This Saturday the previously business only trade show Book Expo America will turn into the very first BookCon, an event that is open to the public (8000 advance tickets have been sold) and very much modelled on the successful New York Comic-Con. Both shows are run by Reed Exhibitions, the world’s biggest business-to-business (B2B) event planner, but BookCon is being run by ReedPop, the consumer show arm of Reed. Although Lance Fensterman, a frequently quoted personage on this site, runs ReedPop, BookCon’s manager is Brien McDonald, who has been working on BEA proper for five years. I was offered a spot to interview McDonald, and given my fascination with convention culture, I couldn’t turn down the chance.
In some ways, the coming of BookCom was inevitable. I’ve been attending BEA for years, and it’s a perfectly nice trade show, but when compared with the energy and excitement of a Comic-Con, it’s a wet noodle—which is weird because prose authors are way more popular and famous than comics creators! Yet both organizers and publishers have struggled with the idea of how to bring the passion of book readers to an event like a Comic-Con. Publishers have been wary of going face to face with the public, and the logistics of the event weren’t clear.
But a solution has been found. While tomorrow and Friday will be the traditional BEA with trade only programming and author signings, exhibitors who want to remain for BookCon will all be set up in a specific area that will convert to a consumer show, where for the price of only $30 you can look at books and meet and hear authors like John Green, Jodi Picoult, David Mitchell, Holly Black, Carl Hiasson, Stan Lee, and so on. Some of the celebrity authors from BEA will be hanging around like Amy Poehler, Jason Segal and Jason Bateman. And the film version of Green’s beloved novel The Fault in Our Stars will be given the equivalent of a Hall H presentation with a panel featuring the producers and Green. (And probably a star or two unless I miss my guess.)
Given that many of these authors successfully appear at actual comic-cons, it’s really only the quiet—and hugely popular—lakes of mainstream fiction and non fiction “fandom” that are being accessed here. While the whole idea seems sounds—book fairs around the country like the huge Miami Book Fair or the bustling Brooklyn Book Fair are hugely popular for instance—BookCon stumbled right out of the gate with the announcement of its first panel, “Blockbuster Reads: Meet the Kids Authors That Dazzle”– which happened to feature four white men, Daniel Handler, Jeff Kinney, James Patterson, and Rick Riordan. In a world where, unlike comics, female authors and readers are dominant, this seemed pretty odd. (Rachel Renee Russell, the African American author of the Dork Diaries series has since been added to the panel.) As if this wasn’t enough, the second list of guests was all white—unless you count Grumpy Cat, who is Siamese. The social media outrage was so intense this time that a whole hashtag was coined, #WeNeedDiverseBooks. And in response a panel on diversity was added.
If BookCon is a lot like Comic-Con in this regard, it may eventually be more like it in the pleasurable engagement of readers with their literary idols. As I am always saying, meeting the author of your favorite book is an experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. It’s done all the time as those book fairs I mentioned, signings and other book events show. Translating that experience from the orders and meetings focused world of BEA to a whole new experience may take a while. But, the transition is, I feel pretty sure, just the start of an even wider application of the Comic-Con Experience to other things.
THE BEAT: I was really curious about BookCon and how it evolved. People have been talking about this kind of thing for a long time, but how did Power Readers Day go to BookCon under ReedPop? I know Reed runs BEA but how did BookCon go over to ReedPop?
MCDONALD: We have this long standing amazing b-to-b show, which is Book Expo America, with so much great content there and so many great authors available to us. Since we’re in New York City, the perfect place for a book and pop culture event, it just made sense to take the leverage and the equity we had in the publishing world through Book Expo, and then infuse that with the ReedPop way of doing things with fans first. We had a lot of great things kind of right in our hands, and we were able to collaborate and bring in the ReedPop philosophy to books and book related content.
THE BEAT: I know for years, everybody has been looking at BEA and then they look at New York Comic Con. And they’re like, “hmmmmmm?” [laughs]
MCDONALD: This is my fifth BEA and my previous job and still a lot of what I do is working with our key clients in the publishing world, and I wish I had a dime for every time I went to a meeting and were asked, can we get some of that Comic Con energy? Not that there’s anything wrong with the b-to-b side of Book Expo, that has a distinct purpose and it’s excellent and it’s great and it’s achieving certain objectives, but people like the zeal of a fan based event.
THE BEAT: Right. The zeal, that’s a great way of putting it actually. What kind of transition did you make for the show?
MCDONALD: The Power Reader Day, that brand is over. It went pretty well the last year, but to plug fans and consumers into a b-to-b event doesn’t work all that well. And that’s no one’s fault, it’s just not the way that it should be. So we decided that Saturday would be BookCon and we’re going to put a concerted effort towards creating a fan experience. So we went out to every client and said if you want to activate with consumers here’s how to do it. If you don’t, that’s totally cool, if you want BEA to remain a trade only show for you, you’re more than welcome to do that. Many Book Expo exhibitors feel that BookCon is not applicable to them—distributors, e-book producers, and so on. It doesn’t make sense to pour consumers into those booths because there’s nothing there for either side.
In addition to the core exhibitors that will be there, we also have I think 45 new exhibitors coming in solely for Saturday in BookCon. So it’s cool from that perspective. But as far as the publishers that have decided to activate with consumers it’s who you think they are, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Abrams, MacMillan, and Chronicle, Diamond Distributors, Andrews McMeel, so it’s really cool. Publishers have been really receptive and they’ve raised their hands to do some cool things.
THE BEAT: Well I’m fascinated by this story because I have been covering Comic Cons for many, many years, and the rise of Comic Con culture that we’ve seen in the past decade, spiraling out of control really for the past 5 years. I’m fascinated to see the change, because let’s face it, books are a lot more popular than comics. But a lot of people just like to quietly read a book about economics, and they’re probably not going to stand in line to meet the guy who wrote the book…but maybe they would if it was Thomas Piketty!
MCDONALD: Yes I think you’re definitely going to see that. There’s a film tie in to John Green’s work, but look at John Green on the Today Show when he was in Miami last week. Hollywood talent is attached, but John Green is at the center of that story. And that’s kind of what BookCon is trying capture, things like True Detective where people are so passionate about that but it was based on an older book that no one would have known about unless there was a TV show. Reading is very much a private enterprise, but it’s something that people are really passionate about and they build a community around it. I think one reason that cons are blowing up is [as a way to meet in person, as opposed to social media.]
THE BEAT: Well it is very experiential. The programming with Amy Poehler and Martin Short, obviously there’s some celebrity elements to it, but you also have a lot of just very famous book authors, much loved book authors. How did you approach the programming? What did you look at in Comic Con and say we’ve got to do that for BookCon?
MCDONALD: When we started our conversation we had a whole lot of equity in the publishing world due to our work on BEA and to Comic Con. So we went out and just explained the concept to publishers. We pursued some people hard like we made hard asks, particularly authors, but then other publishers said hey this author has a super passionate audience, we’ve done a lot of cool live events with him or her, here’s what we could do. So we kind of went for content that has a great following, but we also looked at the cross over in pop culture too. We wanted stories that cross over into all different elements. And obviously we were able to make some big hits with a lot of actual celebrities, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Amy Poehler, Martin Short, those type of folks, and then also some celebrity type authors and then, I don’t want to say cult authors, but then you have someone who’s like a super literary guy like David Mitchell who has an amazing following. And then there’s Brandon Stanton, the photojournalist from Humans In New York. That’s someone to me who is very cool, telling a great story, and brings something different to BookCon.
THE BEAT: I notice you have speed dating which is a very popular event from Reed’s Comic Con events also. Funnily enough, it says registration for females looking for males is closed. At Comic-Cons it’s sometimes the other way around. [General laughter] Anyway, you’re also bringing these kind of fun, social events, I guess you could say.
MCDONALD: Social’s the perfect term. We want it to be immersive, we want people to go there from, the show’s open from 9, there’s activities going on from 9 to 6 and we want people to be busy all day and having a great time, doing different things, so something like speed dating is a perfect interactive activity. But then maybe you want to sit down and take in a panel or you want of embrace your comics side and go and see Stan Lee, but then your literary side and go see David Mitchell. So we try to offer people a pretty active lively day that has kind of different points. And the speed dating thing was definitely taken right from the Comic Con model.
THE BEAT: You also have some actual Comic-Con type events like Stan Lee and the Great Graphic Novel Panel. Is this an attempt to appeal to NYCC type attendees?
MCDONALD: Oh for sure. We definitely welcome them in and then hope they find some of our content enthralling.
THE BEAT: BookCon unfortunately got its most notoriety for the whole diversity issue. And there was sort of a, mis-messaging, or what would you call it?
MCDONALD: Diversity in books and in the publishing industry and in everything in life I mean is critical. And we wanted our authors to be as diverse as possible and we work with publishers to help ensure that’s happening. Now, there was what would we call it, I guess kind of a backlash about who we announced, and if I could turn back the clock I would change the announcement strategy a little bit. In the first [group of] authors that we announced, there wasn’t a lot of diversity. But as we kept saying, we’re not done yet. So by the time we get to the event on May 31st I think we’ll have a really good representation of authors from all sorts of backgrounds. And I feel confident that we’ve now achieved that, but when we came out of the gates, that wasn’t shown in the initial announcement. If I could change that we certainly would have, but there’s pressure to announce an event and build buzz and that kind of thing. So we went out with some of the bigger names that were not completely reflective of what our event will be when it goes off on May 31st. Since then we’ve been able to work with our partners and bring in some awesome content.
THE BEAT: Is there anything about BookCon that you’re especially looking forward to or you’re really excited about?
MCDONALD: The whole thing! When you’re planning these events you just want to get there. I’ve been in it from the B-to-b side like working BEA, but I’m actually really excited to be in with passionate book fans, which I consider myself one of, But I’m just really interested to see who turns out at the show and how they interact and what they love.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.