Sowing Dragon’s Teeth

When Mike Resnick raised questions about the Worldcon’s future in an SF Signal comment chain his approach there was to describe symptoms, assess possible causes and urge intelligent changes to fix them. Yet in crafting his editorial for Universe about the same topic Resnick inexplicably took a radically different approach.

Readers of Universe presumably now believe that Worldcon’s inept volunteers cheated posterity out of 120,000-member Worldcons by scorning gamers, anime and comics fans, and have ruined the Worldcon brand by sending it out of the U.S. too many times. Worldcon now reaps what it has sown. Attendance is flat and Resnick says publishers are abandoning the shrinking Worldcon. Writers inevitably will follow them to Dragon*Con and Comic-Con as he has.

A bidder for a future Worldcon says he recently received a similar warning from an unnamed past Worldcon guest of honor. (That would have to be someone different than Resnick, who hasn’t been GoH.)

Conrunners would worry about these warnings and criticisms anyway, and a few are especially anxious about the unopposed Chicago in 2012 bid’s plan to hold the con over Labor Day weekend. That would be the first time a U.S. Worldcon has been held opposite Dragon*Con since 2004.

These are hard times for conventions that cater to the written word as Worldcon does. Worldcons in the 1990s typically had around 6,500 attendees. Since 2000 only two Worldcons have drawn 6,000 and the others rarely topped 4,000. I’d like to stop the incredible shrinking Worldcon so I agree it is a good idea to identify and address the genuine problems. They are not the ones Resnick chose to dramatize, and there are good reasons why worrying about Dragon*Con won’t contribute to solving them.

[This long post continues after the jump.]

Where Did the Publishers Go? Resnick lists 11 sf publishers that didn’t go to this year’s Worldcon in Montreal. Since he made a point of this I checked the Dragon*Con website expecting to find them listed among the dealers and exhibitors – but they weren’t. Is the list wrong or did they not go to Dragon*Con either?

It’s well known that the publishing industry is ringing from the twin hammer-blows of a technological revolution and a world economic crisis.

The demand for print sf was shaky even before electronic publishing took off. Jerry Pournelle once could count on libraries for a steady 5000 hardcover sales before their government funding was eviscerated. Magazines have been in serious decline for decades: Analog had a circulation of 104,000 in 1980, by 2008 it had dropped below 30,000. Written sf can be distributed electronically in the internet age, yet electronic magazines fail all the time despite their reduced costs. Baen’s Universe itself plans to quit publication in 2010.

Publishers are retrenching. Some of the traditional work of marketing books has been cut back, phased out, or dropped in the laps of individual writers.

Even without technological change the publishing business would be hard pressed by the present economy. Those same economic factors are a drag on Worldcons.

The two major economic downturns of the past decade have directly affected Worldcon attendance.

The dot-com boom ended in March 2000 and bottomed out in October 2002. The economy reached low-ebb in the hard-hit Silicon Valley right as it was slated to host a Worldcon (ConJose, 2002).

The subprime mortgage crisis began in 2007. Unemployment in the U.S. literally doubled from 4.8% in April 2008 to 9.6% by August 2009, obviously affecting attendance at the two most recent Worldcons, Denvention 3 and Anticipation. When fans are losing their jobs con attendance drops.

Then, the Toronto Worldcon was certainly not helped by the outbreak of SARS there in early 2003, which put a dent in the city’s tourism for the rest of the year. Post-9/11 changes to airport security also affected travel decisions.

A Question Begged: The impact of the economy on Worldcon attendance is backed up with anecdotal evidence from fans who say job loss is why they skipped some Worldcons they’d planned to attend.

So why don’t the two most famous megacons seem to be suffering?

San Diego Comic-Con International has drawn more people every year of this decade, growing exponentially from 48,500 in 2000 to upwards of 140,000 in 2009.

Dragon*Con’s attendance is more difficult to research because its history page simply lists “20,000+” for 2000-2005, increasing to “30,000+” in 2007, the last year reported. It suffices that the most conservative number is still enormous. Much larger numbers are thrown around in the press but denied by Dragon*Con staff (“those numbers just could not happen, as we did not order that many badges from the printing company.”) Conspiracy theorists wink and assume the official number exists to keep the fire marshal from shutting down the con. Whatever number you believe, Dragon*Con is somewhere between 5-10 times the size of most Worldcons.

Why isn’t the Worldcon following that trend?

An Answer Given: The Worldcon’s linkage with the market for written sf is the reason for this state of affairs.

Last year Book Expo America drew 5,800 in LA. In the early 1990s when it was called the ABA event attendance was closer to 25,000. The Internet and other innovations over the last 15 years or so have begun to eclipse personal meetings and the physical showing of upcoming books, which is a primary purpose of BEA.

BookExpo Canada was cancelled altogether — in the same year that its corporate owner successfully launched new Canadian shows for the jewelry and pharmaceutical industries!

Events built around the written word generally are suffering a decline in attendance.

Worldcons follow that trend because written science fiction is the Worldcon’s first priority, if not our only love. That’s not the way to build an empire in 2009. To become a proprietor of a huge sf/fantasy con you must devote your attention to the media that draw the largest audiences — movies, tv and comics, not books and magazines.

Worldcon Identity Community: It would be nonsense to suppose writers and publishers only just recently discovered there are megacons many times the size of Worldcon when that has been true for a couple of decades. And they don’t necessarily have to pick just one: Tor Books has been known to have a major presence at both Comic-Con and Worldcon. But why have writers and others in this business been coming to Worldcon all along?

Fans’ passion for written sf is the reason for writers to come to the Worldcon. Fans work hard to perpetuate the Worldcon’s traditional culture of being a place where they interact with the remarkable men and women who write the fiction we like, who see the world a bit differently, anticipating and sometimes creating its changes. Fans get to interact with writers at panels, in the bar, at room parties.

While Worldcon surely needs to rebound in size, and ideas for attracting fans are constantly sought, let’s not lose that vision. Worldcon is not a business, it is a community of fans and creative professionals with a common interest and it is a shared trust that is handed on from one organizing committee to the next.

Dragon*Con is a popular culture event that simultaneously houses several parallel conventions for various special interests. While it is very successful, the Worldcon is trying to do something different. Let’s keep that sense of community which is the main distinction that leads fans to this con.

Special Interests: Shaping Worldcons around the creativity of writers, editors, artists and publishers and doing that as well as we know how is our foundation. Whenever that is said in so many words a few people promptly condemn it as a decision to exclude media, gaming, comics, etc. despite the evidence in front of their eyes that all these things are included – are in fact courted, but in a way that harmonizes with the focus on written sf.

There’s a world of difference between turning a ballroom over to a special interest and making that special interest the primary focus of Worldcon. Gaming, comics, anime, etc. are involved at Worldcons because these, too, are interests shared by fans who read books and stories.

Gamers have been included by Worldcons for as long as I can remember – given space to meet and play, and more. I’ve even run a Worldcon department with Steve Jackson’s help. From Aussiecon 2 (1985) through Noreascon 4 (2004) most Worldcons provided dedicated facilities to gamers. Every time I walked from my hotel to the convention center during the 2004 Worldcon in Boston I passed the open doors of a vast ballroom which had been turned over to gamers and hosted a whole suite of tournaments.

The idea that fans of these special interests turned to other conventions out of resentment is less logical and likely than the simple explanation that they heard about what was happening at the megacons and were attracted to their abundance of mass media sf/fantasy related features.

A Worldcon Too Far? I also want to respond to the notion that circulating Worldcon out of the U.S. is to blame rather than the economy and state of the publishing business.

Through 2010, the Worldcon will have been out of the U.S. five times in eight years. Resnick considers that deeply significant. But two of those five Worldcons took place in Toronto and Montreal, at distances from New York publishers of 491 miles and 331 miles, respectively. Why would such a trivial distance keep anybody away? I doubt that it did. That happened because of the economy and retrenchment in the publishing industry.

When you look back at those domestic U.S. Worldcons of the 1990s whose robust attendance inspires Resnick’s nostalgia, you’ll find they were scheduled around four out-of-country Worldcons (1990, 1994, 1995, 1999.)

The notion that out-of-country Worldcons are detrimental to the relative size of U.S Worldcons doesn’t hold water. So I expect what the people who raise this argument are driving at is they believe the Worldcon ought to be growing like Dragon*Con and holding so many Worldcons overseas hurts the development of Worldcon as a brand — out-of-sight, out of mind.

If it is true that being in the same country every year is important to sustain the desired level of domestic Worldcon attendance – which I believe I’ve just shown it is not — that’s antithetical to what the Worldcon does, it’s never going to be an option. We’re not going to quit circulating it around the world.

Worldcon members themselves vote on where future cons are held. The “World” in its name has been kept a reality by voters at U.S. Worldcons — from 1995 to the present, bids from outside North America have been chosen 4 times, each of them selected by a vote held at a Worldcon in the United States. It’s that darned democracy thing.

The choice may go against the usual wisdom of “branding” but it is true to other values fans respect.

Nippon 2007, in particular, was the realization of a long-held dream to use the Worldcon as a bridge to Japanese-speaking fans.

Thinking About the Real Problems: The fragile health of book-oriented events and the cratering of the economy are the main reasons for the shrinking Worldcon. On the other hand, I don’t think fans have done everything possible to overcome them.

There’s a focus on written sf but if that’s all Worldcon was about it would be a lot smaller. The last Worldcon held before Star Trek’s first episode aired — when the Worldcon was the only game in town — drew a total of 850 people. At the 1972 Worldcon there were about 80 pros on the program. Attendance and the number of pros available to participate in programming is so much larger now. In other words, the Worldcon has enjoyed the benefits of being a hybrid writing/media convention for a long time.

Hold the con every year on the same date? No. Hold it in the same city every time? No. Have major media guests from movie, tv, comics. Yes, that can be done if they’ll come as GoHs (just their travel expenses paid.) In fact, this year’s Worldcon picked guests with that kind of appeal. Neil Gaiman is a major sf writer who also has a great history in comics. Filmmaker Ralph Bakshi originally agreed to be another of Anticipation’s guests, but backed out. Other Worldcons have had Roger Corman, J. Michael Straczynski, Gerry Anderson. Sometimes it can be done. (I wonder how Roger Ebert stacks up as a media guest, someone who can appeal to more than one part of the fannish spectrum having once published a fanzine.)

I disagree that Worldcon has run off the fans with a variety of interests — since most Worldcon members fall into that category. Readers who are also fans of media and gaming are around and every Worldcon committee should be making a concerted effort to take advantage of their talent, fresh insights and energy. They are the best bridge between the various special interests and the Worldcon for the obvious reason that people who already like Worldcons have the best chance of interesting others in attending them. The best place to look for Worldcon members is among convention-attending fans. 

And believe it or not, this doesn’t represent a big change from what most Worldcon committees already want to do.

The Worldcon may offer these other fans something they’re not finding at the cons they already attend. Alex Von Thorn points out, “A lot of the large media conventions aren’t ‘welcoming’ in any meaningful way; having a dealer’s room and a big room with a stage doesn’t build community or provide attendees with much opportunity to connect to each other.”

It remains a fact that the appeal of events celebrating print sf has waned continually. When the Worldcon is in the U.S., I think the work of reaching people who are interested in our kind of event would be a lot more effective if the cities being selected had a large fan population that already supports sizeable sf cons (of whatever type). Would it not have been easier to draw well in Chicago instead of Denver? And won’t Reno in 2011 be forced to swim against the tide, having to educate the public about cons, which they have little money to do well? But what can I say, it’s that darned democracy thing again. Where the Worldcon goes is determined by a vote of the fans willing to join the future Worldcon. People are making these choices with their eyes open.

Finally I come back to ask what response Resnick and the unnamed former Worldcon GoH want from these messages (assuming they meant something more than “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”) If everything we can reasonably do to enhance and market the Worldcon succeeds, it will still be only a fraction the size of Dragon*Con. Worrying about relative size is pointless.

Let’s concentrate on doing the things this community exists for in the best possible way, a community of which the writers, editors, etc. are a big part, and a potent one with a vision of a Worldcon’s future. I think that statement was clearly made by the people who turned out to oppose the repeal of semiprozine Hugo and the others who voted the Best Fanzine Hugo to a fiction magazine. I take that as a sign many more pros are investing their blood, sweat and tears in the Worldcon than are abandoning it.

Committees need to keep working with all the individual pros who pay their own way (virtually all of them) and find out what it takes for the Worldcon to maintain a good mix of business and social reasons for them to attend. Their imaginative help is the con’s most valuable asset.  

[Thanks to Gary Farber for the link.]

43 thoughts on “Sowing Dragon’s Teeth

  1. Even though the two Canadian Worldcons you referenced were less than 500 miles from New York, members with a professional or commercial interest who wanted to attend the convention faced complex and expensive shipping problems to get bulk materials (books, media, art etc.) through Customs and back again. The extra hassle compared to shipping in-country is a deal-breaker for a lot of folks — I know there were several US booksellers who are regulars at US Worldcons who didn’t make the recent Montreal convention for that reason. The same goes for artists, with the non-US Worldcon artshows being a lot smaller without the contributions of the large US SFF art community.

  2. I read much the same argument from Resnick on some web site, shortly after the Worldcon. Same reasoning, same demand the Worldcon immediately turn into a Hollywood trade show, the same dire threats that the Worldcon will be shunned by all professionals in the genre, and be reduced to a few dozen aging old farts who used to read Analog in The Good Old Days.

    I argued against all this with much the same points you’ve used, though not remotely as carefully or at such length. It seemed to me that the economy could well explain lower turn-outs of late. I was pooh-poohed and told I had no real knowledge of what was going on.

    You seem to have overlooked the border being a factor, though. While it should have had little effect on whether or not fans would chose to attend Torcon or Anticipation, I think it has a lot of influence on the decision of artists, dealers, and perhaps even publishers. That border that the Free Trade Agreement tells us isn’t there, is actually far more of an obstacle than ever to bringing over books, art, and other collectables for sale. The border isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. The con did try to help people through it. But when you’re used to loading up a van and just hitting the highway, having to fill out a load of forms and answer questions, and maybe even pay over some money for the privelege of driving into Canada, instead of to some destination in the US, can be intimidating. But this difficulty evaporates the moment a Worldcon moves back into the 50 contiguous states.

    In the end, I think all the brou-ha-ha from certain authours is entirely self-serving. They aren’t thinking of the fans or fandom, but of the possibility of chatting up George Lucus, and the opportunity to fish for a lucrative career in Tinseltown. I think it’s illusory. Hollywood has little use for most writers. A few will be approached regardless of how big the Worldcon is, and their “properties” bought. Even if the Worldcon grew to Dragon*Con’s size, the majority of writers would be every bit as much ignored as the lowliest fan. I suspect that even if there were defections to bigger, media cons, most writers will discover they’re fans after all, or that they like fans, and quietly drift back to Worldcon.

  3. I’m glad I was able to offer a useful quote. We’re having a lot of useful discussion about this issue on the Chicago Worldcon bid mailing list, as you know.

    The criticisms are not all off-target. I supported the Kansas City Worldcon bid largely because I thought four out-of-US Worldcons in seven years was one too many. Montreal is an expensive city, airfare into Canadian cities is a lot more expensive than comparable US flights, and customs and immigration are problems for some people (for which there are solutions, but those take effort). But as you say, democracy is also an issue and some of the problems cited work both ways. Many European fans who voted in Yokohama for Montreal preferred not to have to deal with Homeland Security.

    But the basic difference between Worldcon and the large shows is not new and is well-known to our members and committees. Even the focus some people have on the “printed” word is a false distraction. This is about the difference between a convention, in which people come together to exchange ideas, and a show where people come to be entertained. Worldcons excel in this exchange of ideas. When Hugo winners, let alone the occasional Nobel laureate, lurk the corridors and panels wanting to talk to members about their ideas, you have to bring your game. At the bigger shows, content creators simply come to talk about the products they are selling. Publishers will go to the larger shows to find new audiences for their products, but they also come to Worldcon, World Fantasy, and many other conventions to talk to the people creating science fiction; they’re in the bar and parties rather than in the dealer’s room, but they’re still around.

    There are possible improvements in marketing and organization that Worldcons can learn from, and there are also features that are inherent in what Worldcons are. But different events have different purposes that aren’t directly comparable. No one says that DragonCon is a failure because it only gets a quarter of the attendance of Comic Con. Worldcons celebrate the best of science fiction by presenting the Hugo Awards, and many members put a lot of time into reading and watching all the nominated pieces to be able to make informed votes. It’s not just about books versus comics, movies, or games; it’s about the quality of ideas and the level of participation from the attending members. Different events and organizations offer different things to their members and have different criteria of success.

    We can learn from each other. I co-chaired ConComCon in Vancouver this year to help conrunners exchange their skills and experiences, and I’m going to Smofcon in Austin next month to do more of that. But I don’t buy the idea that conventions should be thought of as being in competition with each other. We’re all doing different things to build our communities, but one group’s success isn’t an indication of others’ failure. We should be sharing ideas and best practices to help other groups, and a lot of us are doing exactly that.

  4. First off, alas, I don’t think Roger Ebert would make for a drawing Worldcon guest at this point. From what I’ve read, his various cancer surgeries make it very difficult, if not impossible, for him to communicate verbally these days.

    As for the geographic distribution of Worldcons, the argument I’ve been making for a while now is that we’ve ended up with too many foreign/relatively isolated/smallish metro areas *in a row*. 2000-2006 had every Worldcon in a major metro area with a significant fannish population (Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose/Bay Area, Boston, Glasgow (I’m semi-cheating here by considering this to effectively be the metro area of “Britain”, but attendance there bears this out), Anaheim/SoCal). 2007-2011 we get nowhere near any of those previous six; Yokohama, Denver, Montreal, Melbourne, Reno. Assuming the current bidders win, we’ll get Chicago in 2012, but I’m not sure if San Antonio in 2013 will be more like the 2007-2011 locations; depends on whether “Texas” counts as a metro area for attendance.

    It’s also not helping that the previously strong Eastern zone has turned into the new Wimpy Zone; from 2005-2013, Montreal’s the only Worldcon/active bidder, and Montreal’s hardly in the BosWash or WashAtlanta corridors. No word I’ve heard about any prospective bids in the region beyond 2013 either.

  5. @Tom: I hadn’t ruled out Ebert because the news had reported him making some public appearances. Now that I’ve read the Wikipedia entry for him I see he uses a computerized voice system to speak since recovering from his cancer surgery. He also had a hip injury in 2008 that has added to his other woes. So I can’t really tout him as a GoH idea after all since it’s quite tough enough for him to participate in his own film festival in limited ways.

    @Alex: While you’re right about ideas being the real currency that distinguishes Worldcons (and fandom itself: Tom Digby’s term is “idea-tripping”), if we don’t point at written sf as an example that inspires this kind of play how can people who haven’t experienced the event even start to visualize what we mean?

  6. I’ve attended Worldcon exactly twice, San Jose in 2002 and Denver in 2008. I’m no longer consider myself a fan, but I still follow some people in fandom like Kevin Standlee. So that’s why I’m here replying to this.

    I may be mistaking my experience for being a universal truth, but I cannot afford to go to Worldcon due to both time and money. I find most people who read books are in a similar position to me if they are my age or younger. Young potential fans are poor and Worldcon is terribly expensive due to the modern business reductions in things like paid time off as well as crap wages.

    In addition we follow the online equivalent of fanzines that have people enthusing about going to Dragon*Con or Comic Con. When my friends who do have the money to go out of state to big cons they don’t go to Worldcon. Why would they? There isn’t any excitement or emotional connection.

    I think the right prescription is to lower the cost of supporting membership and encourage people who cannot afford to attend to join some online community. To generate enthusiasm where people wish they could attend. Maybe get a few online comic guests of honor, particularly ones that include parts of their experiences in their comics.

    But then again there might not be a solution. I eventually got tired of trying to push the rope of getting people my age to show up at the local SF club. I decided fandom was not for me because I wanted to have friends my own age.

  7. My fannish side says that ‘people-mover’ conventions like SD comic-con and Dragon Con, frequently use ‘gate’ numbers therefore one person who attends for all four days counts as 4. IF we counted our worldcons that way 5 days of convention for 4000 members equals 20,000.

    My very cynical side, which I try to keep under control most times, is thinking hmmm mabe Mike Resnick is wanting to not have to do what every non- US Fan must to attend US Worldcons – pay for a pass port, pay international flight fees, exchanger currencies. Deal with US Customs personnel who are oh so not friendly these days with us ‘foreign interlopers’. And oh yeah, Mike doesn’t live very far from Dragon Con so it is less travel time for him with probably for airport plane changes too.
    Down, Down Cynical side, Down I tell you. 🙂

    -Linda Ross-Mansfield

  8. @Linda: My sense of things is that Dragon*Con’s own history numbers could be a fair approximation of how many unique individuals attend. On the other hand, after reading dozens of news and other sources I found via Google, I think the highest numbers reported by the media are produced in the way you suggest, and are a cumulative measure of each day’s attendance. What’s more, I think the con’s staff more or less admits this is the rationale for the numbers given to reporters while the con is in progress to help hype the event.

    Setting aside the hype, I believe the true number is neverthless much larger than Worldcon because of all the facilities they use in downtown Atlanta, compared with those needed by the 1986 Worldcon there.

    As for Comic-Con, it’s easier to accept their numbers as credible because they announced sellouts of various dates and types of access well in advance of the event. Why would they discourage paying customers unless their facilities really were at capacity?

  9. Resnick’s list of non-attending publishers was indeed wrong. I particularly remember dropping by a release party held by one of them.

    On attendance numbers, I believe Comic-Con counts tickets, so a person with a four-day ticket counts as one person, but a person with four one-day tickets (which will happen, as the four-day passes sell out months in advance) counts as four.

    On moving around, I think the biggest issue– and I’m not arguing to stop moving, it’s just something to recognize– is not that Comic-Con and Dragon*Con are in the US every year, or just that they’re in the same place every year, but they’re in locations which give them easy access to major media coverage. So that makes it much easier for them to get the word out.

    (And there’s an argument to be considered that going to other countries actually helps Worldcon in this regard. In the US, you get an article or two in the local papers and maybe a local news crew showing up to look for Klingons one day. Outside the US, it gets tons more attention from the host country’s media.)

  10. I think there are two factors that have driven this shift.
    First off, the audience comes in differently. In the first half of the twentieth century there was a vast and thriving pulp culture. The seeker after something wondrous would read. It was easy enough to go from pulp fiction to other fields of literature. (It helped that, as Fred Pohl points out in The Way the Future Was, the people who produced it were more learned than their product; they would go from talking about Hemingway and Dos Passos on break to writing about air heroes sluicing tracer into Fokkers at work.)
    In the fifties, there was a transition in the nature of “pulp fiction”. That was when it shifted to television and movies — the “media”. So the seeker after something wondrous now goes to the theater, or more likely, buys a disk, or now even more finds a website and sees something streamed. So there’s no body of recruits for SF literature to draw on.
    Even for those who do read, something has changed. Many welcomed the Potter Phenomenon, as heralding a wave of new readers. But even in its own sort, YA books, Harry Potter has been the “pig in the python”. Kids eagerly devoured the books when they came out — but they didn’t then read anything else.
    And in other groups there are other one-series readers. “Twilight” for example; there are thousands of young women there who now believe that vampires are sadly misunderstood emos who sparkle in sunlight, waiting for the Right Girl. And so on. There are even *shudder* people who read nothing but Piers Anthony.

    Secondly, there is the “Bowling Alone” syndrome. Robert Putnam’s book described, as part of his general thesis on how social capital was declining, how national organizations no longer had local groups.
    This marks a transition from going to your local con, being a part of your local club, and the like to going only to one big national con a year. Some of the potential new congoers don’t even know that there may be a con in their city, one without 100 big media names, but with real other fans.
    Beyond that there has been a shift in the way in which they interact. Two years ago Joe Phan had his Livejournal, last year he went to his Facebook page, this year he Twitters, and next year, I don’t know either, but it will be some sort of networking where it will be possible to communicate with people all around the world who share a common interest, but never know if they live down the street.

    It’s fair to ask if the Big Publishers and the Big Names consider Dragon*Con and ComicCon to be the place to meet. From all I’ve seen, they are shows, not conventions; one goes as a consumer, not a participant.

  11. Re: “Bowling Alone”, the shift to an international online experience was well under way 20 years ago. Internet usage moving into the mainstream has actually brought geography back somewhat.

    That said, fan-run conventions are indeed falling behind the online technology curve. Here’s a scary statistic: Facebook, by itself, accounts for over a quarter of Web page views in the US. It’s okay to ignore Twitter (at least for now), but your local convention needs a Facebook page, even if all they do with it is point people to the Web site and reciprocate friend requests.

  12. “Many welcomed the Potter Phenomenon, as heralding a wave of new readers. But even in its own sort, YA books, Harry Potter has been the “pig in the python”. Kids eagerly devoured the books when they came out — but they didn’t then read anything else.”

    Last time I went by the YA section of one of the Big Box Stores, it was loaded with YA skiffy & fantasy.

    What’s happening – I think – is that those readers have no contact with “fandom”. For them, it’s no longer “a proud & lonely thing to be a fan”. And by fan I mean: reader of SF.

    To quote John Scalzi: “When the goddamned President of the United States makes Vulcan salutes and is photographed quite unselfconsciously whipping a lightsaber about on the White House lawn, you have won.

  13. I’ve attend Dragoncon in the 90’s when I do remember Del Rey had a booth there for several years. I didn’t go every year in the 90’s so I can’t give you an accurate timeframe for them being there.

  14. @Walsh
    Perhaps a lot of YA fantasy is being published; but is it being read? The book business nowadays seems to be becoming more out of whack, more like the movie business (where no film ever ever makes a profit).

  15. YA fantasy is certainly being read. It’s actually one of the continually-growing segments for the publishing industry, with hardcover sales for year-to-date up by 46.4 percent, and with paperback sales for year-to-date up by 17.4 percent. Some of that may be due to Twilight and Meyers, but we’ve been that upwards trend ever since Harry Potter, actually. (What’s been going down is adult sales, however).

  16. “Perhaps a lot of YA fantasy is being published; but is it being read? ”

    I have no idea how one measures what is being read. I suspect few do.

    I don’t have access to Bookscan, but speaking in very general terms, publishers wouldn’t be publishing as much YA genre stuff if it didn’t have
    some sales. It’s a jungle in the book biz. Very Darwininan, if you will. What doesn’t sell is left behind.

    Seen any gothic romances with one light on in the castle window recently?

  17. You know, I am sick of people saying things like “Dragon Con” counts this number of people this way, or SDCC counts people that way, or that DC is a pop-culture event and so on.

    As a fan who has attended several (maybe now even into the double digit) Worldcons, let us remember this: WE HAVE A PROBLEM and we need to solve it, soon.

    Attendence figures have been going down, and convention size has been going down these last few years, but still for some reason need a HUGE convention center to host like 3,500 people.

    The main website for our organization looks like it was last updated using internet technology from the mid 90’s.

    I remember the great cons of Noreason 3, MagiCon, LA Con 3 and those around that time.

    The dealers room was HUGE. The art show went on FOREVER. We had LOTS of people attend.

    So, what happened to those years??

    I know other people have stated this, but the Reno convention really needs to have some sort of positive impact on trying to get younger or more fen attending the con. If Reno only gets about 3,500 people to attend, we will have SERIOUS problems on our hands.

    So, we can all twist the “facts” of attendence figures from DC and SDCC all we want, but how can we sit by and allow DC and SDCC get all of the media attention of blog sites and media?

    io9.com had coverage of DC for the week leading up to, and the week after DC. The Montreal Worldcon barely got any mention from io9, let alone two weeks after the con such as DC had on that web site.

    Granted, I have gathered that some fen do not care for io9, but be that is may, that does NOT take away the fact that DC managed to gets TONS of free coverage for a two week period of time (or at least seemed like it).

    I really don’t want to travel all the way to Reno to see a huge convention space that is empty, and not full of energy. And I certainly don’t want to see that if Chicago should win their bid.

  18. So the part where I stopped nodding along and began making faces started about here:

    “Gaming, comics, anime, etc. are involved at Worldcons because these, too, are interests shared by fans who read books and stories.

    Gamers have been included by Worldcons for as long as I can remember – given space to meet and play, and more. I’ve even run a Worldcon department with Steve Jackson’s help. From Aussiecon 2 (1985) through Noreascon 4 (2004) most Worldcons provided dedicated facilities to gamers. Every time I walked from my hotel to the convention center during the 2004 Worldcon in Boston I passed the open doors of a vast ballroom which had been turned over to gamers and hosted a whole suite of tournaments.”

    Turning over an entire ballroom to gamers is not quite the same as turning an entire ballroom over to gaming companies.

    The difference between Worldcon and [successful]Con is not that it is friendly to SF/F readers but not to gamers and media fans; it’s that it is a vehicle for promotion by book and magazine publishers, but not game or media producers. Full stop.

  19. @Tom Kunsman: I haven’t read the io9 coverage of Dragon*Con so I can’t speculate about how a convention attracts their attention. But I remember that in 2008 Tor.com ran about 40 stories on Comic-Con and just a few about the Worldcon in Denver. Kind of the same thing, even from a source we know is fully capable of talking about writers. Worldcons certainly can’t take the coverage for granted. What do you think would help?

  20. @Jackie: This disconnect is useful to know about, though I need a bit more help to be clear — are you saying it would be better if gaming companies did have this autonomy to run events, or it sounds like I’ve said they did, and that’s the problem?

    The Worldcons I’m directly familiar with did not turn over facilities for gaming companies to run, they got gamers with Worldcon experience organize those areas, and there were some sponsored events if they could get them. That’s not to say the other has never happened, though I’m not aware of it.

  21. Just to clarify the Comic Con numbers, since there’s some question: capacity of the convention center is ~140,000 on any given day, per the San Diego Fire Marshal. The con estimates roughly 15,000 badges for pros, vendors, media, etc (comp/trade badges), leaving roughly 125,000 paid attendees on any given day. Most are on 4 day badges, some on 1 day, but there are 125,000 of them. Anyone who’s ever attempted to traverse the floor of the convention center during CCI doesn’t have any doubt about that figure, other than that it might seem a little low.

    BTW, four day passes for 2010 are already sold out.

  22. I want to correct one midapprehension. I do -not- want the Worldcon to become DragonCon or ComicCon. I love Worldcon; it has been the highlight of my year for 46 years now, since Discon I. I am distressed that it is losing what I consider to be large amounts of attendees, that the artists are unhappy with it (see the Mind Meld threat), and that publishers are deserting it (see Mind Meld and elsewhere). I want them back, and I hope that maybe we can learn something from DragonCon, ComicCon, A-Kon, and all the others that will show us how to get them back. And yes, I know you can’t hold a gun to a (figurative) city’s head and make it bid; but I do think the venues of the past few years are partly responsible for the attendance drop-off. I don’t know what will work and what won’t; I tossed out a bunch of suggestions and observations. You don’t like ’em? Fine. Come up with better ones — Please! But don’t put me in the class of people who are dancing on Worldcon’s grave. I want it back, bigger and healthier and better-run than ever.

  23. I think you may be slightly misinterpreting the fact that Tor.com ran a ton of stories about 2008’s Comic Con but relatively few about Denvention two weeks later.

    First, we threw ourselves into Comic Con because that happened to be the week we launched Tor.com, and we wanted to get the site going with a pile of content. Not because we were making some large statement about Comic Con being fundamentally more important than any other event on our calendar. (Although I have to say, I’ve found both Comic Cons I’ve attended to be surprisingly interesting and enjoyable.)

    Second, many of the Tor.com people who attended Comic Con and filed multiple posts from that event…are also people who, in their Tor-the-publishing-company roles, had a lot more personal and professional obligations at the Worldcon in Denver, thus restricting the amount of time and energy available for covering the event. I admit, we didn’t really see this problem coming until we were at Denvention itself–we had imagined we would be able to post more Tor.com coverage than we actually did. (Live and learn.) In other words, oddly enough, we wound up covering Worldcon less because it really is more core to our business than Comic Con is.

    That said, I think your response to Mike Resnick is very thoughtful and I substantially agree. I’m also quite struck by Alex von Thorn’s point that “no one says that DragonCon is a failure because it only gets a quarter of the attendance of Comic Con.” Quite right. I do in fact appreciate events like Comic Con more than I used to (and I think people who dismiss them as nothing more than soulless extravaganzas designed to entertain mindless rubes are making their own kind of mistake). But Worldcon wouldn’t be Worldcon at 30,000 attendees, or 130,000. Different scales offer different opportunities. Tor sends people to Comic Con; we also send people to events like the Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, attendance roughly 150, and we think we get value out of that, too.

  24. Want Worldcon to grow? It’s simple. Just put it on a 4 year rotation between Boston, Chicago, LA, and the UK. But count me out of the Boston committee. Oh, and keep it on the same weekend in early August, too.

  25. When all is said and done, it is probable that the Worldcon needs to make another leap forward to catch up with the 21st. century. Doubtless more could be done to make use of Facebook, Twitter, and all that.

    (What is coming next, one wonders? Each new fad seems to be aimed at shorter and shorter attention spans. Perhaps Thot — the page where you communicate with the world in a single word? I should take out a patent.)

    Just how one uses the fullest possibilities of the internet, I have no idea. I don’t know whether Anticpation had a Facebook page, though, but it certainly had a web page. That didn’t seem enough to draw hundreds of thousands of people to look at it. Maybe it needed animated graphics, some video of past Worldcons, a game to play for younger viewers, and other features that might make it more intertesting. Admittedly, Anticipation’s web page was rather basic and flat. Just information laid out for viewing. How dull is that?

    I’m not entirely kidding!

    I actually do think there might be a benefit to creating a more exciting presence on the world wide web than Worldcons have done. It wouldn’t require embracing “Guitar Hero” or “Twilight” to our bosoms, but it might challenge us to think of ways to be more interactive with the viewer. Just putting words in front of him is making the mistake of using the internet as a book, not an interactive media. How much more can be done, I have no idea. I’m over 50. I’m not web smart enough.

    But I think Anticipation tried. I did a couple of interviews before the con. None were with Locus or Tor.com, but one was with a comics website, and the other was with a Montreal university student newspaper. That’s the sort of thing the Worldcon ought to be doing, and does. I presume. Two interviews aren’t a great number, but then I was only the Fan GoH — who outside of fandom would care what I had to say? Judging from the turn-out at my events during the con, not all that many *in* fandom cared much about what I had to say. Surely, though, Neil Gaiman should have been a very large size-14, triple-E foot in Media’s door? Aside from a $10,000,000 advertising campaign to rival the release of Spiderman IV, how much can we expect from Worldcons?

  26. Personally, I think it comes down to a matter of promotion.
    If Woldcon wants to grow to the sizes of the mega-cons, and attract the same numbers of people (or at least significantly increase it’s size), it needs to get word out to the people that don’t know it exists. Hit up the younger audiences.
    As it stands, as a demographic, the attendees of Worldcons are growing in average age. And they are either regular attendees to the event, or local attendees.

    The word has to get out to people, via the bookstores and web advertising. Pay for site adds and banners. Spam twitter. Work with other conventions well ahead of time. It might help bring in some new people, some younger people. And like they say, if you hook ’em young…

    Just my two cents.

  27. Mr Wayne:

    I thought there was a good mainstream media presence at Anticipation. There were live news reports being filed from there, camerapeople wandering around on the first day, people blogging for newspapers, and some French-language show being recorded. As I said earlier, Worldcon gets a much better media presence when it’s outside the US.

    I don’t think Worldcon needs a “more exciting” presence on the Web (though I’ll admit, making worldcon.org/wsfs.org look like it comes from this century would be a good thing). Anything that’s on the Web site is for people who are already interested. Concentrating on providing information is what it should do.

    The problem is people not even knowing Worldcon exists, and how can they find out about it? That’s why there needs to be a Facebook page. It doesn’t have to be anything especially fancy, it just needs to provide a presence in that network and send people to the Web site.

    Just as the Web became synonymous with the Internet for the millions of people who came online in the last decade or so and have never heard of Usenet, FTP, telnet, etc., Facebook is the Internet for many people now. (Whatever is going to supplant Facebook is already brewing out there somewhere, but darned if I know what it is.)

  28. Oy – But thanks for a very well thought out piece Mike.

    First – agreed that border crossing issues make Canadian events far more “foreign” than they used to be (especially for those shipping quantity for commercial sale; same issues with paintball tournaments, doubled by taking “guns” across the border)

    Second – a larger Worldcon will not be “Worldcon”? Maybe, but I think a larger Worldcon would allow “Worldcon” to siphon off those fans who are trufans, welcome them to the inner circle & etc. At least there’ll be a larger core to draw from.

    Third – what Lisa said and then some! Same date, same date, same date and

    Rotate the damned thing.
    Year 1 – always the same city (NYC, LA).
    Year 2 – anywhere else in North America.
    Year 3 – somewhere over seas

    and whenever it’s over seas – NASFIC is in the Year 1 city. Two years out of every three – same bat time, same bat channel.

    It may suck (and it does) but the world, not to mention Worldcon, is ruled by marketing these days and if we don’t start playing that game, it is going to play us – right out of existence.

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  30. My first Worldcon was Lone Star Con 2. I went as a fan. Since then I have been part of the Pacific Northwest fan/conrunner base. I am in Utah and support my local conventions.

    In 1999 I was on programming at the NASFIC. 2001 was my first time on a Worldcon staff.

    The Pacific Northwest technically has had two successful bids —
    CascadiaCon, the 2005 NASFIC and Renovation, the 2011 Worldcon.

    I was with the Seattle-in-2011 bid and sat bid tables on the East Coast next to Reno.

    Why was Reno picked I asked a Reno bid member. Salt Lake City would have made a more logical site since Utah does have an active fan base. The reply was that the bid committee did not want a city with a fan base. Reno fit their model.

    Should Worldcons/NASFICs be restricted to five or six larger metropolitan areas or continue exploring new sites?

  31. @Taral
    Renovation does indeed have a Facebook page. So does ReConStruction. So do the Chicago in 2013 and San Antonio in 2013 bids. So it might not be that.

  32. @David-Glenn Anderson: Before I talk about the one factor you asked about, I want to name a bunch of factors that have to come together to make a suitable site for a Worldcon. It has to be a location fans want to come to. It needs to have affordable facilities. The collective hotels/facilities have to be the right size. And possessing all of these things only matters if there will be a strong committee running the con.

    There are some big U.S. cities that have been able to do it all several times. Are they the only places that can do it? I believe there are others that will work. Some large regions of the country have matrices of fannish relationships that can draw people within very wide area. If selected for 2013, San Antonio will do well again because Gulf Coast and central Texas fans have a rather expansive definition of “local convention.” Had Kansas City won I’d have expected it to draw well because so many Midwestern fans are already accustomed to driving several hours to attend various cons in that part of the country. Phoenix has that tradition, too, if another bidcom rises up there.

    The challenge for Reno is to overcome having no pre-existing sf convention base. It’s really not that far away from LA, the Bay Area and Portland, which I’m sure they’re counting on. However, nearly everybody who comes will be somebody who has chosen to travel – which was the limitation affecting Denver. If Reno is going to have commuter and walk-in members it will have to create them with local marketing to the public, not something Worldcon committees are famous for doing.

    As for NASFiCs, history has shown they’re not inherently large conventions. So the expectations are different. I think the Raleigh committee has very good chances of staging a successful 2010 NASFiC.

  33. I don’t see a problem with Reno — it’s accessible by Amtrak, a mere three days from Montreal or New York by train, and just one day from California.

    Also, and totally seriously, I don’t believe it about fandom greying. Do we ask for date of birth for con registration? Are there any statistics on this? People keep on and on saying it, and to my perception it just isn’t true.

    I spent a lot of time at Anticipation with people under thirty. There are lots of them around. Same at Boskone, same at Fourth Street. I think the problem isn’t that they’re not there, it’s that lots of people only like to have friends their own ages, so they don’t meet these people of other ages. I have always had friends of all ages, so I do meet them. They’re reading the books some of them are coming to cons.

    If we want to advertise, we should advertise in bookshops and in the back of books. Instead of getting publishers to pay for display ads in program guides, we should ask them to exchange and put a little ad for the con in the back of some paperbacks. If it said “Come to a the World Science Fiction convention and talk to other fans and your favourite authors” plus a url that stayed valid (and kept updating links as new worldcons were constituted) I bet that would work. There were a young couple in Anticipation who were there because they came to a signing I was doing at a local bookshop in March and I told them about it. They thanked me with real enthusiasm, they were having a great time. An ad in the back of a book would have got them just as well, and they are who we want — we don’t want everyone in the world, we want people with whom we can have fannish conversations.

  34. If ads for the Worldcon are intended for back pages of books, it seems to me that as committees change each year, central referral, both for paper-mail as well as e-mail sent to the already-existing WSFS.org website should be established with definite procedures for forwarding both paper and electronic inquiries to both the two current convention committees, and that central referral used in the book ads; otherwise the information will presently become as dated as the convention list in a years-old issue of Analog or Asimov’s.

    I would also hope that the WFSF.org site would eventually be in available in multiple-languages, with the little national flags indicating which to choose from the main page, in all the official languages reflecting the areas in which the convention has been held thus far: English (whether you want to have both U. S. English and Commonwealth English versions I leave up to whomever wants to do the work), German, Dutch, Japanese, and French (Quebecois), as well as other languages as they become necessary — I can foresee an eventual winning bid from a Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking country, for example.

  35. “I can foresee an eventual winning bid from a Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking country, for example.”

    You might sort of see that in a couple years– San Antonio in 2013 had fliers out in Spanish this past Worldcon.

  36. David:

    E-mail sent to the address shown on the Worldcon web site (old-fashioned looking as it is) goes to every seated Worldcon with a general-information contact, as well as to past Worldcons still maintaining such contacts. At the moment, it mostly collects spam.

    Getting the WSFS website revamped — a known need for many years now — points out one of the major faults of the Worldcon organizational model. The web site is under the nominal management of the Mark Protection Committee, but getting the necessary agreement to make significant changes is nearly impossible. Everyone seems to agree that we need a fix, but every proposed change has either had such strenuous objections that it couldn’t proceed, or has been shunted off to people who promised great things but never delivered for good reasons. (Note that I’m refusing to bad-mouth any of the individuals here, other than to blame myself as WSFS MPC chair for several years at my inability to forge a sufficient consensus on change or to motivate the task force members to complete the jobs they promised to do.)

    The only bright side of the abortive attempts to revamp Worldcon.org was the creation of the Hugo Awards web site as a separate entity (it’s hosted and managed separately from the Worldcon/WSFS sites). The Hugo Awards web site may not be the most visually exciting sites in the world, but it’s a significant improvement on what it replaced, and shows one possible “upgrade path” for Worldcon.org.

  37. “I wonder how Roger Ebert stacks up as a media guest, someone who can appeal to more than one part of the fannish spectrum having once published a fanzine.”

    I’ve actually discussed this with Roger in email a few years ago, and the key issue for him was that he couldn’t miss the Toronto International Film Festival, which Wikipedia reminds me “begins the Thursday night after Labour Day (the first Monday in September, in Canada) and lasts for ten days.”

    Nowadays Roger can also only communicate via typed voder, of course, but that’s just a footnote; on the other hand, it wasn’t clear to me from our exchange how much enthusiasm he might have about attending Worldcon these days, anyway. But certainly asking him would be a great idea.

  38. Taral: “I read much the same argument from Resnick on some web site, shortly after the Worldcon.”

    Yes, that would be SF Signal, which Mike links and names in his first sentence, so it shouldn’t be all that hard to remember where.

    Taral: “But this difficulty evaporates the moment a Worldcon moves back into the 50 contiguous states.”

    I realize Taral is a Canadian, but now I’m looking forward to Worldcons in Hawaii and Alaska, give the contiguousness.

    “They aren’t thinking of the fans or fandom, but of the possibility of chatting up George Lucus, and the opportunity to fish for a lucrative career in Tinseltown. I think it’s illusory.”

    I think Taral’s mindreading skills leave something to be desired.

    Mike, back on Roger Ebert: “So I can’t really tout him as a GoH idea after all since it’s quite tough enough for him to participate in his own film festival in limited ways.”

    I read Roger’s site semi-religiously, as well as his blog, and he still attends a bunch of film festivals, and speaks in public via typing and having his computer put his words into audio. And, yes, he’s in a wheel chair. These are no reasons to not invite someone to be a GOH: indeed, committees should rush to get him without waiting for more years to pass and his health to further deteriorate. Seriously, I’d hate to think that we’re now blithely discriminating against the handicapped in picking our GOHs. I always thought that being a GOH was about honoring someone, not hiring them to be an attraction. Either they deserve the honor, or they don’t.

    Mishalak: “I decided fandom was not for me because I wanted to have friends my own age.”

    This interests me, because fandom has always been wonderfully non-age-discriminatory; from the beginnings cons and clubs have had older people and teens alike, and the mixed-age aspects of fandom only grew stronger by the Forties and Fifties, as fans aged. When I got into fandom at age 12, in 1971, and as I started attending cons and local clubs a couple of years later, I was thrilled to find relatively little age discrimination; many of my best friends were ten years older than me, but largely or entirely treated me as an equal, just as fans in their fifties or sixties did. And they were a heck of a lot smarter and more interesting than most people my own age.

    I guess this is another way fandom has changed over the decades, that possible-fen might now start perceiving a generation gap. I wonder what the difference might be, although it’s probably just another case of today’s teens and twenties having so many more options, and sf being so accepted in general society, that traditional fandom no longer seems particularly attractive when it’s no longer a Proud And Lonely Thing To Be A Fan, but instead, there are endless gamers, game cons, lots of comics shops, anime fans, online fandom in a bazillion venues, sf tv shows and movies, and so on.

    “On attendance numbers, I believe Comic-Con counts tickets, so a person with a four-day ticket counts as one person, but a person with four one-day tickets (which will happen, as the four-day passes sell out months in advance) counts as four.”

    I see people who don’t know, and don’t have a cite, repeatedly saying this. I don’t know any reason to believe such things without a cite to a reliable source. (My philosophy of life in general: “I read somewhere” and “I heard that” almost always turn out to be wrong, and are definitionally unreliable statements. Con-runners in particular should know better than to simply believe and pass along sheer rumor.)

    Joseph T. Major: “Kids eagerly devoured the books when they came out — but they didn’t then read anything else.”

    Again, this is the sort of pronouncement that, if true, can be cited to a reliable source, and if a cite can’t be produced, why should anyone believe it? An assertion isn’t a fact.

    “There are even *shudder* people who read nothing but Piers Anthony.”

    I completely don’t believe this. (That a handful of such individuals exist, yet: that there are a significant number of them: no.)

  39. Taral: “Just how one uses the fullest possibilities of the internet, I have no idea.”

    Too many older fans with this attitude is definitely a big part of the problem.

    “I’m over 50. I’m not web smart enough.”

    And this baffles me: either one finds the online world interesting, or one doesn’t; age isn’t the issue.

    That is, the claim doesn’t really baffle me: Taral finds the internet largely uninteresting, and so do quite a few traditional fans. That’s fine, but age as a reason for such lack of interest isn’t per se a reason. Endless numbers of us plus-50 folks have been reasonably clueful about the internet, and its many fannish aspects, and other fascinating aspects, for decades.

  40. Like Mike Resnick, the highlight of my year, each year, is Worldcon. I also happen to agree with Mr. Resnick, and have growing concern.

    Each year I face a tougher decision. Should I spend a small fortune traveling halfway around the world to be locked up in a smokefree convention center with a few thousand friends, or should I spend a fraction to go to Atlanta or San Diego and have a ball with lots of young energetic fans? You see me at Worldcon each year, but that decision gets tougher each year.

    The responses to Mr. Resnick’s original post seem to be largely a combination of entrenched “there’s nothing wrong” folks, and others who want to debate minutiae. The occasional poster who has some suggestions is always drowned out by a tidal wave of responses explaining why the suggestions won’t work. This gives me little hope of seeing significant change any time soon. Very sad.

  41. Mr. Segal: So which of those suggestions would you advocate and why? There’s plenty of room for you in the conversation.

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