The Worldcon Mission Statement

Much of the discussion on Worldcon and publishers has centered around the idea that if you did X to Worldcon then it “would not be Worldcon any more”. However, it is by no means clear what this means. Different people have different ideas as to what Worldcon is, and what it is for.

When you are marketing an enterprise – any enterprise, including a not-for-profit one such as Worldcon – these are the sorts of questions you ask about it. What is it? What is it for? Why are people attracted to it? Marketing people want to know what the “mission statement” of the enterprise is; what its “core values” are; and what are its “unique selling points”. In any analysis of Worldcon, we should ask these questions too.

Actually they are questions that Kevin and I talk about a lot. Sad geeks that we are, we go over this sort of thing when we are out for walks. But that means that we have answers. As far as we are concerned, the purpose of Worldcon is to promote science fiction and fantasy, and its core values are as follows:

  • It presents the Hugo Awards
  • It is run by fans to promote science fiction & fantasy
  • It travels around the world
  • It is a “Big Tent” event
  • It is the annual meeting place of the SF&F community

The point about the Hugos should go without saying. They are the single most important thing about Worldcon. When people talk about the Watchmen movie, they talk about the first comic ever to win a Hugo; when they talk about the Coraline movie they say it is based on a Hugo-winning book. The Hugos are internationally recognized. WSFS has been moving towards improving how they are marketed, but it has a long way to go.

That Worldcon is run by fans and is a non-profit event is apparently not very well known. Kevin and I have lost track of the number of times that we have corrected people who have posted on blogs, forums and LiveJournals that “of course” the people running Worldcon make a huge profit from doing so. Why would they do it otherwise? It is rather sad that, in a community where people spend so much time decrying profit-making businesses, so many people assume that no one would work on a convention unless they can make a good profit for themselves.

Nevertheless, Worldcon is a non-profit enterprise, and should remain so. If nothing else it would lose its large volunteer work force if it became known that those at the top were making money. However, it should also not lose sight of the fact that for writers, artists, publishers, dealers and many others, science fiction is their livelihood, and they need to be able to justify attending Worldcon in terms of what it does for their business. Just because some well-paid fans can afford to shell out hundreds of dollars every year to attend Worldcon, that does not mean that people in the SF&F business can do the same.

I also added to the “run by fans”, why we run it. That’s important. Some people say that Worldcon is run “by fans for fans” or in a more exclusionary way, “by fen for fen”. Some of them actually mean “by SMOFs for SMOFs”. I reject all of these. If nothing else we should consider that most Worldcons are run by non-profit corporations whose charter says somewhere in it that its purpose is to promote science fiction. Running a private weekend getaway for a small club is not the sort of thing that such non-profit organizations ought to be doing.

The traveling around the world thing is problematic. It makes Worldcon difficult and expensive to run. But it also makes it different. To attend Dragon*Con or ComicCon you have to travel to Atlanta to San Diego. Worldcon, at least in theory, will come to you (or maybe a big city near you). It can do this because it is not there to make a profit; it is there to bring science fiction to the people, wherever they might be. The fact that it is prepared to travel to Europe, to Australia, to Japan, makes it a very different animal to Dragon*Con or ComicCon, and that is a distinction that I for one am very keen to keep. I’m also delighted to see that a bunch of Brazilian fans are booked in for Montreal. Worldcon in Rio would be interesting. I’d love to see it go to Cape Town, and somewhere in India, as well.

The international thing tends to be unpopular with publishers. The Americans moan whenever Worldcon leaves the US, and when we go to other places the publishers have a habit of saying, “why should we care about some American convention?” However, publishing is increasingly a global business. Authors at least should recognize that. The US might be the biggest market for science fiction, but there are millions of people in other countries who love SF and would buy more books if they could get them cheaply.

Kevin has some further thoughts on the travel issue on his LiveJournal.

The “Big Tent” thing is important too. All too often I hear people say that Worldcon won’t be Worldcon if we let those awful X people in (where X might be media fans, anime fans, comics fans, and so on). Equally there are people who want to “purify” the convention by getting rid of costumers, or filkers, or fantasy readers, or Business Meeting attendees, or some other group whose interests do not overlap with their own. But the fact is that Worldcon has always catered to a diverse range of tastes. It has had costuming from the beginning, and some of the biggest names around came into Worldcon through fandoms that others sneer at. Kevin started out as an ElfQuest fan. Ben Yalow came to Worldcon via Star Trek fandom. I’m sure that there are many similar examples. So people who say that Worldcon won’t be Worldcon if we let X group in are dead wrong. The only thing that will stop Worldcon being Worldcon is if we start discouraging people from coming because someone had decided that they are the “wrong sort of fan.”

The final point might not seem much, and to some extent overlaps with the previous one, but it has direct bearing on the current discussion. People go to Worldcon because their friends and business contacts go to Worldcon. It isn’t a business-oriented convention like World Fantasy, but still a lot of business gets done there. And there is a core membership of around 1000 people who go every year, and love being able to meet up with their friends. Most importantly, for many authors it is an important event to be at.

And this brings us back to the whole issue of publishers and ComicCon. If, as my previous post intimated, publishers are encouraging authors to go to ComicCon instead of Worldcon. If authors believe that their careers are better served by attending ComicCon than Worldcon, then in these economically difficult times authors will stop going to Worldcon. And if they do then Worldcon will most definitely not be Worldcon any more. That is why I was so concerned to see that comment on Kat Richardson’s blog. Worldcon cannot afford to become irrelevant to authors, and that is why it needs to know what can be done to encourage publishers and their charges to come back.

There’s something to chew on for a while. My next post on this issue will talk about how can change without abandoning these core values. That will take a while to write.

21 thoughts on “The Worldcon Mission Statement

  1. Great post.

    “If authors believe that their careers are better served by attending ComicCon than Worldcon, then in these economically difficult times authors will stop going to Worldcon. And if they do then Worldcon will most definitely not be Worldcon any more.”

    Real danger.

    And now there is the New York Comic Con, and next year, Chicago Comic Con.

    I would add that the danger of pulling *artists* away to these venues, and to artist-only cons like IlluxCon, also exists.

    I believe someone commented earlier about how, rather than go after expensive celebrity guests, WorldCon could make more of the talent already on hand, and I second that.

    Also, while going after the whole BSG cast is impractical, impossible, etc… what about outreach to literature-aware folks like Ronald D. Moore, Joe Straczynski, Joe Mallozzi – who are *writers* who work in television but are very knowledgeable, respectful, and aware of the history of the literature, and who do partake of genre events already. Their presence would pull in more media fans while keeping the focus on the literature.

  2. Excellent, comprehensive explanation.

    I’ve been going to cons for decades, but am relatively new to things SMOFish, so I have a question which I am sure has come up many times before.

    Why does WSFS stay completely out of the money and organizational end of each Worldcon? It seems to me one of the most valuable things the organization could provide would be high-level expertise and seed money.

    I understand that as the cons are currently run, they tend to run at a loss, but this seems absurd to me. I’ve served on a couple of non-profit boards, and these have run on the concept that each event helps pay for the next one. Starting from zero each time would be disasterous.

    And by high-level expertise I mean basic origanizational skills and accounting/fiscal planning skills, I accept that the winning bidders need to provide the local expertise for identifying specific sites and services. For example, one alumni group includes a couple of credit union execs and hospitality industry experts who help our local branches plan events.

  3. howeird:

    What you are asking for is pretty much what the Passalong Funds system does. I shall leave it to Kevin to explain in detail, but Worldcons do not (normally) run at a loss, and a substantial part of each surplus is passed forward to future years as seed money.

  4. Cheryl — Excellent summary of what I think Worldcon is for, too!

    In fact, if I had written out the mission statement for Costume-Con 26 the way we approached it, I think it might have looked very similar except its focus was to “promote the art and craft of costume in all its forms.”

    Howeird — They certainly don’t have to run at a loss, but it is necessary that the committee embrace the concept that while it is volunteer-run, it is still operating as a business venture and marketing and organization should thus be approached with an eye to professionalism and competence. You have to do this from the very start, not after you’ve won the bid.

  5. Thanks for the kind words folks. If you really think this is good, though, I’d appreciate it if you could link, tweet, share or whatever. The more eyeballs the better.

  6. Howeird @2:

    Why does WSFS stay completely out of the money and organizational end of each Worldcon? It seems to me one of the most valuable things the organization could provide would be high-level expertise and seed money.

    Where would WSFS Inc. get its money? The only likely source is for the individual Worldcon committees. That would lead to resentment from those committees, who would want to keep “their” money. Right now, Worldcons support the Mark Protection Committee by an annual donation, usually between $1000 and $2000. While they are usually willing to do that, there is sometimes a little resentment for just that small amount.

    I understand that as the cons are currently run, they tend to run at a loss, but this seems absurd to me.

    That’s not true. Since 1983, only three Worldcons have lost money, albeit one of them (1983 ConStellation, Baltimore) did so quite spectacularly. (The others to lose money were 1990 The Hague and 2007 Yokohama.) Some financial details, including some past Worldcon financial results, are on the SmofInfo site.

    Aside from the voluntary Pass-Along Funds program, Worldcon committees are not obliged to give any other Worldcon any of their money. Conversely, Worldcons are not liable for the debts of their fellow Worldcons. Committees thoroughly resent any implication that they should answer to anyone but themselves. WSFS Inc. is perceived as taking away authority from the individual committees.

    The first attempt that I know of to centralize WSFS happened in the 1950s and was squashed then. If you want to improve turnout at a WSFS Business Meeting, publicize that you plan to introduce proposals to increase the central control functions of WSFS. You’ll get a huge influx of people who will vote it down. Even the role of what is now called the Mark Protection Committee has been scaled down over time, as people resented that the small, weak, Standing Committee was exterting too much authority.

    Worldcons are run much like the Olympic Games, except that indivdiual Olympics must pay much higher fees to the International Olympic Committee. However, the financial independence is still there, and each Olympic Committee must succeed or fail completely independently of one another. That makes both Worldcons and Olymics more expensive than they would be if they were part of a single organization.

    In the end, the reason there is so little centralized WSFS is that the people who would have to agree to it happening don’t want it to happen. The 100-200 people who attend Worldcon Business Meetings are generally opposed to anything that might reduce their authority in the slightest, and will stop anything that smacks of WSFS Inc.

  7. This is an excellent summary of the primary purposes of a Worldcon. The only one I might quibble with would be the clause about the Hugo Awards, although they are part of the Constitution. Nevertheless, there were worldcons before there were Hugos and everything else you’ve mentioned would have applied to them.

    I’ve always been somewhat amused at the bias against organizational centralization among fans, particularly in fannish organizations. At the Timebinders meeting at BucConeer, there was some talk of incorporating as a non-profit and Bruce Pelz sat in the corner of the room repeatedly saying something like, “No, we must not become too organized.”

    Structurally speaking, I’ve often thought that the worlcon government breaks down something like this:

    Legislative Branch: The WSFS Business Meeting.

    Executive Branch: Seated Worldcon Committees.

    Judicial Branch: Fannish Public Opinion.

    Clearly, the weakest of the three is the judicial, and there is very little in the way of an enforcement mechanism to make sure that worldcon committees do everything they are supposed to do. I’ve occasionally wondered what would happen if some worldcon committee would refuse to run a site selection or a Hugo vote.

  8. As others have said, excellent summary, though values 4 & 5 feel a little vague to me.

    Of the five points, 1, 2, & 3 are clear and, I suspect, pretty universally understood (notwithstanding the occasional person who thinks “non-profit”, “not for profit” and either “unprofitable” or “highly profitable” are synonymous).

    But how big is that big tent? Should it be equally big at every Worldcon, or is it only big over the course of several Worldcons? I don’t detect much consensus on what the dimensions of the tent are, or should be.

    And is that annual meeting of the community a big public event to let the world know we’re here, or is it a private retreat for club members? Again, I hear reasonably loud, insistent voices pulling in both those directions.

  9. I think that was a good set of core values. The “Big Tent” value is the wobbliest, though. I think Worldcon would still be Worldcon if we excluded Michelism as an activity, as long as we don’t exclude Michelists. (For those less interested in Fan History, this is a reference to an issue at Worldcons of the 1930’s.)

  10. Randy @8:

    All good points, and I like your tripartate analogy. Of course, we have a Strong Executive, offset by the fact that there are multiple Executives at the same time, and they serve only one year terms and don’t succeed themselves.

    The “refuse to do a required element” scenario is indeed troubling. I fear that such a situation would end up in the courts, which Would Be Bad. Alternatively, the other seated Worldcon or the Mark Protection Committee (using the someone weak grounds that failing to do the things in question undermines the service marks), or individual respected fans might try to figure out a way to organize the required element “on the side.” It would be very messy.

    And speaking of messy, one of the nightmare scenarios I, as a WSFS Business Meeting Chair, have considered was a situation where some piece of WSFS Business generated ten times the normal turnout; in particular, a disputed site selection or None of the Above winning could suddenly trigger a whole lot more people turning up than we normally expect. The typical WSFS BM room seats 100-200 people. I contemplated having to tell the head of programming, “You have to cancel your largest program room item at 10 AM and leave the room open until we’re finished.” I can imagine the row that would ensue as Programming said, “You can’t do that” and WSFS said, “Your program item isn’t required by the WSFS Constitution — this meeting is.” It’s a low-probability event, but not beyond the realm of possibility — maybe a 3% chance. But I digress, as usual, into minutae.

  11. Barry & David:

    Two things to think about.

    Firstly the number of people wanting some aspect or other removed from Worldcon is just as large as the number wanting to keep other aspects out – possibly larger. And no one can agree on what ought to be in and what ought to be out. In such a situation, the only sane way to run things is to assume that fanac is what fans do.

    Secondly, Worldcon is a volunteer-run organization. So we might start by saying that we’ll let anime fans in (to update the analogy), but not provide much in the way of anime programming. As long as we treat those folks well, and make them welcome, then sooner or later there will be a core of keen anime fans who want to help put on good anime programming. That’s the way Worldcon works.

    So yes, Worldcon might not offer anything and everything, but if it doesn’t actively turn people away thing things that are popular will eventually get their share of the limelight.

  12. So yes, Worldcon might not offer anything and everything, but if it doesn’t actively turn people away thing things that are popular will eventually get their share of the limelight.

    I believe that’s generally true; I’ve watched subfandoms grow at Comic Con and elsewhere, and step up to take their place alongside other interests. (Sometimes step back again, too: anybody else remember Katy Keene fandom?) But if a con is really embracing a big tent in a meaningful way, then I think they need to do a bit more than not “actively turn people away”. You used anime as an example: if I’m a fan of science-fiction related anime and I’ve been led to believe that Worldcon embraces and celebrates all of SF, I don’t find it an unreasonable assumption that there might be some SF anime related programming; and if I paid to be there and there wasn’t any, I’d feel cheated. (Doesn’t take much – what these new fandoms want, more than anything else, is to be acknowledged. Not much different from SF fandom as a whole not that long ago.) If a program director wanted to take it in a literary direction, a discussion of what Golden Age sf novels many sf anime concepts are cribbed from would integrate the various interests of the con and probably point a few anime kids toward the printed side.

    Somewhat OT minor linguistic quibble: I kind of wish we’d all stop talking about “anime”. It’s a presentation format, not a genre. It’s like saying Worldcon should or shouldn’t discuss TV – having a panel on The Twilight Zone is fine, but one on Family Affair would be completely out of place.

  13. Kevin @#7
    Where would WSFS Inc. get its money? The only likely source is for the individual Worldcon committees
    Memberships, corporate sponsorships. I would have no problem paying to be a member of both WSFS and whichever worldcon is current. There are many companies which might be interested in ponying up a few dollars for a mention on the web site and the Worldcon program book. There are also probably arts grants which could apply.

    Thanks for explaining the pass-through system, I did not know it existed. I was drawing the conclusion of cons being money losers from your mentions of personal debt from running a con, I guess I misinterpreted that.

  14. Barry:

    Point taken. It is a bit of a chicken and egg thing. Sometimes you will get a really proactive Program Director who wants to go out and build a program that helps attract people to the convention. Other times you’ll get an enthusiastic fan who works herself into the ground making sure that her particular areas of interest are well represented. And yes, sometimes the program is very dull. As Kevin has said elsewhere, we can’t force individual Worldcons to do things, but we can insist that the general philosophy should be inclusive rather then exclusive.

    Also point taken about “anime”. We know – much of what Kevin watches has no spec-fic element to it at all. But it is a convenient shorthand.

  15. Well, this is a nice beginning to say the least.

    Well done.

    And for the record, techically I came to the Worldcon from comic book fandom, and always glad to see a comic dealer or two even though I don’t collect any more.

  16. Howeird @14:

    Thanks for explaining the pass-through system, I did not know it existed.

    For more information, see the Pass-Along Funds FAQ. The short form is that Worldcons that participate commit to dividing at least 50% of any operating surplus (after paying participant/staff membership reimbursements if that is tradtional practice for their area) among the next three Worldcons who also similarly commit to the program. ConJose passed along more than $30,000 to its three successors in this fashion.

    I was drawing the conclusion of cons being money losers from your mentions of personal debt from running a con, I guess I misinterpreted that.

    Oh, I see. Sure, the conventions are generally in surplus, but that doesn’t mean that they pay the organizers anything. Just because ConJose had a surplus (before PAF) of around $60,000 on revenue of around $980,000 doesn’t mean that the convention paid me any money for what it cost me to fly to Australia where the election was, or any of the many other SF conventions over the six years between announcing the bid and holding the convention. Did you think the conventions paid the individual organizers’ travel expenses? That does happen in a few rare cases, but most of the the time we’re traveling at our own expense. The bid will pay for things like a suite and party supplies for promotional parties, but it’s my own expense to get to the convention. I was keeping pretty good track at the time, but don’t have the figures in front of me. I guess it might have been something like $20-$30,000 over six-plus years. (Yes, some of that was tax-deductible, but the actual benefit to me was relatively small — a few hundred dollars’ worth of reduced taxes, probably.)

    If a convention paid substantial travel expenses for its organizers, there would almost certainly be massive protests from fandom at the abuse of convention members becuase the con would be “lining the committee’s pockets at the members’ expense.”

    I and some other ConJose committee members had some small perks. The co-chairs and each division manager had one reduced-price hotel room (something like 2/3 the standard con cost as I recall) that s/he could allocate as s/he saw fit. I gave mine to myself. I still paid for my own hotel room, just less than most members did. Selected committee/staff members whose responsibilities required them to be on site outside of the normal run of convention nights (night before con through last night of con) were reimbursed those extra nights some months later when it was clear that the required bills (rental, decorator, etc.) were paid and we’d have money left. Even then, I feared that there would be people criticizing us for “stealing their money,” because remember that many fans think that conventions overcharge no matter what and are all too willing to believe the slightest accusation that the organizers are raking it in under the table. What this says about those people were they to be in the position to run a convention, I’m not certain.

  17. Well yes, ConStellation lost money.

    But it must be noted:
    The Creditors Were Paid, ConStellation Did Not Declare Bankruptcy.

    Anyway, as I tell folks, the attendees of ConStellation received more than their money’s worth.

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