Marking its fourth year, BookCon returns to New York’s Javits Center—from its one-day Chicago debut last year—with two full days of programming, June 3–4. Approximately 18,000 fans streamed into the Javits over the course of two days in 2015, but Brien McDonald, BookCon event director, ReedPop, is determined to pass the 20,000 mark this coming June.
To reach that goal, the folks at ReedPop are taking an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach, with a few tweaks and enhancements. “Whenever you have an event and want to fill it to the rafters, you go to your passionate fan base,” says McDonald. With the slogan, “Where books and pop culture collide,” ReedPop made it clear from the start four years ago that the core audience for this show would be predominantly young adults, roughly teens to early 30s. Now the demographic has been defined even more precisely: millennial females. Which is “awesome,” McDonald says. “It’s so much fun on the ReedPop side because it’s such a different demographic than we normally serve,” he adds, alluding to the massive crowds of boys to men who flood its various comic cons across the country.
This year, publishers are keenly aware of who the audience is likely to be. “We have a better understanding of the crowd,” says Liz Perl, chief marketing officer and executive v-p at Simon & Schuster, “enabling us to do a better job of programming.” Recognizing the track record that BookCon has demonstrated in attracting YA readers and pop culture fans, Perl says that at this year’s show, S&S is “drilling down into this culture to offer an aggregate of marquee authors who can cause a groundswell of strong attention,” rather than looking toward more “writerly authors” for the show.
On the S&S roster is popular YouTuber and author Connor Franta, YA and children’s superstar author Jenny Han, and celebrity Kevin Hart. Perl also says that the show’s “social media power” was a factor in determining who would be a part of it. The aforementioned authors are far more likely to have fans and readers who rely on social media for book and cultural recommendations than a writer like, say, David McCullough.
A major draw at this year’s show, however, is critically acclaimed author Margaret Atwood, exemplifying what it means for books and pop culture to collide. She takes the stage with Bruce Miller, showrunner for Hulu’s just-launched and loudly lauded series The Handmaid’s Tale (Saturday, 4:15–5:15 p.m., Room 1E10). Widely considered to be a modern classic, it was first published in 1985—long before dystopian fiction became a solid genre—and has never gone out of print. The Handmaid’s Tale has become “a sort of tag for those writing about shifts toward policies aimed at controlling women, and especially women’s bodies and reproductive functions,” wrote the Guardian in an article about a 2003 opera production of the work, one of its many incarnations. It hit the big screen, too, in 1990, but was tepidly received by critics and was a box-office dud. Now that it’s appearing on a streaming service, the book and its author represent a trifecta for BookCon: Hulu covers the pop culture portion, dystopia is wildly popular among young adults, and its topic is of special appeal to millennial women—and, oh yeah, it’s a book, too.
Beyond Hulu, McDonald is excited to have other pop culture big names such as Hasbro involved. “There’s always that pop culture hook for us,” says McDonald, “but we’re trying to be smart in building concentric circles around that essential ingredient to build the audience.” Hasbro will be featuring its entertainment franchise, My Little Pony, from a dedicated room at the Javits, where the various happenings and activities will be streamed live. “You’re starting to see the event change,” says McDonald, “where it’s obviously bookcentric, but taps into areas that our audience plays in: streaming, toys, major brands, podcasts.”
From the playground of podcasts comes another high-profile guest, Marc Maron, whom McDonald describes as “very much at the center of new media and how people consume content.” The comedian, actor, and prominent podcast host of WTF with Marc Maron, who draws an audience of one and a half million listeners each week, has penned Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live by from the WTF Podcast (Flatiron, Oct.).
With this demographic, “it’s not about Mark Twain and reviewers,” says McDonald. “I’m more interested in this event as it’s moving the future of the industry and books,” he adds. “The reason BookCon needs to succeed is because it can help the entire industry by raising the profile of books.”
Content for Kids
Sometimes, though, what’s old is new again. This year BookCon is working with several branches of the New York Public Library to get the word out. BookCon is giving away 100 children’s tickets to the show, as well as promoting the event in the library’s branches and digitally through its channels. There will be plenty of author events and other programming at the show for the children’s audience, the other major piece of the BookCon demographic pie.
For Scholastic, BookCon provides an opportunity for families to meet favorite authors and partake in fun activities. Lizette Serrano, director of educational marketing and conventions for Scholastic’s trade division, believes that BookCon and similar shows “demonstrate the power and joy of reading beyond what children have to do in school.” For her, the takeaway from past shows is the large numbers of families who come to the booth. Echoing the sentiments of Lisa Lucas, the director of the National Book Foundation, Serrano would like to see families consider events like BookCon and other events centered around books just as they would an outing to a ballgame, or the movies, or the zoo.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first release of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, and the author, the books, and, yes, even the underpants will be celebrated at Scholastic’s booth (1638). Nothing says family fun like the opportunity to have your photo taken in front of a giant four-feet-wide-by-two-feet-tall pair of underpants. Or how about hugging a giant Captain Underpants inflatable? Pilkey will be at the booth, 10:30 a.m.–noon, on Saturday to sign copies of the first book in each of the Adventures of Captain Underpants and Dog Man series. Pilkey also takes the stage on Sunday, 3–4 p.m., in Room 1E14, where he will share some insights into the June premiere of the Dreamworks film Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. New this year at the Scholastic booth will be a focus on middle grade series, including an appearance by Lauren Tarshis, author of the I Survived series.
Facetime for Fans
As in the past, the show aims to “create impressive fan interaction and moments on site that are memorable,” says McDonald. The benefit for fans is obvious; they can take advantage of the rare opportunity to meet their favorite authors, which is why McDonald says that “for a booklover, BookCon is probably their favorite weekend of the year.” But it can also be a boon for publishers, he says, by giving them a platform to plant the seeds of growth for their brands and authors.
McDonald isn’t alone in seeing the potential. He notes that this year publishers have taken on more and more of the programming and event planning to enhance author-fan interaction. Many publishers are organizing small, intimate events that will bring in fans on a ticketed basis, not only to mingle with authors but also to meet publishing staffers. Describing the show as a spectacle of fun stuff that’s happening on the show floor, on the stages, in panel rooms, and at autographings, McDonald says that publishers are being very creative about “creating an intimate environment within this spectacle.”
A big part of the spectacle is a deep bench of talent from YouTube and its lesser-known subset, BookTube, a community of rabid booklovers who record themselves fervently effusing about books, that has soared in popularity over the past few years. Widely watched BookTube favorites such as Claudia Ramirez Lomeli, Emma Giordano, Natasha Polis, and Zoe Herdt will be spreading the gospel about books they’re mad about at various events. On Sunday, the members of the Booksplosion Team, Christine Riccio (PolandBananasBooks), Jesse George (JesseTheReader), and Kat O’Keeffe (Katytastic), who host a monthly online book club where they read along with their viewers, will lead an interactive panel.
Connor Franta, a top YouTube star and author of the bestseller A Work in Progress takes to the Main Stage to discuss his recently released memoir, Note to Self, from Atria’s Keywords Press.
Another representative of the digital superstar–cum–literary world is Ryan Higa, who will also hit the Main Stage on Sunday, at 2:30 p.m., to talk about his memoir, Ryan Higa’s How to Write Good (Little, Brown, May).
Much of what’s happening this year is an enhanced, fine-tuned version of previous BookCons: focusing on the core demographic but going beyond with authors like Dan Brown and Bill Nye, who, McDonald believes, will draw new and different audiences. But according to him, it is the logistics, the “boring but important part,” where he hopes attendees will see a marked contrast to BookCons of the past. In the morning, attendees can get the newest technology badges that will allow access to the Main Stage and other ticketed and limited audience events. The goal is “to get people where they want to be and to set clear expectations,” he says. Not everyone is going to get to do everything they want to do, but they won’t be faced with surprise disappointments throughout the day, McDonald notes. There are also a number of events that have online registration or ticketing before the show.
Past failures in communication haven’t all been BookCon’s. Perl points to what the S&S team has learned from earlier shows about the “value proposition.” Is the book signed or not? Is it part of an event package? What is the discount? “All this will be made very clear to the consumer,” Perl says.
New York’s Strand Bookstore will be the official bookseller for the show this year and will be set up in the Autographing Area. At the booths, some publishers will be handling their own sales. Others are partnering with independent booksellers, and some, like Scholastic, aren’t selling any books. “That’s not our goal,” says Serrano, who prefers to use BookCon to showcase the delight that books can bring.