Alt.Fiction, held annually in Derby and organized by Writing East Midlands, is a rather different beast to most of the conventions I attend. My writer and publisher friends are starting to get very fond of it, and I can see why. But as yet it is not a convention for everyone. I hope can explain why.
A very important aspect of any convention is the location. Derby is not the easiest place in the country to get to — three hours by train for me, and allegedly a horror to drive to — but it is fairly central with a fast rail link to London so it does quite well. The convention is held in The Quad, a purpose built arts centre that has pretty much everything we might need except sleeping space. There’s a nice bar (with an outdoor patio that works well on warm June days), some decent function space, proper cinemas, and even a recording studio where podcasts are created. It is on three floors, which may provide a problem for some, though there are elevators. The main space issue last year was that things got very crowded, especially in the bar. More of this later.
In previous years Alt.Fiction has been a single-day event like Bristolcon. This year, however, they expanded to two days, and that meant that sleeping space became an issue. Fortunately two very new hotels have just been built in a development alongside the River Derwent, just a short walk away from the con. The retail space isn’t open yet, and it would be good if some of it was restaurants, but the Hampton hotel we used was very nice indeed. US readers will be expecting a Hampton Inn, Hilton’s answer to Motel 6, but this was a spacious and comfortable hotel, far better than most British hotels I have used. All it lacked was food beyond breakfast, and on Sunday night I discovered that Hampton residents were welcome in the Italian restaurant in the adjoining Holiday Inn — you could even charge the meal to your room. Also rooms were only £55 a night. Score!
But what did going to two days do to the convention? The BristolCon committee was very keen to know, and I have to say that I’m not convinced it worked. Compared to last year, attendance seemed a lot lower. That is, The Quad was much less crowded. I gather that total sales were pretty much the same as last year, but spread over the two days. So many people only came for one day. I saw evidence of that myself. John Jarrold and Jon Courtenay Grimwood were only around on Saturday; Justina Robson and Mark Charan Newton did not turn up until Sunday. I have no idea what deal the convention has with The Quad, but if they had to pay extra for Sunday they may have a budget problem this year.
Sunday wasn’t helped by some rather odd scheduling that left the main programme room empty all morning. I guess someone thought that we’d all be asleep. Also the dealers’ room was only open on Saturday, which rather caught some of us by surprise. But this did give me the opportunity to take a wander around Derby and find a fabulous museum of Rolls Royce engines, which I photographed extensively. I also went back to the hotel to watch the Grand Prix, because I could, and because I had blown most of my food budget on a magnificent curry on Friday night so I was avoiding the bar.
Talking of the programme, it is in some ways an anti-Eastercon. At Eastercon a lot of thought tends to get put into panel titles and descriptions, but the end result of this is often panelists who say “I have no idea why I am on this panel”, “I have no idea what this panel is about”, or worst of all, “the panel description says X, but I want to talk about Y”. Worldcon has the same problem. So when you look at the convention programme it may seem quite interesting, but you never know what you are going to get.
In contrast Alt.Fiction has the most bland panel topics imaginable. How anyone can get excited by panel titles such as “The Editors”, “Steampunk”, “Military Science Fiction” or “Alt.Fiction Raffle” is beyond me. But because the descriptions are vague, and because Alt.Fiction takes care to put people on panels who know what they are talking about, the end result is generally very good. I let the Alt.Fiction folks know what I did, and they put me on panels about e-books and awards. Lee Harris and Mark Yon did a magnificent job of moderating, and my fellow panelists were all very interesting too. Sadly both panels were very poorly attended.
Ideally, of course, panels should both sound interesting to prospective attendees and be interesting when they take place, but once I have made the decision to attend I’m much more concerned about the latter than the former.
The dealers’ room was fairly quiet, and there was no art show. The British Fantasy Society had a wonderful collection of second hand books on sale, from which I bought works by Rikki Ducornet, Rachel Pollack and Dion Fortune. They told me they were doing good business. The new books seemed to be going less quickly, save for Rob Shearman’s new collection which was launched at the convention. I didn’t sell anything.
Possibly this is because the attendees at Alt.Fiction are more likely to be wannabe writers than readers. Of course young writers should read too, but their purpose in being at the con was to learn, not to buy. Nothing showed this more clearly than Sunday afternoon. Tom Hunter and I did a good panel on literary awards in the main programme room to an audience of 10 people, two of whom were gophers who were on duty minding the room. In the next slot Tom was moderating a panel on how to publicize yourself and your writing. It was in a smaller room, and it was packed; over 30 people.
There’s nothing “wrong” with a convention catering to young writers. It is a perfectly valid marketing choice and, given that Alt.Fiction is run by an organization that exists to promote writing, entirely understandable. However, comparisons to Eastercon need to bear this in mind. Alt.Fiction seems good to industry professionals, because it is run by people who understand the industry, and it seems good to young writers because it caters to them. It won’t necessarily seem good to fans because it doesn’t cater so well to them. So I don’t think this is a one-or-the-other issue, in that the UK needs both. It depends what sort of convention you want as to which one you attend, and the way things are now not everyone will like both. Unfortunately, if Alt.Fiction does a much better job of catering to writers and publishers, and they decide to go there instead, that might create a problem for Eastercon. I also worry that Alt.Fiction draws a younger crowd, and that might accelerate the graying of fannish events.
The lack of panel descriptions may have caused issues here too. Al Reynolds, either by accident or genius, gave just the sort of GoH speech that the convention needed. He talked about how he came to be a science fiction writer (indeed, one of the UK’s most successful science fiction writers). But there was no hint of this in the programme, and the event was quite poorly attended. In contrast there was a huge crowd waiting for the following event, “The World of Publishing”. I’m guessing that everyone was hoping that the “gatekeepers” of the industry were going to explain the magic formula for getting published. Silly people.
As for me, despite the fabulous curry, great hotel, and lovely time exploring Derby in the Sunday sunshine, not to mention many friends to catch up with, I can’t say that the event was worth it for me. As with Eastercon, I got the impression that very few of the attendees were interested in anything I did. Eurocon was a much more worthwhile trip. I sold books there, had some very useful conversations, and did panels that I thought people valued. The content of the e-book panel at Alt.Fiction was better, but the audience was much smaller and less likely to buy anything as a result.
You might wonder why a convention that caters to wannabe writers wasn’t interested in someone who is on the staff of a Hugo-winning fiction magazine. I don’t think it is because I’m only the non-fiction editor. I got the impression that most of the young writers there had never heard of Clarkesworld, and I suspect that if they had they would reject it as “American”. Yes, the UK really can be that insular at times.