On Worldcons by Sara Felix

EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION: This eighth reprint from Journey Planet’s “Be the Change” issue comes from Texas in 2031 Worldcon bidder Sara Felix, who values transparency, and discussing with a wider community the way Worldcons are run.

Sara Felix wearing one of her tiara designs.

By Sara Felix: I don’t have a solution for fixing the Hugos, but the Hugos are definitely important to the larger picture of the Worldcon. As someone who is working towards a bid for Texas in 2031 I have thoughts.

I have been thinking a lot about how I personally would run a Worldcon. And while we have had some stellar conventions in the past, I do think there are things that every chair makes a priority with their Worldcon, and I am starting to try and figure that out for myself. It is hard. Determining what I want to focus on – or at least highlight besides art – is quite challenging for me because there are so many worthy areas of a Worldcon. But I find myself drawn to supporting the community that we already have.

Because of this, all of my suggestions revolve around community – lifting up and celebrating my friends and making Worldcon an interesting event, which really is what I think is every chair’s goal.

I think Esther had very similar goals, as one of the slogans for Glasgow 2024 is “People make Glasgow”. After spending so much of my time and energy with the Glasgow team, I think I have taken it onboard as a personal mantra for my work in fandom as a whole.

I think a lot of the con runners I talk to are as sick as I am of the “It has always been done this way” approach. I see a lot of the recent chairs moving away from this thought process, and this is one of my main goals as well.

Planning for a Worldcon

As a conrunner, we have Smofcon every year as a place to share ideas and discuss convention running. I have been going for a number of years, and I would love to see a much larger, more open discussion with the community as to how a convention is run. I have heard a number of people say that SMOFs don’t listen. I know this isn’t true for us all, as we can’t be everything to everyone, but I think we need more transparency in conrunning – especially in how a Worldcon is run. Selfishly, I want to talk to experts who have worked on these things in the past and also get ideas from other industries and areas of convention runners. As a prospective conchair I want to share my expertise but also hear things from other conventions and conrunners who have differing expertise. My idea is this: make it more of a community online rather than a convention every year. Have a podcast or video series about a topic, then take it to Discord to discuss so we can get multiple viewpoints. I think we have the same panels at Smofcon every year, and I know I have been on the same panels about the same topics at Smofcon every year. For me it is how to fix an art show, how to make a good website, how to deal with social media crisis, how to create publications, etc. But I am not entirely sure that things change after these panels, as it is a small audience who attend regularly listening and participating. Some years I leave energized with new ideas but it doesn’t always lead to significant changes.

For example I did a panel at Smofcon about Publications and where it was headed. One of the panel members presented data about the pickup of souvenir books and pocket programs at their local convention. His data showed that the pocket program pickup has been declining steadily since 2011 when they started to track it. We have tried to maintain these numbers for Worldcon but it is much harder with the change in committees each year. Publications is a large budget line especially since the paper costs have fluctuated so much in the past few years. So being able to get a better read on the amount needed to print is crucial. Because of the ridiculous paper costs in 2022, we switched the pocket program to digital, which was in itself a controversial decision. This was the first time I was on a panel with this Smofcon member and the reason I go. The idea of the convention going to other locations each year should get new people on the panels, but I feel like there are still the same people on the panels which doesn’t lead to change. While this was a good interaction for me, I would like more people to participate and really discuss conrunning.

At that same Smofcon, I was on a panel about art shows. A lot of what I was hearing was the same stuff I have heard in the past. But it sparked conversations after the convention with art show runners that helped me to think outside the box of what a typical art show looks like and how to draw different artists to show at a con. There are limitations in our model which makes this difficult, but I think there is a way to tweak the art show model to make it more lucrative for artists in the future. Those conversations outside of one weekend help so much. Furry conventions have huge and prosperous art shows and hopefully taking the discussion online would bring more conversation from other groups that we don’t hear from as much.

These two interactions are what I want to see in the discussions within the larger community. How do we do sponsorship better? How do we handle social media where we don’t burn out our volunteers? How do we get staff that represent the members we want at our convention? And the age old question: how do we get new and excited volunteers to our convention?

Working together

As I talk to conchairs, I learn a lot from their approaches to current problems at conventions. When I am working on a convention, I don’t always get all sides of the story, but I think talking to the chairs and hearing how they would solve a problem helps my own problem solving skills. Not to say my way of doing things would fix the problem but hearing multiple perspectives helps to plan.

But also there are a lot of continuing problems or challenges in running cons. And I feel, as do other chairs I talk to, that some of these problems can be solved as a team wanting to make it easier for other chairs and conventions in the future.

For Texas we have already started to talk to chairs of other cons to generate solutions. Every year we seem to reinvent the wheel on software. I know people have tried to solve this in the past, and there have been systems which have carried on for a few years. Or like in the case of Grenadine the cost of the software made it unusable for conventions going forward. There are always good intentions for the newest model to last a while, but Texas and others are in a good position this far out to work on something that might serve a number of years going forward.

This is what I mean by collaborating and discussion among chairs. There is always a risk with a traveling convention that you do all the work and not win the bid. But I think my goal in fandom is not only to run a good convention but also to leave my own mark on fandom and hopefully make it a little better than before I started.

These two things are just a few of ideas I have. I want to do all the things, but mostly I want to find people like me to work on conventions that we believe in. And that isn’t always easy. But I am willing to try and to bring my energy to the table. Hopefully there are others that are willing too.

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13 thoughts on “On Worldcons by Sara Felix

  1. While I understand the cost of paper publications has skyrocketed (It’s the one item that exceeded our budget for Westercon 74), I’m concerned that there’s an implicit assumption in going “all digital” that says, “If you don’t own and use a smartphone, you shouldn’t be here.” We still have members who do not own or use computers, smartphones, etc. Some of those people are award winning members of our community. Do we really want to tell them to Go Away?

  2. Every fiscal choice is a tradeoff, Kevin; if you choose not to tell those people to “go away” — which is, by the way, an extremely hostile escalation of what’s actually being said, and not really constructive, and I really wish you and a few other people would drop that tendency towards hyperbole since it actively harms discussion, imo — then you need to choose to drop other aspects of the convention instead, which may lead to a different set of people choosing not to attend.

    There’s no magic formula for how to get everyone inside the tent; a conrunner needs to make choices.

  3. Kevin, the question is just how many individuals don’t own a smartphone, tablet or computer. Or all three.

    I’d be surprised if it was that many. Really I would. Given that supposition, there’s certainly no reason any print publication needs to be printed for anyone but that likely very small number of individuals who don’t have net access or prefer a print copy.

    Hell postal costs alone are a good reason to have this as an opt-in system. If an individual doesn’t request a printed copy be mailed to them, they just get an emailed copy. Better yet, the actual documents should live on a website where hyperlinks and such could be inserted as need be.

  4. I use a computer. No table. About all I can do with a smartphone is read/send texts and make phone calls. I’m sure a lot of older people – and likely a fair number of younger ones – aren’t good with smartphones either.
    We don’t all have wifi, either.

  5. Chris R:

    I suggest that you talk to some of those people who don’t have computers or smartphones. Off the top of my head, I can point to two of them who are regular Worldcon attendees.

    Cat Eldridge:

    I have no problem with paper publications being “opt in” — only created for those people who request them. I personally once authored a proposal that would have put that into the WSFS Constitution and included a provision that would have authorized a reasonable additional charge for such publications. The proposal failed.

    What I don’t want to see is what I think is happening, which is that “no paper of any sort, and if you don’t have an electronic device for reading our stuff, too bad for you.”

  6. Not what I was saying at all- getting rid of paper pubs. I support printed pubs completely but like others have stated sometimes it has to be a choice about what is the best use of money and time for the convention. And use of volunteers time is just as important as the costs of the item.

    But having data helps us to make these decisions. Like I mentioned seeing if people are taking the printed materials is important to the overall discussion. Saying you should talk to the two people who don’t have computers or smart phones is not helpful as we are looking at the community as a whole rather than doing something for a small minority of people. I would LOVE to see data about our community and if they use computers and smart phones. If you have it Kevin (or anyone else for that matter) that would be awesome.

  7. Because of the ridiculous paper costs in 2022, we switched the pocket program to digital, which was in itself a controversial decision.

    Of course it is controversial! Not everyone owns a smartphone! Not everyone’s home is on the internet. (For example, currently, 35% over British homes occupied by over 65-year-olds are not on the internet.) (Witness what happened at the 2022 Worldcon.)

    Similarly, not everyone owns a car and/or drives. But if transport became exclusively by car (no public transport) there would be a justified outcry.

    Having a purely digital programme schedule actively excludes a significant section of our community! It may be a small section but that does not make it acceptable: accessibility for all!

    Worldcons should be inclusive and not exclusive, run by those self-satisfied, secure in their digital privilege. And this goes for Worldcon publications policies.

    And this is notwithstanding the environmental issues of internet over-use (fossil burden comparable to air travel, use of rare-Earth elements in smartphones etc) or the environmental benefits of sustainable forest paper libraries of books and fanzines lining the walls in a home. (Carbon sequestration and storage, heat insulation lowering fossil fuel use etc.)

    The case of Grenadine the cost of the software made it unusable for conventions going forward.

    And if you really are going to have digital options (as an alternative to purely physical) then have plurality of digital. Besides, Grenadine and similar platforms are not the most portable of document formats. Surprise, PDFs are!

    Things like Grenadine (and other such programme schedule platforms) also make it easier for sloppy con programme organisers to get by as they can fudge their ill-considered planning right up to, and even on, the day of the convention itself with the programme changing before their con-goers’ eyes. (Witness what happened at the 2023 NASFic.)

    (Fortunately, not all con programme organisers are sloppy. For example, to take one of many, the multi-programme streamed Eurocon in Barcelona got by without hardly any changes to their printed programme schedule: in fact, I am not sure there were any alterations apart from one programme participant’s no-show, which was hardly the organisers’ fault.)

    IMHO – Worldcons should not be ‘one size fits all’. They should be pluralistic. If a Worldcon catered to only one gender, ethnicity or whatever, there would (rightly) be an outcry! However, current, digitally privileged conrunners are so far getting away with it, being seemingly (or is it wilfully?), myopically oblivious of their digital discrimination.

    These days, if a con says that it is going to cater only to digital-only physical attendees then I don’t go. This is not the limitation some superficially might think: there are plenty of SF events to which to go and I am spoiled for choice, so I am most certainly not missing out. I have been to literally several Worldcons over the past near-half century and enjoyed sampling them as part of a rich and varied SF fan diet. But make no mistake, Worldcons are not the only – or even always the best – game in town.

    Sadly, some Worldcon runners simply don’t get it. But perhaps all this is not ‘controversial’: perhaps it is more common sense?

    The good news is that it doesn’t really matter, as those inclusive cons make up for the crap ones.

    Having made a couple of points quite firmly, please do not think that I do not appreciate Sara Felix’s post: there are some things here that do merit conrunners’ serious consideration.


  8. Nowhere in Sara’s article does it advocate for eliminating printed publications. Stop reacting in fear that someone is taking something away from you and actually read what she said. Please note, I’m using ‘attendee’ here instead of ‘member’ because this isn’t a Worldcon only problem – it applies to all conventions imo.

    There is a lot in her article about gathering metrics and data to see how to spend the precious money and volunteer time a Worldcon runs on. Without polling the attendees (and staff) – then like previous Worldcons who’ve said ‘well we’ve always done it this way”, you’re just throwing money and volunteer time down a drain. Multiple boxes of materials have a print cost, MIMO cost, a storage cost – whether in money or volunteer hours.

    Again, no one is saying eliminate printed publications. A choice to go digital for one pocket program (and there were printed schedule sheets available at info desk in 2022, con signage, and I believe a digital schedule shown on screens around the facility) is not a rallying cry to eliminate publications or exclude non-smartphone using folks. Also, 2022 was affected by COVID shortages which drove print prices up so should be viewed through a COVID lens like many conventions at that time which had to pivot to adjust to a new situation.

    Until we gather metrics to show us how many people need printed pubs, we are throwing money down drains to support a small subsection of attendees for conventions that do not have excess money to spare. If 15 people want/need printed publications and you order 1500 because “that’s what the last con did” you are being fiscally irresponsible and creating a mess for everyone else to deal with. Today it makes more sense to do a very small print run (vs in the past) because newer ‘print on demand’ technologies have reduced that cost (which wasn’t the case 20 years ago, heck, even 10). Conventions should be using their available funds wisely and precisely by having data to support these expenditures.

    It’s a very good article about how getting more information and collaboration helps all conventions plan better and spread their thin resources more widely to the benefit of everyone attending or working on it.

  9. @Jonathan C.
    “And this is notwithstanding the environmental issues of internet over-use (fossil burden comparable to air travel,”
    Are you suggesting that participation in a convention by the internet has a carbon footprint comparable to flying to it? That is where I stopped considering any suggestions you might have . . .

  10. @bill
    Are you suggesting that participation in a convention by the internet has a carbon footprint comparable to flying to it?

    No of course not, that’s patently absurd. I am saying that digital publications and use of smartphones for programme is not as environmentally friendly as is sometimes made out compared to paper from sustainable forests and kept in a home archive for x years.

    There – again hopefully obvious to many – is a balance in these things. Sometimes the internet can be a force for good, sometime it is not the best option. We have had this problem with all technology from the discovery of fire and tossing a bone in the air becoming an orbital nuclear platform….

    I am saying – and did say – that the global fossil burden of air travel is comparable to the global fossil burden of the internet and associated hardware use (computers, servers and data stores).

    Putting words into my mouth is not helpful.

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