Con Diary: Bookmarked Takes On SDCC 2018

SDCC 2018/Bookmarked Logo

Hello lovely readers — it’s Paige,  your Bookmarked editor and Dark Horse Pubwatch writer here at WWAC! August marks a full year that I’ve been part of the site, and it’s been a truly joyous experience in my freelance career. One of my most memorable experiences thus far has been the recent opportunity to join the team over at San Diego Comic-Con — that dizzying, dazzling epicenter of geekdom.

Along with just generally freaking out about my various fandoms, I also spent my time at the con trying to absorb as many book-related panels, announcements, and purchases as I possibly could, with varying success and utter exhaustion as a result. But enough about me and my newbie struggles; let’s talk about the publishing industry’s presence at SDCC 2018!

Going into the con, I was admittedly a little concerned that I wouldn’t see any good book content there. I’ve had my share of con experiences on the upper East Coast, and traditional book publishing representation has always felt a bit scarce. Often, the cramped floors and schedules of various New York cons leave little room for anything other than a few, highly specialized book panels. Meanwhile, I can’t even remember the last time I saw a hardcover novel at smaller cons in Boston or Providence.

Of course, my knee-jerk skepticism was a highly inaccurate assessment of the publishing world’s new reality. In today’s literary landscape, the once enforced boundaries between novels and comic books/graphic novels have now blurred into a richly creative and collaborative business environment. Major publishing houses such as Hachette Book Group and Penguin Random House have been launching manga and graphic novel imprints for years. Graphic novels are finding their place in the world of traditional publishing industry cons, licensing expos, and libraries. Sabrina, a comic by creator Nick Drnaso, just became the first-ever graphic novel to appear on the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2018 longlist. And professionals in both industries are already theorizing about the impact this malleability will have for authors and creators, from the increasing necessity of literary agents for comics to the potential fall of indie comics publishing to traditional publishing houses.

What this all means is that of course books would be making an appearance at SDCC, and they are quickly posed to have a big impact in the following few years. I would just need to be on the lookout for them at this con — which still somewhat felt like a Herculean effort.

SDCC is a multimedia event, though some media clearly reigns supreme over others. Movies and television studios basically host a separate con in their own right in the largest panel rooms of the San Diego Convention Center. Meanwhile, the exhibition floor is more reflective of the original purpose for a comic convention. Major publishers such as Viz, DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse dominate the middle of the exhibition floor, though they share noticeable space with Funko and video game studios like Blizzard. Comics also make their presence known in the corners of the con, with individual retailers selling rare trades and special issues on one side of the floor, and artist alley boasting an impressive lineup of pro comic creators on the other side.

Scattered throughout the middle of these surprisingly navigable makeshift corridors is where our traditional publishing houses reside. The list of book exhibitors was impressive, featuring a diverse mix of industry powerhouses, their subsidiary imprints, and notable literary organizations like Hachette, Penguin Random House, Harper Collins/Epic Reads, Simon & Schuster, and Knopf/Doubleday. Their booths featured similar activities as their con floor brethren: free knickknacks like pins and stickers, giveaways of upcoming premieres, and a healthy supply of recently released novels and well-known bestsellers for those inclined to buy a book for the con. That wasn’t me, I’m afraid — I had a maximum suitcase weight to stay under — but I appreciate the numerous options nonetheless.

Most book booths were placed together in one specific area away from the comic publishers, and throughout the entire con that walkway was packed with crowds slowly scooping out their wares. The only solo star of the con was Tor Books, alongside their Seven Seas manga imprint, which had a large section to itself closer to the comics. Thankfully, they also had a helpful ceiling sign to signal interested attendees to the booth, which made them an easy find on the last day of the con when the crowds mercifully began to dissipate.

However, traditional publishing really took SDCC by storm when it came to its panel representation. From Wednesday’s Preview Night to Sunday’s Kid Day, there were about 85 panels specifically focused on books or featuring a mixed book/comic book panelist roster. I was pretty impressed with the expansiveness of this schedule as well. Genre panels such as YA, science fiction, dystopia, and romance were frequent, industry talks on self-publishing and marginalized representation also had a good showing, and several specialized panels were present on everything from Harry Potter to Frankenstein. I would have personally liked to see more panels explicitly dealing with queer and trans identities in publishing, but until these kinds of diversity discussions become more mainstream I’ll just stick with Flame Con for that sweet content.

One big problem I didn’t anticipate was the lines going into these panels. Again, blame my naivety — LineCon is a meme for a reason, after all. Plus, with SDCC missing several of its most popular exhibitioners like Marvel Entertainment and HBO, those crowds had to find their entertainment somewhere else. Hence the lines, which even for what I thought were random book panels wrapped around con corners thrice over and required SDCC’s excellent volunteer squad to let attendees into panel rooms 50 people at a time. Line control at this con was some of the best I’ve ever experienced, but on-the-ground it was a little intimidating.

I did manage to get into a few book panels, thankfully, and I live-tweeted my favorites over at the Bookmarked Twitter page. The first panel was “Let’s Get Real About Fantasy” with Tomi Adeyemi, Daniel José Older, V.E. Schwab, Maggie Stiefvater, and Kiersten White. Together, they launched into a lively discussion about the importance of fantasy literature as a safe space for readers, particularly young readers, to engage with and process through experiences of violence, oppression, and persecution. The racial and gender diversity on this panel greatly enriched the topic discussion at hand. It also allowed the panelists to reflect on their own struggles as authors of marginalized backgrounds, trying to give voice to their unique experiences in a culture that still prioritizes the narratives of straight, cisgender, white men.

My other favorite panel was “Fly Me to the Moon and Let Me Play Among Those Stars,” featuring Alexa Donne, Marina Lostetter, Maura Milan, Sylvain Neuvel, Tillie Walden, and Greg Van Eekhout. The description for this panel was a little off given what the authors actually discussed. Per the official SDCC program schedule, here is what I thought I was going to very slowly shuffle my way into with other con attendees:

Relationships in space travel can be expansive and galaxy-spanning or so intimate as to be claustrophobic. Alexa Donne (Brightly Burning), Marina Lostetter (Noumenon Infinity), Maura Milan (Ignite the Stars), Sylvain Neuvel (The Themis Files), Tillie Walden (On a Sunbeam), and Greg Van Eekhout (Voyage of the Dogs) navigate the emotional and physical spaces of speculative fiction with Maryelizabeth Yturralde of Mysterious Galaxy.

That totally suggests romance, right? Instead, the panel was a more general discussion about writing science fiction, which was interesting in and of itself. The authors talked about tropes they want to reclaim and discard in the genre, the research process behind their books, their genre influences, and fun little scenarios like what they would bring on a long space journey away from Earth. And again this panel featured a nice array of diversity that really informed the overall discussion, particularly around science fiction tropes on queerness and feminism. Even though this particular panel was a bit more lightweight than I thought it would be, overall it was a very cute time that both attendees and panelists enjoyed.

As we encounter the mainstream integration of the comics and traditional book publishing industries, SDCC was a robust introduction to the possible shared spaces they could hold in the world of fan conventions. Books were a fine addition to this con, and they seemed to take up a natural place among all the other entertainment options attendees could enjoy over this very long extended weekend.

I especially liked the book panels at SDCC, which all proved to be much-needed respites from the more mainstream entertainment programming heavily featured at the con. Compared to the non-book related panels I attended, I consistently found that the book panels were committed to showcasing diversity within the publishing industry, no matter the specific topic at hand or how much of a sore spot that topic may be in the industry’s continuous march towards better representation of marginalized identities. Meanwhile, far too many comic book panels were dominated by straight white men as moderators and panelists, sometimes with the unfortunately tokenized white female creator also on the panel as an ill-conceived appeal for brownie points. I’m happy to report that in comparison to that, SDCC’s book programming attracted a very chill crew of socially-conscious organizers, innovative creators, and passionate fans.

At the same time, while SDCC is fun, it is ridiculously packed — you know, if you didn’t get that vibe from this con diary, online con pictures, or the legendary nightmare that is the Hall H line. SDCC has a lot to offer its attendees, with some options given more space within the con’s organization to really stretch their legs. That’s why Marvel and DC had their own color-coded displays on the exhibition floor with plush carpeting and large celebrity stages, while the con’s book scene seemed lucky enough to have Tor Book’s ceiling sign to signal its presence. I look forward to the growth of smaller, well-attended cons where there is a lucrative balance between comics and books; Flame Con is slowing doing this in spades, and I’ve heard equally promising things about Emerald City Comic Con and BookCon as well. I’ll just have to expand my con attendance in the next few months so I can build a more robust comparison catalog of the book industry’s presence at these events.

But for now, here are my final thoughts:

Am I going back to cover SDCC next year? Hell yeah.

Would I recommend the experience to other readers? Hell yeah.

For now, though, am I going to sleep like the dead until next July? Hell yeah.

Cons are exhausting. At least SDCC made it worth it for a little book lover like me.

Paige Allen

Paige Allen

Adult-in-training by day, queer geek of color by night.