Episode 50: Bookcon(s)
Flourish grills Elizabeth about the book publishing industry and book fandom following Elizabeth’s visit to BookCon, the consumer-facing wing of industry trade show Book Expo America. Topics covered include how books get from publishers to readers, the evolving relationships publishers, booksellers, and authors have with their customers, the way authors talk to fans, peers, and some combination of the two, and how certain spaces give authors—and other creators—license to share their fannishness.
[00:00:00] As always, our intro music is “Awel,” by Stefsax.
[00:00:34] HAVE YOU SEEN THE GLORIOUS FANART @redgoldsparks MADE FOR US. Probably yes because we have been posting it all the time. WHATEVER. STILL SO HAPPY.
[00:03:37] The Serial Box book we’re talking about, co-written by Cecilia Tan, is Geek Actually.
[00:05:53] This, and all the other musical interludes in this episode, is “Hancock” by Jahzzar!
[00:07:26] Some articles Elizabeth has written about BookCon in the past: “Inside BookCon: where literature lovers give hope to the industry,” and “Looking for Bookworms in a Sea of Superheroes: When BookCon and Comic-Con Join Forces.”
[00:39:28] The article that so irked Elizabeth was “The Incredible Shrinking BookExpo: A 2017 Recap from an Indie Publisher’s Perspective,” by Brooke Warner.
[00:54:32] Flourish’s interview with The Verge is here!
[00:55:49] You didn’t think we’d let you go without a link to our Patreon, did you?
This episode’s transcript is by Allyson Gross.
Flourish Klink: Hi Elizabeth!
Elizabeth Minkel: Hi, Flourish.
FK: And welcome to Fansplaining, the podcast by, for, and about fandom!
ELM: This is Episode 50!
FK: Fifty! What a nice round number.
ELM: I know, it’s not like…it’s just a regular episode. So. I feel like it should be something special.
FK: But it’s not.
ELM: I mean every episode is special.
FK: [laughing] Just like every kid is special.
ELM: That’s really true. We were born in the 80s!
ELM: Millennial reference! So this episode is called Bookcon(s).
ELM: BookCon, S. Bookcon(s).
FK: Right, because you were just at…
ELM: I’m saying it like “pecans.” Book. Con. It’s a convention, like a con, about books.
FK: Right, and you were just at it this past weekend and you also have gone to it many times in the past, right?
ELM: Yeah, I mean, I think “many” might be a bit of a stretch…I think I’ve been four times now. That’s kind of a lot.
ELM: That’s a lot. Very quickly, just quick intro. We wanted to talk about book fandom for awhile now, probably since we did that explainer, that long episode last year about how TV gets made and you were like “in return we need to talk about books!” And I was like “uhh.”
FK: Because I genuinely…it’s not like I don’t read books or like books, but I’ve never been part of book fandom and I don’t really have a sense of how publishers interact with humans. I don’t know.
ELM: My one concern this whole time has been like, there’s book critics, right, and then there’s book industry journalists. And because I write about fandom, I sometimes find myself in the latter category, but…so I feel like I have more knowledge than most, but I don’t have as much knowledge as, like, someone who’s an industry reporter for Publisher’s Weekly or for The Bookseller in the UK. So that’s the caveat.
FK: That’s OK.
ELM: You’re like, “I don’t care.”
FK: I felt totally free talking about the way television gets made, even though I really mostly work on films these days, so you can just go forth.
ELM: We shouldn’t tell anyone any of this.
ELM: OK, so very quickly just to set it up, BookCon is a consumer-facing, open-to-the-public part of BookExpo America, which is the largest book industry trade show in North America. It’s usually, as long as I’ve been going…last year it was in Chicago, but it’s generally in New York. We can talk a little bit about what that is in a second, what happens at these things so you can probably imagine what an industry trade show is. And it’s relatively recent that they decided to open it up to the public, so it’s just a really interesting space. It’s definitely a fairly young crowd, I would say preteens all the way up to people in their early- to mid-twenties. Seems like it’s predominantly female or gender non-conforming. And it’s just a really interesting way to see how the book industry is thinking about the fans, and how people are thinking about books as objects of fandom. So yeah.
FK: Well, I have so many, so so many questions.
ELM: OK, all right, I’m ready. I’m ready.
FK: Before we talk about that, don’t we have an update on a former guest on this podcast?
ELM: Yes! Kind of related to books. There’s digital storytelling, as far as I understand. So yeah, before we started we wanted to give a quick shout out to Cecilia Tan, who was a relatively early guest I wanna say, within the first 20 episodes. Cecilia runs an erotic romance press, is that correct?
FK: Yeah, but she’s also a major baseball fan and baseball writer, and also used to run a big fan club for Menudo back in the day, so she’s like a all-inclusive…
ELM: All the fan things.
ELM: Right. And a Harry Potter fic writer, that’s how you know her, right?
FK: Yeah, she wrote some Harry Potter fanfic, a lot of Harry Potter fanfic, and then she wrote an erotic romance series that was sort of like “What if Harry Potter was full of sex? And also at Harvard.”
ELM: Wait, so it’s like The Magicians but with sex? Does The Magicians have…with more. More sex. Explicitly it’s about sex.
ELM: OK, cool! So Cecilia has been working with some other writers on this project called Geek Actually which, let me just, I have the blurb right here. “Geek Actually is a sexy geeky contemporary women’s fiction series that follows the lives of five diverse, nerdy women as they navigate work, love life, and the internet. For fans who love both Sex and the City as well as Star Wars. For anyone who knows that sci-fi can be sultry and that a gamer is not gender specific. This serial will turn you on, rile you up and leave you with five new friends.”
So this is being serialized on something called Serial Box, which as far as I understand is a subscription serial fiction service, which I really wanna explore this platform, cause that’s fascinating to me.
FK: Yeah! I’m really excited to read this, I’m a huge fan of Cecilia’s erotic romances and I don’t always read chick lit, but this seems like the kind of chick lit that I would want to read! So I’m excited.
ELM: I know it just says “diverse” here but I know specifically written by and about women of color, some of the characters are straight I know and some are queer, so…I’m excited to read a diverse representation of female-dominated fandom also!
ELM: So yeah, we’re gonna check this out, you guys check it out, let us know, you can just look up Geek Actually, I think you’ll probably find it on serialbox.com.
FK: OK, should we take a break and then let me grill you all about BookCon?
ELM: We literally just started, you wanna take a break already?
FK: We generally do take a break after our intro, and I think the intro is done.
ELM: We can take a break.
FK: We’re back, and I have questions.
ELM: Oh god. All right. [FK laughs] Let me also say, before we begin, that this was, some of this was the subject of my master’s dissertation.
FK: Cause you fancy.
ELM: No, that wasn’t the reason I said that, it was just to let you know that I did my master’s dissertation…I did a master’s in the digital humanities, the intersection of humanities and the computer science. And the computers!
FK: The comput-ors.
ELM: And so you could either use computer science, programming, databases and things to do humanities study. Classics seems to be a very popular field that people are…it used to be called Humanities Computing, this field. It’s been around for decades. Or you could use humanities techniques to study digital things, so that’s what I wound up doing, even though I thought I was gonna do the former. So I did my dissertation on book fandom and this kind of evolution of bookselling and the way books got from author to publisher to the seller to consumer. And the way that’s really broken down over the last…since the advent of mass access to the internet, basically, in the last 15 years or so.
FK: And this is why you now don’t buy things on Amazon.
ELM: [spluttering] NO. I did not buy things on Amazon prior to this. I did not need to do a master’s degree to understand that you should not shop on amazon.com for books.
FK: [laughing] OK. OK. Just needed to make that clear.
ELM: Just FYI, don’t do it. Don’t do it unless it’s a used book and you cannot find it anywhere else, in which case the value is already gone. When you buy a used book, they’re not sending your dollar back to the original author. So that’s, I will give you permission to do that, I do that, especially if you can’t find it anywhere. But.
FK: OK. OK. OK.
ELM: But. OK, go ahead.
FK: So my first question is actually, when you introduced this we were like “Yeah, BookCon! It’s like, this trade show, this expo!” On the one hand I can sort of envision what a book trade show would be like, but on the other hand, I actually totally can’t.
FK: I mean, I know what trade shows are. But like, they’re where people come to do business?
FK: Just tell me about that first.
ELM: OK. So there’s a bunch of large book expos here and in Europe. I am not so familiar with what happens on other continents, so I apologize in advance, but I have only lived and worked in the United Kingdom and the United States within the realm of books. So like, there’s the London Book Fair, which is one of the main ones every spring in Europe. There’s Frankfurt, which is one of the most famous I would say, in Germany. Then in North America, BEA is the kind of annual meeting place for the book industry. And a lot of different things go on, and some of these expos and fairs are more oriented towards very specific parts of the book industry. Very specific things like international rights?
ELM: Or meetings between agents and publishers. So there’ll be sections at BEA or BF or whatever where it’s just a room with like, tables, and it’s publishers meeting with agents and people directly showing their work in the same way that you might have seen at Comic-Con. You do see artists going and directly showing their portfolios to comics publishers, or that sort of things.
FK: Right, totally.
ELM: But this is explicitly for that. So I know people who are agents who will be like, “Oh God, I gotta sit here all day and talk to people.” [FK laughs] And it’s interesting. I have done some research on this but I’d be curious to know people’s thoughts, to know about these days whether they really think the face-to-face kind of elements to this are as necessary as they once were. I’m not sure they are.
FK: So are there also like lots of, I guess when I think of this kind of thing, I sort of envision there are tables where people are ordering books for their bookstores, or something. Is that any part of it?
ELM: OK, so, all the publishers have booths, right? And so in that way, it’s a lot like, if you’ve been to a con, or Comic Con—I don’t know why I just called it a Comic Con. Like San Diego Comic-Con, or New York, or whatever, where they specifically—you go to Penguin and they’ll be like, “Here are the titles we have coming up, we have galleys of books that are coming up,” and there are people you can talk to. But it’s not like, I’m not gonna walk up to the Penguin booth and be like, “I wanna write a book with Penguin.” You know like, it’s not a place for, if you have specific purpose there, you’re not just gonna randomly go up to people, you know. You’ll see those meetings in advance.
So I know booksellers who go, but you know. If you are a bookseller, you already have access to all of this information already. If you’re a book critic, you’re sent a catalogue once every few months for what’s coming up next, in addition to your sent galleys, your sent press releases, you’re sent all this time. So librarians are there too, obviously, so everyone is going to look at what’s coming up, but it’s also not necessarily information you need to see in person.
FK: Right, OK.
ELM: And in addition to the trade floor, I mean, there’s things for sale as well, and then there’s author signings, and a lot of panels. And so some of them are industry-focused. Some of them are focused on writing, like craft-focused. Some of them are focused for writers about the business of writing. It’s a place to get a lot of practical information. And then some of them, now increasingly, there are a lot of celebrities, even for the side that’s just for the industry, because you know, thousands of people are there. Hillary Clinton was there on the day I couldn’t go, because maybe I actually didn’t wanna go, because it was in the Javits Center where I had last been for Hillary’s election night.
FK: No. That could have been really emotional actually.
ELM: I was like, on the way I tweeted about it angrily, and once I got there I was like, “Oh yeah, but it’s BEA so never mind.” Like, this is a different kind of hell that I’m in right now, so.
FK: [laughing] Well I mean, this actually makes sense to me, because it’s not like there aren’t celebrities at industry things like, even in the film industry and TV industry, right? I mean like, everybody loves to see a celebrity, even when you’re in the industry that should be most inured to them.
ELM: Right, yeah, absolutely.
FK: [laughing] Everyone loves a celebrity, so of course everyone would show up and be trotted out.
ELM: Well, OK, so, there’s a difference between like, Hillary and I don’t know, Aziz Ansari was one of the headliners when his book came out, that kind of thing.
ELM: Celebrities and like, also James Patterson is there, right?
ELM: And I think when it’s someone who’s not famous for being an author, even if James Patterson is incredibly famous, you know?
ELM: You’re still like, “Ooh, it’s Aziz Ansari!” Something about actors in particular.
FK: Totally, totally. Yeah, there’s, I mean, you don’t get to be an actor unless you’ve got that thing.
FK: So when they open this up to just readers who are not in the industry, are those readers coming onto that same trade press floor and getting a look into what the industry people are doing? I mean obviously there are panels they’re not invited to and so forth, but is there opening up?
ELM: So they’re two wholly separate things.
FK: Oh, OK.
ELM: So if you get a pass for BEA, and it’s for the whole thing, you get to go for the five days, and I know a lot of people who work in the book industry do not come for the weekend. BookCon is a separate event. If you want to go as a consumer, you have to pay. You pay to go to a con for the week, I think that there’s, it’s Saturday and Sunday.
FK: So if you go to BEA, you can also go to BookCon, but if you go to BookCon, you can’t also go to BEA.
ELM: Yeah, because BookCon is, like I said, consumer facing.
FK: Right, it’s consumer facing, and they’re not sharing the same space?
ELM: They are sharing the same space.
FK: OK, and like, so the same trade floor and everything?
ELM: Yeah, so the most of the booths are still set up, but I mean I imagine anyone who is listening who has worked on the floor at BEA can probably confirm this. It’s not like you’re even performing different stuff. There are fewer galley giveaways. Most of the galleys are there for people, just for industry people.
ELM: There are more things for sale. Like, there are a bunch of my favorite con vendors were there. A couple people that sell t-shirts were there that I love, and they were in the back in this fandom-y corner, and I was like, “Hello!” near the HCA.
FK: I see, so people who sell things that are relevant to the kinds of books you would buy at BookCon, or the kinds of authors you might see, even if it’s merch or whatever.
ELM: Well, I might also say to the kind of person who would be interested in a BookCon, right?
ELM: So this t-shirt seller that I love, and I wish I could remember her name, has sewn my cutest, most-complimented Harry Potter t-shirts. And I don’t think it’s necessarily that she’s there because she knows there’s gonna be Harry Potter fans there. I think it’s more like, the kind of person who wants to buy her merchandise is likely the kind of person who wants to go to BookCon, right?
FK: Totally, totally.
ELM: I mean, she’s got like Hamilton shirts, and Parks and Rec shirts. It’s kind of like, a pop culture person, not like, “You like this fantasy series that’s popular,” right.
FK: Right, and then there’s panels and stuff that are specifically for BookCon.
ELM: Yeah, some of the programming I saw on the schedule this year—some of the stuff I saw is Rainbow Rowell in conversation. I saw Janet Mock in conversation. And I thought seeing the two of them back to back was interesting, because Rainbow you’d say, “Oh, so fannish!” Obviously, she literally writes books about fandom. Janet Mock, who is a, you know who Janet Mock is?
FK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. She’s a very, very famous trans woman.
ELM: Yes, exactly.
FK: An author, let me point out. She’s written books about being a trans woman. Like she’s one of the people who has educated the United States about what it’s like to be a trans woman.
FK: Especially a trans woman of color.
ELM: Right, but so it’s like, does that seem like a person who is like, fannish? And so that’s why I try to, as I like look at the offerings of BookCon, I try to get people’s minds out of the idea that it needs to be science fiction and fantasy. People can get passionate just about the authors, or subject matter, right? And I think it’s hard of people sometimes who are in other corners of fandom to wrap their heads around the idea that you can be equally excited, or have the same fannish feelings about seeing Rainbow as you would about Janet Mock. Does that make sense?
FK: Right, no, it makes perfect sense. So what you’re saying, to put it in other words, in the BookCon or book fandom space, it’s not about a particular genre of books, even if there are particular genres that we’re like “Oh, people are more likely to be fannish about this,” that’s just not true in the book space. There are people who are just as excited to read, or get to meet their favorite literary author, or Janet Mock or someone like that. Acting in the same way, wanting an autograph, all of these sort of classic fannish things?
ELM: Right, exactly. I’m trying to think of any equivalents. So when I think of film critic Twitter, which is a bunch of bad men mostly.
FK: I will say nothing about this!
ELM: That’s fine, that’s fine. People describe themselves as like, “cinema buffs,” “film fans.” They’re not fans of Star Wars, though they may like Star Wars a lot. They're not necessarily fans of Antonioni—I’m trying to think of someone who’s like the opposite, you know? [FK laughs] I don’t know, would he be the opposite? I have no idea.
FK: I don’t know but I will say this. I recently found out that in addition to the great vid about Last Year at Marienbad, there’s also an extremely long novel that is basically fanfic about it.
ELM: Is that an Antonioni film?
FK: [laughing] No.
ELM: I have no idea what that is.
FK: It’s like nouveau, French…it’s extremely slow. It’s extremely French.
ELM: Why don’t you go back to dude film Twitter, Flourish?
FK: Okay, go on.
ELM: So you know what I mean? When I go to San Diego Comic-Con, I often get the sense that they think of the crowd as fans of certain genres.
ELM: But I don’t get the sense that they think of the crowd as “movie fans.” Would you agree with that?
FK: Yeah, and it’s actually kind of funny because at Comic-Con, too, there’s so much in comics that’s not just certain genres, and some of that is also emphasized at Comic-Con. When you have anything that Top Shelf Comics put out, they put out an incredibly successful and iconic comic about the civil rights movement last year, and it was a huge deal.
ELM: John Lewis, March? Was that it?
FK: Right, and he came. He was a massive celebrity at Comic-Con, actually.
ELM: A congressman.
FK: A literal congressman was a huge celebrity at Comic-Con, and people really freaked out about it, and yet I think the attitude in general and most people who go to Comic-Con probably don’t think that way. It’s interesting. But at BookCon, it’s like, more people, the proportion is much higher.
ELM: Right, and I will say, so last year, BEA was in Chicago, so I did not go to the book con that was attached to that. But the same company, ReadPop, who puts on these cons, did a BookCon offshoot at NYCC. It had a very different vibe. It was in a different building, like weirdly separate, but it also felt like they were leaning on assuming what NYCC attendees would be interested in, you know? So, it was science fiction and fantasy, and Star Wars tie-in novels. Writers who were famous for other things but who had done things like a Star Wars novel, or you know, Ta-Nehisi Coates was there because he was doing Black Panther, but I think he talked about other things too. And it was interesting that they took such a different approach for it. I actually wrote an article about it last year, we can put it in the show notes, for Brooklyn Magazine.
FK: Yeah, that’s a good idea.
ELM: I was pleased to see when I got to BookCon this year that they had kind of returned to what they were doing before, which I felt, as a person who is a book fan, a fan of books, it feels more spirited. It comes from a place of more understanding than acting like, “You are X thing and you only like X things because you have chosen to go to a comic con.”
FK: Yeah, that’s interesting and funny, and yeah. [ELM laughs] Yeah. Sorry, I’m like trying to follow up with something to say to that other than be like “hmmm.” [grumbling, agreeing noise]
ELM: No, but that makes sense right?
FK: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. It seems like there’s another sort of axis on which this might be surprising to some people, because you had said before that BookCon was more young and female? Like preteen to 20, women? And I think that a lot of people think young and female means a particular thing, means a certain kind of YA novel maybe. Or maybe if you’re in your 20s, you might be edging into chick lit, but not quite yet, you’re like baby chick lit.
ELM: It’s called “new adult” which you’re also familiar with, yes?
FK: Oh, yes! You’re right. I like that. New adult, baby chick lit.
ELM: Well, I don’t think “new adult” is necessarily chick lit actually, I’m not sure what exactly that means, but we can continue. [laughing]
FK: You know what I’m talking about, right?
ELM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
FK: But it’s sort of interesting, because I think that’s a category of people that I think often get pigeonholed as well in a different way, but you’re saying at BookCon it wasn't like that, it was sort of a wide variety of interest.
ELM: Well, don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely a lot of YA. I would say, if you were to ask me to like sum up, if I had to pick one genre that was most prevalent, or felt most prevalent, I would say YA, and that’s how I’ve felt every time I’ve been there except for the one that was attached to NYCC. That being said, YA is massive and kind of almost doesn’t mean very much to me as a, you know, there’s sci-fi within YA, there’s fantasy within YA, there’s urban fantasy, there’s romance, there’s all this stuff. And as an overarching genre, it sometimes feels like it doesn’t mean very much beyond like, it’s probably about teenagers. That’s it.
FK: [laughing] “YA: It’s probably about teenagers…but maybe not?”
ELM: But maybe not? But mostly. Obviously there’s tropes. People in the YA world will wanna argue with me on this, but I would say it’s actually fairly big and broad, and often we try to pigeonhole it into being something. This is happening, there was a really good conversation happening a couple of weeks ago, and I feel like this happens a lot in the various subgenres of YA, saying “no one’s doing that anymore.” It feels beholden to these whims and trends. And there was a bunch of YA, mostly YA writers of color, and they were saying, “It’s funny how whenever I show up to do my version of X,” they’re like, “Oh that’s over.” I’m here with vampires and they’re like, “We’re not doing vampires anymore.” And it’s like, “That’s funny, right now? Really?” [FK laughs] We tend to talk about it like it’s this big monolith that rises and falls, “Oh, it’s vampire time.” With The Fault In Our Stars, “It’s kids with cancer time.” Or whatever time. And I don’t think it’s that straightforward, I think it contains multitudes.
FK: Okay, so when you’re at BookCon, you’ve got all of these preteen to twenty something young women, buying books and listening to their favorite authors, and there’s a lot of YA in all of this. But they’re not buying it from bookstores. The booths are all the publishers?
ELM: Yeah, there’s no—I can’t remember ever seeing a bookstore. I don’t think bookstores would think that’s a good…I don’t even think they’re allowed. I know booksellers go, I’ve seen them there, like people I know who work at bookstores in New York City.
FK: So here’s what I know about publishers. There’s academic publishers, which we’re not concerned with right now, and then there’s the Big Five or something like that? And then there’s a bunch of independent publishers. So tell me about this and how they all appear at BookCon.
ELM: Yes, OK. So. The Big Five, they used to be the Big Six, then Penguin and Random House merged. It was probably years ago but it feels like it was just yesterday. And everyone was like, “Are they gonna call themselves Random Penguin?” And then they chose Penguin Random House, to let everyone down.
FK: Random Penguin would have been good.
ELM: It’s because they hate fun.
FK: Or Penguin House! Penguin House!
ELM: They. Hate. Fun. Okay, so the Big Five. In the UK I believe it’s the Big Four. There’s crossover here. There’s Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan. So, everyone of those Big Five publishers has a lot, a lot, a lot of smaller imprints.
ELM: Which is what you might see if you look at the spine of your book? You’ll see lots of little logos. It’s various imprints.
FK: I’m looking at some books right now to look at imprints.
ELM: Yeah, so if I were to look at my shelf right now, I’d see FSG, which is Ferrar, Strauss and Garute, which is Picador. See, these are UK publishers though, well, Picador is.
FK: Yeah, see mine are not very helpful either. Mine are like, Duke University Press, et cetera.
ELM: Okay, get out of here, academic. Anchor, Viking. Wow these are very nautical. Picador, Houghton Mifflin. So some of them are, if you look at the things, some of them are the name of the big press. If you look on the inside, you’ll probably see that it is one specific imprint. And can you believe I just said something about nautical and didn’t mention Black Sails?
FK: I’m so proud of you.
ELM: Except I just did it.
FK: [sighs] I rescind my pride.
ELM: [laughing] Anyway. So various imprints have different sorts of list. Obviously, it’s not just about different sorts of lists, it’s also about different things, different parts of these big publishers do different genres, and they operate often very separately in that sense of like, what kind of books they’re buying and selling. And then there’s a whole world of small publishers, small and midsize publishers as well. Some you’ve heard of, some you haven’t. They all have different models and different sorts of lists. Obviously, it’s funny, the first time I went to one of these things—oh, I went to this conference a few years ago, and I know that books aren’t just my favorite literary novel, and some romance novels, or whatever. But I was talking to this woman, and she was working for like a Christian sticker book company.
FK: Christian sticker books. Like for kids? Where you take the stickers out?
ELM: Why are you making this about age?
FK: Because people who like stickers—
ELM: Christians of all ages. Sticker lovers. As an adult colorer, who was coloring long before this trend and used to have to buy Sesame Street—literally though! I used to have to buy the Sesame Street ones in the grocery store, and there would be no other choices in order to color. And I bought a Batman one and used the black crayon like instantly because every scene is black and gray. It’s fine. Now I have many choices. People of all ages can like sticker books. But I was talking to her, and I was like, “Oh! Christian sticker books.” I was over here being like, “Oh, Penguin? Where do you work?” And it was like, “Oh yeah, the book industry is massive. There are so many things that are books that I never think about.” Just an aside.
FK: So are there like, cookbooks there as well?
ELM: Oh yeah, these kinds of things, everything—
FK: Field guides to birds and like? Photo books that go on your coffee table?
ELM: There’s a lot of B-to-B stuff to that I don’t think is really relevant to this conversation, business to business.
FK: Mm-hmm, yeah.
ELM: So there’s a lot of people there who are talking about you know, the buying and the selling and the moving of books that wouldn’t have much relevance to me as a critic or me as a consumer.
FK: Unless I happened to go to the Powell’s Books warehouse sale. Highly recommend if you have the opportunity.
ELM: OK, but then you’re not talking to the guys making strategic inventory software or whatever.
FK: [laughing] That’s true, but I am reaping the rewards of their bad strategic inventory decisions.
ELM: I don’t know if they’re bad, they just have excess sometimes.
ELM: You never know what’s gonna sell and not gonna sell.
ELM: Anyways. I don’t remember the question.
FK: The question was publishers facing directly to the consumers, right?
ELM: Right, OK, so this is one of those things—
FK: Can I just say by the way that I am a person who as you all know is in the middle of reading every Star Trek book, and I have them listed by publisher, and I still have to look over and find out which publishers had published all the Star Trek novels, because I don’t care at all, and I suspect that people don’t know what publisher is doing what.
ELM: Okay, because this is super interesting. Because when I was at BookCon, this past weekend, I was walking past these people. And they were like young people, probably 20 or so, and this woman was like, “So here’s what I like to do first,” very loudly, and I was like “OK.” It was like con voice, you know? Someone’s like a little too loud, and you’re like “We’re at a con right now.”
FK: Right, because they’ve been walking around in different loud places, and they lost it.
ELM: And you’re like, “They’re shouting!” And she was like, “Here’s you do it, here’s my strategy to do BookCon! I like to go to the big publishers first and see what they have on offer. I like to go to Macmillan and see what Macmillan has!” And I was just sitting there thinking, how freaking weird is that these people walking around this convention floor being like, “What does Macmillan have to offer?”
ELM: This is like, so okay, one of the things that I wrote about in my Master’s thesis is that, for a long time, for the whole 20th century, the publisher rarely had to interface directly with the consumer because that’s what booksellers were for. You remember from when we were kids, you remember those pages in the back of books, where it was like “Try our other titles!”
FK: Yes! I have so many examples of them on this shelf right now.
ELM: I have fond memories of that, so if you are younger than a certain age, you have missed these. Maybe they still have them in certain books, I doubt it.
FK: They do in romance novels.
ELM: Oh, they do? OK.
FK: Yeah, in romance novels they have them.
ELM: I have not seen them in years except in my old books, but it’ll be like, “Here are other titles on offer.” And you’d check which ones you wanted, and you’d enclose a check, or money order, and shipping and handling, and you’d send it, and sometimes those were like “Here are the other Penguin titles we have to offer you.” But other than that, it wasn’t like you’d go to the Penguin store and buy the Penguin books. To the Penguin house, is what they would call it. So one of the things I wrote about was this history of bookselling in America in particular. When publishers had to come online, the growing pains they had to go through trying to face the consumer directly, because they didn’t have very much experience with this in a way that other entertainment companies may have had a bit more experience.
FK: Well I can tell you that maybe. Well. No. Hard to say. I will say this, that you have different division. Well. No. OK.
ELM: Well, okay, 50 years ago you would know you were seeing a Warner Brothers film.
FK: Let me go back, hold up. I think that yes and no. Historically in the golden age of cinema, people knew what a Warner Brothers film was, this is a Paramount film, and so forth. You would still know that if you were in the industry, but if I said, “What’s a Screengems film like?” You know, you’d be like, “What?”
FK: And I’d be like “Of course, here’s what it is.”
ELM: Well this always happens whenever I’m watching like, an arty movie, and they have all the producers, what would it be, the cards—
FK: The A4.
ELM: Right, and they’re always like, “I recognize that one, I recognize that one.” But you could never be like, what’s that one, Canal or whatever?
ELM: Who would make a film that I would watch, even though I’m sure it’s like literally every movie I’ve ever seen except like, Wonder Woman.
FK: Right, exactly, so the thing that’s different, because those are not, you know, you still have like, FOX exists, which still has a home video department that has been selling home video to people for a long time. Not directly, but like, they’ve sort of worked this out, they’ve had a longer period of time to figure out how to do this, because at first they were just distributing movies to theaters, and then they were like “Oh, we need to get into this business,” and they’ve sort of worked that out in a way, right. They grew up with the home video industry. But it sounds like publishers were distributing books, and were like, “Oh shit! We have to hand them directly to customers?”
ELM: Right, or we could hand them directly to customers, that was a new opportunity. They could also have been like, “We’re not doing any of this, we’re gonna rely on bookstores to interface with consumers digitally.” But they chose not to. Penguin actually was the big winner, Penguin had very good branding early on. You recognized their penguin, aesthetically they leaned into their historical, their vintage looks. The branding.
ELM: So you could buy those totes, the Penguin covers, or mugs or something.
FK: Not to mention they’re also probably books you might want to read or own, they’re classics, but might not be stocked at your bookstore because, you know, there are so many of them.
ELM: And it’s interesting to see the various ways that publishers have tried to do this over the years. There are certain sites now, I’m trying to think, what’s the one that Random House has for sci-fi? I should have looked this up. But basically there’s been this interesting tension over the years like, wanting to celebrate genres and certain types of books and create space online so book fans can just celebrate, say, romance, or sci-fi or whatever, and only wanting to push the titles from your publishing house.
This has been a tension I’ve observed for years as I’ve been going to these, you know, conventions and industry gatherings and listening to the way that publishers were talking about what they were doing. Because I think I would say from the perspective of a fan and consumer, I think it’s a stupid idea to just be like, “We’re only gonna push Hachette titles.” Obviously there’s the girl checking out every booth at BookCon being like, “What is Hachette doing, what is Macmillan doing?” And in the book industry, you’re already working with a relatively small amount of money, it’s not like movies.
ELM: So I think it makes sense to lift up all books. I’ve been saying this for years, I’m not the only one saying this, right. But if you have a site that celebrates a certain genre, or celebrates books in general, I think that’s, you know, I don't think book lovers are gonna have this blinkered loyalty to one particular publisher.
FK: This is something that comes up in the entertainment industry too. For instance, the first Sherlock convention, the first official one in the US happened last weekend, or two weekends ago, now.
ELM: A couple weekends ago.
FK: And one of my coworkers went to check it out, and she said one of the interesting things was that they weren’t allowing anything that was not Sherlock in it. Like, no sales of anything not Sherlock related. They did have an artists’ alley, but it was very small and you could only sell Sherlock things, and nothing related to anything else. And I was like, “Wow, that’s pretty blinkered, actually.” It’s not even that it has to be Sherlock Holmes, it has to be—
ELM: BBC Sherlock.
FK: And you can’t, you know, there can be no Superwholock here, even though Doctor Who is also a BBC thing.
ELM: That surprises me, because they know that there’s a crossover fan, especially between Doctor Who and Sherlock, so that’s surprising to me that they would limit that so much, but I mean.
FK: Well, it’s the production company I think that put it on? And don’t quote me on this, I think it’s the production company itself who put it on, and they don’t produce Doctor Who.
ELM: Hartswood. No, but Steven Moffat and Steve [?] are involved in Doctor Who. Gatiss. All of them are.
FK: Right, but the production company.
ELM: Yeah, Hartswood does not make Doctor Who.
FK: So if the con is run by the production company they might be like “Eh, we don’t wanna.”
ELM: Eh, that’s interesting. I have a lot of feelings about this.
FK: Anyway, go on though. So this is a common problem, though. Do we cross genre, or do we just build our own brand and our own titles and that’s it.
ELM: Absolutely, so I think this is a question. But one thing that I really love about BookCon is that you don’t feel like the people there were brought to the space by any one particular title, and that’s just the vibe I get, kind of eavesdropping like a creeper on all these young people. Just from what I’ve observed over the years, I feel like a lot of people who are going just love books. You’ll see these pictures posted with a giant stack of books, like, “Look what I got!” And it’s like, not, “I only want this kind,” because everyone has their preferences, but it’s opening that space up and saying especially to people in their teens, which I try to imagine. If there had been a space like this when we were teens, where they said, “We love that you want to read, here, have some more books. Buy some, have some.” Not more…you know what I mean?
FK: If people gave me books, that would be delightful. I want books. Give them to me.
ELM: Right, so I don’t know what it would be like to be a teen right now and have access to this, to feel like this was something to be celebrated. You know?
FK: [laughing] The closest thing I had was a used bookstore where I sold off all of my used books that my parents bought me after I read them so I could buy new books, because I had come to the end of my library in my opinion, and wanted to keep the churn going.
ELM: I love that the closest you had was a large used bookstore…
FK: It was a huge bookstore! They were very excited about how excited I was about books, it was nice.
ELM: That’s very nice. In high school I relied on Borders, because they always had like a, buy-one-get-seventeen free coupon. Do you remember this? Maybe that’s why they went out of business. It wasn’t buy-one-get-seventeen free, it was like, buy-one-get-two free, but it was already super discounted.
FK: They did have deals.
ELM: I’d be like “I guess I have to get 100 books with my money that I earned at The Gap.” Look at what a teen I was. Working at The Gap. Buying books at Borders.
FK: [laughing] OK, we should take a break now. Then we should get back because I want to talk to you about more BookCon things and fannish BookCon things.
ELM: Let’s do it.
FK: OK, we are back. And I want to ask you, Elizabeth, about the thing you were fuming to me about.
ELM: I wasn’t fuming!
FK: You were grouchy, how’s that?
ELM: So there was this piece published by this—
FK: I love how you’re not even going to let me ask the question, you’re like, “Let me get ahead of this and frame this the right way.”
ELM: I’m just gonna say, this is just their opinion, and obviously they’re coming from a different perspective to me, as I’m a consumer and a person who likes fans, all right? And this was a publisher. OK?
ELM: So go ahead and ask your question.
FK: OK, so somebody wrote a blog post about how they felt like BookCon had changed, and it was much less about books—
ELM: No, that BEA had changed.
FK: Excuse me, that BEA had changed, you’re right. And it was less about books and more about online publishing, and different ways of you know, delivering stories and fanfiction, and that they didn’t like this change.
ELM: And BookCon, that it was more focused on BookCon now, and not on the book fans.
FK: Right, OK, so it was more consumer facing, lots of online stuff that doesn’t really count, and also fanfiction, and you were like, “There was nothing about fanfiction!”
ELM: Okay, well it wasn’t a thing. As I said, I saw Rainbow Rowell talk.
FK: OK, other than Rainbow Rowell.
ELM: Yeah, so I mean, I wasn’t fuming about this piece, but I was like, “I’m team book fan, i’m not team publisher, and I think we gotta put the fans first here,” you know? And I don’t like undertones, I’m not pinning it on this piece in particular, but I have heard people talk about things at book events and conferences I’ve been to, where there seems to be an interest in book fans as consumer but not necessarily as fans.
FK: I see, so it’s almost like a snobbishness—
ELM: I get that vibe. I don’t want to pin that on this piece, but I definitely get that vibe.
FK: Not just from this one person. Maybe your reaction to this piece had less to do with it and more with like, all the people you’ve encountered who have had this attitude.
ELM: Yeah, but simultaneously being all the people who have wanted to cash in on them. I remember going to FutureBook in London, a couple of years ago, and one of the keynote speakers was…oh God. Was it the head of Random House in the UK? Whoever was publishing Zoella, who’s a YouTuber, and it was a big scandal, like literally a week later they found out—she’s a well-known British YouTuber, and she was publishing her debut YA novel, and they found out she had ghostwritten, and it was this big scandal. It was like, “Oh, these YouTubers are a blight on society in general and they're going to ruin publishing.”
FK: Because a famous person had a ghostwriter.
ELM: And it was like, “She’s not even writing!”
FK: Well, surprise.
ELM: I was like, “I know,” because YouTubers drive people up the wall, right? They’re not even special or something, and it’s like—
FK: It’s so hard to be a YouTuber though.
ELM: I know! The point is they’re trying to make it look super easy regardless, right? That’s the point, is that it looks like they’re in natural life, where it’s like, actually for the huge ones, everything is actually incredibly well thought out and planned.
FK: Yeah, and they’re doing it all themselves, unlike all the people who have done it through the traditional methods. They have to do everything and pay for everybody and like, it is not a business I would ever get into. It is way too difficult.
ELM: Right. We should have a YouTube person come on, though.
FK: We’ll do that.
ELM: Great. So, whoever was publishing Zoella, and this was before that story broke, it was literally right before it. He was just like, “We’ve cracked the code, we’ve got Zoella.” And I was just like, I can’t get a read on you. He was a middle aged, white British man. I couldn’t get a read on if he was pleased that they had cracked the consumer code, or if he was like, “Oh, we understand what our young female customers want, and we respect that and we value that.” That was never a vibe I got out of him, or anyone else talking about their youngest and predominantly female fans.
FK: And that’s interesting, because for all that we sometimes complain about things happening at Comic-Con, or something or whatever. You get someone like Ryan Reynolds, who in addition to being the lead actor is heavily creatively involved in what Deadpool is and how that works, and he really cares about what fans think about Deadpool. He’s a fan of Deadpool, he loves it, it’s for them. Tim Miller, the director, I’m sure also feels this way. It’s not like a contempt, you know, it’s not like there’s none of that out there, but it’s not the same kind of—
ELM: Right, but the difference between these two examples is that it’s Ryan Reynolds standing in Hall H talking to 7,000 who camped overnight, and I’m talking about a space that was entirely industry professionals talking to each other.
FK: Fair enough.
ELM: If 7,000 Zoella fans were in the room, I’m sure he’d be like, “You guys are what it’s all about, and we can’t wait to give you something you’re excited about.” And I bet he would seem really frickin’ sincere.
FK: I guess that’s true. But he himself, Zoella is not the thing that he loves.
ELM: [laughing] I don’t think that he loves Zoella, no.
FK: Maybe I’m just trying to say that for all that we hate on the fanboy auteur, the one thing you can say is that he actually likes the thing he’s talking about, right?
ELM: Yeah, but I don’t think everyone—you work in Hollywood. I don’t think all the studio executives have a deep passion for the properties.
FK: That’s fair, that’s fair.
ELM: So I don’t think there’s anyone in the book industry who doesn’t love books, but obviously people have kind of their ideas of what, you know. And definitely there are probably some of the same biases in the film industry of the studio executives not thinking very highly of these franchises beyond being commercial property, right? Not thinking Star Wars is a work of art. I don’t know, all mean seem to have a thing about Star Wars. Even my dad. My dad and I never go to the movies, and I was home for Christmas last year, and he was like, “Are we gonna see the new Star Wars?” And I was like, what? Really? I literally could not get you to the movies, ever.
FK: Aww. Our dads are the right age for it, though.
ELM: I didn’t realize, I was like, really? Really?
FK: There they are, being dads. Okay. So all of that is totally fair and I rescind any statement that the film industry or the book industry might be better or worse in this realm.
FK: But I’m still really interested in the idea of like, is there a lot of fanfiction-y talk? Is there a lot of fanart? Is that part of thing part of BookCon, or like?
ELM: No, not fanart. I would not say fanart is an element, there’s no section where people are doing fanart of the books. That’s one thing where I feel like when I try to explain what goes on there, it doesn’t feel like the type of thing where you go to like a fan-run con about a book series.
FK: Because then you would expect there to be cosplay and art.
ELM: Right, and there’s a little bit of cosplay, but not very much. There was a lot more of like, people wearing bookish t-shirts. “So many books, so little time” kind of vibe, that sort of thing.
FK: Aw, that’s so cute! You know the catalogues your mom would get, of like, sort of chintzy witchy stuff and t-shirts?
ELM: Our moms are different moms at this point. Our dads were similar dads, but no. My mother is a construction worker.
FK: I think that they just, I don’t think my mother bought anything out of those catalogues, I think that they just send them to all women of a certain age in California.
ELM: Yeah, it’s the California mom, that’s you!
FK: It’s the California mom vibe, I don't know!
ELM: So I remember the first year I went was 2014, and it was right at the height, it was right when the Fault In Our Stars film came out. And John Green was on the main stage, and he, I remember there was security everywhere, it was very dramatic. The NYPD were there. Just a billion young people, like I would say young teens and preteens wearing those “Okay? Okay.” t-shirts. Do you know?
ELM: Yes, you know what I mean. So like, that’s obviously completely fannish.
FK: Totally! Completely!
ELM: And how are you gonna cosplay as those characters, you know?
FK: Oh God, that’s the worst idea ever.
ELM: But also they just wear regular clothes because they’re regular teens.
FK: I’m just trying to think about the way that you would show that you were—
ELM: That’s bad, no one should do that. That’s not a character to cosplay. So there are definitely people showing that they’re interested in stuff, but I never see anyone in like, Hogwarts robes or anything, you know.
FK: I see.
ELM: Which is something that with certain cons, you see all the time. [laughing] Certain cons that I’m thinking of. So I will say that BookCon, it feels like it gives authors permission, when I see them speak, if they’re in the fannish realm themselves, it gives them permission to express that and be fannish. Maybe this is just like, having just seen Rainbow speak, having seen her speak before. They had a panel before, it was with a few well-known writers, and it was called like, “Do You Ship This?” And I decided not to go because I was a little turned off by the description.
FK: I was gonna say, you probably were already like, “Ahh!”
ELM: Yeah, you wouldn’t, you know what I mean.
FK: I know what you mean. You’re making that pterodactyl noise in your head already.
ELM: Yeah. That’s fine. I mean, if it’s the authors you really like, or if it’s the kind of conversation that works for you.
FK: Totally, I can also imagine not making that pterodactyl noise, it just depends on how you feel.
ELM: Right, but like, you know what I mean. So that kind of thing. It’s more that this is a signal that these are the kind of people in your audience, and it’s cool, if you are also like this, to talk about it. I feel like if you were at a non-fan, an industry-facing book event, and Rainbow Rowell was speaking. I mean, obviously it’s part of her brand, speaking about being fannish, but I do imagine that she or another author who’s known for being kind of a fan would frame it differently. Right?
ELM: So that’s really interesting. But that being said? No. People did not, there was no, like, fanfiction readings or anything. And I think this is a major tension in the book industry. I think the book industry gets a little more stressed out about the idea of fanfiction than I think the idea of TV and film do. Maybe because it’s written word versus written word? And they see that as more of an infringement and have historically seen that as an infringement? So there’s all this Fifty Shades derision still lingering? I don’t know. But for Fifty Shades it’s the same like, “Do you respect these readers? You don’t care because you’re cashing in on them,” that kind of thing.
FK: Yeah, yeah.
ELM: The first year I went to BookCon, I saw what were their names, Christina Lauren? They were also out of Twilight fan-to-pro romance novelists? There are two of them, and they publish together.
FK: Oh yeah.
ELM: And they’ve published several books, I don’t know any of the titles. I saw them speak, and that was at an industry-facing one, that was at BEA, and they were talking about their experiences of having gone from this one space to the other, especially for an audience who doesn’t understand what’s going on in fandom online or in fanfiction world.
FK: So speaking of that, last question I think before we need to wrap up. If there’s not a lot about fanfiction there, is there not a lot of like, maybe if not fan-to-pro, then developing yourself as a professional? I know you were saying there’s a lot of agents meeting with publishers at BEA. At BookCon, is there kind of an attitude towards, “You, our fans, are the talent of the future!”
ELM: Yeah, definitely, I feel like I’ve never been to a book event ever that it wasn’t assumed that half of the crowd wanted to be a writer, or was a writer. And especially with the young crowds. Whenever there’s Q&As, obviously, people always ask questions like that. Like what advice would you give? I think it’s such a bad question, like “What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?” Because like, they’re either gonna be like, “Never give up on your dreams,” or like, “This is garbage. Like, even though I’m on stage and successful, everything is bad.”
ELM: Because it is! And it’s bad. Some of them will say that and some child is like, “OK.” Especially with a young crowd, you want to say, “It’s punishing and your spouse better make a lot of money. And you better hope the Republicans don’t take away your health care.” Because the reality of writing, I mean you could give the craft suggestions or the practice suggestions. Writer everyday has been a point of discourse in the last week—that’s dumb, you can give suggestions about how to write. You know what I mean. It’s interesting to see, if it’s a younger crowd, they’re not gonna be like, “Here are the grueling financial realities of this career,” right? But the ones that are clearly for an older crowd, they usually get pretty explicit.
So yeah, I don’t see that there’s…it’s talked about in a way that makes it feel more accessible and more achievable than I have felt in spaces around film and television. I guess something analogous would be when I see comics presentations at comic cons. I think there’s more acknowledgement that you in the audience may be a budding comic artist, and there is a path. It’s a shitty one, but you know what I mean?
FK: Yes, there is a path you can take.
ELM: But I don’t see Comic-Con standing on stage being like, “You too can star in a Marvel franchise!” You know or like any of the directors being like, “Yes, there’s an easy way for you to get on this stage!” Like, that’s not a part of the conversation there. So I don’t know. It’s a really interesting space, and BookCon, despite me hating being in the Javits Center, it makes me feel good about, A, the kids. They’re all right. They’re excited to get some books! And also I’m glad to see them happy that the publishers are creating this space where like, it lets kids be excited about books.
FK: That’s great!
ELM: And adults. There were adults there too.
FK: That’s really awesome. Should we take a break and do some final business?
ELM: Final business.
FK: That sounds like a nice button.
FK: All right, we’re back from our final break, and we have a little bit of final business to share with everybody.
ELM: Okay, like what?
FK: First of all, this is gonna be a little bit of old news by now, but I don’t know if you saw the interview in The Verge, that happened with me, and Elizabeth did not take part in the interview then read it and was like “You represented me by talking about Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.”
ELM: You said I didn’t take part in it. I wasn’t invited to take part in it.
FK: That’s true.
ELM: You cut me out. I’m gonna go off and give an interview to someone without you.
FK: You should!
ELM: It’s fine. It was about the Fanfiction Definitions Survey, which as we all know, was like 98% Flourish.
FK: Yeah, it’s my baby.
ELM: Would you say that’s the right percentage?
FK: Well, I think a little less than that. Like 95%.
ELM: I did edit your piece, which, if anyone hasn’t seen that yet either, that’s on our Medium.
FK: Yeah, we’ll put both of these in the show notes.
ELM: Flourish analyzing the result of the Fanfiction Definitions Survey, at least the first couple of questions.
FK: Yeah, so, if you’ve been watching our Tumblr, you’ll see we’ve been responding to people’s questions about that, and also we did a little poll over our Twitter followers. They said they wanted to hear more about demographics in that survey, so we’ll be sharing, we have been sharing, a little bit more about that.
ELM: Though I would love to do an actual demographics survey.
FK: Me too, but that’s for after we’ve finished working with this data please.
ELM: That’s fine, but that’s what I’m voting for.
FK: Other things. As we try to make very clear in the Verge article of course, we have our Patreon. We are always looking for more donations there. I don’t think we have to belabor that much more, we talk about it every time because it’s really important.
ELM: patreon.com/fansplaining. I think we’re gonna do a little drive, a little pledge drive around our two-year anniversary, which will be after we go to San Diego Comic-Con.
FK: Right, so that’ll be good. And then just a reminder, we haven’t gotten many calls lately. We do have a phone number if you want to call in, if you want to appear on our show like we’re real talk radio…
ELM: So one thing related to this episode is, I think when people see that we’re talking about book fandom, they might think we’re actually talking about book fandoms, which we didn’t actually get into, or how that breaks down, which is an entirely separate wing of this conversation. So if you have more thoughts about that, just FYI. We will probably be doing another episode, but if you have any thoughts about the kind of things…if you’re in book fandoms…
FK: Tell us about it.
ELM: We talked about capital letter Book Fandom. Fans of books.
FK: So that number is 1-401-526-3267, as I always say. That is 1-401-526-FANS. And we’ve also got our ask box and our Twitter and our email, which is email@example.com. Please feel free to get in touch!
ELM: Yes please. And the final request: as always, if you have a moment and wouldn’t mind leaving us a review, or at least just a rating on iTunes, that would be super awesome.
FK: All right, is that everything?
ELM: I think there were other things, but I can’t think of them now.
FK: Well, OK.
ELM: So, one of my favorite things about Black Sails…
FK: No! Okay. We’re done. Goodbye, Elizabeth.
ELM: Bye Flourish!
[Outro music, thank-yous, and disclaimers]