Bologna Children's Book Fair - What to bring

It's been just about a month since I attended the Bologna Children's Book Fair, and my head is still spinning from all the inspiration. It was my first trip to the fair, and I already want to go back!

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It was a bit of an accident that I went at all. I learned about the fair during my MATS Illustrating Children's Book class. Thanks to a good deal at Norwegian airlines, I was already planning to be in Italy at the beginning of the month, so after a bit of deliberating, I decided to change my ticket home in order to stay for the fair.

I spent the next couple of months hustling to get ready. There are a lot of blog posts dedicated to surviving the book fair, many with recommendations on what kind of materials to bring, but it's hard to find out how much to bring. Most of the posts I found just say bring as much as you can carry, which isn't entirely helpful. Especially when you're going to be hauling that stuff around for a month like I did!

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Here's what I brought:

Portfolio x 1
I looked into have a book professionally printed before the show, but there wasn't enough time, so I went with a nice 8.5" x 11" screwpost binder and printed everything at home. In retrospect I'm glad I did. Now I can easily update my portfolio rather than having to have the entire thing reprinted. And no one seemed to be put off by the portfolio in any way. It was a good size. I would steer clear of anything bigger. You don't always have a lot of space to put your portfolio down when you're showing it. I also wouldn't go too much smaller. It should be substantial enough to show detail.

Posters x 10 (used 4)
The posters are for the Illustrators Wall. I printed them at home on nice paper. I read a post from someone who'd brought four and said that hadn't been enough, because they kept getting removed or covered. Here's what I discovered: People are generally respectful and try not to cover up or remove your stuff, but if you have a nice looking poster with no tear strips or business cards, people might just take your poster. That's not necessarily a bad thing if it's a publisher loves your work and can't take a photo because of a dead phone battery. But it's probably better to have cards or tear strips. I made little paper card holders and attached them to my posters and restocked the cards periodically. I only put up two posters because I didn't want to take too much space from other illustrators. I gave the other posters away to publishers. I'd say the letter size was good. It was easier to pack than 11x17 or A3 would have been, but it was still noticeable enough.

Business Cards x 200 (used ~100)
I printed mine through Moo, so I was able to get several different backgrounds. This worked out well because when a publisher liked a specific image in my portfolio, I was able to give them a card (or a few) with the same image. Having a variety also helped me get a better sense for which of my work people responded to the most. That said I probably only gave out a couple dozen business cards. The rest were left with my posters at the Illustrators Wall. 

Postcards x 250 (used ~100)
I also printed these at Moo, but I didn't do a variety. Instead I chose my two best pieces and printed one on each side. Most of these were given to publishers. I gave them away at meetings and portfolio reviews, but I also left them with publishers who weren't seeing Illustrators. Postcards are perfect for this kind of thing, much more so than business cards, because eventually an Art Director will go through them, and if they like your art, they may just hang your postcard on the wall and keep you in mind when the right project comes up. For this reason I went with 5"x7" although I noticed most people went with 4"x6" (or A6). It's also fun to trade postcards with other illustrators, so you have a nice stack of souvenir art to take home!

Stickers x 200 (used ~20)
These were fun but completely unnecessary. I gave them to a few publishers, but mostly I just traded them with friends. I knew I wanted stickers anyway, so it wasn't a waste. I'd bring them again, but I'd cut down the amount just to save the packing space.

In the end I brought way more than I needed, or to put it differently, I wasn't as good about giving things out as I should have been. Printing gets expensive, and it's easy to be frugal with your stuff in an attempt to ensure your hard-earned dollars go to people who can help create opportunities for you, like agents and publishers, rather than fellow illustrators. In hindsight, that was the wrong approach. I saved my postcards thinking I'd send them to publishers after I got home, but I learned so much at the fair and got so much useful criticism, that the postcards already feel obsolete. I'm kicking myself for not leaving everything at the Illustrators Wall on the last day.

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I know people who've questioned if leaving stuff at the Illustrators Wall is worth it at all, since a lot of people who take your cards are other illustrators, but I did get contacted by a publisher who found me on the wall, so I think it's worth it.

If I'm lucky enough to go back, I'll bring:

1 Portfolio
4-6 Posters
100 Business Cards (with fewer backgrounds)
200 Postcards (possibly a mix of nicely printed 5x7s and some less expensive ones to leave at the Illustrator Wall)
100 Stickers
20-50 Concertina Portfolio Books (I want something to give to favorite publishers that will show my range of work, something that will look good hung up on the wall, and stand apart from the usual postcards)

And of course, no What to Bring to Bologna list would be complete without:

  • Blu-tack to hang your posters
  • Glue or tape - to attach your card holder to your posters if you go that route
  • Lunch - the lunch lines are long and you might be too busy with portfolio reviews
  • Water - hydration is key
  • Comfortable shoes - seriously, you will be on your feet all day for days
  • Layers - Bologna gets cold in March, but it can be warm in the convention center
  • A backpack - a one-shoulder tote gets old
  • A backup phone charger - you don't want to miss out on things because your phone is dead
  • A safe space for your wallet and phone - a friend got pick pocketed on the bus coming back from the fair. This is not uncommon in Italy. Be aware, and be safe!
  • Friends!

Okay that last one might not be the easiest, but it's important. It's always nice to have someone to eat lunch or dinner with, or to chat with while standing in line, but it's also helpful to have someone (or a group) who will share information about portfolio reviews and meeting opportunities. Look for illustrators who are going to Bologna and say hi to them before the fair on Instagram or Facebook. Start a group on Whatsapp, Facebook or Instagram, and make a plan to meetup for lunch on the first day. If that's not your thing, chat with people in line. See who's traveling on their own, and invite them to meet up later. A lot of illustrators go to the fair on their own, and it can be really overwhelming. A friendly face can go a long way! I was terribly nervous going to the fair, but I was fortunate to have connections with several illustrators from class and Instagram. My experience was twice as rewarding because of them!

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