So . . . BookCon. What can I say about my experience at BookCon today? I’ll start with the positive: the We Need Diverse Books panel was really excellent. A few of the organizers talked a bit about how WNDB came to be and why we need diverse books, and writer Ellen Oh made the exciting announcement that there will be an entire book festival for children’s, middle grade, and YA novels that is focused on diversity. It’ll be sometime in 2016 in Washington, DC. That definitely seems like a book festival worth attending!
The panel itself was interesting and touching and funny, and I just really had a great time hearing from a diverse group of writers–Grace Lin, Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Peña, Lamar Giles (just recently read his novel Fake ID, which is really great), and Mike Jung.
You might remember the brouhaha over BookCon’s total lack of diversity on panels that caused the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag and movement to rise up. I was happy to see the organizers and panel members not shy away from calling out the BookCon organizers. And I was also thrilled to see a standing-room-only crowd for the panel. It was filled with a hugely outwardly diverse crowd (inwardly, it was probably even more diverse than anyone can know) of passionate readers, and it was lovely.
Elsewhere at BookCon, not everything was so wonderful.
I won’t rehash the problematic issue of the BEA Power Reader tickets sold that were randomly converted to BookCon tickets. I will, however, repeat what a BookCon rep told me when I pressed for details about the bait and switch issue of the tickets. Specifically, the rep insisted that BookCon would be just like BEA but without the “business-to-business” booths. It was supposed to be a “greatly expanded” experience. I think it’s an understatement to say that it was not. It was not a greatly expanded experience. In fact, I would venture to say that my experience–outside the diversity panel–was pretty awful and disappointing.
It began when I was herded downstairs in the Javits Center and then outside after receiving my badge and situated in a ridiculous line that snaked around some kind of weird parking lot area. I am grateful that it wasn’t 100 degrees outside like it was last year during BEA. Look, I’m aware that there have always been lines at BEA–you know, excited people who queue up to be the first onto the show floor. Let’s just say the crowd was far bigger. And far different. The vibe was far different. The age group was far, far different. But whatever. I think BookCon was hoping for a different crowd. So mission accomplished, I guess. For me, it was just incredibly irritating.
And then there was my experience on the floor of BookCon. The whole of BookCon was shoved into the tiniest section imaginable. Seriously. Six aisles. Six. Something like ten thousand people. Shoe-horned into six aisles. Picture it. We were crammed in there like sardines. And no one seemed to know where to go or what to do.
And honestly, on the BookCon floor, there wasn’t much going on. There were a few of the larger publishers with booths in the BookCon section, but there were more that weren’t super recognizable, along with several self-published writers. I saw a tweet from someone who suggested the exhibitors in the area looked lost, like they didn’t quite know what they were doing there or how to interact with BookCon ticket holders. Maybe that was true . . . or maybe they were just afraid to do anything that might spark a stampede. Unlike BEA, there was a far greater emphasis on sales, particularly for the self-published writers with booths. I saw very few Advanced Reader Copies anywhere . . . not that I could see much. I was sorted of shuttled like a cow through an abattoir death chute since it was impossible to do anything but let the giant crowd take you. Book discovery has always been a very important part of the BEA and the Power Reader experience, and that is what was missing this year. Last year, I was able to lay hands on a bunch of ARCs from writers I didn’t know, some of which became new favorites. At BookCon, I found one ARC. Maybe there were others I just couldn’t see from my hole in the crowd (ah, short person problems). I really don’t know. It was so crowded and stifling and claustrophobic that I gave up after fifteen or twenty minutes. There was no way to even attempt to enjoy anything, but, like I said, nothing on the BookCon floor looked particularly compelling or exciting. I headed downstairs to hang out in the room in which the #weneeddiversebooks panel was being held.
Before I left the floor, though, I did come face to face with the guarded entrance to BEA. That was nice. Way to make participants feel separate and unequal. Perhaps it’s a little overly melodramatic to say, but I kept thinking of the movie District 9, and we–the BookCon folks–were the aliens confined to squalor.
I bailed on BookCon after the diverse books panel. I know a lot of people had a perfectly nice time, and maybe they were the participants who had never been to BEA and didn’t care about the BookCon floor, who were there only to meet celebrities. I don’t know. It definitely wasn’t my scene, though, and I can’t see myself attend another one as a reader/civilian.