BEA:  BookCon 'incredibly encouraging'

BEA: BookCon 'incredibly encouraging'

The future of Book Expo America is here and I have seen it. Glad I am, too.

In a publishing industry that has a propensity toward gloom and doom and at this moment is squaring off against what many view as an existential threat, the BookCon consumer day at the Javits Center on Saturday (31st May) provided an unexpectedly inspiring flesh-and-blood antidote and alternative to the current malaise. It got publishers thinking hard - and optimistically.

Ten thousand fans of books and the people who write them paid $30 each to be allowed to enter the hall, then roam a small part of the exhibition floor, load up on galleys, book-bags, etc., and attend talks by - and if lucky, get autographed copies from - well-known authors. The enthusiasm was nothing short of “thrilling,” many seasoned, jaded, and (on the last day of fair-going) very exhausted publishers concluded, speaking in almost a state of wonder.

“Unbelievably encouraging and eye-opening,” was the verdict of Beacon associate publisher Tom Hallock. “Very exciting,” said Knopf managing editor Kathy Hourigan.

Read on, for what occurred at Javits might soon be migrating to a book fair near you – the London Book Fair has shared ownership and its own challenges to solve (the move to Olympia for example). (On the other hand, Frankfurt has welcomed readers into its German publishers’ hall for years).

For much of the last decade in America, with Amazon in the ascendant, digital growing furiously, and bricks-and-mortar stores struggling (indie numbers are holding up now), persistent questions were raised about how BEA could continue.

One solution was to try to turn it into a multi-conference platform – as well as hosting American Booksellers Association (ABA) and Association of American Publishers (AAP) panels, it added the International Digital Publishing Forum and (IDPF) this year Book Industry Study Group (BISG). The fair tried to become more international – 2014’s “global forum” theme was “translation.” BEA has also made an effort to attract librarians wanting a change from the American Library Association (ALA) convention.

Nevertheless, Javits is a hugely expensive space for exhibitors, and the floor last week, more than ever before, saw conspicuously empty square footage hastily covered over by carpet or occupied by refreshment kiosks plonked down where they never were before, in space that once would have been occupied by publishers’ stands.

Tentatively, BEA last year tried something new, dipping its toe into the sea of avid book-buying book lovers – or “power readers” as they less felicitously have come to be called – allowing a relatively small number in on the last day of the fair.

This year, they more sensibly turned the execution of the “people’s fair” over to sister company ReedPop, and on the last day of May, as the sun shone over 11th Avenue, a remarkably patient but excited swarm waited to be allowed into the hall for the first BookCon.

Almost immediately, it became obvious that certain logistical challenges should have been foreseen and weren’t: in the conference area, the physical space was far too limited, necessitating long, snaking queues; burly security guys arrived late upon the scene; people camped out on the carpet from panel to panel afraid to move to the exhibition hall lest they not be allowed back into the conference area; and others, further back in the queue, were disappointed not to get in to hear their favourite author.

Yet all told, it was equally obvious that BookCon was a rousing success. A good portion of attendees were, as one publisher described them, noticeably SF and fantasy “geeks;” others clearly romance-a-holics. The organizers worked hard to get A-list attractions for every taste, from celebrities like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Martin Short, to bestsellers like John Green, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Carl Hiaasen, and “literary” David Mitchell. Internet sensation the “Grumpy Cat” (very much alive and in the fur) attracted a huge line of diverse fans to the Chronicle Books booth.

Barbara Marcus, head of Random House children’s books, said flat out that BookCon’s was “the most diverse population I’ve ever seen at a book event.” Attendees were black, white, Asian, local, foreign. They came as families; mother/daughter duos; groups of teenage boys immensely eager to see comic book legend Stan Lee; teenage girls crazy over the prospect of hearing Veronica Roth; grey-haired ladies and gentlemen, even some trying to negotiate the incredibly crowded space on motorized wheelchairs. Attendees were mostly female – no surprise, given the reading population – but more male faces were interspersed than many might have expected.  

Two staffers at the Michael O’Mara stand were astonished by a poet who flew in from Northern Ireland just for the weekend in search of a publisher. A tall, gangly African-American 12-year-old heard about the fair on YouTube and persuaded her mother to take her and her younger brother up from Washington, D C. A tattooed 20-something book-lover from Queens sat with his arm around his girlfriend; she had bought the tickets for him as a present.

“I really love books and am the go-to person for recommendations for all my friends, which is why I came,” one Long Island woman in her thirties declared.

Amazingly, every single attendee I spoke with – of whatever age – was still bullish about print. Yes, some owned Kindles or Nooks or iPads and read on them; some had begun to read on their phones. But that was only for certain things. For others, they strongly preferred paper.

People had heard of the fair on Facebook and Tumblr; seen an ad on a New York subway platform; got wind of it from Twitter, or in other cases, from PW’s online newsletter. The graphic-novel-loving teenage boys had received an email from ComicCon, which they previously attended. ReedPop also controls that fair.

Some publishers hawked wares to the public. Abrams c.e.o. Michael Jacobs discounted the new Wimpy Kids planner by 20% and sold “well into the hundreds” at his stand. Melville House founder Dennis Johnson also sold books. Brooke O’Donnell, managing director of Trafalgar Square, said that a number of visitors wanted to purchase the poster advertising the BBC tie-in book for Sherlock: His Last Bow (unfortunately, it was not for sale). In future, she would “do more for consumers.”

Next year, BookCon will extend to two days. Undoubtedly publishers will put a great deal more thought into it second time around.

One executive wondered whether his house might do some useful inventory-clearing while earning good will by giving away books gathering dust in the warehouse rather than expensive galleys.

Another publisher asked, “How do we make this into a book event in 150 cities across the country?”

A third reckoned that next year might be a good time to collect email addresses. At one point, a youngish woman came up to Barbara Marcus. She didn’t know that Marcus headed Random’s children’s division; she was merely somebody at the stand. The woman wanted to find out how best to contact a children’s editor about a board book that she had created that was hard to explain unless you saw it.

Perhaps, at another venue, Marcus might not have taken a look. On Saturday, she did. The sample was special; it was definitely worth following up. She gave the young woman - who had driven all the way from Massachusetts to come to the fair – her card and told her to send material. She was one lucky lady in ten thousand.

Afterward, Marcus summed up the thinking of many publishers that day: in any number of ways, BookCon represented “a real learning curve. We are interacting in a huge way with the ultimate consumer.”

That is something that Amazon has been very good at.

If BookCon can help get publishers more up close and personal with their readers (and writers and illustrators), that can only be for the good.