Karen Whittaker: A book to go with your twinkie?

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Armageddon exhibitor Karen Whittaker wants fans, geeks and wannabes to experience the joy of imagining

When the creatures of the day and night started to appear as the expo went live, the largest costume party of the nation kicked off with gusto. Photo / Richard Robinson
When the creatures of the day and night started to appear as the expo went live, the largest costume party of the nation kicked off with gusto. Photo / Richard Robinson

As a new sci-fi author, when I decided to run a stand at the Auckland Armageddon Expo, the prospect of having an opportunity of speaking to my target market was exciting. The night before the show I couldn't sleep and the estimated number to attend was 55,000 people.

Having attended many expos in the past as a 'showgoer', I was also looking forward to being able to view the exhibitors' stands before the general public and talk to some Kiwi talent about how they got started. At the entrance to the first hall they had the celebrity signing area, and the line-up of international sci-fi and fantasy TV and movie actors was pretty impressive.

The gaming culture was, as always, thrilling and visually appealing and there were areas set aside for the gaming queues that would inevitably form when the doors opened. The introduction of Zombie Alley set my nerves on an excited edge and while I partied with the zombies in the aisles of the expo, I couldn't pluck up the courage to go through the exhibit (many told me later that it was super scary and amazing).

As I moved through the expo halls waiting to see new fantasy, sci-fi and gaming ideas, I was puzzled at the Twinkie stand, then the unusually cheap looking soft toy stand, various other candy retailers, $2 shop style stalls and the large, bland looking areas set aside for the big retailers. Disappointed, I came back down to the very back of the last hall where all the New Zealand artists were located, and settled into the safety of my little stand in the second to last row of the expo.


Only about 2000 of the 25,000 strong crowd at Armageddon seemed to make it beyond the blockbuster expos to find local authors and artists. Photo / Richard Robinson
Only about 2000 of the 25,000 strong crowd at Armageddon seemed to make it beyond the blockbuster expos to find local authors and artists. Photo / Richard Robinson

When the creatures of the day and night started to appear as the expo went live, the largest costume party of the nation kicked off with gusto. Most of the first wave of fans, geeks and Dr Who wannabes spent time admiring each other and themselves and stopped to take "selfies" before looking at the stands.

Twenty-five thousand people came through on Saturday, but I estimated only around 2000 walked all the way to the back of the expo and made their way across our small stands to talk to the various New Zealand artists. I can't tell you how hard the organisers of the expo worked - they were amazing, helpful, and so great to work with. The success of the expo was down to their efforts, but the foot traffic for high demand retailers vs Kiwi artists was disheartening.

Time spent talking to those who spent hours, days and weeks making their costumes was an amazing experience, and our free lollipop bowl emptied quickly as we chatted to showgoers about their extravagant get-ups which were often homemade, and an incredible display. Of all the conversations, the most eye-opening statements were the answers I received to my question: "Do you like to read sci-fi?" Now bear in mind, at least one-third of the dressed-up attendees were wearing sci-fi outfits (I don't know how many Star Trek emblems I saw), so there were certainly sci-fi fans in abundance. Here were some of the replies I heard from people aged around 16 to 25 years:

"I have never read a book."

"I started a book once, but I never finished it."

"I'm not really into reading."

"Your book looks cool, but I like games."

As Saturday wore on, I started to feel sad, not for lack of sales, but for the reading-less culture that has slowly evolved and is now snowballing due partly to the pull towards newer technology, movies, 3D animation, and imported pop culture figurines derived from overseas shows and games.

Yes, I sold books, to young people who do read (my target market being 15+), but mainly to people in the over 25 category. Those with weekend passes who purchased my book came back the next day and gave me excited reviews of the first chapter, which was humbling and encouraging.

However, for the Gen-Y and Millennial demographic who don't read, their imaginations can only be filled with visuals; they have not had the opportunity of forming anything their imagination could create from reading books. It makes me wonder if our future will be filled with recreations and remakes of what has already been done before.

I recently talked to a friend whose high-school aged son was having trouble sleeping and was becoming increasingly unwell. Upon a visit to the doctor, mum was told, "take away the games and turn off the computer, give him a book to read at night before bed". On the first morning after an evening of reading, the son came to breakfast and said: "Mum you will never believe this, but did you know that when you read, you get pictures in your head?!" He was stunned, amazed and happily hooked on reading, but I was shocked. I had never thought the made-up characters and landscapes of the minds of artists would be a dying characteristic of human nature.

As parents and well-read adults, we are automatically tuned into the art of reading, but for many who have chosen to allow their children to grow up in the world of gaming, TV shows and movies, who have never encouraged their children to read, or are too busy or exhausted from work and use technology as entertainment, their children have not discovered the "art of reading".

Their short attention spans and addiction to the vibrancy of visual games and high-tech movie scenes does not allow for the concentration required to get into a book or evolve minds into unseen worlds awaiting their visitation. For the many school leavers who pursue increasingly popular animation courses and are talented artists, many of them base their art on what they have already seen in pop-culture and so create slightly altered versions of what art already exists.

Is this a marketing ploy to sell my book? Am I jealous of high-demand retailers who rake in the cash at expos such as Armageddon? No. If I was in this for money, I would turn my book into a game and create figurines to sell with it. Am I ambitious? Sure, otherwise I would give my book away for free and sign it 'Anonymous', but as an artist I'm grieving the loss of an art, that is, like some of our precious wildlife, becoming extinct - the art of reading.

After a whopping 60,000 attendees at this year's Auckland Armageddon Expo, what will I need to do to get more attention from showgoers at the next Armageddon? Have life-size posters of my characters, visually exciting book trailers running, hire actors to parade around dressed as depictions of my book characters, and rock up to the Twinkie counter and ask buyers: "Do you want a book to go with that Twinkie?"

Above all, I hope that someone reading this encourages someone who doesn't read to stop by Artists' Alley at the next Armageddon, and pick up a book and read.


Karen Whittaker is an Auckland sci-fi author and Armageddon exhibitor.

- NZ Herald

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