'History doesn’t have a beginning or end' - Mark Charan Newton and Retribution
Once Upon a Time: S4E4 'The Apprentice'

Friday Five: 5 Things I Learned From NYCC


1. It is really, really awesome! And there's a lot to do!

Like, vast. And it gets really crowded, really quickly. Going to something like a panel, or a big signing, or even trying to get to the Marvel booth, is a time commitment. I can understand the people that gave up hours to stand in a line (seriously - and it isn't like the lines are absent of entertainment), but we chose to keep wandering instead. There are whole swathes of NYCC that went completely unvisited by us.

We scraped the surface of the iceberg. And what amazed me was how so much of it was free - demos, panels, signings, conversations, shmoozing, browsing, previews, whatever. Some of the best fun we had was in the spontaneous stuff: getting our photos taken for Greendale Community College IDs, for example. The con isn't cheap, by any means, but it is (theoretically) possible to entertain yourself on a budget once you get inside.

2. Cosplay is awesome!

Over and above the intricacy and wonder of the costumes themselves (and the fun of recognising some of the more obscure ones), there are two parts of the cosplay (or being-around-cosplay) experience that really struck me:

a) They're a lovely community. The best place in NYCC was the lobby, where all the cosplayers bounced around like crazed molecules, chatting and photographing one another. Groups (Avengers, Spider-man Symbiotes, etc.) would form and reform continuously as new members were discovered. They were gracious and proud and, as a whole, absolutely lovely. There's something inherently heart-warming in watching so much enthusiasm. Cosplayers, you are awesome.

b) Cosplay makes real life weird. In a good way. The intersection between costumed fantasy and boring reality is really surreal and really, really awesome. Magneto getting out of a cab. The Guardians of the Galaxy on the subway. Luke Cage ordering popcorn. One of my favourite 'things' was the big bin of confiscated weaponry on the way in to NYCC - a tub overflowing with scythes and laser rifles and whatnot. It is almost like living in world where this stuff is real, which is a nice gift from the cosplayers to the rest of us.

The Avengers

3. Capitalism is awesome!

Not to provoke any convention vs convention mud-slinger, but there's something to be said for rampant capitalism. I do like the cheerful socialist egalitarianism of the fan-run cons: we're all volunteers, we're all equals, etc. etc. For us, by us. (Waves banner.) But NYCC has its shit together. I'll confess that some of this is invariably the romance of the new, but still...

There were lots of paid employees whose only job was to get us from point a) to point b) as efficiently and pleasantly as possible. Their purpose is keep the line moving, and they do that well. Whether or not they're fans as well is completely irrelevant.  There are also lots of companies that are there to charm money from you - either immediately or in the long term. And they often do this by giving you things. And being nice to you. And, generally speaking, entertaining you. You are the customer, and you are special. Mass market sellout marketing-devouring-fandom etc. etc., but, you know what? It was a really nice time.

As this is my particular area of interest, I was also impressed by the marketing - there was advertising all over the city, great email contact, partnerships with other venues all over the city... All the hallmarks of a marketing department and/or agency that was being paid to spend time doing a thorough job. Volunteers try really, really hard, and often do a great job with limited resources, but sometimes money trumps love. 

4. Diversity is awesome!

Not to provoke any sort of convention-comparison mud-slinging, but it was a much, much, much more diverse crowd than every book, comic or mixed-media convention I've attended in the UK. And that's for every type of diversity that you could come up with. That could be the demographic makeup of New York City, or the fact that it is an all-inclusive con for all sorts of media interests, or a combination of the two, but... yeah. 

There's still work to do from the top down (the industry itself is still overwhelmingly composed of white dudes), but from the bottom-up (fans and readers), the future looks pretty great.

5. Publishers are trying really hard to be awesome!
(And totally almost but not quite getting it right!)

(Book) publishers are getting involved. There were a lot of book booths at NYCC, and they all seemed to be doing pretty well - not, like, Marvel or Image or LEGO levels of crowding, but there seemed to be steady traffic and a lot of branded bags. The publishers also invested in visibility  - virtually every ad in the programme seemed to be from a (book) company. That said...

...publishers still struggle with branding. Specifically, brand hierarchies. For example: Del Rey were giving out Suvudu bags and were in the programme under "R", for "Random - Del Rey". Orbit and others could all be found in the programme as "Hachette Book Group". Ace/Roc bags were plentiful, but weren't in the programme as either - they were listed as "Penguin Group USA". This is, in extremely technical terms, a "headfuck".

Here's the main problem: the primary brand that readers recognise is the author. That's the recognisable producer of the product that consumers like. Which is great if you're, say, J.K. Rowling and you can set up shop as yourself. But it doesn't help a multi-author publishing house looking for a shared presence. Orbit, for example, could just set up shop as "Joe Abercrombie", and probably do quite well out of it. That said, it wouldn't help the hundreds of other authors they need to flog. The ads in the programme tried to compensate for this: most of them were a collection of head shots and signing times, loosely assembled under a publisher's logo. 

And a far, far, far smaller segment of already-dedicated readers will recognise a publishing house.* And even then, it is generally the ones with a firm philosophy and/or consistent art design - e.g. someone like Penguin or Baen. Other publishers, especially in genre, are trying - sensibly enough - to get to that level of recognition. But when a publisher holds court under their parent company (e.g. as Penguin Group or Hachette), they're effectively invisible. That's, presumably, a lingering tactic from trade fairs (where a collective presence is an asset when dealing with retailers), but it is in no way consumer-friendly.

And when you create yet another level of branding - say, the perpetually undead Suvudu - it gets even more confusing. If you're a reader, where do you look in the programme? What do any of these things mean to you? Will any of them stick - or even make a difference - in a week, when you're shopping for your next book?

On one hand, I'm optimistic. This is definitely a growing pain, and I like seeing the evidence of experimentation. Publishers are trying to deal direct with consumers! This is a good thing - and a very welcome shift in thinking from the traditional "publishers supply retailers" model. (We can thank Amazon and the death of the high street bookshop for this - publishers now have to do an end-run around retailers.)

On the other hand, argh. Pick a brand, make it stand for something, communicate it clearly and consistently. Don't make readers pick through your corporate structure just to make sense of your goody bag. Don't have three different identities at one event. This is a crowded market with an easily distracted, extremely busy audience - don't make it easier for them to not find you.

6. NYCC is really fun and I want to go back.