Every year more traditional book publishers make the pilgrimage to the San Diego Comic-Con International, and 2008 was no exception. Harry N. Abrams used the 2008 Comic-Con to launch Abrams ComicArts, a new imprint for comics and comics-related books; Del Rey has come to Comic-Con for years to promote fantasy and sci-fi titles and, more recently, a burgeoning manga program; and DK Publishing stoked interest in its forthcoming Vertigo Encyclopedia, a new reference work about the history of the DC Comics’ imprint, with a panel at the San Diego event.

Over the course of four days (July 23—27) more than 125,000 fans attended an endless succession of panels, events and celebrity appearances. Comic-Con has always attracted a diverse group of fans, but in recent years its ability to serve as a platform to launch major film and TV projects—this year it’s the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s acclaimed superhero graphic novel Watchmen—as well as videogames, toys, prose works and book-format comics, has made it a giant index to the Next Big Thing in popular culture, receiving media coverage around the world.

“It’s been really important to us, and our presence there gets bigger every year,” said Del Rey deputy publisher Scott Shannon. “For manga, we need to be there for outreach and feedback from the fans.” This year Del Rey brought superstar manga-ka Hiro Mashima, the creator of the popular Fairy Tail manga series, from Japan. Although this was Mashima’s first visit to Comic-Con, his events were well-attended, with lots of fans dressed as Fairy Tail characters. “There’s nowhere else that a publisher can go and reach so many fans,” Shannon said. In fact, the Del Rey booth has become “Random House Row,” he said, showcasing works from RH Audiobooks, Prima, Pantheon graphic novels and more.

This year about 20 book publishers were on hand. Abrams publisher Steve Tager and Charles Kochman, executive editor of the ComicArts imprint, agreed on the benefits of Comic-Con: “firsthand consumer reaction and the reaction from your peers, creators and agents,” said Kochman. DK was also presenting Marvel Chronicle, a history of the comics publisher, as well as Star Wars Blueprints. “DK started exhibiting at Comic-Con seven years ago—right before it became the 'it’ show to attend,” said Therese Burke, v-p of sales and marketing at DK. “It was a smart way to reach out to fans who read our comic and film-related guides. Now Comic-Con is a major part of our marketing effort for those titles.” DK associate publicist Rachel Kempster cautioned publishers to have something to offer fans. “We gave away 1,000 jacket posters. It would have been hard to generate that much buzz without Comic-Con.”

“Fans get frustrated if they can’t buy stuff,” said Shannon. “But we don’t want to go down that road,” so Del Rey uses booksellers to sell its titles.

DC Comics’ president Paul Levitz, who has attended the show for decades observed, “If you’re a publisher looking to attract this audience, then you belong at Comic-Con. You can see where the culture is going by just standing on the floor.”