I was walking through the aisles at BEA (BookExpo America — the biggest book industry event of the year) a few weeks ago; the show had been cut down to two days from the usual three. The show has changed radically over the years. It used to be a place where publishers could meet with their customers – the retailers, librarians, and wholesalers. That’s all changed – fewer independents walking the floor, more librarians, and more rights deals being done. Barbra Streisand and Sarah Ferguson were the stars of the show. Does it really take an aging diva and a scandal-ridden royal to get the show any attention?
Why not take a cue from the comic book world and open the doors to the public to generate some attention and excitement? Comic cons have been open to the public for decades -– it gets the fans excited about their favorite authors and artists and it gets them excited about new books coming out. These cons are an incredible way to promote to consumers.
The subject of opening BEA up to the public came up at the panel I moderated at BEA. One of the panelists said that he had had several conversations with publishers about bringing the public into the hall for a day, but the powers that be didn’t think it was a good idea. I asked why and the answer he gave was, “The publishers are resistant to the idea because they view the public as a distraction.”
Excuse me? The people who put down their hard-earned money and buy their books are a distraction? Maybe this is what is wrong with mainstream publishing. Yes -– retailers are their customers and they too pay their hard-earned money to bring the books into their stores and deserve attention. But, ultimately a book will only succeed only if consumers buy it. So aren’t they kind of important?
Comic book publishers have always excelled at involving the reader. From the days where editors would make notes in the body of the comics to fans to supporting consumer based cons, the talent gets to meet the public and the fans eat it up. And now these cons are popping up all over the country. I don’t see book shows scheduled in major cities across the country – a few things like Miami Book Fair – but even New York Is Book Country is gone.
Why not take advantage of the fact that an enormous show with dozens of authors is being staged in the publishing capital of the world and open to the public? Publishers and their executives need to come out from behind their desks and go face to face with the buying public. I know it’s scary to talk to people outside of the publishing world, but these people do pay your salaries.
Maybe they are afraid that it will become too much like a comic con and that they will have to confront fans dressed as Sherman McCoy, Atticus Finch, or Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But, would that be so bad? Getting the paying public so excited about seeing their favorite authors and books engage in a little cosplay? It just might be good for business.
On the other hand, comic book publishers need to learn some lessons from mainstream publishers. While mainstream publishers are seemingly frightened by the public -– they have made a science out of promoting their talent at shows like BEA. Comic book publishers are not so good at this and I can give an example.
I was walking through the graphic novel area at BEA and I saw that Todd McFarlane was standing in the Image booth. I thought, he must just be dropping by, he can’t be signing. I hadn’t heard he was signing so I looked around -– I didn’t see any signs touting the fact that one of the biggest comic book creators was scheduled to sign. I didn’t think any more about it and went about my business.
Later in the day I walked by the Image booth again and there was Todd MacFarlane sitting and signing. There were maybe ten people in line. Here was the man who is arguably a legend in the world of comics and he had ten people in line. Do booksellers just not care about comic book creators? Or do they not know them?
I think that some people are aware who he is, but there are many who are not familiar with him. The event wasn’t promoted enough. Image wasn’t making a big enough deal that he was there. Comic book authors and artists can be exciting and successful at BEA. While I was at DC Comics, for most of my run there, I managed the trade show presence at BEA, the library shows, and even a few of the regional book shows. Over the years I hosted many authors and artist at BEA; Frank Miller, Alex Ross, Neil Gaiman, Brad Meltzer, Brian Azzarello, Jill Thompson, Colleen Doran, and Harvey Pekar. The DC booth at BEA was 1,000 square feet and the lines for these comic book authors and artists would wrap around the booth.
But we promoted it and made it an event. We had huge banners in the booth letting people know who was going to be there and when they were signing, we handed out fliers with the signing schedule. There was enough interest in the signings that we had to give out paper bracelets to control the crowds. If you have a bracelet on, you get a book. These signings brought a lot of attention to graphic novels in a new market –- and this was ten years ago. Why aren’t these events happening on a bigger scale now?
When I later checked the internet to see if the autographing was promoted at least online, it was mentioned on a few comic book sites that he was signing. But these are for fans who probably wouldn’t be going to BEA. I couldn’t even find him on the BEA list of autographing sessions. Todd McFarlane signing at BEA without any fanfare at all was a missed opportunity. What a shame. He deserves better, the medium deserves better, and the industry deserves better.
We have to stop looking at graphic novels and manga as one big “thing” to promote. Those days are over –- people know what they are now and it’s time to move to the next level. There are huge sections at book retail; they are in libraries, and dozens of movies are being made from these books. It’s time to act a bit more like traditional publishers and begin to build a bigger awareness for the talented people who create these books. We need to show everyone how to do it right. San Diego Comic-Con attracts over 125,000 people; New York Comic Con in just a few short years had 77,000 people pay to come to the show in 2009. Just two shows attract over 200,000 consumers -– that’s doing it right.
Frank Miller has announced that he has a prequel to 300 coming out –- let’s show the book industry what it would be like if he had an exclusive signing at the B&N on Fifth Ave. Let’s send Bill Willingham or Brian Azzarello on a tour of independent bookstores. Let’s get Stan Lee to BEA next year. It’s been years since graphic novels have been in bookstores -– it’s time to step up the game and show everyone what the medium and the talent are capable of.