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.]