A first-timer’s adventures at Book Expo America and BookCon

Will and I recently went to New York City to attend Book Expo America. Since we were already in New York, we decided to check out BookCon as well.

Here’s the scoop:

Book Expo America

Book Expo America is the largest publishing event in North America. Nearly every major publisher is there to showcase upcoming titles, sell current offerings, network with publishing colleagues, and do business. Thousands of authors, librarians, educators, book buyers, bloggers, and digital media professionals also attend the event each year.

This book fair has been around since 1947, is always held in late May or early June, and is always held in a major city. (It’s been in NYC since 2009, but will be in Chicago next year.)

This was my first year. I was prepared to be unprepared, and expected to be overwhelmed. Here’s what I learned in my maiden voyage:

There’s a huge variety on that (huge) show floor. You won’t be interested in half of it. That’s okay: it’s expected. If you don’t care about what they’re selling, keep moving.

Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking, walking, walking.

A first-timer's guide to Book Expo America and BookCon

Publishers really do give away boatloads of advance copies. The rumors are true: there are plenty of books to be had. To give you an idea, here’s a tiny sampling of the galleys available to anyone willing to stand in line: Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s We Never Asked for Wings (August 18), Brené Brown’s Rising Strong (August 25), Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun (July 18), Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (September 15).

Some attendees (like myself) were trying to travel light, but there were plenty of school librarians who came with the express goal of bagging 100 new titles for their collection.

Be careful what that line is for. The lines are plentiful and crazy long, and it’s not always clear which line is which when multiple signings and giveaways are going on simultaneously. When in doubt, ask.

And it doesn’t hurt to clarify what, exactly, you’re waiting for: I stood in a long line for Oliver Jeffers’ forthcoming book The Day the Crayons Came Home, and then minutes before go time the publisher’s rep came by and said, whoops, we don’t have the book, you’ll get a tote bag instead. (Silas didn’t think the tote bag was half as cool as the book would have been.)

A first-timer's guide to Book Expo America and BookCon

Be stingy about which events you’re willing to line up for. Or you will spend three solid days queued up.

The real business isn’t on the official schedule. Same as any conference.

You never know who you’ll rub shoulders with. A silver lining to all those lines: I had plenty of time to chat with school librarians, indie bookstore purchasers, experienced editors, publicity pros, and authors whose names you’d recognize. It was fascinating to hear all about their jobs, and their BEA agendas.

Celebrities are people, too. Okay, so maybe “celebrities” is overstating it, but I didn’t interact with any well-known industry professionals who weren’t friendly and approachable.

mindy kaling

But Mindy Kaling is in a league of her own. At least at BEA. She was so sweet when you got to meet her, but her security detail dwarfed that of every other celebrity-type at the event—and there were some pretty serious celebrity-types at the event.

Plan ahead. Lots of good events are free, but require tickets that must be reserved well in advance. (Although it’s not impossible to sweet talk your way in.) Tickets for the conference itself are way cheaper if you buy them at early bird prices.

Some of the sessions are pretty great. In stark contrast to most conferences I’ve attended, BEA is not about the panels. The sessions aren’t the point, and many attendees don’t go near them. But some of the content is terrific, so don’t skip out just because everybody else is. (Bonus: the sessions are small, friendly, and low-key.)

It’s interesting to see how professionals reinvent themselves. Case in point: Brian Vander Ark, who I only ever knew as the guy from the Verve Pipe, was singing tunes from his new children’s album at BEA.

Penguin bookmobile

Now about BookCon:

BookCon bills itself as the ultimate celebration of books, “where pop culture and storytelling collide.” (Am I the only one who’s not sure what to make of that tagline?) This was only the second year for this event, held the two days following BEA, in the same location. But the event felt completely different.

In short, BEA was a professional conference. BookCon was a fan event.

That’s not entirely a bad thing: BookCon’s attendees were noticeably young, nonprofessional, and extremely enthusiastic. The show’s organizers were noticeably green, and it showed in the awkwardly managed crowds and logistics. Because of its proximity to BEA, I was tempted to compare the two, but that’s not really fair: BEA is a trade show. BookCon (I now know) is explicitly modeled after ComicCon.

Will and I wavered about going to BookCon, but since we were going to be in New York City during the event, we decided to go check it out.

We didn’t last long.

I’ll spare you the angsty details, but in short: BookCon’s logistics were a nightmare. Special events ticketing was especially bad. (All events were free, but wristbands were required, and because the lines were so long it was only possible for each attendee to attend one of the headline sessions that had drawn them to the event in the first place.) Fans were pushy, literally.

BookCon in three words: crowds and lines. 

Some fans were happy to endure the lines so they could attend the events. (They were likely not introverts or HSPs.) But if we had had an inkling about what the experience would actually be like, we would have passed.

A few thoughts: 

My impression is that BookCon is a great event for the industry. Gathering all those fans together in one place makes a strong statement to brands that books and bookish events are worth investing in.

Gathering all those readers in one place is valuable to the industry, but I don’t know if it’s valuable for the readers (unless they are hard-core fans, see below). Reading has the power to bring people together, but I suspect that experience is more beneficial when done on a smaller scale. (Chicago Restaurant Week springs to mind as a promising model: the event is city-wide, but individual gatherings happen on a very local level.)

BookCon is for fans. Not readers, but fans. At BookCon, authors are the rockstars with screaming, squealing devotees. (We talked to a surprising number of people who camped out the night before, like you would for Prince tickets.)

If I had to do it again, I would skip the special events and hit the low-key panels. I would also consider buying a VIP ticket($115 vs. $35) that allows you to stand in a separate special events line, but BookCon was so poorly organized I can’t imagine the VIP process would be much better than the regular line.

In marked contrast to BEA, BookCon was all about the panels. The sessions were impressive, in quantity and quality.

I just discovered that some of the panels I was so disappointed to miss are available on YouTube. (Woohoo!) To see all the offerings, search the site for “BookCon 2015.”) I haven’t had a chance to watch any yet to evaluate quality, but these are the ones I’m eager to see:

Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak discuss Mindy’s book Why Not Me?  This is actually the one event Will and I attended. Recommended. (Not just because I loved the discussion of You’ve Got Mail.)

Sarah Dessen, Gayle Forman, and Jenny Han discuss female friendship, on and off the page.

• Tavi Gevinson, Sophia Rossi, Jamia Wilson, and Ruby Karp discuss girls online/girls IRL.

Leigh Bardugo interviews Rainbow Rowell about her forthcoming book Carry On.

Austin Kleon interviews Elle Luna and Jessica Hagy.

• Jodi Picoult, Samantha van Leer, David Levithan, E. Lockhart, Jennifer Niven, Nicola Yoon, and Meg Wolitzer discuss this summer’s kickass reads.

Judy Blume discusses her new novel In the Unlikely Event with Jennifer Weiner.

BEA and BookCon will be in Chicago next May. I’ll likely attend BEA, but probably not BookCon.

Did you attend, or have you attended any events like this? Would you like to attend in the future?

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Leave A Comment
    • Anne says:

      I got so excited about that I hit post, and I didn’t say thanks for the write up. This event sounds amazing. I hope BookCon takes all the feedback (you can’t be the only one who experienced the Con that way) into consideration for next year.

  1. Susan in TX says:

    Very insightful – thanks for the info. BTW, the Austin Kleon link goes to the Leigh Bardugo interview.

  2. Suzanne says:

    I’m seriously considering attending BEA next year (if life events work out). Also, I used to live in Chicago and would LOVE the chance to get back there, especially if books are involved. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, it’s all good stuff to know.

  3. Ciera S says:

    So glad it’s coming to Chicago next year. Thanks for the useful insights. Since BEA is more calm, I wonder if you’re required to be a professional to sign up–I have an interest in publishing, but have yet to get a solid footing in the field. I’d love to learn by attending!

    • Anne says:

      The event is “closed” to industry professionals but they’re pretty loose about how that’s defined. I would expect you’d be able to figure out a way to check the right box and attend. 🙂

  4. Carla says:

    That looks 1. Fantastic! 2. Totally exhausting.
    As an introvert and a highly sensitive person, how do you handle large crowds? At conferences, I usually wind up hiding in my room in the evening after the events are done for the day, and can’t function the next day if I don’t get at least a few hours of quiet time without a mess of humanity.

    • Anne says:

      I plan breaks or I fall apart. We did the show floor for two hours, then we went to get a quiet lunch. We had two hours of meetings, then we took a walk on the High Line.

  5. Debbie says:

    I’ve been to BEA in Washington, DC. Loved it. I could only attend one day. I spent most my time in the author lines. I met some wonderful authors and ran into some people I knew as well. I was prepared with a backpack and a folding rolling tote bag (not allowed). Little did I know just how many books you can get in one day. I came on the subway and planned to go home on the subway. I had my backpack, tote bag plus more large tote bags, I think 70 books, I couldn’t get out of the building! Had to call my husband to come get me. Anyway, I had a great time and if it come near me again, I will go,

  6. Dana says:

    Oh wow! BEA sounds so wonderful, a book reader’s and book lover’s dream! And next year in Chicago? That is our favorite city! I need to figure out now to get into that!

    Perhaps BookCon will improve with age and experience of its organizers.

  7. I’ve wanted to go to BEA since I first heard about it and I loved this writeup. I know you didn’t take home many books but what kind of bag did you carry? Any suggestions there?

    And add me to the list of people excited that it’s in Chicago next year. I never need an excuse to go to Chicago and it’s such an easy trip from Kansas City.

    • Anne says:

      Officially you need to be in the industry but the definitions of what counts are pretty loose. I’m pretty sure you could swing it if you wanted to go.

  8. Anung V says:

    Yes, I very excited that its going to be in Chicago. We visit friends around there every year. I would love to go to find more authors to blog about.

  9. Victoria says:

    I just listened to the Books On The Nightstand episode about this! 🙂 It sounds like it would be quite the experience, but I’m not sure I’m up for it. Time will tell!

  10. I wasn’t able to make it to BEA this time around, but I went last year and it sounds like you have some great advice! Last year was the first time they did BookCon and it seemed like a total disaster. I had hoped they would make some improvements (which I heard they did), but it looks like some of the logistics still aren’t ironed out. Glad you were able to make it and have a good time!

  11. LIKE YOU WOULD FOR PRINCE TICKETS. 🙂 I have been meaning to come read this post for days and I’m glad I did. So fun to read about your experience and perspective! But your comment about the lines and the fans and Prince tickets cracked me up. 🙂

  12. Bianca Punzal says:

    Thanks for the info!!>A< You help me a lot!! I was interested attending BEA since it will held in Chicago next year but unfortunately I'm just a reader so I settle for BookCon. I been attending Anime Convention for years so I have patience for lines and crowds but I'm used to anime fans since they are mostly respectable when it comes to lines and stuff so hopefully they are organized this year.
    Quick question:
    Does Bookcon give free books like BEA?

  13. Meredith says:

    I live in Chicago and I’m a first-time writer with an 80%-finished urban fantasy manuscript. What’s your take on BEA as a networking event for unpublished writers? I don’t want to pass up no-brainer opportunity to learn more about the industry or show my face at an event where publishers are interested in hearing from new authors … But I also don’t want to pay the steep ticket price and use three PTO days for something that’s not geared towards people in my position. I’d love to get your opinion, thanks!

    • Anne says:

      You would have to get lucky (like, stand in line next to exactly the right person by chance) for that to work out well for you. There ARE events geared towards unpublished writers, but I wouldn’t call BEA one of them.

  14. Ya'heia says:

    Even with the lines I would LOVE to attend BookCon. I am kind of worried because it’s going to be Chicago next year which would be a long drive. But I’ll just save up for plane tickets haha. ?

    As for BEA, I had asked someone who went (and I follow on social media and YouTube) if you had to have a strong following in order to go. I have a blog that I’ve been using, and I hope that qualifies me enough for a chance to go. ?

    Amazing post! ?

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