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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Book Expo America Needs to be Like Nerd Prom

Lance Fensterman, Vice President of Reed Exhibitions and the guy responsible for running BookExpo America, New York Comic Con, C2E2, and New York Anime Fest, posted a refreshing article on Publishing Perspectives about how cons challenge the status of industry insiders (via @R_Nash).

Fensterman compares these cons to the wildly popular and impressive San Diego Comic Con (aptly nicknamed “Nerd Prom"). Everyone has probably heard of San Diego Comic Con, even if they haven’t got the slightest interest in comics themselves. Comic Con has become a generative event. It moves individual interest and events far beyond the scope of the event and its insider attendees.

I think the article made its point, even though the first commenter does not. Maybe I understand this article because I fit the categories of someone who would attend BookExpo America (BEA), but also someone who would go to Fensterman’s other cons, as well as SDCC (ComicCon), as either a fan or an insider.

I can consider myself invited to attend ComicCon as nothing more than a fan of a tv show, book, movie, or comic. Panels often involve creators discussing production, or reveal a sneak peek of things to come. Industry professionals interact with each other while basking in feedback and interest from their audience. This seems to be very good for everyone both inside and outside.

But if I were merely a big fan of an author, or someone who just really liked reading, I wouldn’t feel invited to BEA, nor would I expect I’d be able to go find an author, interact with him or her, or have my photo taken, etc. I couldn’t expect there would be “stuff” at BEA “for me.”

The panels at BEA wouldn’t be “for me” unless I was, at the very least, a wanna-be writer. BEA tends to feel very much funded and fueled (on the floor) by wanna-be writers who are still held at arm’s length by an alternately smug and insecure in-crowd of publishers and the published. That’s not the part of high school an organizer should be echoing with these “proms.” I’m sure at both BEA and SDCC there are annoying fans who are tolerated until they’re intolerable, but still, that’s what customer service is about. 

BEA currently reflects an industry really, really interested in maintaining its control on the input and output, and is not conducive to the gush of consumer interest and response (especially online) that benefits and informs the industries represented at SDCC. At BEA all the panels are about what publishers want: How to pitch a story. What agents are looking for. But what about what the actual reading public wants? The industry needs to stop complaining about how few people read, stop milking a model that seems to rely on Oprah’s book club, and those who buy whatever book is on sale at Sam’s Club (the Dave Matthews of literature—do people who like Dave Matthews really even like music? Debatable.) and think about people devoted to reading, to books, and to all things even slightly related.

At future BEAs, what about answering questions the reading public is interested in: Where can I meet other people who share my interests? When will my favorite titles fiiiinally become available on an eReader, and why is it taking so long to have a good selection? What is an eReader anyway? Is my favorite publishing imprint in trouble? How long is that line to get my picture taken with Nora Roberts, and where did those people in the Harry Potter costumes find such fabulous robes? Let’s also be sure to attend a presentation honoring the life of Frank McCourt.

The experience should share the proximity and wonderment enjoyed at SDCC. Except instead of Stan Lee and Dave Gibbons, it would be, “Holy cow I just walked past Salman Rushdie, and there’s Maya Angelou!” BEA should include everyone from the masters of literature to the kindergarten reader, the librarian, poets of every kind, and the memoir writer who lived to tell the tale.

Two seconds ago, mdash tweeted, “The trailer for adaptation of The Lovely Bones is up" and I will click that link. Why is this not an event at BEA? The big thrills of any SDCC are the movie previews of comic book adaptations and new seasons of television shows. The book industry has been helping the movie industry long enough, why not take credit? The fans are here. I fear the publishing industry might not recognize them until the fans show up at the BEA “con.” And then, would they be made to feel welcome?

BEA could be so much more, and I think that’s Fensterman’s whole point: the biggest challenge is in the publishing industry’s willingness to open up and listen to its audience.

One last anecdote: The book I am currently reading was obtained by a book designer who was at SDCC last year (they were on a panel) who happened to be in a booth next to Knopf, who gave him an “early reader edition” of Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World (which I’ve already championed on twitter more than once). I can’t stress enough that this happened at Comic Con. Comic Con! When I tweeted my love for the book, guess who replied — the author himself. Wow! See!

Do you see? I’m having the Comic Con experience, not the BEA experience.

I hope they see. 

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