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.