As the Comic-Con International: San Diego (better known simply as Comic-Con) has grown in importance and size, each year observers wonder if this is the year things get too big to handle. While the 2011 edition—to be held July 20–24 at the San Diego Convention Center—has scaled back the major media presentations for studio films a bit, it still has no rival as the biggest pop culture event of the year. And publishers—both of graphic novels and traditional books—still find it a key venue to promote authors and talk to fans.

Demand for tickets to attend nerd prom, as some call it, has soared. All the passes for the show sold out in a day this year—but only after traffic had already melted down servers three times. While comics publishers are still the main attraction for the comics reading crowd, publishers like Del Rey, Abrams, Hachette, Chronicle, and Scholastic have all exhibited in recent years, and the raucous, costume-filled halls are a huge—but sometimes welcome—contrast to the more sedate BEA.

The comics-related content at this year's show is strong, as usual. Special focuses include a look at early fandom and spotlights on British and Filipino comics traditions. Guests include Dave Gibbons, Grant Morrison, and Jim Lee on the comics side, and authors Rebecca Moesta, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Charlie Huston.

But this lineup must compete for attention with movie studios that use the four-day fan fest as a marketing platform for their summer films, trotting out movie stars from Harrison Ford to Robert Downey Jr. in an almost numbing display of celebrity wattage. And while some feel the movie and TV news has drowned out the comics at their own show, it's still easy to find books and authors around the floor, and publishers say it remains an unparalleled place for promotion—provided it's done properly.

A 10-year veteran of Comic-Con who was one of the first mainstream publishers to attend, Del Rey editor-in-chief Betsy Mitchell still finds Comic-Con a great place to promote the line, but the press's methods are evolving. Whereas in the past the publisher gave out samplers and free books, this year an e-book sampler has been created—attendees will scan their badge and have it e-mailed to them.

Mitchell says Comic-Con still provides a great place to meet people face to face. "We do have a strong [social media] presence," she told PW, "but there's nothing that compares with that face to face. You get the unvarnished truth from people who are waiting for someone's next novel to come out or angry at what happened in a Star Wars book. And it's good for them to be able to put faces to the Del Rey name—it's a real relationship rather than just a logo."

It's also a great time for authors. "Our authors love Comic-Con," she continued, citing the parade of costumes and other spectacles. She recalls Dean Koontz, an author known for valuing his privacy, making an appearance at Hall H, the 6,000-seat main theater of the show. "When we took him through the door and he saw all those people, his eyes bugged out. But it was a great experience for him."

For Del Rey, one of the hottest names at this year's Comic-Con is George R.R. Martin, who is riding high from the success of the Game of Thrones TV show, and also the release of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in his A Song of Fire and Ice series. Martin is expected to participate in the Game of Thrones panel with cast members, and otherwise lead the author parade.

Comic-Con is still a great way to promote authors, says Mitchell, who recalls putting copies of Naomi Novik's debut in the bags given to attendees in 2006. "It was 125,000 previews, but all of us are convinced that was a huge part in breaking her as an author."

Comics publishers are also confident of reaching their market. Although 2010 was a huge year for Portland's Oni Press, with a movie based on its Scott Pilgrim books practically taking over the show, this year will be business as usual, says marketing director Cory Casoni. "Our mission hasn't changed at all—it's still about promoting our authors and books." He doesn't see the big crowds who come for movie news as a bad thing—it's a chance to promote to new people.

Oni's big premieres this year include One Soul by Ray Fawkes, an unusual book tracing the lives of nine people one panel at a time; Petrograd, a drama about
Rasputin; and Spontaneous, a thriller based on spontaneous human combustion.

As Comic-Con's focus has evolved, so has that of some publishers. Marvel has been an exhibitor for years, but once it launched its own movie studio, the booth had to reflect all of the divisions, says its senior v-p of brand planning and communications, Mike Pasciullo. "The booth represents the evolution of our company," he says, including its 2009 acquisition by Disney. "With our publishing, movies, video games, and consumer products, Comic-Con is a perfect storm for us. I want people to walk out of the booth and feel good about what they experienced, whether it was a signing, a free comic, the costume contest, or something else."

Given the crush of entertainment news, Marvel has also become more selective about the news it releases at Comic-Con. "We have changed our strategy a little, because it's easy for any kind of announcement to get clobbered by all the news. However, it's still a great place for the right kind of announcement."

Although the Captain America film is opening nationwide the Friday of Comic-Con, the big focus at the booth will be next year's Avengers film, says Pasciullo.

Given all the attendee interest—some might say obsession—it should come as no surprise that the city itself is taken over by Comic-Con. After last year's drama over whether the show would even stay in San Diego—L.A. and Anaheim aggressively wooed the con and its millions in local spending—city officials are making it feel more welcome than ever, and events are spreading all over town, with a giant premiere for Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens, based on the graphic novel, and parties throughout the Gaslamp district.

The most buzzed about off-site event this year is Tr!ckster, a pop-up store/gallery/party running concurrently with the con focusing on creator-owned comics. The idea was hatched by cartoonists and Pixar animators Scott Morse and Ted Mathot as a way to promote their work and offer a cool place for cartoonists to congregate. The announced lineup includes such top creators as Mike Mignola (Hellboy), Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother) and Steve Niles (30 Days of Night).

Held at a wine bar/exhibit space directly across the street from the San Diego Convention Center, Tr!ckster is free except for the Symposia, where writers, artists, and animators will discuss their craft in a series of intimate discussion groups. "We want Tr!ckster to be a way for people to get a crash course in how other people do their jobs," says Morse. "It's a place to loosen up and have fun." A limited edition Tr!ckster anthology will be published in conjunction with the show.

Tr!ckster is part of a growing movement among creators to promote their own comics without publisher input; response has been overwhelming, says Morse. Although it started as a part-time labor of love, he's already in discussion with cities around the world for Tr!ckster-like events, which wouldn't necessarily be tied to a larger comic-con. "We do want it to stand on its own," says Morse. "We're not trying to compete, we're trying to be ourselves."

While off-site events have always been part of Comic-Con, Morse sees them growing. "It's turning into more of a festival throughout the city. Whether we do it or someone else does it, it's going to grow."