At a big fan convention, characters are everywhere. They’re the reason most of us are there, of course: to celebrate the characters we love and the worlds those characters inhabit. The easiest place to see this devotion—and the enduring public perception of what happens at a big fan convention—is the cosplay, people dressed up in everything from clever conceptual twist-type costumes (like Bob Ross and a “happy tree”) to pitch-perfect renditions of outfits from TV, film, comic books, video games, and more (like a mid-transformation Mystique).
At the 2016 New York Comic-Con, I spent four days wandering the floors of the Javits Center (well, less “wandering” and more “slowly shuffling”—with more than 170,000 people in attendance last year and with presumably similar numbers this year—it was crowded). I took stock of the cosplay. There were lots of superheroes, as always. Good rep for the Stars, Trek and Wars. A whole lot of Stranger Things references. But mostly, I was hunting for book characters.
Outside the publishers’ area and into the endless sea of superheroes and new sci-fi TV shows, though, it’s hard not to feel a little ignored when you’re a book fan at a con. Visual media is king. Books themselves, thankfully, are not scarce: publishers of all sizes travel the country every year to set up shop at various media-fan conventions. They’re usually clustered together and, like the rest of the con floor, they’re often swamped with potential customers. (As an aside, I don’t like drawing arbitrary literary distinctions between comic books and other types of books—many of these mainstream commercial publishers are hawking graphic novels, for example—but the comics scene, particularly on the convention circuit, is a whole other can of worms.)
I spotted a handful of Harry Potters and generic Hogwarts students, and a smattering of characters from the A Song of Ice and Fire series (though I’m pretty sure the extraordinary Khaleesi I saw with her toddlers dressed like dragons was referencing the TV show). As with most big media cons, out on the floor book characters were hard to find. But this year’s NYCC offered a potential antidote: they announced that one of the off-site events would be BookCon, a fan and reader-oriented event that first appeared alongside Book Expo America, the largest commercial publishing trade show in North American. Now in its third year, BookCon is a consumer-facing celebration of authors and readers, with panels on craft, author signings, and tons of books for sale. BookCon at BEA has been overwhelmingly populated by clusters of young women hauling around stacks of books, dressed in bookish T-shirts or cosplay, and basically vibrating with enthusiasm.
But a BookCon at the sprawling behemoth that is New York Comic-Con? Located at the Hudson Mercantile, it wasn’t the only off-site event at the convention. (Some of the biggest draws of the whole convention were at the Hammerstein Ballroom near Penn Station, with lineups from TV shows like Doctor Who, Elementary, Teen Wolf, and Westworld.) BookCon was only two dreary avenues away from the convention center, but the distance underscored the disconnect between books and the main action of the convention. The panels I saw were fantastic, including writers like Naomi Novik, Daniel José Older, Maggie Stiefvater, and (insert a thousand heart-eye emojis) Baby-Sitters Club creator Ann M. Martin. But the event lacked the unbridled enthusiasm that marked much of the con—or, for that matter, of the previous BookCons I’ve attended.
Is there a place for books at these massive media conventions—gatherings that are growing more and more popular by the year? Books often feel like the odd man out in geek spaces, save traditionally “nerdy” genres like science-fiction and fantasy, and even then, conversations in those communities sometimes operate on parallel tracks with the increasingly mainstream “geek media” landscape. But the publishers themselves report seeing a steady mix of dedicated and casual fans at their booths—if a single book fan can feel lost in the broader con, they gather en masse around the publishers.
“For the most part, the fans that we interact with at the cons seem to make visiting the publishers area a priority,” Kim Burns, senior marketing manager at Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, told me by email. “By the Sunday, we are almost sad that we won’t see each other on Monday, and I got more than a few hugs [that] afternoon as a result.”
Pamela Jaffe, Harper Voyager’s Director of Publicity and Branding, echoed this observation. “You have to be in the room where it happens,” she said. “There is such a charged level of excitement from the attendees of these cons. They could be there to get a picture with Carrie Fisher, or to wait on line to see an “Ash vs. Evil Dead” panel and screening—but there are thousands and thousands just walking the floor. And many beeline right for Publisher’s Alley.”
If BookCon is meant to give book fans access to the books and authors that they love, the open floor at big media cons give publishers a chance to try and create new book fans, or connect books with other parts of the fannish world. “Our comic-con mindset is not to compete with movies, TV, and video games,” Harper Voyager’s executive editor, David Pomerico, told me. “We want to capture (or engage) some of that audience. Our mindset is more along the lines of, ‘If you are a reader, we have a book for you.’ If someone likes a certain game, movie, or show, we can tell them about a book we have in the booth that will appeal to their interest or fandom. These casual fans are a bonus!”
Fans who aren’t regular readers, he said, might be brought in by things like tie-in novels—glancing at the publisher’s tables, you could see a real push to appeal to people who come to cons for big favorites like Star Wars or superheroes. But these publishers (a welcome contrast to the fandom-averse publishing industry professionals I’ve encountered over the years) also intrinsically understand the value of creating fictional worlds that fans want to dig into deeply. “One of the questions we ask ourselves as we brand an author is, how to create a groundswell for a character, series, world?” Pomerico said. “Do authors have characters and worlds that could build a sustained level of excitement? How do we as publishers and marketers create that passion for a new author, a new series?”
At these cons, it often feels like media creators mistake fandom for something driven by subject matter. (The big networks and film studios are particularly guilty here: I’ve written before that both NYCC and San Diego Comic-Con have felt to me like spaces to debut things they want people to like, rather than celebrate things they already like.) In reality, much of what being a fan is about is behavior, and much of fandom is about collective passion. Book fandom is an interesting space: people are fans of books broadly, specific genres or subgenres, or a specific series or author. (I spend my time in the first and third options.)
ReedPOP has confirmed that BookCon will return to New York next spring, when Book Expo America returns to the Javits Center after a year in Chicago. But as the consumer-facing convention scene—from megacons on down to smaller shows—continues to draw in new fans and increasingly bigger crowds, the position of books within this sphere will hopefully grow in turn, with more devoted readers welcomed into these big fan spaces, and more fans from the convention scene welcomed into the book world.