Will Readers Attend a Book Convention? Would You?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

The problem of connecting readers with books continues to nag at publishing, but two book trade shows are trying to aid making “matches.” Organizers for the general market’s national convention for industry professionals (BEA) have tried for a couple of years to find a way to invite readers literally onto the exhibit floor of the gigantic show that’s all about books. They’ve wooed a couple thousand “power readers” to special events the last day of the show for two years in a row. Those results were “meh”–good but not great.

But this year’s show (which took place in May in New York) cracked the nut, with 10,000 visitors thronging into the special section of the Javits Center designated for the newly-titled event, BookCon. Those visitors were mostly tweens and teens, eager to see screenings of upcoming films, get autographed books, and to squeal (they were mostly girls) when author John Green discussed the The Fault in Our Stars. Onlookers likened the fans’ response to a Beatles’ event. The place was rockin’ with enthusiasm.

In one week, the Christian Booksellers Association will preside over the Christian version of BEA, Atlanta photothe International Christian Retailers Show. Christian publishing, like general market publishing, has found its annual book convention diminished from the glory days, what with so many chains and independent bookstores closing. Several years ago, a special convention, just for Christian readers, was attempted, giving readers an opportunity to connect directly with authors. That idea failed abysmally, despite publishers investing heavily in it. So abysmally everyone in the industry proclaimed, “Never again.” There were lots of reasons it failed that are too complicated to go into in this blog. As a matter of fact, the way it was structured pretty much assured it couldn’t succeed.

This year, I’m sure CBA is hoping its plans to invite the public to an event can be as successful as BEA’s–on a CBA scale, since the Christian industry is miniscule compared to the general market. A “public festival” is being planned for Sunday, June 22, at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. The cost of admission is a donation of nonperishable food to benefit an Atlanta-based ministry. Here are the headliners for the festival:

  • Duck Dynasty’s Phil and Alan Robertson
  • the Peter Furler Band
  • comedians Anita Renfroe and Torry Martin
  • Abigail Duhom from the movie God’s Not Dead
  • Ken Idelman, speaking at the worship portion of the event
  • and kids’ events with Christian authors.

Curtis Riskey, president of CBA, told Christian Retailing, “We’ve invited the community to a memorable experience with Christian content creators and local stores while helping neighbors.” (The food donations will be given to a ministry of 28 churches that serves people in Atlanta who are facing life transitions such as joblessness.)

Remember the old Wendy’s commercial in which customers go to other fast-food places (such as McDonald’s), and on being served their burgers ask, “Where’s the beef?” Well, I gotta ask, “Where are the books?”

While it’s great for the folks in Atlanta to see the Duck Dynasty guys, I doubt books will be front and center at the Change A Life Festival. The clearest connection between the festival and books that I can figure is that those attending are to drop off their donations at bookstores.

Okay, I get that ICRS organizers are trying to energize their event yet I can’t help but think that they are communicating that books are boring. The Christian BOOKsellers Association has put together a fabulous roster of entertainers, but the event is not a celebration of books. Does that strike you as odd?

I would say that BEA has found a way to make books exciting to young readers, and that’s a huge accomplishment. They have, in essence, cracked the nut of bringing a significant number of readers together with authors. The publishers haven’t figured out how to translate that in a direct way to book sales, but everyone recognizes that BookCon is an ongoing experiment.

I would hope that CBA would take up the challenge of figuring out how not just to get folks to a fun event but how to connect readers with writers.

What would draw you, as a reader, to a book convention event? Specific authors you’d like to hear? Book signings? Film screenings? Music groups?

All of the above? None of the above?

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35 Comments

  • There’s one huge difference between the way BEA and CBA products are perceived by young people, and that’s ‘agenda’.

    General market books are often seen as empowering young people (look at the Twilight series, and the Hunger Games – characters with whom kids could identify). Those series created a wave that finally ‘broke’, allowing the publishers to have a good surfing day at BookCon.

    In CBA, the agenda’s a different sort of empowerment- a greater one, to be sure, but societal pressures and the pundits to which kids are exposed tend to turn down the enthusiasm. Freedom through Jesus is associated with church which is associated with parents…and here comes the lecture.

    It isn’t fair, but it’s there. Because of that, the entertainers and the film screenings are an essential draw for the younger audience. It’s a more visceral appeal, and it’s more easily ‘theirs’.

    These are really two different paradigms; if CBA tries to institute what worked for BEA, they’re going to fail.

    For myself, I’d go to a convention to hear authors I like, and to see film screenings, sure. But mainly I’d go for the atmosphere.

    It’s fun to be among people who are having fun.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, I don’t think CBA worked very hard to appeal to teens. I think they were going more for young marrieds. Which is a good thing. I agree with you that CBA isn’t very effective at reaching teens through any media.

  • With our society being such a visual one, one that makes “stars” more accessible via social media, it’s not surprising that CBA is using star power to draw people in to the event. It would be interesting to know if they plan to highlight books and their authors in any way. I can just see tables of books being ignored in order to see the stars, so to speak. The idea of publishers trying to draw people into an event like Book Con makes sense. That connectivity and all.

    For me, I think it would be fun to attend something like that. I’d love to hear my favorite authors speak about those things that matter to them, to share a little of themselves with those who come to listen. Having an affordable entry fee that helps those in need? Even better.

    Seeing film screenings of movies adapted from books would be pretty interesting too.

    It would be fun to be among readers—lots of people—excited to be there. To experience the energy generated by a group like that would be fascinating to be a part of.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jeanne, I have no idea what actual books will play in the event. I only know several of the entertainers don’t have new books (or any books), and there won’t be any book autographing or opportunity for authors to connect with readers.

  • Elissa says:

    Well, if organizers are targeting “young people”, I’m no longer the target market. I’m guessing they’re not much interested in what would draw me to a book convention. But if they were, I’d say, “Books and authors, please. Lots of ‘em.” Also, cover artists and their work.

    I very much like that the cost of admission to the show in Atlanta is a donation for charity. That alone might bring me in–if I lived in the area.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    Janet, I know a group of young readers who attended the BEA on Saturday and loved it!

    The only down side was that with the tickets they purchased they had limited access. It would have been wonderful for them to have experienced everything.

    The good news is they were only there for the books.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jim, apparently the organizers were concerned about giving 10,000 teens access to the entire exhibit floor. Even with limited access, lots of books that were out for display only were taken–enough to be worth a mention in the Publishers Weekly. BookCon is a work in progress. What the organizers going into next year is what DOES work. Now they can refine.

  • Janet, I followed on Twitter a couple of editors as they attended BookCon. I ached to be there! Lots of authors, signings, free books, a crowd of people who loved books and could probably talk intelligently them. It was a thrill to see so many people so fevered…over books.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Meghan I so agree. That’s one of the elements of the event that especially interested me; how avidly those who came loved books. I don’t think CBA’s event with have that kind of book-loving enthusiasm because the organizers haven’t keyed in on readers to create a crowd. The thought seems to be that not enough avid CBA readers reside in Atlanta. And maybe the organizers are right.

  • Angela Mills says:

    Well the Duck Dynasty group have quite a few books out, maybe they’ll be featuring those. But it does seem very media-oriented. I think Beverly Lewis, Tricia Goyer, Jerry Jenkins, and other writers whose books have been made into movies would also be big draws if they’re trying to reach those large audiences. But what do I know?

    I would totally go to a BookCon if it was in CA. Authors I love to read and books, books, books would be enough to draw me, and I would like to be part of something celebrating reading. The exhibit hall is always packed at Homeschool Conventions and it is mainly for the curriculum. I would probably go to BookCon even without the big author signings, because I just love to read that much!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Angela, I suspect the Duck Dynasty guys will be mentioning their books, but what I don’t know is if there is an opportunity for a signing. I don’t see any mention of one. And, yes, having authors whose books have been made into movies is a great way to bring a crowd, especially if the film is just releasing, and there can be a screening. Films are regularly screened at ICRS; so why not tie the book and the author to the film?

  • An opportunity for me, as the reader, to speak out and meet other readers who enjoy the genres I read. Also, meeting authors and listening to them speak about the things that inspired their stories would be a draw.

    As an author, I would love to hear from readers of the genre I write. What do they want more of? How they would like to contribute to future stories? Not only would this help expand my reach, but I would learn how to better minister to them through story.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jenni, I’ve been thinking that one of the reasons BookCon was successful was because it targeted a specific audience. An audience thrilled to connect with the authors of the books the teens read. That’s harder to duplicate in CBA because, right now, there is no one genre that’s a wild success. During the Amish fiction fad, that idea might have worked. I get CBA’s challenge: Christian readers make up a tiny portion of any city’s population. If you further divide that population by trying to attract a specific genre or category reader, you’ll have even fewer people to draw from. I think connecting the ICRS event to a large local ministry is a smart idea. If only books had more of a place at the event…

  • I was honored to participate in the 2013 Fiction Author’s Event at ICRS and wonder if this isn’t the way to reach readers. Publishers provided plentiful books (say that three times quickly, lol) and there was a nice grouping of authors representing all types of Christian fiction, including indies who had print copies of their books. This event was geared to booksellers. Why not do the same thing for readers?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Kathleen, I so agree with you. For readers, they’d need to buy books since publishers wouldn’t want to give away hundreds if not thousands of copies, but a fiction event would seem like one that could have a decent draw. Nonfiction is much more challenging since most people don’t think of themselves as Christian Living readers or Theology readers; categorizing types of nonfiction readers is tougher.

  • I live in Louisiana. The RT Convention this year was in New Orleans. I’m a Psy-Changeling fan, and Nalini Singh was one of the featured authors on FAN-tastic Day. She lives in New Zealand and it was my once in a lifetime chance to get her autograph.

    I shelled out $55 and went, and I had so much fun! Met up with some Internet friends, met Nalini, got books signed.

    FAN-tastic Day, and Teen Day the same day, sold out a week after I bought my ticket. It was a massive booksigning from 11-2, then various chats and social things where the fans could ask questions of the featured authors The place was PACKED! Thousands of romance readers were there, and it was awesome.

    I would go again, preferably for more days so I could do workshops too.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Rachel, now that’s the kind of event I’m talking about! Did you also have to pay for any books you bought there? Were you able to bring books from home to be signed?

      • I was able to bring books from home. They had to be checked in and stamped with invisible ink, which was no big deal. Since it’s invisible I don’t care.

        There were also books available to purchase, at each author’s table. I decided at the last minute to buy one for two friends and have them autographed.

        I saw readers carting around boxes and suitcases of books from home. One lady had what looked to be at least 50 books in a rolling carton type thing. When I left the hotel at 6:45, which had a FedEx shipping center in the lobby, they were drowning in boxes of books attendees were shipping home. There was an Australian reviewer there who was taking donations for libraries from anyone and when I overheard her conversation about it she had close to 1,000 books to ship home.

        My one complaint is they didn’t have enough cash registers to check people out. I waited in line for an hour to pay for my two books.

        There were a couple hundred romance authors participating in the signing.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Rachel, thanks for sharing these details. Every book convention leads to people carting home–well, actually shipping home–tons of books. But BookCon would have added to people’s “loot.” I suspect the people who hosted BookCon realized they didn’t have enough cash registers–who wants to miss out on sales?–and they’ll correct that next year. Everyone who will attend hopes anyway.

  • Diane Stortz says:

    At the children’s area of the festival, there will be books, activities, and meeting authors. But we’re clearly NOT the draw, and I’m curious to see how it all turns out.

    Cincinnati has a well-attended and free “Books by the Banks” festival featuring local and national books and authors. They seem careful not to have too many “religious” authors though.

  • Janet, the Christian Booksellers Expo was held in my hometown of Dallas in 2009, and I attended, so I can agree from personal experience that it was a massive flop. The area where it was held in downtown Dallas had virtually no parking, and wasn’t in a very good area. As I recall, there was a fee involved, for which attendees could see some of their favorite authors “up close and personal.” On the day I attended (and signed a few autographs), the authors outnumbered paying attendees.
    I don’t know what the right answer is, but I think focusing on the authors rather than their books is the wrong one.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Richard, the location in Dallas for the Expo was one of its problems. The other is that the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, which put on the event, counted on the churches to do a lot of promoting yet, for a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. So very few readers even knew about the event. And readers needed to pay a fee to get in, plus a parking fee, plus buy books at the Expo. It was a pretty pricey venture for the attendees. Plus it wasn’t attached to another book event, like ICRS, and had to draw publishers, authors and readers together just for the Expo. We know what NOT to do because of the Expo.

    • Location is really vital to get people to want to come – also, access has to be easy, from arrival to entry into the conference center.

      There’s another issue at play, and that’s the target audience. As Christians, we’re supposed to be reaching out, but even more we’re supposed to show, by example, that our faith makes for a better life.

      We – the publishing ‘we’. – have to be welcoming to anyone who’s drawn in to check us out. We can’t hit them over the head with the “I’m saved – you’re not” mindset that is unfortunately prevalent at many Christian events, and we can’t be looking to count on-site salvations.

      There is a huge desire for books (and movies) that address the transcendent in life. People want to have something in which to believe, and we have something good to offer. But we’ve got to let them come in and explore, without giving the, the feeling that they’re outsiders.

      We even do that to other Christian denominations.

      Cross that hurdle, give people the feeling that when they walk through the doors, they can find Hope, and not judgement…and they’ll come in droves.

  • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

    For better or worse, today BEA announced it’s shortening the professional days and adding a day to BookCon in 2015. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bea/article/62889-bea-2015-compact-show-bookcon.html

  • I have tried to think of the Christian events I have been to in the past and why I went. I work in Christian radio and I go to a lot of concerts. One of the things that is incredible about Christian concerts is that most artists are incredibly accessible. They sign CDs, take pictures, do meet & greets and are very kind and want to hear their fan’s stories. I love that accessibility. To go to a Christian book event, I would like to see the same kind of combination. Authors I admire who can take the time to share with their fans (maybe some mini readings), lots of books, and if there are going to be musicians or actors, I’d like to see them with a connection to books. Mark Hall of Casting Crowns, Jeremy Camp and Matthew West all have books. For me, that would be a great start. The line up you shared doesn’t sound bad, but it barely sounds like it would have much to do with books. I adore books. Just seeing massive amounts of new releases and their authors would make me giddy.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Kelly, those are good thoughts, especially the importance of authors/entertainers being accessible and willing to mingle. I love the idea of being giddy about books.

  • Cost and location have always been an obstacle for me to attend any type of major book event. I doubt I’m in the minority. Meeting authors and signing events would be a huge draw for me. I would love to meet Kathi Macias and Jerry Jenkins. What if Roma Downey and Mark Burnett attended to discuss their past and current projects?

  • Barb says:

    I’ve attended both BEA and ICRS over the past several years and a few things hit me. First, BEA is a MUCH more book-centric show, period. You don’t find music, gifts (unless they are specifically tied into books–and even then, there are only a handful of vendors in this category there), or DVD/video vendors at this show–all of which are at ICRS. BEA is all about books and it’s almost exclusively located in the book-publishing capital of our country. ICRS is neither of those things. Not saying it’s good or bad, it just is. So having anything even remotely like a “BookCon” at ICRS is going to be difficult. But books should definitely be part of the equation of anything consumer-driven at ICRS, that’s for sure.

    Second, while BookCon may have been targeting young adults (and definitely pulled in the squealing teens), I sat in on two FULL sessions that were geared to neither and were attended by folks like me. One was a panel of current bestselling female authors (two of whom I have read) talking about their craft and taking questions from the audience, and the other session had two bright cover designers at big New York houses showing how cover designs came to be. I was honestly surprised at the crowd that drew. People who love books are truly interested in how they get made. All that to say, it would appear BookCon tried to serve a variety of readers with what they offered, all the while knowing, however, who/what would draw in the big numbers.

    Lastly, BEA got smart this year and handed off BookCon to a company that knows how to run consumer-driven events. BEA (finally) realized if you want to have a great party, have professional event planners take it on. I don’t know how ICRS is handling it, but the Dallas Debacle that ECPA did a few years ago should have been their cautionary tale: Just because you want a good thing to happen doesn’t mean you’re equipped to make it happen. There is both art and science to pulling off these kinds of consumer events–it can’t just be an “add on” to what you’ve already got going.

    Thanks for talking about this, Janet!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Barb, thanks for your insights, especially since you attended some BookCon events. I agree with you that any event at ICRS will not be exclusively books because ICRS itself isn’t just about books–by a long shot! I just want books to be a noticeable part of the equation, and I don’t think that’s the case based on what I’ve read online.
      I know the BookCon did a few workshops to draw adult readers, but I’ve read that they will do more next year since avid readers complained they didn’t get enough attention. How wonderful to hear readers demanding attention!
      You also offered a good insight that BEA hired the company that runs ComicCon, a highly successful conference, to put together BookCon. Hopefully ICRS has been equally smart. We’ll see!

  • What would draw little old me – to a book convention event?

    To be honest . . probably the free buffet and getting Janet Kobobel Grant’s autograph!

  • Sydney Avey says:

    I was in a seminar last week where the seminar leader declared that eBooks will greatly overshadow physical books in the future. I know we’ve heard this before–no shelf space to sell them, expensive to produce, etc. If this really is the future, how will promoting a eBook look different in an event like BookCon when there is no physical giveaway, other than a postcard. If an author is publishing only in the eBook arena,as many are being encouraged to do, how do they connect with readers? No books to sign.

    I think it would be difficult to have a book launch without a physical book to show off. I’m sure this is being discussed by agents and publishers. Janet, anything you can tell us?

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