Well, that title should cement my infamy as the #1 Menace to Fandom for a few years to come. But of course I don’t mean actually selling the convention, I mean selling publishers on the idea of coming back to it. This will be rather long, so I have put it behind a cut.
Internet memories can be rather short, so I should start by reminding you of this post, in which I expressed alarm that publishers were advising their authors not to attend Worldcon because ComicCon and Dragon*Con were better use of their time. I’d also like to thank Steve Davidson for keeping the conversation going here. In this post I’d like to set out how I think Worldcon might go about regaining favor with publishers.
I’d like to start by ruling out a couple of things. In this post I set out what I believe to be the core values of Worldcon, and because of these core values certain things that publishers would like WSFS to do are simply not possible. Firstly we can’t go for massive growth. If you want to compete on size with the likes of ComicCon and Dragon*Con then you have to have a fixed location and a professional staff. Worldcon has neither, so that business plan is a non-starter.
Also, no matter how convenient it would be for folks in New York, Worldcon will not be in the USA every year. If that means that US publishers are going to ignore the convention, I think that’s rather sad. Publishing is, after all, an international business, and seeing how the rest of the world does things might be quite useful. Ultimately, however, if WSFS wants to keep to its ideals of being a genuine world organization, and not just “world” in the sense of “World Series”, then it has to make the convention sufficiently attractive that publishers in all countries will want to attend when it is their country (and hopefully when it is not too).
(I should also add that while some US publishers are occasionally rather insular, they don’t hold a candle to the PR people at the big UK publishers in 2005, who were pretty much united in their distaste for both fans and what they regarded as an “American convention”.)
However, if publishers can’t get everything that they want out of Worldcon, equally Worldcon cannot remain as it is and survive. If it continues to take the attitude of “we are the most important convention around, people should come to us” then it will die. It has to market itself. And some of the attitudes of the people who run it have to change. I’d like to highlight two specific areas.
Firstly we have to understand that some of the people who attend Worldcon do so because it is their livelihood, and they may not be earning very much. The core Worldcon audience – that group of around 1000 people who try to attend every year – is by definition fairly well off. They have to be, because attending Worldcon every year means being able to fly anywhere in the world, and probably stay in a good hotel for a week. Some of us make a point of attending despite financial problems, but I don’t expect everyone to be as mad and Kevin and I. Many authors simply can’t afford to go; ditto artists, and agents. Dealers will only attend if they think they will make a profit. Publishers have a limited budget (apparently around $20k/year for all conventions in the US). So assuming that everyone who comes to the convention is prepared to pay whatever it takes is going to lose us a lot of potentially interesting attendees. If people are going to add value to the convention, we have to recognize that, and make it easier for them to attend.
The other attitude that has to change is the division of people into “good fans” who want to participate in the community, and “bad fans” who just want a gate show and should be discouraged from attending. Perhaps some people do believe that fans (or rather fen) are simply born fully-formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus, but actually that’s nonsense. People come into fandom in all sorts of different ways, and one of those ways is by graduating from gate show attendee to participant. We don’t want to shut out potential recruits. And in any case, the gate show folks want to give us money and are really easy to cater for. Turning our noses up and saying that we don’t want “that sort of people” in our exclusive and particular event is not the right way to ensure that our convention survives.
Now, given that we do change our attitudes, what can be done to actually make Worldcon more attractive to publishers? Well, you market to them, of course. And what that means is identifying publishers as a specific market segment amongst our core audience that we want to sell to, and offering them things that would be attractive to them.
What would a Publisher Package look like? Well, it would probably be a bundle that includes dealer/exhibitor space and a number of memberships at the initial rate. For major publishers it would also include the offer of a prime time (Saturday or Sunday) program slot for a “What’s new from X” panel. Those things are apparently very popular. I’d also give them the opportunity to ask for a small number of people to be put on program. Obviously no one gets a lot of panel places at Worldcon, but equally Worldcon programming teams are not always very up to date on who is currently hot, and asking publishers to recommend their best new talent seems like a good idea.
As far as signings go, I’d try to arrange things so that a given publisher could have a specific time slot where they could have their people at the signings table, and put up their PR material. I’d like them to be able to sell books to the line during that time too. I know some book dealers will whine about the competition, but when it comes down to it I’d rather have a whole bunch of publishers at the con than one or two people selling new books. I’d much rather see the book dealers selling books by small presses, or books that are otherwise hard to come by.
In addition I’d offer publishers space on the con’s web site to advertise their presence at the convention and any new books and authors they are planning to push there. One of the things that Worldcon is most lacking in is ways of getting the message across to non-regulars about what a great event it is. Anything on the web site that causes people to stop and think, “wow, I’d like to see that” has to be a good thing.
Of course none of this will convince publishers to come back unless they believe that the convention will help them to sell more books. They want to see lots of people coming through the door. We’ve already decided that we can’t aim at having tends of thousands of attendees, but we could certainly have more. If Worldcon were to attract 8,000 people instead of 5,000 then not only would it not be much more difficult to run, it would also be much cheaper for everyone. This is because the rental fees for convention centers are a fixed cost, not a variable one. The more people you have, the less each one has to pay towards the rental.
How do we get more people easily? One simple way would be to cater a bit to the gate show crowd. That is, we should open up the exhibits area (including the dealers and art show) to the general public at a much lower attendance fee. These people are generally only interested in things to look at and things to buy. They probably don’t need to attend for more than one day, but they don’t want to spend a lot of money to get in. A special membership class for them makes a lot of sense. And this isn’t unusual. Lots of other conventions have split membership classes where you can get a cheap ticket to the trade show portion, but have to pay a lot more to get to any of the panel sessions.
Having a lot more people should also make the dealers happy, and improve the quality of the dealers who want to come. After all, they are there to sell stuff. They want to see lots of people going past their stalls.
Obviously a certain amount of effort has to be put into selling different classes of membership and badge checking, although the latter is one of those things we are often forced to hire convention center staff for. But aside from that, this all makes use of parts of the convention that we run anyway – it doesn’t involve doing anything new, so it won’t add significantly to the work load or costs.
There will, of course, be people who complain that we can’t do this because it would be too difficult to prevent people on “exhibits only” membership from getting into panel sessions. I’m not impressed by such arguments. Firstly conventions get ghosted now. We can’t prevent it. If we held existing conventions up to the same standards of perfection that people demand of new developments then we’d never run any convention at all. Secondly, most of these people are not interested in the majority of panels. They might want to attend the masquerade, or the Hugo ceremony, or other major items, but those are much easier to badge check for than a bunch of small program rooms. There’s no need to protect something that people don’t want to steal. And finally, this argument is very much like the one against DRM-free ebooks. Sure, some people will share them. Some people share paper books too. But if you sell more books and have happier customers as a result then the small amount of pilferage is acceptable. Those of you who are still unconvinced about this are welcome to spend a day or two locked in a small closet with Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi, after which time I guarantee you’ll see things my way.
Of course some people won’t attend the convention at all, so I firmly believe that every Worldcon ought to have an Outreach department. What’s that for? Well, it works with publishers and authors to find local bookstores, libraries and other venues that are interested in holding events featuring visiting authors while they are in town. Ideally these should happen in the days leading up to the convention, or at least on the first couple of days, so as not to drag authors away from the con during the peak days. Also it will be valuable marketing for the convention and should sell some locals on attending. Some people will complain that this really doesn’t do a lot for the con, and superficially that’s true, but if it gives publishers and authors an extra reason to attend then it is a Good Thing to be doing. Besides, our remit should be to promote science fiction, not just run a party for ourselves.
Talking of the early days of the con, I’ve been convinced for some time that the Thursday and Friday (assuming traditional timing) should have more of a pro-con feel to them. That is, the programming should cater more to the industry on those days, leaving the more fan-oriented programming for Saturday and Sunday (and Monday if it is a holiday). Worldcon is, after all, a gathering of the entire community, not just fans, so there needs to be industry-oriented program. It makes sense to put most of that on during the working week when many fans cannot attend, but professionals can. Concentrating fan-oriented program on the weekend also helps impecunious local fans who may only want to attend for a couple of days but don’t want to miss anything high profile.
An important part of the pro-con program should be the industry GoH. I’d like to see every Worldcon have a GoH who is a publisher, editor or agent, and whose job it is to give a keynote “state of the industry” speech on Friday. This should be followed by a panel discussing the issues raised. I want this to be an event that publishers want to attend – something that they look forward to and talk about in the weeks afterwards.
While I’m here, I should also add that I think we should offer dealer packages that include both table space and a number of memberships at the initial rate. Also those memberships should be transferable, so that local businesses that want to buy space don’t have to use the same staff on each day of the convention.
I have a lot more that I want to say about how convention web sites, and other online tools, can be used to add value to the convention, and to the businesses involved with it. However, I have gone on at some length already and therefore should stop for now and give you folks a chance to respond. There will be more later.