15 Tips for Illustrators Visiting Frankfurt Book Fair
I just got back to Belgium after an exhausting, but rewarding, few days at Frankfurt Book Fair. After years of making apps for kids with Wee Taps, I’ve been wanting to enter into the kids picture book market. After a bit of research, I found out that book fairs like Frankfurt or Bologna Children's Book Fair are a great way of making connections with publishers and getting your illustration work seen. So I decided to book a ticket and head to Frankfurt, the biggest book fair in the world!
It was a great experience and I learned a lot from it. I thought it might be useful for other illustrators if I noted down a few of my thoughts and tips from my few days there, so here we go.
1. Book appointments well in advance.
I didn’t decide to go to Frankfurt Book Fair until quite last minute. I did research which publishers were going and contacted a few to try and arrange an appointment, however all of their time was already booked up. After talking with some other illustrators there who had made appointments, they told me some had been arranged 3-4 months before the event. So, definitely get in touch as soon as possible if you decide to attend.
2. Be prepared to wait…a lot.
You will be standing in queues for most of your time at the fair. A lot of the publishers (especially in the children’s book hall) will have 1-2 open illustration hours per day where they will check out your work and give feedback. If it’s the type of work they’re looking for they will take your business card and perhaps ask you to send them more work.
Try and find the general list of all the illustrator open hours before the event or when you first arrive. Also some will just have signs at their stand saying when they’re accepting illustration portfolios, so have a walk around all stands to make sure you don’t miss a session.
Some of the portfolio sessions already had illustrators queueing for an hour before they were due to open, so think about which publishers you definitely want to see and make sure you’re there early, otherwise you could be waiting even longer. There are so many illustrators at the event, so waiting in line is just a reality you have to accept.
3. Wear comfortable shoes.
Your feet and back will be killing you at the end of the day. Make sure you’ve got comfortable shoes on for all the standing in line and walking around the huge event.
4. Bring lunch and plenty of water.
This is a mistake I made. I didn’t realise that I’d be waiting in long queues, have a quick portfolio review and then dash off to get in the next queue. Honestly, that’s what your whole day is pretty much like. I had thought I would grab some lunch at the food stands during the day, but not wanting to miss out on any portfolio reviews I had to go hungry until the evening on the first day. Definitely bring a packed lunch and snacks!
5. Take your work with you.
Seems a bit obvious, but make it easy to show off your work to publishers. Depending on what type of illustration work you do, make it easy on yourself to bring it around with you all day. I saw illustrators with huge portfolios and suitcases. I took a selection of my illustration and had it printed in a handy little A5 book. It was easy to keep in my backpack and pull out to have publishers flip through it, whereas massive individual prints would be a bit awkward.
If you’ve got finished book projects, take those with you. Some publishers prefer to see finished projects and some prefer portfolios. Try to have a mix if you can. I also saw some illustrators showing their work on iPads, which is also an option, however I got the vibe that publishers like the feel of a book or real prints in their hands.
6. Have plenty of business cards on hand.
Publishers are going to receive hundreds of business cards over the 5 day fair. How will yours stand out in that pile when they get back to the office? Think about playing with the size and shape to set it apart from the rest of the regular, white, credit card sized business cards. Also, it’s important to show some of your illustration work on the business card, especially of something that the publisher saw in your portfolio, so they’ll remember who you were down the line. Make sure your website, email, Instagram and other details are on there!
I printed some postcards from Moo with my octopus illustration, which also appeared on my portfolio cover. On the backs of the postcards I printed one of five different illustrations. Doing this set up a nice moment at the end of each encounter where the publisher could choose which of the five illustrations they preferred. This can help to make yourself more memorable. A few times, one of the five illustrations was a piece the publisher had taken an interest in during the portfolio presentation, so this was great! And sometimes the publisher took two cards because they liked multiple, which was even better.
Take more than you’ll need, you can always use them at the next event. There would be nothing worse than running out of cards before the end of the event.
7. Research the different publishers.
All the publishers are listed on the book fair’s website, so take the time beforehand to have a look at which ones match your style or you think you’d be a good fit for. Take a walk around the hall and check out the other books that they’ve published. Could you see your work sitting among them? If so, then approach them. However, if it’s really not your style, then spend your time wisely and queue for appropriate publishers. It can be a bit disheartening to wait a long time in a queue only to be told your style isn’t right for that publisher.
8. Connect with other illustrators.
You’ll spend a lot of time with your fellow illustrators in the queues, so be friendly and get to know them. Say hello and ask how their day is going. You’ll pick up all sorts of advice on the event, which publishers are good to work for, what interesting exhibitions and events are going on. Some illustrators can be shy, but you’ll find that pretty much everyone is in the same boat as you.
A lot of them will have the same challenges and experiences as you, so it’s good to hear you’re not alone. You’ll get the chance to check out their work. I saw some truly amazing work from fellow illustrators in the queue. Exchange business cards and stay in touch to be a part of the illustrator community.
9. Take notes after each encounter with a publisher.
This is an extremely important point. Immediately after you’ve had an encounter with a publisher, write down everything they said. Who did you speak to? What work did they like? What weren’t they so keen on? Was your style not for them? Do they want you to send more work to them? Or submit something on their website? Do they want you to contact someone else at their company? What type of work would they like to see more of?
Trust me, you’ll meet so many publishers that they’ll blur together and you’ll forget everything if you don’t make good notes on your encounters. Store their business cards away safe and you’ll have plenty of time standing in the next queue to make some notes.
10. Be respectful of the publishers’ time.
The main purpose for publishers to be visiting the fair is for them to meet with their clients and sign new business. They’re not specifically there to meet new illustrators, although many are always interested in signing new people. Don’t disturb them if they’re in a meeting with someone. If they have someone at their info desk then politely ask if you could set up a time to show someone your work, and if not ask if you can leave a card to be passed on.
Don’t impose on them or force your way in. That’s a sure way that you’ll not be picked to work with. This is why many of the publishers have specific illustration open hour sessions, in order to control the hundreds of people looking to show their work.
11. Don’t be discouraged.
If a publisher tells you that your style isn’t for them, don’t be discouraged. This is a massive event with hundreds of different publishers, many with very different styles. Your work won’t be for everyone, so don’t feel bad if a publisher isn’t interested in your work. Many times they’ll have an idea in their head of what they’re looking for, and chances are small that your style exactly fits it. Again, be respectful and thank them for their feedback and keep your head up for the next encounter.
12. Be proud of your work.
A few illustrators I chatted to were a bit more reserved when it came to showing off their work. There were sometimes apologetic about their portfolios or would mention that they’re only doing it as a hobby, trying to downplay their work. I saw so many amazing illustrations over the couple of days. There are so many talented people out there. You’ve worked hard on this, so be proud of it!
Be comfortable when talking about your own work and presenting yourself to publishers. Talk about your strengths and your vision in your illustrations. Publishers like to hear the thinking behind it. This will get easier as you talk to more and more publishers.
13. Go for extra days.
I settled on going for two days, but realistically I should have gone for more. I spent most of my two days just in the children’s publishing hall. It’s one of 6 massive halls with multiple floors and it’s just not possible to get around half of the exhibits in such a short time, especially if you’re queueing from one illustration presentation to the next. Next time I’d like to also go for an extra day when I’m just exploring the amazing range of books as a customer, rather than constantly selling myself.
14. Learn from their feedback and adapt your work for next time.
Hopefully you’ll have received some feedback, both good and bad, from the publishers you’ve met with. If you’ve taken good notes, then you’ll know by the end of the event which particular pieces stood out for multiple publishers. Figure out which pieces in particular were the winners and then develop your portfolio with more like that. Did the publisher prefer to see more completed scenes, or character work, or something different? Not that you have to totally change your style or anything, but try to get a feeling for what worked in general and then adapt your portfolio for next time.
15. Follow up with the publishers afterwards.
Think of how tired you are after this event. The publishers will most likely be in the same boat, but will have done it for 5 days. They’ll have signed a lot of new business, met with hundreds of people and will have a lot to catch up on when they return to the office.
So give it a week or two after the event and then follow up with the publishers who gave you contact details. If they asked to see more work, then send that over to them. You don’t want to leave it too long so you’re forgotten about, but if you email them immediately after the book fair, chances are you’ll be lost in the flood of emails they’ll be catching up on.
Hopefully some of these tips will help you out if you’re thinking of presenting your illustration work at a book fair. I thought it was a great experience. I learned a lot about the business of dealing with publishers, I made some great contacts and I got a lot of good feedback on my work. I’m hoping it now turns into some fun illustration work. I also heard a lot about the Bologna Book Fair, so I’m hoping I can head to that one next year.
You can view my illustration portfolio at lefft.com