By Rick Firfer
If you like books or collect autographs or both, you need to find a way to visit BookExpo and BookCon at least once in your life.
BookExpo (formerly known as BookExpo America) is widely known as the annual trade conference of the worldwide publishing industry. It has been around for decades and has served as a platform for launching the careers of many successful authors, regardless of the genre that describes their writings.
BookCon, on the other hand, is a recent addition to the literary scene and serves as the general publishing industry’s response to the immensely successful string of comic cons currently being presented by its cousin, the graphic novel industry.
BookExpo by virtue of serving as the annual convention of authors, bloggers, publishers, booksellers, librarians, media companies and others whose connection to the industry is legitimate, must, by necessity, be closed to the general public so that the participants can conduct the business transactions that are central to the operation of their industry.
BookCon, however, is open to the public because its mission is to bring young readers together with their favorite authors and to promote brand identity for the publishers.
Both were held in early June at the same venue, the Javits Center in New York City, one right after the other, so that publishers who wish to participate in both shows can shrink their costs by leaving their exhibits in place over the length of both shows.
What merits the attention of collectors, however, is that BookExpo and BookCon, when considered together, probably provide collectors with the single greatest pool of potential autographs on the planet. How is this possible? Because these days everyone seems to be writing a book, regardless of what else they may do in their professional lives. Thus, on any given day, you may see a press release for a new book being authored by a sports superstar, an astronaut, a former President of the United States, a movie star or even a person who achieved fame merely by writing books.
This makes BookExpo special because many of these authors are required to appear at BookExpo as part of their contracted book tours in order to sign free books for any attendee who wants one. Many authors are also required to attend BookCon for the purpose of signing books and meeting fans, but tickets purchased for this event allow only a limited number of signed books per ticket.
If you focus solely on sports autographs, then, of course, The National Sports Collectors Convention is the place where you would expect to access the maximum number of autographs. Anywhere from 60 to 80 signers might be expected to show up, and you might also expect to pay anywhere from a small fortune to a large fortune to obtain the signatures you crave.
If, however, you prefer the autographs of entertainment celebrities, you can go to one of the several movie collectibles shows now held around the country and expect to see anywhere from a small handful to a large handful of mostly older, retired stars making one last attempt to enjoy the fame and glitter of a bygone era. The cost of their autographs will usually not be very great. There are also some reputable mail order companies who will schedule private signings with some of today’s big-name entertainers, but those signatures will generally cost you an arm and a leg.
Imagine, however, walking into BookExpo and being able to access over 500 of the most popular authors in the world, and over a two-day period being able to meet as many of those authors as you can physically get around to, and you get a free autographed book from them. Seems like a fantasy, but it actually happens for the people who attend BookExpo.
And BookCon is not too shabby, either, given that for a nominal admission fee, you can get some signed books there as well.
So why do publishers, authors and others think this is a good deal – putting autographed books in the hands of readers for free or at a nominal cost? Because they expect you will read those books and enjoy them and then tell your friends about them. And then your friends and their friends will buy the books and so on because of word of mouth. That is what they are looking for.
Publishers also expect that many of the attendees at both BookExpo and BookCon will attend a number of the panel discussions provided at these shows, and that the attendees’ passion and fervor for the books discussed by the authors and industry insiders at the panels will be further heightened by what they hear and by their interaction with the panelists in the Q and A sessions.
With that as background, let’s take a look at the 2017 editions of BookExpo and BookCon. One of the scheduled main draws at BookExpo was Mike Tyson, whose new book, “Iron Ambition,” is off to a good start with booksellers. Unfortunately, the large number of people who turned out to see him on the first day of the show wereww hugely disappointed when Tyson did not show up. No reason was given, but at least the book’s publisher did give out a stack of unsigned books, so the complaining was not too loud.
Don Carey, a current player on the Detroit Lions, did show up, and graciously signed quite a few copies of his book for fans. He also took time to talk football with quite a few people in his line.
Another celebrity author who turned out to be engagingly nice was actress Gabriele Union, otherwise known as Mrs. Dwyane Wade. Her signature was in great demand on her new book, and she spent quality time talking to everyone in line who wanted to exchange stories with her.
Triumph Books, a publisher of sports tomes located in the northern suburbs of Chicago, had a number of representatives manning its booth at the show. As usual, Triumph’s reps were very excited by all their new titles and were highlighting the fact that Cubs manager, Joe Maddon, will be putting a new book out under their masthead in 2018.
Moving into realms other than sports, this year you could have done well at BookExpo by obtaining signatures from numerous entertainers and political figures. Political commentator Lawrence O’Donnell was signing things after his appearance on one of the panels, and George W. Bush’s daughters, Barbara and Jenna, were signing copies of their new book about their formative years. The girls, like many of the other celebrities at BookExpo, were also thrilled to pose for photos with their fans and did not disappoint in regard to political repartee either.
The folks at BookExpo also put together a last-minute special appearance for Hillary Clinton, who was interviewed on the Main Stage by noted outdoorswoman and author Cheryl Strayed. It was unknown whether either of them stuck around long enough to sign much of anything, however. On the other hand, Senator Al Franken signed a number of copies of his new book after appearing on one of the discussion panels.
Television interviewer Gretchen Carlson also signed excerpts from her upcoming new book, as did well-known TV personality and Kennedy clan member Maria Shriver.
Hollywood stars Isla Fisher, William Daniels and Denis Leary were also there signing new books, as were television personalities Savanah Guthrie, Ginger Zee, Whitney Cummings and Chad Michael Murray. Alan Alda also participated on a special panel, partially in support of a new audiobook he has coming out. Alda was one of the few personalities not there for the purpose of signing things, but he did graciously accommodate a few people on his way out of the venue.
Broadway was represented at BookExpo by Neil Patrick Harris, who was making his second appearance in three years. He wrote a book about magic tricks, of all things. Of course, his autograph line was the longest of the show and, in order to accommodate everyone, he really did not have time to chat with fans or take selfies.
In addition to Harris, J.T. Rogers, who wrote this year’s Tony-winning play “Oslo,” was there to sign copies of the book based on the play, and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the pair who won the Tony for writing the music and lyrics for this year’s Tony-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” showed up to sign copies of the book for that show. Legendary multi-Tony-winning lyricist Sheldon Harnick and his wife also signed books for their fans.
The really big draws were the megastar professional authors like John Grisham and James Patterson. Demand for their autographed books ran extremely high and led to very long lines that partially blocked aisles because, unlike the authors who signed in the designated autographing area, Grisham and Patterson did what is known as “in-booth autographing.” Those signings were directly sponsored by the publishers and held in their respective booths, thereby exposing the people in line to the publisher’s entire catalog of new books.
In-booth signings are harder to manage, but are a clever marketing tool for the publishers. Of course, when they run out of books for the authors to sign, the publishers have to run for the hills or risk the wrath of the people still standing in line.
The biggest hype this year was for the appearance of horror story writer Stephen King and his son, Owen King. They were to appear at one of the author breakfasts to discuss the new book they co-wrote. Unfortunately, they only spoke for about 10 minutes and then skedaddled out of the show as fast as they could, without signing any autographs. On the other side of the coin, astronaut Scott Kelly, who has probably spent more time in orbit than any other American, spent a considerable amount of time signing excerpts from his new book for everyone.
There were also various oddball signings and giveaways. Someone dressed as the character Captain Underpants was at the show giving out copies of books in the Captain Underpants series. And Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snickett, was there, witty as usual, exchanging bon mots with his readers as he signed books for them.
In the past, Grumpy Cat also made an appearance at the show, but true to form, he was too grumpy to place his paw print on any books. Similarly, The Chicken Chick, Kathy Shea Mormino, brought a couple of her chickens to the show this year, but was unable to coax them into scratching out any autographs. And speaking of grumpy, Ed Asner appeared on one of the panels and signed some books. Of course, Asner is only grumpy when he is in character. In real life, he is just a sweetheart of a guy.
BookExpo was estimated to have drawn more than 20,000 people this year. BookCon’s attendance was much lower, but was successful nevertheless because its purpose is to encourage more reading by a younger audience and to expose that audience to as wide a variety of authors as possible.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.