Is Worldcon Dying, and Should Authors Still Go to Cons?

Every few years there is a big soul-searching about what Worldcon (one of science fiction’s biggest gatherings) *is* and *means* from attendees after a major Worldcon. Newer writers, newer participants, who have strong feelings about what is missing, pipe up.

Since I’ve been blogging about this stuff since 1998, there are usually a few reactions. Either their comments get folded in (remember the great wars to get electronically published material eligible for awards? I do.). Or people demand that those challenging issues join (though from many accounts if you’re an outsider to the culture it can be hard to figure out *how*). Or… the improvements show up in some other convention and the benefits accrue to it.

I’ve seen Confusion in Detroit grow from a very aged and greying regional convention to a growing, younger, more vital convention. I’ve seen conventions that were at the same state it was in ten years ago continue their slow slide. Often they’re happy to continue the slide. This is who we are, dammit, we’re happy about it.

I’d like to change that, but since I’m not volunteering, it’s not my place. Maybe it’s okay to watch some things wither away from the point of view of the bar with a scotch in my hand, and look forward to the more vital, crowded place full of a more diverse crew…
…but it’s not the fate I wish on any given event. So I sometimes rue in public. And I hope Worldcon doesn’t follow that fate.

I worry aloud because I care. And because I’m a writer and I like to see venues thrive and readers thrive and I would hate to see the Hugo Awards dragged down. Because seeing those happy writers win an award voted on by the readers was amazing. I love that.

* * *

Are Worldcon numbers dropping? This has actually been hashed out before by Cheryl Morgan. In 2010 she wrote an article, reposted at SFWA.org now as a response to something written by authors who had discovered DragonCon was more happening (see, three years later we’re all hashing over an already argued online argument!).
Here’s the basic chart:

Worldcons have grown from inception until the early 80s, at which point they settled into a rough size of 3-5,000 (depending on location, but the range holds fairly true).

“If you take into account different attendance levels in different parts of the world then attendance has been pretty much steady from 1980 onwards. Canadian Worldcons have  never exceeded 4,000 members, so Montréal was not unusually small.  British Worldcons just exceed 4,000. The numbers in the USA are more varied. The largest Worldcon ever was L.A.Con II in 1984 which drew 8,365 people. It did that, at least in part, on the back of being the first venue ever to show the original three Star Wars movies back-to-back. Of course that would not be a draw these days. No other Worldcon has exceeded 7,000 members. Of the 20 US Worldcons from 1980 onwards, 13 of them have had fewer than 6,000 members. Two have had fewer than 4,000. Both of those have been in Denver.”

(Via A Future for Worldcon? | SFWA.)

Judging by that plot, baby boomer SF/F fans have pretty much settled into a pattern that looks like it will probably hold true for at least another 15-20 years, depending, of 3-5,000 person Worldcons.

Some have claimed interest in Worldcons and Hugos are up, due to higher votes and nominations in the Hugo voting process. I would believe that probably has more to do with the fact that voting is *easier* now than before thanks to a) electronic ballots and b) packets with nominees in them and c) pin numbers automatically sent to you from last year’s con that allow nominations for the next. That has gotten hella easier than when I first entered the field.
By the way, if you want to understand a lot of just how much we’re rehashing arguments, current writers should read the above article I linked by Cheryl, that does an amazing job of explaining some of the… ins and outs and what have you’s…

* * *

Before my heart defect took me out of the game for a while in 2008, I did a great deal of travel (some of it on my own dollar, other trips as a guest). I got a chance to participate at DragonCon and San Diego Comic Con, in addition to regional conventions like Boskone, and smaller local conventions. I spent a lot of money in 2007 and 2008 going where I could.
Since 2008, I’ve also tested the waters of GenCon (the 40,000 person plus gaming oriented convention), been invited to the 2-3,000 person AnimeKon Expo in Barbados, been a Guest of Honor at local conventions in the midwest, and attended as a guest lecturer to various events around the country.

In the beginning common wisdom was that we should attend conventions to build our readership. I used to attend everything I could afford, and put out brochures with story snippets (CDs with free stories, etc) and more on them. The higher access to professionals ratio at the smaller fan cons meant I got to meet some writers, some who were very friendly to an up-and-coming newbie like myself.

When I started getting out to the big SF cons it was a heady experience. Authors I loved at the bar, or hanging out at parties (who sometimes talked to me!). Going on panels in front of 30-100 people (depending on the lineup). Signing at the autographing line. Seeing people wait for me to arrive at the KaffeeKlatsch (how cool!). Meeting readers in the hall, at parties, waiting for me at the end of a panel.

But there were issues. The greying of fandom. Lack of diversity. Those stood out at me. Often they could be depressing, weathering casual prejudice by sometimes other panelists or audience members when I was asked to talk about race.

This seriously dampened my desire to want to participate or engage.

But I forged on out of a desire to interact with my readers and grow my readership. It was gratifying to see my work come out in the long list of books nominated for Hugos… on the long list, if you will.

* * *

I had to make some tough decisions in 2009. Faced with medical bills and debt from not being able to make as much, twins arrived, and education debt, I couldn’t justify convention attendance as an investment in growing my readership.

Some very incredible con-runners keep asking me when I’ll be able to attend XYZ con, and I have to be honest and explain that I cannot, in good conscience, attend a convention on my own dime these days. Not until I’m completely debt free.

I will occasionally go to a major Worldcon, or a WFC. Usually if it’s close by, or if it’s subsidized by another business trip or concurrent travel (this year I altered the ticket back from Barbados to swing me through San Antonio). But it’s rare.

More often than not I show up without trying to get on panels or anything like that. I’ll explain why shortly.

* * *

Mike Underwood on a Reddit post related to our twitter conversation has the summary that best summarizes the various categories of conventions:

Small fan-cons (Balticon, ReaderCon, etc.) – These regional cons are very focused on the SF/F literary world, and tend to provide a very intimate experience – access to professionals is high, due to a lower fan:pro ratio.
Big SF cons (WorldCon, EasterCon) – Explicitly SF/F lit focused, with notable, if often greying, fan presence. This is based almost entirely on experience at WorldCon (2012 and 2013).
Big Multi-Media Cons (Convergence) – Explicitly multi-fandom, but SF/F lit has a place at the table. In 2013, Convergence had a full age spread, with a strong youth presence (esp. in Steampunk and anime).
Huge Multi-media cons (GenCon, Dragon Con) – notable SF/F lit element, but SF/F lit is not the focus. These cons shew young, with notable numbers of teens, 20-somethings, etc.
Huge Media Cons (Comic Cons) – More than 50K up to 100K+ attendees. Some literary presence, but it’s definitely an also-ran compared to the central theme.

I would probably lump the last two into one category for myself.

Having attended the full range of those categories, the one thing I began to realize was that plugging myself into them meant differing results.

At GenCon the Author Alley moved hundreds of dollars of books, covering my gas and the motel room, thus paying for itself. I also was exposed to a lot of new readers who introduced themselves, took bookmarks with directions to download free samplers. I saw a bump in sales afterward.

Comic Con saw me paired up with Mysterious Galaxy, a long time supporter and fantastic crew of booksellers who moved a good number of books and put my face in front of a larger crew than normal. I was also able to make contacts outside the usual suspects of fellow SF/F authors. Broadening my horizons.

DragonCon, again, paired me up with a bookseller and allowed me to stand at a table for the better part of a day.

At the core regional and Worldcon conventions, usually the routine is a couple of panels a day where I am co-panelist with a wide variety of people, and a varying audience, with a rendering or one hour autographing session at some point if I’m lucky. A check of the dealer room usually indicates a few copies of my books sold.

I’ve also done a city book fair where I sat at a table and shook hands and met people and sold a couple hundred dollars worth of books.

At the first AnimeKon Expo in Barbados I sold hundreds of dollars worth of books standing at a booth, and hundreds of dollars more again this year (the most books sold record holds for both AnimeKons). To be fair, I was a Caribbean SF author in the Caribbean *at an SF oriented convention*. I have however been at an academic conference in the Caribbean, invited as a guest, where I did… a reading, and a quick autograph session, with much lower sales (a few books). So I do suspect layout and approach actually do have a huge impact.

* * *

So the question is, what am I doing at a convention. And there are many variables that plug into this.

First, what stage am I in as a writer?

I make a living (or a good chunk of it) as a writer (and freelancer). I’m in a different stage than when I was just a writer trying to sell some short stories, or even when I’d just sold some, or even than when I’d just sold my first novel and was first trying to find readers.

Secondly, what is the purpose of the event I’m at for myself, in my current role? What’s my job, per se, at different events?

In my own sphere I’ve come to regard Worldcon as a ‘water cooler’ event. A place I spend money to attend, that then allows me to catch up in real life to all manner of friends. I’m starting to prefer to attend those without panels and obligations so I can just lightly float through the social circles I wish, retreat to my room when I need to nap, and so on. The thinking is, as very few books will sell, why not focus on the thing that seems locked in more to what I’m there for.

At events where I shake hands and am at a booth to sell books, my focus is to gear up and do that. Let’s move some books.

If I’m invited as a Guest or Guest of Honor, my way paid, then it doesn’t matter how many books I’ve sold. I’ve been flown somewhere to meet people and be available. That then, is my focus. I will do my best to go out of my way to attend all the room parties, go to as many panels as I can, and walk around the hallways so people can meet the guest.

Last year, I went to a Worldcon that was nearby and didn’t attend programming. I had a marvelous time networking and chatting with friends and not having obligations outside of that. The focus worked.

This year I tested out attending panels. It was fun, but again, very few books sold via the dealer room system and a remarkable lack of youth and diversity. Again, that isn’t Worldcon’s focus, they’re oriented at a different demographic. That makes me think it works best for me as a water cooler convention. I have to hope the demographic collapse 10-20 years off is navigated for the sake of the Hugos, which I love. If I really want that diversity, I can, as a consumer, simply opt for another event (there are many).

However, that isn’t fair of me. If I write this off completely as a way to interact with readers, I write off all the readers that *were* at Worldcon. Graying readers don’t mean they aren’t reading new fiction. Lack of diversity doesn’t mean there aren’t white, older readers digging what I’m doing. It would be short-sighted of me to do this. At my one hour signing I spent about 35 minutes signing for people who showed up (not just collectors), and I was grateful to have their support and attention. It was awesome.

And I know readers wanted to interact more, because while I was skulking around outside the bar I heard readers express how intimidated they were by the writers’ takeover of the bar, creating a space that while seemed to some like a ‘no readers’ zone. From the inside perspective, it was just friends who all have something in common (reading/reviewing/art/long friendships/industry attachments) catching up and meeting friends of friends. From the outside?

So there is a desire to connect. The Drinks with Writers was a successful event for mingling a bit more. Room parties as well, though it’s always tough when they’re spread out a bit, and the quality depends on where and how they’re hosted.

As for moving books, I was impressed by Angry Robot, who used a booth and customized business cards per writer to really promote and sell a lot of their authors’ books. I understand that at 3-5,000 people, investing a lot of time and energy into something like that may be a tough calculation, but it certainly impressed me.

The post-Worldcon examination often has people offering up all manner of suggestions. I don’t have pronouncements, but I think if we want Worldcon to survive well past the demographic drop off, it needs more youth and diversity. I do think other cons will be happy to pick up to serve that need if it doesn’t. I hope it does.

As for how I’ll interact, I’m not sure. I like the idea of attending when I can afford to as mostly a networking event unless something changes. I was tired enough this year I think in the future I’ll do what I saw one author do: limit the events to just a single day so that I have energy and time to nap and be social on my own schedule. I certainly don’t want to blow off fans, so maybe an autographing and reading if I’m allowed? I’m very aware I’m there only if the volunteers arranging it want me to be, so I would understand if they found that to not be enough of a commitment… on the other hand, I’m volunteering my time and effort as well on panels. Some people see panels as a reward, or a geek promotion, but I invest time, energy, and thought ahead of time on them and am often tired afterwards. It’s not free, there is a cost for me.

My publisher in the UK will have a presence at the next Worldcon, and I might be called upon to do a lot more, which would be fine as well. I’d act as if it were a shake hands and stand a booth sort of con, meet new readers. That’ll be fantastic too. Worldcon, by virtue of being in a different place every year, also has the additional frustration of changing in tone each year, and changing what the author might need to view it as. A chance to meet overseas readers and editors might be a good networking opportunity. Worldcon is not a monolith.
At my next US Worldcon, I certainly also would consider buying a table, possibly with another author. I still want to test out a stand-and-shake approach to Worldcon would be like while selling my own wares.

The danger in this, I’m told, is that I will upset dealer-room booksellers. And I don’t want to do that. Some of them are excellent ambassadors out representing one’s books to a myriad of other, smaller, regional conventions.

I’d hate to get blacklisted, or something like that.

On the other hand, there were only a couple book dealers at Worldcon this year, and nothing at all like the larger rows of booksellers I first saw at my first Worldcon in 2001. Are they fading away as well? When do you begin to try and compensate? And is this really a zero sum game we’re playing where we jealously guard these little kingdoms? I was able to figure out how to sell both my books and a booksellers at a recent event with everyone making money.

* * *

I think, mainly, we’re possibly not experimenting enough. All of us. It’s easy to do what worked before and stick with a rut. I fell into the three panels, a reading, a quick autograph session myself. But having done some other things, it can be electrifying to shake it all up (and then also find more readers, sell more books, inject more excitement in).
I would like to buy a table and write something live, like Howard Taylor does live sketches.
I would like to participate in Ignite type events. 5 minutes, don’t talk about your book (or whatever you’re hawking). Maybe we authors could do it guerrilla style. We have a reputation for being boring at readings, so few attend. How can we shake things up, and train ourselves to be better presenters?

I want a panel of all minorities… who talk about anything but ‘minorities in SF.’ Make the topic ‘near future space access’ or something. It’s something we can propose?
I’d like to participate in more mixers. We can do these.

How about some Skype sessions with people across the world for more diversity?

These are all things that aren’t demands for Worldcons to change, these are things we can sneak doing ourselves.

I have very limited energy (damn heart issues), or I swear I’d try to move more of these forward. Mostly, after this very long entry, I hope I just gave you some interesting links and things to think about for the next round.

I think we can do interesting. I’ve seen it happen.

PS, it’s interesting to compare the website of a Phoenix Comic Con and a Worldcon. And I’ll note, that I’ve never been made to feel unwelcome at an event like this, even though I wasn’t a headliner. Sure I’m not in the main guest room with famous actors, but it’s been very fun to attend as an author. The main issue is that so many people show up it’s hard to navigate!
PPS: I don’t demand that a con should return on investment. Obviously if I’m designating it as a water cooler event, I look it as just that. But I have to say, it really helps if selling books can create ROI. Why? I’m asked to do a LOT of events. Right now, due to my medical debt, I simply turn most of them down unless it will be a fantastic water cooler event, or my way is being paid. But if I were able to get more of an ROI (like GenCons), cons might find more people showing up because they’re at least not costing themselves lots and lots of money to attend lots of these events.