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How “Cons” Challenge the Status of Industry Insiders

By Lance Fensterman


My friend and blogger Heidi McDonald describes San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) as the Nerd Prom, and I cannot imagine a more apt description.  SDCC started in a hotel basement as a modest gathering of comic lovers some forty years ago and has grown into the epicenter of the entire pop culture world or, at the very least, a 125,000 person representative sample of that world.  As a historian, my SDCC knowledge is spotty at best (was it actually a hotel basement?) but as the organizer of the trade event BookExpo America (BEA) and upstart pop culture events New York Comic Con (NYCC), the New York Anime Fest (NYAF) and the soon to be launched C2E2 (The Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo), I know a thing or two about large scale media/fan/trade events.  I run my own proms, so to speak, and I constantly think about who these proms serve.

SDCC is an insanely impressive gathering of all things that are pop culture.  A good friend told me that he had interviewed 30 people at SDCC, all of whom he never thought he’d get to talk to, ever, let alone all in one day and in one place!  That said, let’s make some comparisons.  BEA has grown from a show that began in 1902 (it was at the Herald Square Hotel and I don’t think it was in the basement, though I’m not sure) with 60 people in attendance, to a show which now serves approximately 25,000 industry members. Although the show has had its ups and downs it has been around for a long time, and by most barometers it has been very successful.  Certainly, if longevity were the standard of measurement, then it’s been hugely successful.  I don’t want to sound presumptuous and I say this with all due respect to the Hollywood glam that helps define SDCC, but BEA is, in many respects, the literary equivalent of the type of gathering of personalities, celebrities, and professionals that you see at SDCC.  Bottom line, it presents every type of famous author or publishing personality you could possibly want to speak to, all in one place!

Meanwhile, in the four years since it was launched, NYCC has also grown remarkably fast (the next NYCC will take over the entire Javits Center!) and we are now poised to launch a similar style event in Chicago.  The strength of Reed Exhibitions is in running business to business events and we have applied some of that expertise to the fan based model which defines NYCC.  Coupled with our New York location, NYCC has become a place for not just the fans, but it also provides a stimulating business to business environment, which makes it unique.  But for all this nuance, what is the real distinction between all these shows?  Since I work so closely with both the business to business model and the con (or consumer/public) model, my observation is that the cons (I use this term generically to define SDCC, NYCC, C2E2) drive media coverage, are epicenters of energy, and allow an incredibly porous connection between creator and consumer.  Trade events (exclusively business to business environments) lack this porous connection between creator and consumer.  The con model is based on an outside-in style of connection and promotion; the creators are there to hear from the consumers, to influence the consumers, and to interact with the consumers.  The model at trade events such as BEA is much more inside-out.  Publishers are there to influence emissaries or tastemakers who are then expected to take the message to the book buying public based on what they saw and who they met.

The notable increase of bloggers at BEA and the quality and quantity of information that is conveyed through the Internet is certainly changing the paradigm at BEA as the “public” is becoming increasingly involved through a Web based universe.  But this introduction of a public component is a long way from what we see at SDCC or NYCC.  I am not suggesting that there is a perfect model for any single event.  Different shows serve different purposes.  But just as NYCC needs to think about building a better business to business environment to set it apart, so too does BEA need to think about creating more direct communication with the public.  We live in a world where everyone feels empowered to have a “say” and to wield some influence.  Since this is the case, I think it is appropriate for both NYCC and BEA to ask the question: just who is an industry insider anymore?

Lance Fensterman is vice president of Reed Exhibitions and is responsible for running BookExpo America, New York Comic Con, C2E2, and New York Anime Fest.

CONTACT: Fensterman directly.

READ: His publishing and pop culture blog.

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  1. Barbel Buck
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    How much did Reed pay for this ad?

  2. Posted August 5, 2009 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    I know I got nothing to write it! The point was not what Reed is doing well. In fact, the point was what, in saome cases, Reed is not doing well! Also, Reed does not own or operate San Diego Comic-Con. Thanks for reading it.

    – Lance

  3. Barbel Buck
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the quick reply.
    Still, I’m sorry to say that the article reads more about “your proms” than it does on the – actually very interesting – challenge. Perhaps I’m too picky…

  4. Posted August 5, 2009 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    This article made such a good point I had to post a blog in response, rather than fill up your comment form. Thank you, Lance.

  5. Steve Roman
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Lance – interesting article. I await to see how NYCC 2010 handles/avoids falling victim to the kind of growing pop culture mash-up that’s made SDCC The Con That Swallowed the World!

    One question, though: When you say NYCC will take over the entire Javits Center next year, this doesn’t mean the small press area is getting pushed off the main floor and into the basement, is it? (I ask because…well, because I’m one of those 2010 exhibitors!)

  6. DMcCunney
    Posted August 8, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I was at the last NY Comic Con, and I’m pleased it will be taking over the entire Javits Center. The last one was quite crowded.

    But NYCC and BEA are put on by professional conference organizers who do it for a living. I’m more interested in and impressed by some of the efforts of similar functions put on by amateurs. “Cons” are a staple of various fan groups, and attract amateur as well as professional organizers. For instance, there have been science fiction literary conventions for many years. The earliest took place in the 1930’s, exist in every major metropolitan area, and the current World SF Convention is taking place at the moment in Montreal. They are put on by 501(c)(3) tax exempt non-profit groups, and are planned and run by unpaid volunteer labor. There are similar efforts focused on TV, with examples like the Shore Leave Star Trek Convention in Maryland, and an explosive growth of conventions oriented around Anime, with attendance upwards of 25 to 30 thousand in some cases. Again, done as a labor of love by unpaid volunteers.

    And Reed’s event is hardly New York’s first comics function. In the 1970s an NY fan named Phil Seuling was running an annual ComicCon in NYC, attended by most of the then important figures in the industry. For that matter, the first Star Trek conventions (which are now a national industry) were held in NYC, and organized as a labor of love by Star Trek fans.

    Nothing Lance is talking about is exactly new…

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