Home Culture Commentary Graphic Details: Driven to Distraction

Graphic Details: Driven to Distraction


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.

  1. Yes, trying to pitch to the public is a distraction when you’re trying to sell to the retailers; it’s a very different audience, and a very different sort of pitch is needed. In comics, we have events aimed at the public (the usual conventions) and ones aimed at the retailers (Diamond Summits, ComicsPRO gatherings), and that works out fine – but when we’ve tried to mix them, we’ve ended up with things like the retailer day before the San Diego Comic Con (which was phased out for a reason) or the Las Vegas Extrosion (a disasterous convention which was linked to a Diamond Summit). Things don’t mix well. There may be room for consumer-oriented book conventions, but overall it may work better as we have it – with genre- and format-themed conventions for that, such as science fiction conventions, mystery conventions, romance conventions, and yes, comic conventions.

    As to why Todd didn’t draw a larger crowd at the BEA – does Todd’s work sell a lot in bookstores? I know Neil’s does, and Frank’s does. Just because a creator is a direct market star does not mean he is in the bookstore, nor vice versa.

  2. The book buying market, retail chains, librarians and wholesalers, do seem to struggle when it comes to separating individual works and creators from the whole notion of the product which is perceived as a two-piece product line, GNs and Manga.

    Part of this is the fault of the comic publishers, especially those that publish manga, for producing incredibly generic looking packaging that makes it difficult for anybody other than an educated consumer to be able to destinguish the difference of each product.

    These books are almost all the same size, similar page count and genre specific. Concequently the products are all viewed as derivitive and is why librarians, specifically, have a tendency to buy these products and automaticly display them in the YA section of the library without any consideration of content.

    There is the argument that paperbacks and other books are presented in the same size and format and do not suffer from this phenomenon but traditional publishers are much keener at promoting and developing the content and creators that they know consumers are looking for.

    The rise of the independent comic publishers that are stretching the boundaries of format and content is what will change these attitudes in the very near future.

  3. 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.

    *ahem* Well, here on the Left Coast we have the LA TIMES Festival of Books: http://events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks/.
    A GREAT place for the public, writers and Publishers to mix and mingle— AND it’s not the manic, senses-overloading exhaustion of an SDCC. (I think the open-air UCLA campus experience is a factor in that.) And it’s been going on for over a decade… growing a repeat attendee population that this year topped SDCC’s: 130K readers went to the 2010 Festival.

    Surely “the publishing center of the world” can come up with something similar to what West Coast booklovers of ALL genre have had with this yearly Springtime fete? If REED could succesfully clone the SDCC excperience for the Eastern Seaboard— then why not clone THIS?

  4. Ed

    My apologies for not mentioning the LA Festival of Books – I wasn’t trying to go all East coast/West coast on you.

    I agree that promoting to retailer and consumers there is a different approach – but trust me there are tons of business going on at both San Diego and New York Comic Con.

    And to your comment:
    “Just because a creator is a direct market star does not mean he is in the bookstore, nor vice versa.”

    True – but my point is – not that he isn’t a star in the bookstore market – but that little effort is made to make him a star in that market.

  5. As a veteran of BEA (and, before that, ABA) of 30 years, I think it would be impossible for this particular show to open to the public. The emphasis is on books coming out in the Fall or later. Galleys are available for booksellers to decide on future orders. If the general public can pick up complete galleys for free, why would they go to the bookstore

    Book Fairs and comic shows allow the attendee to get some immediate gratification. Retailers are right there on the floor so you can get what’s being hyped.

    Prose publishers (such as Abrams, Harper Collins, etc.) are increasingly showing up at comic shows. So, in at least one direction, this melding is going on. We just need to encourage comics publishers to attend more book fairs.

  6. Frankfurt Book Fair – which is a rights show – opens to the public for the last few days of the show. The publishers there seem to make the transition just fine.

  7. BEA is a focus upon books that are not yet published, that are coming out in the Fall. This is not a “finished product” trade show, it’s a presentation show to get reaction, sign up publicity, author tours, and work on marketing with bookstore, wholesaler, and chain owners, buyers, and managers.

    If you spend a couple bucks each to produce an a large stack of ARCs or galleys of your hot Fall book to give away at BEA, who do you want to give it away to: bookstore workers and managers who will read it and hand-sell it to their customers this fall, or someone who takes it home, maybe reads it, maybe tells one or two people about it?

    Believe me: this is a promotion and deals show. It is not a bookselling show.

  8. “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?”

    um, cause the show is a slip of its former self?

    The LA Festival of Books is a nice event, but during its rise, the entire indie book culture out here has essentially vanished. So how has the Festival helped exactly?

    Honsestly, what is the point of this piece?

  9. John

    I am well aware of what BEA is – but when a show is not working the way it used to maybe it’s time to change it up a bit.


    No point in explaining it to you.

  10. I don’t have my BEA notes nearby, but I did know of McFarlane’s signing. (The BEA site is not returning the hits I got before the show.) Granted, he was signing “The Haunt”, not Spawn, but still… Meanwhile, Dr. William Ayers had a nice long line for his graphic novel, “To Teach” in the autographing area (part of a “Salute to Graphic Novels” block in the autographing area).

    My peeve… comics publishers handing out comics or pin-ups to be signed by authors. Why bother to bring them in if you’re going to be cheap? I was almost about to have Eric Shanower sign his $1 Age of Bronze comic that Image was giving away (Marvel had him signing a pin-up). Geez loo-eeze! It’s a freakin’ Wizard of Oz comic! And Marvel couldn’t hand out copies of the trade?!

    The “hoi polloi” aspect has been discussed here before. I think it could be done… but it would be two shows. BEA to present forthcoming books, then “Book-Con” to promote authors, new books, and tease forthcoming books (just like CCI:SD does).

  11. Yes, there are tons of business in various forms going on at San Diego and I’ll presume the New York Con – but that’s not what you’re talking about here. You’re talking about the immediate transformation of a full convention experience targeted at wholesale book buyers to one aimed at end consumers, not various involved parties taking advantage of their proximity to talk around the edges of an event. To try to talk about doing so as learning from the comics field does not reflect what comic cons are, what they have been historically, and what has happened when the comics industry has tried to link retailer-oriented cons to consumer oriented cons serially.

    As for little effort being made to make Todd a star in the bookstore market, well, I don’t see much being made to make him a star in the comics market either. As a creator, his place in the pecking order peaked in the last century (at probably the best time to be on top). The titles he’s most linked to ship consistently quite late. He’s not winning over comics retailers, and I don’t see much sign of him generating new readership in the shops, rather than maintaining portions of his old base. That would seem to point more to what’s going on with Todd and his company specifically than to any general situation with comics in the field. Last time I was at a BEA, there certainly were still comics creators gathering lots of attention from attendees (Neil, Marjane Satrapi, Jeff Smith).

  12. Not only do the book folks need to take a page from the comics folk, and the comics folk need to learn how to engage more than one market at a time, but they should be working together.

    What reason could there possibly be to not have a panel discussions between Joseph O’Neill and Brian Wood? Paul Harding and Kevin Huizenga? Lev Grossman and Colleen Doran?

  13. Nat

    “Yes, there are tons of business in various forms going on at San Diego and I’ll presume the New York Con – but that’s not what you’re talking about here. You’re talking about the immediate transformation of a full convention experience targeted at wholesale book buyers to one aimed at end consumers, not various involved parties taking advantage of their proximity to talk around the edges of an event”

    No, that is not what I am talking about here. I am not talking about an immediate transformation – maybe just a little experiment one day of the show. More than that I am talking about the disconnect I feel that many traditional publishers have with the buying public that the comic publishers do not have. I just used the trade shows as an example.

    As for your point –

    Last time I was at a BEA, there certainly were still comics creators gathering lots of attention from attendees (Neil, Marjane Satrapi, Jeff Smith).

    All of these published by traditional trade houses – Marjane at Random House and Jeff at Scholastic. Neil being the one who is published by comic book and traditional publishers and as far back as I can remember he has done all his signing of late in the Harper booth to support the novels. He hasn’t appeared at the DC booth since 2003. DC hasn’t had a booth at BEA for two years – ever since they signed with Random House. So thank you for support my claim that comic book publishers need to bring their talent to these shows.

  14. Great post and conversation piece Rich. I agree with you that testing a ‘day of’ opening the show to the public certainly couldn’t hurt, and like you said, it may reinvigorate business. It is a different show, but when you’re a book and comics enthusiast (like we are) I talk just as excitedly about BEA to friends and readers, as I do about Comic Con (either SD or NY).

    And I was jazzed at the sample that IDW gave out promoting the Darwin Cooke adaptation of the Richard Stark books. That’s the kind of thing we need to see more of at BEA.

    Last year the Stitches bio from Norton became the big graphic memoir of the show, and I rushed back the next morning after hearing about the book in the buzz panel to meet the author and get my copy signed.

    Let’s bring some excitement back! Open the floodgates. (It was good to see you at the show too!)

  15. But that one day of the show is an immediate transformation; the same booth the day before is set up to pitch products 6 months or more down the road, to announce their marketing plans, to give out sample books, to do all these things designed to get retailers to stock and properly focus on the book. The booth that you optimally want to show to consumers is quite different from the one for retailers.

    Scholastic is a comics publisher (among other things). Random House is a comics publisher. What they aren’t are companies that focus primarily on material that is optimized for the direct market. It’s not a surprise that publishers whose efforts are designed primarily for the DM might see limits to what they can achieve at BEA.

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