A Guide to Bologna Children's Book Fair as an illustrator

If you’re an illustrator and interested in creating illustrations for children’s literature, I’m sure you’ve heard of Bologna Children‘s Book Fair (BCBF). Maybe you‘ve already bought your ticket and now you‘re planning your trip. In the following blogpost I‘ve collected many tips and helpful information from my last two trips to the fair and created a guide to Bologna Children's Book Fair as an illustrator.


About the Fair

Bologna Children‘s Book Fair is the largest fair in the world about the children‘s publishing industry. It was held for the first time in 1964 and takes place once a year for four days, usually in March or April. The main reason for the fair is so that publishers can sell the rights of their books to different publishers from all over the world. However, it is also a place for illustrators, authors, publishers and really any person interested in children’s books to get inspired and to make connections. Beside hundreds of stands from international publishers displaying their books, there are several exhibitions, presentations, workshops and activities at the fair. If this sounds appealing to you, I can totally ensure that the fair is an experience with a long-lasting impression.



1. Preparation


Setting your goal – Getting inspired or looking for work
Your preparation depends on what your main goal is. The first time I attended the fair, I was just being a visitor. I listened to many inspiring presentations, explored the exhibitions, looked at tons of beautiful picture books, discovered amazing publishers and spotted talented illustrators from all over the world. It was an amazing trip and I went home so inspired and full of excitement for the beautiful world of children’s publishing. The warm spring sun and Italian flair made the timeout extra delightful. My second visit pursued a different aim. I‘ve just finished my master studies and had a dummy book of my unpublished picture book from my diploma project, plus I’ve just started to work as a self employed illustrator / graphic designer full time. Therefore I was highly motivated to connect with publishers and illustrators, to get a feeling about where my work fits, and to get feedback on my portfolio. So I was much more strategic and conscious about my trip to the fair.

I highly recommend, that you think for yourself, what your main goal is to attend the fair. Every reason to go there is perfectly fine. In the following lines I‘ll go into more detail especially for illustrators who want to build connections with publishers.


Book accommodation early
I highly recommend to book your accommodation early. To be honest I myself was very spontaneous with planning my first visit, I booked my hotel in the week right before the fair. It’s possible, but accommodation and train tickets are getting more expensive obviously and you have a limited choice of accommodation. I heard from other illustrators, for cheap accommodation options, it’s best if you book your trip about 3 months in advance. I’ll keep that in mind myself :-).

I personally went to the fair from Monday until Tuesday or Wednesday. I recommend to visit the fair from the first day, as you can arrange appointments, hang something on the not yet full illustrators wall etc. On Thursday many publishers sell some of the books they brought to the fair, which is a lovely souvenir.


Accommodation location
I think the best location to stay is either in the city center or near the trainstation. I personally booked a hotel close to the Bologna main train station both times I went there. That way I could take the first train from Switzerland on Monday morning, check in at around lunchtime to unload my baggage and go directly to the fair in the afternoon. Hence, I could save the fees for one night. I heard from others it’s also nice to stay in the city center (which on the other hand is also in walking/bus distance from the main train station). The fair area is a bit outside the city, but easy accessible by bus - check the BCBF website for information about how to get there.


Prepare your portfolio + some extras
Many illustrators and authors use the fair to present their portfolio to publishers and art agents, building possible connections and getting feedback about their work. There are several ways to do that:

  • Making appointments with publishers before the fair (you send an e-mail to publishers you want to talk to several months in advance and ask for an appointment)
  • Going to a publishers booth spontaneously at the fair and ask if they offer meetings with illustrators
  • Some publishers offer portfolio hours where you can stand in a queue and wait to show your portfolio (publishers announce these times on social media or at their stand)
  • Portfolio reviews at the illustrators survival corner by renowned illustrators (you need to sign up for a slot early at the fair)


Printed or digital portfolio
You can either bring a printed portfolio or a digital portfolio on your iPad for example. I brought both. I prepared a PDF which I showed on my iPad and I brought some originals in a nice folder. In the end I only used my iPad because it was quick, versatile and showed my illustration work in the best possible way. Actually last year many people brought their tablet. However, of course it’s amazing if you have a beautifully printed portfolio.


Make your portfolio specific
I created one portfolio with all my favorite pieces in it. I then quickly learned that many publishers have so little time at the fair that they want to see exactly the kind of work that fits their publishing house. Therefore if you use a digital portfolio I recommend to additionally create specific PDFs for certain kinds of publishers. For example one with work for non-fiction books, one for fiction children‘s books, one for young adult books etc. So you can show them exactly what they’re looking for. Of course you can also prepare yourself for only one niche, or you can visit publishers who publish books in a certain field only. Important is that you do your research about your dream publishers (quality over quantity!) and prepare your portfolio accordingly. Plus when you’re at the fair you‘ll automatically discover more publishers you’d like to work with. Keep a list and write down publishers who stood out to you.


Create an outstanding business card + something extra
Whenever you talk to a publisher, art agent or another illustrator it’s important that you have a business card, which you can give to them. They talk to so many people in these 4 days and you’ll quickly be forgotten. Therefore it's so important to create a stunning business card, which they want to keep and makes them eager to look at your online portfolio.

A little story from my own experience: It happened to me several times, that I went to a stand, asked for a spontaneous meeting to show my portfolio, they said they don’t have any spots left to discuss anything, then I showed them my business card and kindly thanked them for the information. Yet looking at my card they somehow changed their mind and created a timeslot ;-). So your card and the illustration they see on it is highly important! If they don’t offer you a meeting or if the art director is not at the fair, always kindly ask if you can leave your business card behind. They’re usually happy to keep it and pass it on to the art director.

Because this actually happens quite often, I highly recommend to additionally create a little extra to your business card. Something which you can give to them, which the want to keep, hang on their walls at their workplace and get reminded of your beautiful work for months. Some ideas for things you could create: a tiny leporello with an illustrated story about yourself, a condensed dummy of your book idea, a folded mini-poster, a set of postcards, a postcard in an extraordinary shape or anything else which stands out. Make sure it‘s handy in type of size and it should be possible and affordable to create multiple ones. You can also only give it to your top five publishers as something exclusive. Important: write your name, contact details and website on the thing you create!




Illustrators Wall
The illustrators wall – at the beginning of the fair they’re empty and white and after some hours they’re filled with business cards, posters, boxes, and so many other creative ways illustrators show their talent. The walls are explicitly there for illustrators to hang up their work samples. There are no limits, even though in respect of the others I prepared rather small to medium size things to hang (DIN A5–A4). I find it best to hang a full-size illustration of mine with my name on it plus a small box to put some business cards inside. Prepare this 3­–5 times, so you can hang it in different spots.


What to bring

  • Business cards (150-200)
  • Boxes for the illustrators wall to put your business cards inside (also make sure your information is still visible if the box is empty, because you probably won't be able to keep it full at all times)
  • Posters (A5-A3 with a stunning illustration, your name and a QR code on it)
  • If you want, some kind of small extra leaflet that you can give to publishers
  • A practical tote bag to carry all the stuff which you may need to get out quickly
  • Your portfolio
  • Some tape to hang your things on the illustrators wall
  • Enough water!
  • Sandwiches – food at the fair is quite expensive and the queues can get very long
  • Fruits and snacks
  • Some pens, a sketchbook and plain paper if you need to make a note to someone
  • Comfortable shoes!! (I made around 20'000 steps each day ;-))



2. The fair – tips and tricks




Illustrators Wall
Once you enter the fair, your first stop as an illustrator is the illustrators wall. If you prepared something for the walls it’s important to hang it up as quickly as possible. The walls fill up very fast and it gets difficult to stand out at the bottom of the wall. Hang your things on 3-5 walls distributed throughout the hall. If you leave business cards in a box, check regularly if there are some business cards left or if anyone taped their poster over yours.



Soak it all up & talk to people
I know from experience it can get overwhelming… so many talented illustrators, beautiful books and hard working people in one place. My advice is to not compare yourself to others, do things that help you grow, get inspired and let it all soak in. The best thing is to talk to people. Publishers, participants and agents, there are so many interesting people at the fair to talk to, be kind, respectful and curious.


How to approach publishers at the fair
Publishers are generally very interested in finding new illustrators for possible future projects. I’ll tell you about my strategy and what turned out to be a good approach.

  1. On Monday it’s great to check out all the stands and note which publishers excite you and might be a good fit for your work.
  2. Arrive very early in the morning at the fair to speak to your favorite publishers (I’ve never been there on Monday morning, but this also goes for Tuesday and Wednesday). If you arrive at the fair just when it opens, chances are high that it’s not so crowded yet, publishers have fresh energy and are not yet involved in meetings. You can for example write down your favorite stands on the first day and then go very early on the second day. Kindly tell them you’re an illustrator, show them an example of your work and ask if they’re free for a meeting later that day or on another day. Be prepared and hold your portfolio already in your hands so you can quickly show it. This way I managed to get meetings or some even said right in that moment that they have 10 minutes before their first meeting and I could show them my work.
  3. Throughout the days, walk around and ask more publishers if you can show your portfolio. Plus you should look out for publishers who offer open hours for illustrators to show them your portfolio. You’ll have to wait in a line until you get to the front and show your portfolio or book project to one or two people from the publishing house. Some announce the times via social media and some display them at their stand at the fair. Make sure to get there early as waiting lines can get quite long.

    Pro tip: Use your time while waiting in the queue
    Waiting times in these lines can be from 1 to 3 hours. To make time go by faster, doodle in your sketchbook, be open and curious, talk to the person before and behind you, show them your portfolio and let them show you theirs. One girl even approached me with an idea last year: we made the deal that we alternated our waiting position, so she went for half an hour to walk around the fair while I secured our position in the queue and then we took turns (exchange numbers if something comes up while you’re away).

  4. You managed to get a meeting with a publisher? Congratulations! Use your chance and be mindful of the editors/art directors time, so be on time! You’ll likely only get 5-15 minutes, so prepare yourself to have everything ready and show them your best work. The goal is that you get their contact details or you can send them your work.


Take notes!
In my opinion the most important thing. Take notes about everything – right after it happens so it’s still fresh in your mind. Write down the names of your favorite publishers, note the names from people you talked to, everyone you gave a business card to, write down times for meetings, capture your thoughts and ideas, write down any feedback you get and things to remember. I wrote everything into the notes app on my phone. There is so much happening and it’s so helpful to record these moments, so you can go through them when you’re back home.

You'll get a lot of feedback about your work in these days. Always take the feedback with a grain of salt. It's only one person's opinion, it can vary a lot and it may depend on the specific field someone works in. I had the experience that I got very different feedback from different people.


Don‘t be afraid to visit BCBF alone.
Of course it’s wonderful if you have an illustrator/author friend who joins you for this exciting trip. However, if you don’t know anyone who wants to join you – you should definitely also go there alone. You will be so busy at the fair that you definitely won't get bored, on your own you’ll be able to go wherever you want, follow your intuition, make appointments without needing to be careful about someone else and you’ll get into contact with others very quick. Actually, many illustrators go to the fair alone so you’ll easily meet likeminded people. I for example met a lovely illustrator during the fair and we spontaneously had dinner together in the city center of Bologna.


3. Exploring Bologna

Last but not least I highly recommend to explore the heart of Bologna in the evening or if possible even stay one extra day to immerse yourself in the Italian culture and lifestyle. The fair area isn’t quite in the city center of Bologna, but it’s very easy to go there in the evening. It’s such a beautiful city with buildings in all kinds of red and orange shades, you should definitely stroll around and of course a delicious Italian dinner is a must.

If the weather is good (and it usually is), it’s a beautiful start into spring. It can get quite warm in the afternoon so you may be able to walk around in a t-shirt. However bring a jacket for the evening, as sometimes with additional wind it can get chilly.



Explore the city center by foot

Bologna is amazing to explore by foot once you’re in the city center. You can wander around the Piazza Maggiore, see the Basilica San Francesco, stroll through the arches of Via dell’Indipendenza and explore cute alleys between the Basilica and Le due Torri (two large towers). When you walk along the way of Via Augusto Righi – Via delle Moline – Via de’ Castagnoli – Largo Respighi – Via Giuseppe Petroni (that’s all connected when you walk in the same direction), you’ll get a glimpse of Bologna’s vivid atmosphere with lots of restaurants, people eating outside and people walking. But there are many more beautiful areas, I encourage you to just walk around and follow your intuition.


Some things I loved:

Scuderia Future Food Living Lab and the Piazza Giuseppe Verdi
Outside of the fair, this seems like the place to be during this week. It’s a coworking space where you can get amazing food and there is often a small exhibition related to the fair. The square in front of the building is filled with creatives sitting on the floor, talking, eating, sketching etc.

– Inuit Bookshop

Definitely the most popular bookshop when I googled what to see as an illustrator. The shop is tiny but with a gorgeous range of children’s books from all over the world – they also have many books in English. They even plan a program for this special week of the year with some small exhibitions etc. So if you’re in the area, it’s worth a visit (it’s close to the Scuderia). https://www.inuitbookshop.com

– Seeing Bologna from above

By climbing 498 steps onto the Torre degli Asinelli, you’ll get rewarded with a beautiful view over the city. You need a ticket for a specific time to go up, but in my case I could book it quite spontaneously for the same day via their website.


Pro tip: Go for dinner a bit before 8/9 pm or reserve a table at a nice restaurant.
It can seriously get tricky to find a place to eat after 8 pm as it seems the city is full of participants from the fair. One evening after getting rejected from several restaurants I waited for a table for more than 30 minutes eventually – so I would like to spare you that.


4. After the fair


Follow up
If you got the business card from a publisher with the request to send them work, make sure you’re sending them what they asked for in the following days. Plus, take the time to send a short but polite e-mail to people you've met and just let them know it was nice to meet them. Most of them have a full inbox after the fair, so don’t expect a response. Additionally you can remind them a few months later again and send them some new work from you.


Bologna Children’s Book Fair is exciting, exhausting and inspiring. Take some time to reflect and cheerish the inspiration it gave you. Do also take some time to relax! Lie on your back and hold your feet in the air, your feet just ran a marathon – you can also treat them to a nice foot bath or just let them take a break ;-)


In my opinion there is no better place to learn about the publishing industry, connect with interesting people and get inspired than at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. Please be aware, that everything I wrote here is just my personal experience.


I hope this guide helps you if you plan on attending the fair or may even inspire you to go there. :-)