I’m working on a focused BEA wrap-up for PW Comics Week, so I’ll post some of my more random thoughts here.
• I twittered that it was a “good show”, although that’s a hugely subjective analysis, and many would disagree. Most BookExpo vets thought the show was down and slow, with anxiety, layoffs and giant Kindles haunting everyone’s steps. When I said good show, I meant, selfishly, that *I* had a good show, but I think graphic novels had a great show, too. Business — as defined by meetings and enthusiasm, at least– was UP at some publishers, and the mainstreaming of graphic novels is utterly complete. As mentioned several times, David Small’s graphic memoir, STITCHES, was one of THE big books at the show, and no one had to explain or apologize for it being told in “comics’ format.
Of course, a lot of people were still caught up in the general gloom and doom. The meteor of electronic distribution has crash-landed, and the dinosaurs are wandering through a dust-choked world, trying to see their way clear. Part of the problem is that BookExpo itself is a big lumbering dinosaur, like many trade shows in the new business model. The call to make it a consumer show is strong. Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull, and now launching Round Table, a new interactive, social media kind of publishing venture, blogged about this — he seems to have left out a word or two, but I made a guess as to what it was:
It also hadn’t escaped our attention that while Reed, the folks who organize this show, seemed able to pull in 77,000 [for a comic book show — wording mine], enough to warrant adding a show in Chicago, perhaps to make up for the failure of the Canadian book industry to be able to generate enough activity to have Book Expo Canada.
But we weren’t the Executive Steering Committee, we were the Conference Advisory Board. Meaning, we weren’t the deciders. That was the CEOs. And it was the CEOs who were deciding that there was no need to open the gates to the barbarians. The fact that, oh, it’s the barbarians who pay all our salaries, by buying our damn product, appears immaterial. The CEOs seem to think they’re not in the media business at all, but in a B2B business, where meeting with B&N and Amazon and a few independent booksellers constitutes doing business.
I’m sure this argument will swirl around the dreams and nightmares of many for the next week, or month or year, and will surely return to it.
• I attended and wrote up the bloggers panel for PW and it was a bit of a shock. I’ve been on a blogging panel or two and they were relentlessly meta, all about motivation and method and whether blogging is killing journalism. This was all about how to, how to promote, how to pitch, how to link. I surely missed out on all kinds of subtleties and political infighting, but it seemed that a bunch of bloggers who are all merely self-confessed “book lovers” and many stay-at-home moms have found a way to contribute to promoting and reviewing all kinds of books, a feelgood mojo which seems to have escaped the comic book blogging community.
I was intrigued and did a little digging and came across the Graphic Novels Challenge, a year long project whereby book bloggers read and review a certain number of graphic novels. (It only one of many “challenges” the book blogging community has set itself.) I highly recommend hitting that link and looking at the nature of the reviews and the books reviewed. It’s a real insight into what READERS (as opposed to fans) like and can get into. (And yes, I will get into the whole reader/fan thing in a future post.)
• Part of the reason I had a “good BEA” was the good socializing. I skipped the many parties and just hung out, and what was really refreshing was the chance to just kick back with people from so many different companies; on one occasion, a few peeps from Marvel, DC, Image, Archaia, a few journos and so on were present, and it was a nice break from some of the highly partisan schmoozing at other shows.
• But yes, there are still a lot of issues…returnable? Non-returnable? One publisher told us they sometimes encouraged comics shops to order from Diamond BOOKS because they were returnable…another publisher said that was suicide. The rest of the book business is already eying the non-returnable business model, and comics themselves need to develop alternate distribution methods. One little paragraph can’t begin to probe all of this, so…developing.
• As mentioned before, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting someone talking about their iTunes platform. A year from now, this is going to be a part of everyday comics life. As someone pointed out to us, consumers won’t pay for things on the internet, but they have no problem paying for things on their cell phones, because they’ve always had to pay for things on their cells. Of course, comics shop owners aren’t going to like the sound of this, so expect the war to continue for some time.
• Before the show, I had asked Eric Reynolds from Fantagraphics some questions for last week’s PWCW BEA roundup, and I meant to run it before the show, but they seem as germane afterwards. We’ll let Eric have the last word in this mini-interview:
Q: This looks to be a scaled down BEA for many, but you have a new booth and a strong presence. What are the factors behind this decision?
Eric Reynolds: BEA is expensive, there’s no doubt about it, and I can understand publishers with a tremendous presence scaling back this year, for obvious reasons. But our presence is still relatively modest in spite of our new booth and strong author list. I think we do it about as economically and efficiently as any publisher our size can. But more importantly, it really is our one, best chance every year to get out there and actually talk to bookstore buyers, librarians, distributors and media face-to-face. We don’t do that many shows a year: Emerald City, Stumptown, BEA, MoCCA, Comicon, SPX and APE. Most of those are very focused art comics shows that appeal to our primary consumer base (and yes, I kind of hate myself for using terms like “consumer base”). BEA is very different from those other shows and represents unique opportunities that no other shows offer in terms of meeting with booksellers and librarians who can help us get our books out to a much wider readership. There are always a LOT more like-minded people out there who would enjoy what we do than who we’re currently reaching, and BEA is a great chance to meet them, or at least meet the people that those people buy books from.
Q: What are the values of attending BEA for Fantagraphics?
Reynolds: Pretty much what I already said. When you’re in the office every day, in a small company like ours, it’s easy to get lost in day-to-day matters. BEA really is a unique opportunity for myself, Jason Miles (our main point man for booksellers and our distributors), and Gary Groth to hand sell our books, hear feedback on what we’re doing, and get the word out on our creators. I think our books maintain a standard of quality in terms of content and presentation that is fairly obvious if you look at them. They’re not prose books, by and large, so the craft that goes into them is easier to get a read on quickly beyond just book design, to the point where I think the craft in them across the board implies a strong sense of their value as art or entertainment. We know our comics and take a lot of pride in them. We’re not a hype machine and we’re lousy bullshit artists. I think BEA is the best way for us to show to a lot of people who are in a position to help us sell our books that the proof is in the pudding.
On a more personal level, BEA is one of the more heartening shows I do. We exhibit with W.W. Norton, and it’s totally swell to hang out with the folks from Norton, Verso, New Directions, etc. and have them tell you how psyched they are to have you with Norton. These people know books. They know good literature. They publish legends like Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nathaniel West… I could go on. And then to meet so many booksellers and librarians tell you how invaluable you are in regard to what you do, it’s just very encouraging. I come home from Comicon usually in a major funk, even if we do well. It’s just too much of a sensory assault and purely driven by commerce. It’s like being trapped in a Vegas Casino for five days. Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy that. But BEA is where I get to see that we actually have a place in the greater cultural landscape outside of the usual confines of comic book culture that we come from and live in every day. I like it.
Q: With trade shows scaling back on many levels, BEA director Lance Fensterman has said that BEA could learn something from how Comics-cons are run. What’s your perspective on that?
Reynolds: Well, I think I understand what he’s getting at, but he’s referring to a kind of media attention at Comicon that doesn’t necessarily extend to us. Comicon’s exposure in the media has been largely driven by the film industry and big, celebrity attendees. We will never be able to compete with Robert Downey, Jr., Gwenyth Paltrow and the first look at Iron Man’s costume. Which is fine, we can still benefit from it. That stuff has brought more people inside the San Diego Convention Center every year and has yielded a ton of media attention, but I’m not sure it’s appreciably benefitted us beyond the fact that the more people there are, the more books we’ll probably sell. I’m sure that attention is appealing to Mr. Festerman, but as a small publisher, our priorities are different from his, and our priorities at BEA versus Comicon are extremely different. At Comicon, we’re promoting and selling to fans. We’re off in the northeast corner of the convention center doing our own thing with the few other serious publishers who aren’t just intellectual property farms. BEA is completely different, and complements what we do at Comicon more than competes. BEA is still largely about reading, not Hollywood or investing in collectibles. It’s a book show. Comicon is a pop culture and entertainment show that just happens to include some book publishers. BEA is a book show that just happens to have its fair share of celebrities and media tie-ins every year. So I hope it doesn’t get much more like Comicon.