The comics industry, the publishing industry, and the convention industry are all on the cusp of a great change due to shifting priorities, new formats, and new audiences. Can the three use work together to confront these challenges? Based on my attendance at Book Expo America, the country’s leading publishing exhibition, I would say that the answer is “no.”

At the June 6 convention, organizers seemed more concerned with extracting as much money from vendors as possible via exorbitant exhibition fees than in providing a sensible layout. Comic companies, though smartly grouped together for the most part, were located nowhere near the Children’s Pavilion. And yet, the majority of the librarians I’ve encountered outside of larger cities still continue to view graphic novels as a format for children and reserve them for children’s libraries. In bookstores, graphic novels often provide a buffer between the rapidly growing Young Adult section and Science Fiction. Though some comics creators may bristle at the suggestion, wouldn’t it have been best to place comic companies near the Children’s Pavilion—the very place librarians and book buyers would expect them to be? Placing them against the back wall and far from high traffic areas gave the signal that comic companies are not a priority. Why should those comic companies want to spend large sums of money to return? Poor service combined with high fees may hurt BEA in the long run as vendors begin to reconsider the necessity of the event.

Comic companies on the whole—perhaps too familiar with comic conventions–did not seem to fully recognize their status as miniscule fish in a massive pond. Displays were mostly limited to a selection of wares. The lack of a “hard sell” was completely evident. In every instance, I had to approach representatives and speak to them first about products—or even say “Hello.” While this is not an issue in a comic convention full of rabid fans, it very much is one in a convention full of disinterested buyers. One cannot afford to be aloof. However, once approached, many reps were friendly and knowledgeable.

Here’s a brief assessment of the comics booths I visited.

Fantagraphics: This company possessed the best location (strangely nestled in a section full of academic publishers) and the most stylish booth—complete with seating! It also had an extensive set of galleys to peruse and provided free sample books to those who had questions. Eric Reynolds even took the time to help a lapsed reader like me sort through the intricate history of Love and Rockets, which was greatly appreciated! I was highly impressed.

Image: I was also pleased with Image. The booth, though in a lackluster location, was well stocked with a wide array of free comics and had friendly creators behind the booth signing wares. Jennifer De Guzman even took the time with me to help pick out a selection of comics for a coworker’s young son.

BOOM!: Free wares were not available, which I feel was a tremendous mistake. Instead, I was offered a checklist of recent and upcoming graphic novels. While this is very useful to a fan, what would a buyer want with a list of books he is not familiar with? What librarian would take the time to stand and read several comics at a booth?

Marvel: Marvel did not have a separate booth and was inadequately represented by Disney. I was shocked by how poorly staffed and stocked the booth was given the wealth of the company, the bulk of content available, and the amount of exhibition space purchased. I picked up a pamphlet advertising a “Marvel book, magazine, and app program for young readers”—no backlist, no Masterworks, and no material geared toward adults or teens available. The impression was given that Marvel merely produced products for young children featuring traditional icons. The lack of a diversity of titles was disappointing.

DC: DC had no booth available on the exhibition floor; instead it made due with two autograph sessions—one by Scott Snyder, author of Batman Vol. 1: The Court of Owls and another by Peter Tomasi, author of Batman & Robin Vol. 1: Born to Kill. While pushing well-known creators is a wise move at an event now dominated by celebrities, the lack of a booth was a huge misstep. And given that both authors signed books featuring Batman, there was a drastic lack of diversity.

However, comics and graphic novels were not limited to the exhibition floor. I attended Heidi MacDonald’s fabulous panel showcasing monumental works of 2012. Prior to the panel, a small survey sheet was provided to members of the audience, presumably to obtain basic information regarding audience demographics. I am very curious to know who attended the fairly populated event and hope that MacDonald releases that information at a later date. Though light on mass market, heroic fare, MacDonald and her peers seemed to know their audience and cater to it, providing a list   featuring critical darlings and charming children’s books for an educated urban audience. Two popular examples include Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama and A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse by Frank Viva. (The list was about quality, not commerce. Still, had I been a book buyer I might have preferred a collection of mainstream books that would sell extremely well to a suburban audience. There is no point in stocking one’s shelves with only Nabokov when customers want Fifty Shades of Gray. Give ‘em the thwip! There’s no shame in a little bit of spandex.

Perhaps even more interesting than the books on display were the rumors swirling about the show floor. Will next year’s exhibition be open to the general public? Will smaller vendors displeased with poor foot traffic avoid next year’s show? I could easily see BEA falling prey to the crass commercialism that consumed SDCC and E3. Though it would mean more money for Reed Exhibitions, it would not necessarily make for a more enjoyable show. Still, a four-day show featuring a renovated floor plan, with Thursday and Friday reserved for those in the industry and the weekend open to the general public, would serve the needs of all via a sizable audience and a variety of exhibitors.

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