While all of the 50+ marquee authors who headlined this year’s one-day BookCon (down from two days in 2015) received a warm reception from 7,000 attendees from across the country and beyond, it was the YA authors who were most feted at the annual mashup of literature and popular culture that took place in Chicago on May 14.
But then, the marquee headliners skewed heavily towards female writers of the hottest YA dystopia and fantasy novels published in recent years, although celebrities like the Property Brothers and comedian Tig Notaro who appealed to an older demographic. And there was a smattering of authors for the middle-grade set, including Dav Pilkey and Gene Luen Yang. And, of course, there were authors who have a broad base of readers across different age groups, like Kate DiCamillo, Sherman Alexie, and Meg Cabot.
Elizabeth Henry, 26, a blogger from Atlanta, who had attended BEA for the first time earlier in the week, was first in line for her second BookCon. She arrived at the McCormick Place convention center at 3:30 a.m. She praised BookCon staff and McCormick security personnel for the smooth traffic flow, explaining that last year’s BookCon had been “chaos, especially with the author lines,” with people wanting books signed in the autographing area being required to first purchase them at a pop-up bookstore. This resulted in many attendees not getting their books signed, because autographing sessions would end before they could get up to the front of those lines. “I lost three hours in Marissa Meyer’s line last year,” Henry said.
This year, early arrivals – many of them females in their late teens and early-to-mid 20s, with a few mothers accompanying daughters – stood in lines to receive wristbands as long as supplies lasted, each with an author name on it, guaranteeing the wearer entrance into that author’s autographing area sessions.
The earliest arrivals to BookCon told PW that the wristbands with YA author Cassandra Clare’s name on them were the get of the show, because, Henry said, “she doesn’t tour very often.” Besides Clare, autographing area wristbands for Veronica Roth, Sarah J. Maas, and James Dashner were quickly snapped up by the show’s earliest arrivals.
The exhibit hall had a carnival-like atmosphere throughout the day: aisles were jammed with people; there were long lines everywhere, a constant barrage of noise from the stages, and occasional screams of joy. A number of publishers hosted “spin the [roulette] wheel” contests in their booths with ARCs and books given away as prizes. Others hosted in-booth author signings. YA author Alexandra Bracken’s fans stood in line for hours before she appeared at Disney’s booth. Simon & Schuster promoted “just a few authors” at BookCon, all of them YA. Besides the Riveted (Simon & Schuster’s YA readers community) photo booth and cloth bags, there was a doughnut party with Jenny Han and an ice cream social with Morgan Matson. Piles of Mortal Instruments posters and other souvenirs drew a constant stream of people by the booth, where some dropped off fan letters and gifts for Clare with Lucille Rettino, S&S v-p of marketing. Rettino reported more traffic into the booth this year, and attributed it to the publisher’s strategy of scheduling in-booth events with YA authors, as well as the giveaways. “It’s all about the swag,” she said.
While some publishers sold books, such as Abrams, which sold them for 50% off retail, others gave away books and ARCs. Some sold books, but gave away galleys. Scholastic gave away both books and galleys and featured a Muggle Wall where attendees were invited to write down what the Harry Potter series meant to them. The wall became almost a shrine, with primarily teens, but also older readers, writing comments as well as reading them throughout the day. While she was setting up a display of Everland for author Wendy Spinale to sign, marketing manager Lindsey Johnson explained that, for Scholastic, “It’s all about forming relationships with readers,” saying that Scholastic wanted BookCon attendees to “have first pick” of the season’s hottest titles. “Besides giving away books, we’re forming relationships here.”
The author panels that PW dropped in on might explain why YA authors are often treated like literary rock stars. During the What Is Light Without Darkness: Balancing Good and Evil panel, featuring Roth, Melissa de la Cruz, Sabaa Tahir, and Lauren Oliver, Oliver noted that YA literature is “redemptive;” even the darkest, dystopian reads “deliver a message of hope,” she said. Roth added that dystopian YA is dark, but novels like her Divergent series involve characters confronted with enormous challenges, who rise to the occasion and face them. De la Cruz agreed, saying, “When you read these novels when you're 12 or 14 or in high school, these books are a beacon of light that it's going to be OK, that you're going to make it.”
And Tahir, who related at the BEA’s Children’s Author Breakfast the preceding day how the inspiration for her Ember in the Ashes series was a childhood surrounded by racists in her hometown, who subjected her and her family to relentless bullying and harassment, added, “As a teen, I needed to know there was hope in the world.” She found hope that things would get better for her in the books she read at the time.
The theme of books providing hope also resonated during an afternoon panel, The Power of Storytelling, with Alexie, DiCamillo, and Cabot. For 45 minutes, the trio held the audience in thrall with their stories – which were all the more powerful to the audience because the three authors all told tales inspired by their own life experiences. All three came from dysfunctional families, and went through difficult times at a young age. All three talked about how important books were to them during those challenging times. “Storytelling can change a life, or save a life,” DiCamillo said.
Alexie proved DiCamillo’s point by relating how, on a school visit the day before, a biracial child had approached him, marveling that their skin color matched, and then hugged him. “For that moment to happen was huge,” he said, relating how all the other children started hugging him, causing him to burst into tears. “I’ve never been hugged that many times in my life,” he said. “I’m not going to write anything but picture books from now on.” Cabot noted that, for her, part of her motivation in writing books is to provide for young readers facing challenges in their lives the kind of comfort and joy that she discovered as a child in books. Her hope, also, is to “inspire readers to help make the real world a slightly better place.”
Quarto Publishing Group’s Michelle Bayuk probably summed up the ambiance of BookCon best. The sight of so many “kids and adults [who] are willing to spend their Saturday standing on long lines and spending their money on books,” she said, amazed her and gave her hope for the future of the book industry. “It’s life- and career-choice-affirming to see such enthusiasm and excitement,” she said.
BookCon will return as a two-day event at the Javits Center in New York City, June 3–4, 2017.