Twilight of the Tweens: Prepubescent Readers Invade New York for First Annual BookCon

(Photo by Meredith Carey)
(Photo by Meredith Carey)

He walked on stage and the teenage girls in the crowd went wild. Shouts of, “I love you, John,” were scattered through the high-pitched squeals that filled the room. Spilled tears dribbled out of some tweens’ eyes, the same girls who’d been waiting in line for nearly two hours to sit in his presence.

This was John Green, the 36-year-old young adult fiction author whose latest bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars has been adapted into a movie to be released June 6. He was entering a panel at BookCon, the inaugural event organized by Book Expo America–the comparably staid annual event where publishers gathered last week to unload their fall lists on booksellers. (As far as we know, no tears were shed for James Ellroy, who was in town promoting a new book out in September). As BEA’s relevancy continuously declines due to bookstores shuttering and Amazon, the monkey on every publisher’s back, BookCon is the last ditch effort to draw crowds and interest.

BookCon, where movies and pop culture reign and the event’s namesake seems to fall by the wayside. Teen fans arrived in droves with their mothers and fathers to see authors of the wildly popular Divergent, Mortal Instruments and Percy Jackson series. BookCon was the campy Hollywood adaptation to BEA’s hardcover that sells at most 10,000 copies. Hence Mr. Green, who as far as literary figures go, isn’t exactly Proust.

Fighting through the throngs of pint-sized readers who grabbed at the free books littering the publishers’ booths, we had to do a double take at our red-headed neighbor walking down the aisle: a preteen with “BLOGGER” emblazoned across her pass. Before this could be sufficiently processed, a clan of schoolgirls ran by screaming, “Grumpy Cat is over here. He’s over here!”

Yes, Grumpy Cat, the living internet meme, was on site, as it were, peddling a book published by Chronicle called The Grumpy Guide to Life. Somewhere, Martin Amis shed a single tear.

This was no literary festival. Marketed as “where storytelling and pop culture collide,” it was heavy on colliding, both figuratively and literally. Over 10,000 visitors milled about, cramming together in endless lines, pushing their way into conference rooms and swimming upstream through the expo’s maze of booths.

“This event was all about greed,” we overheard one mother tell her daughter as they thrust themselves through the crowd to escape to an elevator. “They sold the maximum amount of tickets without thinking about logistics.”

Lance Fensterman, the manager of the event, told New York before BookCon kicked off that he was hoping for an “urban, educated, sophisticated” crowd. He half-jokingly imagined college graduates with “at least six figures of student loan debt.” What he got were the two young girls impatiently waiting to see a discussion between Amy Poehler and Martin Short; Jersey moms cutting the line to get to Kathy Reichs; plump dads in Marvel Comics t-shirts arguing with security guards outside a talk by Stan Lee. Maybe the collegiate literary establishment stayed home–either to read or worry about all that debt.

“I’ve got so many books, I’m going to be in the summer reading program forever,” one tie-clad prepubescent boy said after exiting the John Green panel. It was both worrying and reassuring: BookCon may not have drawn the intellectual crowd Mr. Fensterman was misguidedly hoping for–how could it with a line-up of movie stars and middlebrow literary celebrities that included Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, John Grisham, Jodi Picoult and Ruth Reichl? (“I grew up going to Cons like this,” Ms. Reichl told a crowd at the “Ladies of Bestsellerdom” panel, which is probably not true.) No, BookCon got a different audience, one that values books and pop culture alike, and maybe doesn’t see so much of a difference between the two. And it’s very possible that some day, at least a few of them will ditch Grumpy Cat for something a little more enlightening. Twilight of the Tweens: Prepubescent Readers Invade New York for First Annual BookCon