When ReedPop announced ambitious plans for its inaugural BookCon show last year, publishers were skeptical, and they had every right to be. In its first attempt to move beyond the business to business model, Reed invited consumers to participate as Power Readers at BEA in 2013, which had mixed results, and BookCon was launched very late in the game. But when the doors opened at the Javits Center on May 31, 2014, 10,000 fans swarmed in. The lines were long and chaotic, and navigating the floor through the crowds was difficult, if not impossible. But one thing was clear: BookCon was here to stay. For ReedPop, the division of Reed Expo that runs BookCon, the show was a success. And it certainly was for the fans who cheerfully stood in line for hours to take advantage of a rare opportunity to meet their favorite authors. Among publishers, opinions varied.
ReedPop executives have digested the feedback from the various constituents, and changes are in place for this year’s show. What remains the same, however, is the BookCon vision of being the place where “books and pop culture collide.”
Brien McDonald, director of strategic accounts at Reed, says that “last year we proved the concept,” and few would disagree. The one-day show, which was capped at 10,000 attendees, sold out. This year, the projections are for 15,000–20,000 visitors over a two-day period (May 30–31), and ticket sales, according to McDonald, are “ahead by an enormous amount—with the caveat that last year’s show launched much later, while this year we have a full show cycle. ”
The show’s tagline is “where pop culture and books collide,” and the emphasis is clearly on the pop. McDonald is unapologetic about the predominance of celebrities and big-name authors of bestsellers in young adult, sci-fi, romance, and other genres. “We are shooting narrow and deep,” he says. Nor is McDonald shy about ReedPop’s determination to become the Comic-Con of books. The vision for BookCon, he says, “is to achieve the excitement, enthusiasm, and exuberance of Comic-Con. To our mind, you do that by bringing the celebrities and celebrity authors.”
Those celebrities did bring the crowds last year, but also the chaos that plagued the 2014 show. McDonald promises improvements, however. “This year is really, really focused on the fan experience—and a smooth fan experience,” McDonald says. BookCon will use systems that are in place at other shows to ensure that fans can get where they need to go and get into the panels they want. The lines will still be there—and to a large extent, the success of the show has been measured by the lines—but McDonald promises that they will be better organized this year. “Every single panel room, the autographing area, and the special-events hall has its own line-control plan,” he says.
To achieve this, the logistics and layout of BookCon have changed. BookCon is on the same floor (the third) as BEA, and the space allotted to BookCon has been expanded by 35%. When BEA concludes on Friday night, the area of the floor that was housed by BEA-only booths will close, and the rest of the floor will remain open for BookCon on Saturday and Sunday. This year, the downtown stage will be housed in the BookCon area.
Essentially all of the BookCon programming happens away from publishers’ booths. The celebrity-filled panels and big marquee events will take place in the special events hall, while less glossy affairs will take place in the smaller panel rooms. Another crucial change is that there will be a designated autographing area reserved for panelists. Only authors on panels will have the opportunity to autograph in this area, though signings will still take place at the booths for other authors. McDonald believes this setup gives fans “the best of all worlds,” meaning that there is the opportunity for readers to come face-to-face with authors, as well as a Comic-Con-level of excitement with big marquee events and a celebration of the entire book-fan community.
Also new this year is the integration of organized bookselling. BookCon has partnered with Word, who will have a designated area to sell books next to the BookCon autographing area. Although Word has been a retail partner at Comic-Con, its events director, Molly Templeton, says that “a lot of [BookCon] is still a mystery.” Word has also partnered with at least one publisher, Penguin Random House, and will be the bookseller at the Penguin Truck and at the booth. More partnerships with independent bookstores are afoot—something that both ReedPop and the ABA fully support.
Oren Teicher, CEO of ABA, says, “We certainly encouraged publishers who are participating in BookCon to reach out to an indie store to partner to sell books at BookCon. Obviously it’s what stores do and do well. But it also provides another opportunity to showcase indie bookstores.” To this end, the ABA teamed up with BookCon to create large display panels that have lists of all 2,000 member stores throughout the country. “From our point of view,” says Teicher, “BookCon provides a great opportunity to remind thousands of enthusiastic readers about thriving indie bookstores and what they do best.”
How are publishers feeling about the new BookCon? While most were sanguine, others tempered their optimism. Liz Perl, Simon & Schuster executive v-p and chief marketing officer, gets the message about books and pop culture. Perl notes that her company had a very good experience last year and is excited about Atria’s Keywords Press’s panel featuring YouTube sensations who have become authors slated for Sunday at BookCon. Nevertheless she is aware of the limitations of the pop mantra, saying, “BookCon is not the place to break out a debut artist, but we tried to strike a balance.” The booth is where attendees will find authors “whose primary career is writing,” states Perl, “lest it become like Comic-Con.” Unlike the fall focus of BEA, BookCon’s focus is books that are available now, raising creative and logistical challenges for publishers. At the S&S booth, readers will have an opportunity to learn about forthcoming books. Perl believes that “readers welcome the chance to be ahead of the pack in knowing about—and getting their hands on some ARCs of—what is coming out in the fall.”
Christine Ball, v-p and associate publisher for Putnam and Dutton, was also was pleased with the 2014 BookCon experience, specifically the sell-out panel with Jonathan Tropper, Tina Fey, and Jason Batemen. She sees the now-versus-fall issue as “an interesting challenge—a good one that requires a little more creativity with what we’re doing in the booth.” Putnam/Dutton will have signage and posters that serve both industry professionals and consumers, with upcoming and current titles.
Ball is more concerned about the extra burden of five days of programming, with its demands on staffing and selling books. She explains that although Word is Putnam and Dutton’s bookseller partner, it is Penguin staff who will be making recommendations and physically handling sales at the booth and the Penguin truck. In spite of her concerns, Ball says, “I’m hopeful that this is increasingly going to be a way for us to connect with our consumers, which is more important.”
A spokesperson from one of Penguin Random House’s divisions, who preferred to remain unnamed, notes that a number of more literary panels that were proposed to McDonald and his team were turned down because they lacked mass appeal. However, this spokesperson also adds that “BookCon is giving readers what they want, and publishers are happy to accommodate.”
Jimmy Franco, senior director of publicity at Hachette’s Grand Central division, has a glass-is-half-full attitude about BookCon. “Last year, it really struck us that there was something there and people were really excited about it,” he says. “Quite honestly, I didn’t expect to see that enthusiasm from consumers. I’m not surprised that it has been pumped up to two days. I think it’s going to be exciting for all of us.” Among GCP’s highlights is a panel, “Inside the Mystery Writers Studio,” featuring blockbuster authors Brad Meltzer, James Patterson, and Nelson DeMille; the panel will be moderated by Michael Koryta. “The sense I got from Brien [McDonald] was, bring it on, ” Franco notes. “We can’t be more pleased with the cooperation we’ve gotten from Brien and that whole crew. Everything we wanted to do, we’re doing. I think it’s going to be a great show.”
Liz Hartman owns Hartman-on-Hudson, a marketing consulting firm for the publishing and arts industries. She is also editor of the PW Show Daily @ BookCon.