What is the Value of Worldcon?

After every Worldcon you tend to get people talking about how the convention is doomed for some reason or other. This year we have seen more than most, and interestingly some of the complaints have come from authors such as Melinda Snodgrass and Mike Brotherton. To some extent this is understandable, because Worldcon looked really lost and old in Denver. There are many reasons for that. The convention center in Denver is huge and had a big gap between the programming space and the exhibits space. Anaheim’s convention center is actually bigger, but L.A.Con IV was able to use the space it had much more effectively so that the con didn’t seem so lost. The geographic isolation of Denver and poor local marketing by the con committee meant that attendance was low, particularly amongst people who could not afford to fly and rent hotel rooms – which of course means amongst young people. And finally decisions by the convention committee regarding the location of various types of programming meant that many attendees, especially younger attendees, would have spent most of their time at the Sheraton rather than in the convention center. (See my con report for more discussion of these issues.) Having said that, however, there are real questions to be asked about the future of the convention, especially with regard to the 2009 site selection where there is a clear choice between selecting a site that could attract a large number of young people or one that will appeal only to older, wealthier people. It is a choice between a chance at growth, and a deliberate decision to downsize. And in order to make that decision we need to know what we want from Worldcon, and whether it is worth preserving.

So What is Worldcon Anyway?

I’d like to start this discussion by asking what it is that makes Worldcon special. People often talk about changing the event but say things like “we mustn’t change the essential nature of the convention.” What do they mean by that? Actually that is quite a difficult question for most people to answer, because Worldcon is actually a very different event to different people. The reason why a professional writer goes to Worldcon is not the reason why a costumer goes to Worldcon, is not the reason why a SMOF goes to Worldcon, is not the reason why someone who is a huge fan of the current year’s writer Guest of Honor goes to Worldcon. When people say “I don’t want Worldcon to change” they often mean “I don’t want *my* experience of Worldcon to change, but I don’t give a stuff about the things I’m not interested in.” That’s why you will see people saying that you could scrap the masquerade, drop half of the programming, do without an art show and so on. I’ll talk more about different market segments later, but for now I would like to establish that one of the things that makes Worldcon Worldcon is the breadth of interests that it covers. It you want Worldcon to be just for book readers then you might just as well go to Readercon.

Something else that makes Worldcon different is its mobility. Whenever this discussion comes up, someone will point out that Worldcon has financial and organizational problems because it moves from city to city each year. It could be much bigger and much more successful if, like Dragon*Con or Comic Con, it stayed in the same place. But if it did that then it would no longer be Worldcon. At best it would be a Dragon*Con clone and it isn’t at all clear that there is a market for such thing. Part of the ethos of Worldcon is that it is an international convention. It really does move around the globe. It may spend more time in North America than anywhere else, but you will never see Dragon*Con in Scotland or Australia or Japan, or even Anaheim. Worldcon is all about bringing science fiction to the people, not about requiring the people to come to it. It is also about giving writers, artists and publishers around the world a chance of exposure on a wider stage.

Another aspect of Worldcon that I think is worth preserving is that fact that it is run by fans. If it were commercially owned it would find it much easier to plan for growth. But if it were commercially owned then it would almost certainly make a decision to stay in one place so as to maximize growth. There is a possibility that it could incorporate as a community-run non-profit with a stated mission to move around the world, but the collective wisdom of those that have been involved in the convention for years is that the convention would collapse in a mire of vicious fan politics if it were possible for people to aspire to be in charge of it. I suspect they are absolutely right.

Finally, of course, Worldcon is Worldcon because it has the Hugo Awards. Obviously I have a personal bias here. I have been lucky enough to be nominated for a Hugo several times, and have even won one. I have no illusions about this. I know that if the Hugos had a much wider electorate I would never have got a single nomination. Besides, all of my nominations have come in categories that many people find either laughable or even offensive. Other categories, however, have much more respect, and since we have been putting some effort into promoting the Hugos I have been very pleased with the interest we have got. It is clear from the attention that the new Hugo Awards web site gets that the Hugos are famous around the world. The Hugos and Worldcon are inextricably linked. Worldcon without the Hugos would be almost irrelevant, but at the same time the Hugos are a great marketing tool for the convention.

Let’s recap on that for a moment. These are the things that I think are essential to the Worldcon experience:

  • It covers a wide range of different aspects of science fiction and fantasy;
  • It travels around the world;
  • It is run by fans; and
  • It is the home of the Hugo Awards.

Any change that jeopardizes those elements would risk making Worldcon not Worldcon any more.

Upsize or Downsize?

Now let’s see how this affects how we look at the upsize/downsize debate. The first thing that is worth noting is that we have defined very clear limits to growth. As long as Worldcon continues to move around the world, and be run by fans, it will never, ever become as big as Dragon*Con or Comic Con. Those people who claim that trying to attract more people to Worldcon will risk turning into another 100,000 person convention are just being silly. We know that we can run an 8,000 person Worldcon because it has been done. 10,000 people is probably do-able. Any more than that and the current organizational methodology would start creaking at the seams. But even 10,000 person Worldcons can’t happen every year. A Worldcon in Australia is going to be small, no matter how hard the local committee works to promote it.

There is a point here that is often lost on people who complain that Worldcon is elitist. Sure it is annoying for a fan in New York or Boston to discover that the 2010 Worldcon is half the world away and they can’t afford to go. But “not fair?” I think not. Or if it is, then it is equally “not fair” that a fan in Melbourne, or Tokyo, or Helsinki, can’t afford to go to more than one Worldcon in ten. If Worldcon is committed to traveling around the world then there will always be years when fans of limited means cannot afford to attend. What is important is that when Worldcon does travel, it travels to places where there are local fans who can benefit from that travel. A Worldcon in Melbourne is taking science fiction to the people. A Worldcon in, say, Alice Springs, would be a waste of the trip. And equally, if Worldcon is to be held in the USA, it needs to be held somewhere where a lot of American fans of limited means can afford to attend, not somewhere where the group of American fans who attend is not that much different from the group who would go to Melbourne or Glasgow.

While upsizing Worldcon has its limits, so does downsizing. To start with, the fewer people that attend, the less justification there is to support minority interests. One of the great things about Worldcon programming is that there are always lots of program items that I have no interest in attending, but which nevertheless draw decent (sometimes huge) audiences. As long as there are plenty of program items that I do want to attend, I don’t mind all of this other stuff going on. Indeed, I’m delighted to see it happen. Diversity is good. But the smaller your convention, the less of a market you have for fringe events. It is a long tail thing. Any given point on the long tail may only attract 1% of your members, but 1% of a 10,000 person convention is 100 people, whereas 1% of a 3,000 person convention is only 30 people.

We also shouldn’t forget that there is a commercial side to Worldcon. Publishers, authors, dealers and artists all expect to do business of some sort there. It may well be that there are some industry professionals who would attend anyway. I’m fairly sure, for example, that George and Parris would still come to Worldcon even if it shrank to less than 3,000 people. I’m certain that Patrick and Teresa would. But I’m also sure that a smaller convention would attract fewer writers, artists and dealers, would see fewer publisher parties, and would find it harder to attract advertising for its publications. You only have to look at Westercon to see what happens to a traveling convention that is shrinking.

The other concern I have about downsizing is the effect it will have on the Hugo Awards. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having a small, private club that gives out awards. However, if you want those awards to be internationally recognized as the most prestigious in the field, then people are going to want to take an interest and get involved. The more elitist you make Worldcon (and let’s face it, downsizing is making it more elitist), the less respect people outside of WSFS will have for the Hugos. For the health of the awards, Worldcon needs to be something that people can aspire to attend.

Finally, downsizing in and of itself doesn’t make sense unless you also act to discourage people from attending. I hear a lot of talk about how Worldcon should get back to the sort of size where it can fit into a big hotel rather than a convention center, and how that will allow us to make Worldcon cheaper. But if you make it cheaper, more people will want to attend, and you won’t have room for them. Downsizing only makes sense if you are planning to move the convention to cities that are hard for people to get to. That way you limit attendance via the travel and hotel costs. Sure the people who go will be grateful for shaving $50 or so off the membership cost, but actually that’s small beer compared to what they are paying for flights and accommodation. If your only reason for wanting to downsize is to reduce the membership cost, you might find that downsizing doesn’t produce the effect that you want.

To recap, downsizing will result in Worldcon becoming less diverse, more elitist, and increasingly irrelevant. It certainly won’t help it get new blood. In fact it will positively discourage it. Upsizing, on the other hand, has definite limits because of the need to keep traveling, and because of the organizational structure. Nevertheless, some increase in size is desirable. Firstly we want to keep attracting new people. And secondly much of the cost of Worldcon is fixed, in the form of facilities charges. Having more people attend will allow us to make the convention cheaper for everyone by spreading those fixed costs between more people.

Paths to Growth

So how can we attract more people to Worldcon? Well, before we can answer that question, we have to understand the markets to which we are catering. And I used a plural there deliberately, because there are lots of different market segments to consider.

The easiest group to look at is the regulars. There are (very approximately) 1,000 people who attend Worldcon every year, no matter where it is. They are pretty simple people to cater to because unless you do something drastic like sell the convention to Disney they will still attend. You could put the price up to $300 and they would probably still attend, because they’ll be paying over $1000 each on flights and hotels so the extra membership cost is relatively small beer. They’ll grumble, but they will still attend. Equally, cutting the price won’t encourage more of them. You don’t get to join this elite group unless you are sufficiently rich or sufficiently committed to the convention to afford the flight and hotel costs. Marketing won’t help you grow the number of members like this. The only good way of creating new members of this type is to hold Worldcon near where they live and hope that they have such a wonderful time that they vow to keep attending no matter where the convention is held.

Thankfully they are not the only people who attend Worldcon. You may remember that in my Denvention 3 report I mentioned Mark Olson’s division of Worldcon attendees into regulars, one-day-drive people and locals. I’d like to use a similar but subtly different division:

  • regulars
  • local committed fans
  • walk-ins

By “local committed fans” I mean the sort of people who regard themselves as members of science fiction fandom. Specifically they are the sort of people who would attend a local convention if one existed. They are people who are sold on the idea of conventions, but still have to be sold on the idea of Worldcon. “Walk-ins”, on the other hand, are people who are interested in science fiction, don’t normally go to conventions, but might be persuaded to do so because Worldcon is special. The difference between Mark’s classification and mine is that “local” committed fans might live a day’s drive away, but because they are committed fans they are happy to travel that distance to attend a good convention. Worldcon might not even be in the same city as their local con. Someone who regularly attends conventions in Los Angles might be prepared to attend a Worldcon in San Jose because the only additional expense is the drive north. Committed fans could also be local, but may well buy a hotel room anyway to avoid commuting back and fore to the con. Walk-ins, on the other hand, pretty much have to be local. They won’t be paying much at all in travel or accommodation costs.

How does one market to committed fans? Well, they are already sold on the idea of science fiction conventions, so what you have to do is convince them that Worldcon is as good or better value than the local convention that they attend every year. That’s actually surprisingly hard. For example, if their local convention typically has a strong anime track and lots of costuming you might find these people saying they have heard that Worldcon is a “books only” convention and they won’t be welcome. Equally if the local convention is a 500-person relaxacon with barely a costumer in sight and nothing on film or TV at all you may find them complaining that Worldcon is too big and full of awful young media fans. Most commonly, however, they will complain that Worldcon is much more expensive than their local con.

One thing that you have to do is target your marketing. There are all sorts of misconceptions about Worldcon and you have to counter them. Have your masquerade people sell the local costumers on Worldcon by talking about the excellent stage and tech facilities they will have, and the opportunity to compete against the best. Have someone who knows about anime go and talk to the local anime crowd and tell them that a whole bunch of Japanese fans are likely to turn up, including the co-founder of Gainax Studios (that would be Hirokai Inoue, who is a really big time anime producer and has been responsible for some top notch series). Worldcon attempts to be all things to all fans, so everyone should be able to find something there that appeals to them.

Even if you do this, however, you will still come up against the cost issue. Compared to most local conventions, Worldcon is ridiculously expensive. And this is not because it is a 5-day event. Please, stop using that argument. It doesn’t work. Having a 5-day event is of little benefit if you are selling to people who live locally because they’ll see the “cost” of attending the extra days as including the need to take time off work. (The regulars don’t care – they always take extra days off. For some of them Worldcon is their annual vacation.) Many of them will only want to attend from Friday evening through to Monday evening (assuming traditional timing with the Monday being a public holiday). If you move away from the Labor Day weekend then for many of your local market the con is now only Friday evening to Sunday evening.

A good comparison here is BayCon, an annual convention in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is held over Memorial Day weekend, so it is a Friday evening to Monday evening event. The at-the-door price is $80. A BayCon attendee looking to attend a Worldcon with an at-the-door price of $200 is going to ask what all of the extra money is for. Is Worldcon really 2.5 times better than BayCon?

The sad thing is that Worldcon is in many ways better than a local convention. It has a bigger dealers’ room, a bigger art show, a bigger masquerade, more programming and so on. It also has the Hugos. But Worldcon committees don’t market very well, and sometimes even play down the attractiveness of the event. A classic example is the situation with attending celebrities. Worldcon always has a fairly small number of Guests of Honor, because being a Worldcon GoH is supposed to be one of the highest honors in the field. But Worldcon also has hundreds of other big name attendees. Because they are not GoHs, Worldcon committees tend not to promote this fact. Some of them even get sniffy if you suggest it, on the grounds that using the names of attending authors to market the con is somehow an insult to the GoHs. If you want people to attend, you have got to give them some reason to part with their money. “Because it is Worldcon” doesn’t work. “Because you can get to meet George RR Martin and Larry Niven and Connie Willis and Charlie Stross and John Scalzi and…” will serve you much better. It may not make Worldcon seem 2.5 times as valuable as a local con, but it is a start. We still need to get the cost down.

Time for some heresy

Marketing to walk-ins is a different matter. These are not the sort of people who normally attend conventions. You have to sell them on the whole convention idea. For these people it is even more important to talk about all of the famous people who are going to be present. And you need to talk about things that they will understand, like readings and signings. Most of all, however, you have to remember that for most of these people Worldcon really is a show they buy a ticket for, not a club they buy a membership in.

Oh horror! I have committed sacrilege. We don’t want people who are “not part of our community” at Worldcon, do we? Well, answer me this: how do they get to be part of our community if they never see it?

There is a point about numbers here too. At any given Worldcon a small number of fans attending Worldcon for the first time may become regular Worldcon attendees. Equally a small number of walk-ins may become committed fans. But not all of them. In fact by no means all of them. That, I’m afraid, is the way the world works. You have to market to a lot of people to sell a few big ticket items. If you take a position of “I’m not going to market to anyone who isn’t already 100% sold on my product” then you are not going to make many new sales, are you?

The only way to grow the convention, and grow the community, is to encourage a lot of people who are currently not sold on it to take a look. And to do that you have to start by providing the sort of thing that they are sold on. That means dealers, art show, exhibits and big name presences, all piled high and sold cheap. So why not sell them a cheap membership that allows them just to do those things?

You see, your average walk-in is not interested in programming. They don’t care. It is not valuable to them, and they don’t want to have to pay for it. What they want to do is see interesting things, buy stuff they can’t buy elsewhere, and meet famous people. You can let them do that. It doesn’t hurt. Yokohama let local people into their exhibit areas for free. The convention wasn’t consumed in ball of holy fire as a result. It didn’t even cost them a lot of money, because the deal was that they got a reduced rate on the facilities rental if they let the locals in free.

Whenever I talk about having cheap exhibits-only membership (by which I mean art show and dealers as well) someone always complains about security. SMOFs tend to be obsessed with preventing anyone from getting something for free. Whenever you suggest changing something to do with Worldcon, they will immediately come up with dozens of bizarre and complex scams that they say must be prevented before the change can be allowed. With exhibits-only memberships the scam is simple: people who buy them might sneak into program items. And yet, I don’t recall seeing a single security guard on a program room in Denver. Anyone could walk into the convention center, and anyone could walk into a program room. The only places where there were guards were on the entrances to the dealers’ room and art show. So clearly no one puts much value on programming anyway.

Besides, this whole idea of preventing scams is completely muddle-headed. All it does is get in the way of selling things. In a recent issue of Locus Cory Doctorow has a column about micropayments, and right up front he says: “I don’t care about making sure that everyone who gets a copy of my books pays me for them — what I care about is ensuring that the everyone who would pay me decent money for a book has the opportunity to do so.” The same thing should be true of Worldcon. By all means put a few guards on your big ticket program items, but I really don’t care if someone with an exhibits-only day membership manages to sneak into a program item on mimeo fanzines that only has 10 people in the audience anyway. I want people to be in the audience to listen to me, I want people to be encouraged to come to Worldcon to see what it is like, and I want to make it easy and painless for them to give the convention money.

The other objection that SMOFs tend to make about low-priced exhibits-only memberships is that they will cannibalize your attending memberships. Because they can get into the exhibit areas cheaply, lots of people who might otherwise have bought full memberships will buy exhibits-only memberships instead and the con will loose masses of money, or so the argument goes. But you know what? If that is true, then those people probably didn’t care about the panels anyway. And that means we have been charging them for something that they don’t want. That’s not a very nice thing to do. If, on the other hand, they do value going to panels, then they will be prepared to pay to do so, won’t they?

There is another issue about marketing to walk-ins that Worldcon does very badly. You have to give them some idea of what to expect. If you are flying 5,000 miles to attend the convention and will be there for all for the 5 days you don’t really care much when specific program items are going to happen (unless you want to see two that are scheduled in the same slot). But if you are trying to decide which day to attend the convention, especially if that will require a few hours driving each way, then you want to be able to make an informed decision based on information about the program.

Worldcon programming people will tell you that this is impossible. The program is never finalized until a week or two before the convention. It simply can’t be done. But this is another example of what Kevin calls “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. Your potential walk-in members don’t care when the program about alternate histories of the Roman Empire is going to be (unless they happen to be fans of Robert Silverberg and Harry Turtledove, who are going to be on that panel). What they want to know is when the masquerade and Hugo ceremony will take place, when the GoH speeches and readings will be, the opening times of the dealers’ room and art show, when the “What’s New from Tor” panel will be and so on. There is a lot that you can fix in advance, and you can always stick a few weasel words about “changes at short notice due to unforeseen circumstances” on the web site just in case. Worldcon programming people don’t provide this information early because they are all regulars so having it early is not important to *them*. Marketing means thinking about what is important to the people you are trying to sell to.

Talking of programming, one thing that might actually help sell the event is to re-think the way the program is designed. Typically a Worldcon looks to spread programming about all five days so as to minimize the possibility of conflicts. However, it might actually make sense to concentrate a lot of programming with broad appeal on the two weekend days and use the shoulder days for things that are more likely to appeal to your regular attendees who are going to be there all five days. I’ve talked before about how the Bristol Comic Expo has Friday put aside as a “pro-con” with program items aimed only at industry professionals, whereas Saturday and Sunday have programming aimed at fans. I notice also that a professional association convention I’m planning to attend in December has the first day devoted to association business and the other two days for sessions open to all members. Could we perhaps get most of the WSFS Business Meeting out of the way on Thursday and Friday, and free up some useful programming space on Saturday? (You’d probably still have to do site selection on Sunday to give the new Worldcon time to sell memberships, but it doesn’t need to be a long meeting.)

Other Market Segments

Well, so much for those market segments, but there are two others that we haven’t considered yet. They are:

  • People who would love to go but can’t afford the trip; and
  • The professionals

Let’s think about numbers for a minute. If you have 1,000 regulars who attend every Worldcon, and each Worldcon attracts between 4,000 and 6,000 people, then every year there are between 3,000 and 5,000 people from each location that Worldcon visits who would love to attend but can’t afford to do so because the convention is too far away. In 2010 Worldcon will be in Melbourne and the attendance will probably be in the region of 1,500 to 2,000. But at the same time there will be 5,000 on the US west coast, 5,000 on the US east coast, probably another 5,000 between Chicago, Denver and Texas, at least 5,000 in Europe, 3,000 in Canada, maybe 1,000 in Japan, not to mention all of the people in China, Russia, India, Africa and South America who have never seen a Worldcon local to them. That’s 25,000 people without trying. Couldn’t Worldcon do something for them?

Well actually it does. What it does is gouge them shamelessly. If you can’t afford to attend Worldcon then you can buy a Supporting Membership. It gets you the right to vote in the Hugos and site selection, and a copy of the program book. It used to get you progress reports, though these days everything that is in them is also on the web site and convention committees (quite rightly) encourage members to get them electronically. And yet Montreal is charging $55 for this type of membership, and Melbourne is charging $50. This is getting close to a 200% mark-up on what providing the services actually costs. It is outrageous, and a terrible waste of a potential market.

If Worldcon really wants to be a world event it should be finding ways of encouraging people around the world to participate, even when the convention is thousands of miles away. I’ve talked before about having a lower-priced Hugo Voting membership, which I am sure would bring in a significant amount of money, make the Hugos seem less elitist, and make a lot more people feel part of Worldcon. Here are a few more things worth thinking about:

  • make the souvenir book more worth wanting by including exclusive fiction and art work;
  • look into getting major events at the convention webcast, paid for by advertising;
  • arrange members-only online chat sessions with high-profile attendees; and
  • run events in Second Life coinciding with the convention.

These things need not necessary create a financial burden, although they do require work and a quality web site. They may not all bring in revenue either, but they will do a lot to help create a sense of community amongst fans who cannot afford to attend Worldcon regularly.

A lot of these things have already been done elsewhere. The folks in Canberra, for example, have been running a “virtual con” based on author chat sessions for two years no. It can be done. All it needs is the will. And if you bring the price down to something more reasonable then a lot more people will buy supporting memberships.

There is another problem with the supporting membership price, and it is procedural. Firstly the voting fee in site selection has to be the price of a supporting membership, and it has to be agreed on by all of the bidders. That makes it harder for a single convention to buck the system. In addition the maximum price that a convention can set for its initial membership rate is limited, by the WSFS Constitution, to twice the supporting membership cost. That encourages bids to set supporting membership costs as high as they possibly can. Attempts to change this have been shot down by the WSFS Business Meeting because the people who attend it see them as a threat to their cut-price early membership costs. It is a nasty mess, and something needs to be done about it.

Finally there are the professionals. Authors, artists, editors, agents, publishers, and dealers do not just go to Worldcon for the love of it (though many of them love it as well). They go there to make money. We forget about this at our peril, because if they decide to go elsewhere then Worldcon is royally stuffed.

And you know there is a lot of sense in going elsewhere, particularly if Worldcon is shrinking. For many authors the primary purpose of going to a convention is to meet their fans. Obviously they want to meet book readers, and not everyone who goes to Dragon*Con is a book reader. But let us suppose that the average Worldcon attendee is 4 times more likely to read books than a Dragon*Con attendee. That still means that it is a better deal to get an audience of 100 at a book-related panel at a 40,000 person Dragon*Con than to get an audience of 40 at a similar panel at a 4,000 person Worldcon.

Obviously if you happen to a writer who appeals strongly to the literary audience then attending Worldcon makes a lot of sense. You might actually find more of your readers there than at Dragon*Con. But for someone like John Scalzi or Naomi Novik who sells books in vast quantities then Dragon*Con is clearly a better deal. It is a great credit to Scalzi that he still comes to Worldcon anyway.

Now consider the publishers. Over at Melinda’s blog she says, “Bantam skipped Worldcon this year, and Harper Collins was going to skip and then decided to come, but didn’t host a suite or a party. I hate to say it, but I think this is the beginning.” I have an awful feeling that she is right. Old-time fans might claim that publishers still attend Worldcon, but what they really mean is small press publishers and a few editors from the bigger companies. A company like Bantam will have a huge booth at Comic Con. There’s just no comparison.

So why are publishers much more interested in Comic Con (and doubtless Dragon*Con) than Worldcon? Because they think they have a much better chance of selling books by marketing there. There are two reasons for that. Firstly Comic Con and Dragon*Con are much bigger, but also they seem to have a better understanding of how to work with commercial entities.

I have to admit that getting publishers more interested in Worldcon is an uphill struggle. Most of them don’t care about things like an international focus, and some positively despise the fan-run aspect. Some of the bigger publishers now have corporate PR and marketing departments rather than specialists for the SF&F imprint, and they bring with them all of the usual fear of fan cooties.

What we can do, however, is promote the convention, and the Hugo Awards. The more good press we get, the more authors and publishers are likely to see Worldcon as a desirable place to be. Also a convention that is growing is much better news than a convention that is shrinking.

Of course if we grow the convention then we should get more and better dealers, and more and better art shows, and that will be good for everyone. The dealers will also love exhibits-only membership, because getting memberships for their staff (who rarely have time to see day-time programming) is often a major expense.

Can we make these things happen? I have to admit that it will be very hard. Many of the people who currently run Worldcon appear to be very happy with the idea of a shrinking convention. They see Worldcon as *their* convention, and they have no particular desire to share it with anyone else. If it eventually disappears when enough of them have died off, well they won’t care, because they’ll be dead. I don’t see it that way. I don’t see any point in having a World Science Fiction Society unless it works to promote science fiction and fandom around the world. But I can’t change Worldcon by myself, and I’m pretty tired of beating my head against a brick wall. Worldcon is a volunteer run event, so if we want to save it, we need a lot of people to volunteer to help do so.

55 Responses to What is the Value of Worldcon?

  1. Clark @49:

    World Con might benefit from a rotation in office – AA style – in which the traveling experts who’ve been making things run smoothly around the world leave it to locals to run things however roughly.

    Every year’s Worldcon is run by a different management team. Nobody has ever chaired more than two Worldcons, and never two in a row. The chairs pick the division managers, who pick the area heads, who recruit their staff. While there are many people who you will commonly see in similar jobs at different Worldcons, there’s a lot of what you call “rotation in office.” In fact, most people have the opposite reaction to your suggestion; that is, they suggest that one of the reasons things cost so much is that you have to reinvent the wheel every year. Among other things, you end up with a brand new registration system every year, and it’s usually one that’s never been used before by anyone.

    And trust me, the lines at Denver were nothing compared to what we had in 1993 — an achievement of which I am not proud at all, speaking as one of ConFrancisco’s senior managers.

    Worldcon will survive my lifetime regardless.

    I hope so. I do recall Ben Yalow predicting, around the time of the 50th Worldcon, that there would not be a 100th Worldcon. I hope he’s wrong. There are, however, clearly some people out there who not only don’t care if the convention survives them, they may actively hope that it does die when they do. Me, I’d like to see it continue after I’ve shuffled off to see if registration at HeavenCon is efficient — I sort of expect to find Sue Stone running it, actually. 🙂

  2. Non-economic Costs of a Larger Worldcon: Increased Drama!!!


    The small problem with younger people is they are hideous drama queens, the large problem with younger people is we need them so our hobby doesn’t die out.

    Seriously, everybody who held or holds executive positions at conventions dreads getting told about the rape or binge drinking that resulted in trauma or death. Nobody looks forward to explaining to the police what is going on while made up in blue body paint.

    In the United States we’ve set penalized underaged drinking so heavily that we’ve inadvertently promoted binge drinking to lethal levels. For right now, there is a real risk of letting young people into events with booze for a variety of reasons. For instance, I am not going to turn away a Marine Lance Corporal getting ready for his third tour in the sandbox or the rockpile because he is three months away from his 21st birthday. I also am not going to be happy about dragging the same drunk jarhead out into the hall after he tries to chug my fifth of Macallan! For these and other reasons, young people are a pain around booze.

    In the same way that restrictions on underage drinking have led to certain pressures on behavior, the increased awareness about sexual predation on youth makes bringing young people into a convention an additional drama risk. Sex always trends to the weird and regrettable; if that ever changes, it is not going to happen at a Science Fiction Convention. Young people add the possibility of dramatically increased criminal penalties and more than a few predatory individuals. Kinds of behavior that used to be ignored, dismissed, or swept under the table now puts the organizers of events at risk.

    I think a lot of the drive to smaller events is also a drive to less drama and/or prison time due to the risks associated with young people. Nevertheless, I am in favor of alcohol, sex, and young people, although not necessarily in combinations I am responsible for.

    There needs to be a conversation about young people and risky behavior at conventions. We need the young people to stay relevant. We need to find ways to manage the risks they represent that are worth the investment.

  3. Cheryl says:


    Worldcons generally don’t serve alcohol, though individual parties may, which rather complicates the issue.

    As for the predator panic, I’m afraid the UK is even worse. There’s a distinct possibility that the latest round of “health & safety” legislation will lead to all convention staff having to be vetted if children are allowed to attend. If that does happen the easy option will be to ban kids from the events.

  4. Cheryl,

    I’ve been to Worldcons. You should remember the Keg Challenges of ’96 and ’97 as I endeavored to bring Oregon beer to the barbaric wilds of Anaheim and San Antonio. (I’ve not been attempting to bring kegs on my recent travels to Iraqi Kurdistan, but that is only because good scotch is so readily available at non-taxed prices.) Or perhaps you remember the Cider transportation of ’02, my last effort to bring enlightened libation to the stodgy confines of Worldcon tippling. [For reference: food coloring added to modified Long Island Iced Tea does not constitute enlightened libation. Never drink anything you don’t know the contents of and even when you know, don’t drink anything blue.]

    I share your concern for the UK’s endless attempts to legislate their culture out of existence. I am less sanguine for the Saria law they are embracing by degree and decree. I was taking pictures at the British Museum two years ago when a school group got in my way and the children admonished me to not take their picture. Seventy-two hours later I was in Iraq and the children were begging me to capture their images. It makes me seriously wonder who is enduring the more wretched youth.

  5. Cheryl says:


    I invite you to write to me privately with evidence the the UK has adopted Sharia law. If I see any more comments on that subject I shall delete them because it is ignorant and dangerous nonsense that I will not have my blog used to spread.

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