said Vincenzo Sarno of Kappa Edizioni. Having been instrumental in the introduction of Japanese manga in to the publishing industry, they have attempted to spread awareness of the Japanese model of financing animation series as well.

The Bologna Book Fair also offers another orgy of property buying and selling for those executives with the stomach to continue on after the MIP-Cartoons on the Bay circuit. To judge from the hardy Rai executives cooling their dogs in the Licensing and Rights lounge, it might have been a bridge too far. Some of them had that thousand yard stare normally seen on the faces of battle weary soldiers or American tourists in Florence as they emerge from their fourth church of the day packed with masterpieces of the Renaissance.

Anita Romanelli, exec producer for Rai Fiction makes a point during a panel at the Bologna Book Fair.

Books Lead, but They're Not Always First

"When we launch a new product, books are the main driver," affirmed Greg Halbout, vp, international home entertainment and publishing for Nickelodeon Viacom Consumer Products, whose territories include Europe and Latin America. Despite phenomenal three-digit growth over the last few years, Halbout interrupted his back-to-back licensing meetings to talk with AWN. He asserts that judicious timing is the key to property management. "You have to be careful about launching the right format at the right time," adding that they will normally wait 6-9 months after airing a series, keeping a weather eye on the ratings, before going in with books and other products.

Halbout is also clear that the licensing market is extremely fragmented; each country is a different case. "SpongeBob was a hit in Greece," he asserted, "it became the number one program in two weeks." The Italian market, by contrast, is very difficult "It's a slower market to take off," he shrugs, noting that the classic release is still "piece work" at the newsstands. It is not just the competition, however, which has changed the market, but the growth of the satellite market which has changed strategies.

Another event of the fair was the Italian language introduction of The Italian Licensing Guide, which Kazachok has so far printed the compendium only for the French market. "The licensing business used to be very confidential," explains Olivier Chouraqui of Kazachok. "The long lead times (which can be 12-18 months for manufacturers) in this business eventually caused people to realize that openness was to their advantage." Kazachok will also publish a magazine for the sector in Italian.

As an experiment, we selected a licensing group at random out of the book, to see if they were active at the Bologna Children's Book fair. Indeed they were present, but they were too busy to meet with us.

Geronimo Stilton tries to adjust to his new-found fame.

The Other Links in the Chain

There were literary happenings as well. The key event in the show for the conventional book world is the Bologna Ragazzi Award. The winner this year for fiction was Garmann's Sommer, by Norwegian Stian Hole. A favorite with the judges and the winner of the New Horizons Award was El Libro Negro de los Colores, a Mexican offering which attempts to describe color to blind people. The black dot Braille with black bas-relief designs on a black page was as eloquent as anything monochromatic could possibly be. The awards ceremony was held in the Archiginnasio, the hallowed seat of the University of Bologna until the 1700s. The large hall, packed with the stems of the noble families who attended the university, seemed an appropriate backdrop for the ceremony.

The 2007 version of the Illustrators Exhibition jury sifted through the offerings from 2,653 artists to choose 83 for the exhibition. The works displayed a wide variety of techniques, styles and moods. Our favorites: the colored paper linocuts of Hungarian Gabriella Makhult, the disquieting print-and-computer work of Korean Yean-Cheol Park and the distinctly frightening animals of Italian Maurizio Quarello. Throughout the show, the Illustrators Café kept up a constant multi-lingual discussion of the craft to a sympathetic house. In addition, there was an exhibition from guest country Belgium Wallonia-Brussels, with a long and proud history of top-notch illustrators.

The translator's conference, meanwhile, kept up a barrage of speakers addressing such themes as translating children's literature from Swedish, dubbing and subtitling for children's multimedia, and the provocative "Does Children's Literature Need Translation?"

Can They Guarantee the Happy Ending?

This publishing world and its relationship with media is an entirely new tale. It bears about the same relationship with our fairy tale of the book driving the movie as Shrek does to Aesop.

The Bologna Children's Book Fair really is about books, but the specialization of each of the sectors represented can often distract from the fact that it's all about a good story well told. The setting is right: Bologna boasts a gorgeous medieval center with bustling cafes and some of the best eating on offer in Italy. The characters are right: all of the powers in the publishing and media world and the writers and artists who make them rich. The story line is yours to write.

Don't forget to pick up something for your nephews, though. Otherwise you will turn to stone when you emerge from the turnstile.

Russell Bekins has served time at in story and project development for Creative Artists Agency and Disney. He now lives in Bologna, Italy, where he specializes in concept design for theme park, aquarium and museum installations.