As I have said elsewhere, I really enjoyed this year’s World Fantasy Convention (WFC). It is very easy to have a good convention experience when you are in a lovely location, seeing old friends and part of the in crowd. Many other people enjoyed it as well. I suspect that a lot of UK people had never had the experience of being with so many top class industry professionals in a small convention before. I, however, have been to many WFCs, and have even helped run one, so I have a very different perspective on how things went. I know how the sausage is made, and I can see when it is done badly.
I should start by noting that I have a particular interest in this year’s World Fantasy. Unlike Worldcon, the WFC has an ongoing governing organization, the World Fantasy Board (WFB). That body does not run conventions itself. Instead it contracts with groups of con-runners who are licensed to run the convention for a particular year. Back in 2009, World Fantasy was run by San Francisco Science Fiction Conventions, Inc. (SFSFC), of which Kevin and I were (and still are) directors. All of the feedback I have had from people who attended the event has been very positive, but I have been given to understand that the WFB was deeply unhappy with our event.
The first inkling I had that anything was wrong was at the previous year’s FantasyCon in the UK, when Steve Jones (a WFB member) was loudly telling all and sundry in the bar that there was no point going to the 2009 WFC because the people running it were totally incompetent. As far as I could make out, his evidence for this rested on the fact that our publisher liaison was a) a woman (Rina Weisman) and b) did not show him the level of deference that he felt was his due. I’m pleased to say that Rina did such a terrible job that she’s since been asked to act as publisher liaison for several other WFCs and Worldcons.
The WFB continued to make a nuisance of themselves both before and during the convention. The most spectacular piece of attempted interference was when they devoted time during the Board meeting at the convention to discussing how they could prevent me from reporting on the results of the World Fantasy Awards. The official World Fantasy website is still mired in the 20th Century and is very slow to get updated. Apparently the WFB didn’t like me upstaging them by getting the award winners online before them.
This would have been laughable in any circumstances, but as it happened my job at the convention was running the Press Office. Getting the award results out was part of that job. So what they were actually discussing was attempting to sabotage the work of the group that they had hired to run their convention.
As far as I know, there was no question of preventing Locus or Tor.com from announcing the award results, only me.
The convention didn’t all go according to plan. No one expects the hotel swimming pool to spring a leak, for example. But overall I think we did fairly well. However, I am given to understand that after the convention there was much unhappiness amongst the WFB with our performance. We were apparently accused of running the worst World Fantasy ever. Mr. Jones was apparently the principal complainant.
All of this I would be prepared to live with. After all, I knew we had done a good job, because the attendees were telling me that we had. But the WFB did not stop there. They were also spreading a rumor that we were skimping on expenditure on the convention and pocketing huge profits as a result. I know this because the story was repeated to my face by someone who wasn’t aware that I was an SFSFC director. I don’t know who started this rumor, but the person who had been complaining loudly about our incompetence for over a year would seem to be a good bet.
For the record, SFSFC is a non-profit organization. Most conventions end up with a small surplus because prudent financial planning means you don’t want to risk a loss, and any surpluses we end up with are kept within the organization for use on future conventions and other fan-related good works. Directors are not paid. We don’t even take expenses to attend board meetings. The financial totals for our World Fantasy are included in our tax filings to the State of California for 2009/10 and 2010/11 (posted publicly on our website). We ended up with a surplus of just over $7,000 on a total turnover of just over $151,000, so around 5%. That money has been put towards running Westercon 64, SMOFcon 28 and Westercon 66.
Unlike Worldcon, “World” Fantasy rarely leaves North America. It does visit Canada fairly regularly, but the last time it came to Europe was in 1997. Dave Langford reported on that event for his fanzine, Cloud Chamber. You can find that report online here. The most interesting part of it is as follows:
Well, the lavish WFC hospitality suite appeared to consist of ‘tea, coffee and computers sponsored by Microsoft’ – a deal which presumably explains why, to John Clute’s considerable disgust, the SF Weekly web magazine people were supposedly barred from conducting on-line interviews in the WFC hotel and reduced to having a party in their Soho premises. World Fantasy Award judge Paul Barnett was firmly told that he’d have to pay for his room and might get a refund some day. And when Chris Priest — a pro with cashflow problems who as the 1996 WFA novel winner had been asked to present the same award this year — dared to ask for a fee and/or travel expenses, WFC co-chair Steve Jones flew into a rage and (after heated exchanges in which it emerged that WFC had no intention of providing even a day membership for a mere honoured award presenter) ‘sacked’ Chris from the WFA ceremony. Such was Steve’s continuing wrath that during the event he ranted about having Chris (who dropped in on Saturday to meet friends) chucked out of public areas of the hotel…. Fortunately, when this request was passed to the secular arm, the appointed executor of justice was Chris Bell, who merely laughed.
A couple of years ago a group of British fans bid to hold WFC here. Their bid was summarily dismissed by the WFB who apparently deemed that they were not competent to run the convention. Most of those people are involved in running the London Worldcon. Instead the WFB chartered a group headed by Steve Jones to run a WFC in Brighton. I was very much looking forward to seeing Mr. Jones demonstrate running a WFC in a manner of which the Board would approve.
One of the things you should always do when taking over a mobile convention like WFC is check out what went wrong in previous years and try not to repeat those mistakes. The 2011 WFC got a great deal of criticism because the venue was not very accessible for people with mobility problems. The Brighton Metropole is an old hotel that was not designed with wheelchairs in mind, so you might have thought that the convention committee would make a serious effort to ensure that mobility issues were a priority. Instead they appear to have done their space planning without any regard for accessibility. The kaffeklatsch area was, I understand, accessible only by stairs and by a staff elevator. The registration area was only accessible by stairs. The cafe area may also have been a problem.
I note, by the way, that all WFCs are run by a different group, and attitudes can be very different. One person who was badly inconvenienced by the lack of accessibility in Brighton was Peggy Rae Sapienza, who happens to be one of the co-chairs of next year’s WFC in Washington DC. I spoke to her briefly, and she assured me that they had picked their facilities with accessibility in mind, long before the fuss about Brighton blew up.
Much of the pre-con displeasure could have been avoid if the convention had presented these issues in a suitably contrite manner and promised to do what they could to help out. Instead the lack of accessibility was presented in way that read like, “tough luck, you’re screwed”, and any offers of help came only as an afterthought once a storm of outrage had developed.
Communication was in fact a disaster zone throughout the pre-con period. I don’t know who was responsible for their Twitter feed and newsletters, but Patrick Nielsen Hayden summed it up pretty well when he commented as follows:
— P Nielsen Hayden (@pnh) October 27, 2013
The convention’s communication style also revealed a lot about their attitude towards their members. Their final newsletter notes that anyone who lost their convention badge would be required to pay £75 to get a replacement. Challenged over this, the convention’s response was to claim that this was standard practice for similar large genre conventions.
Really, which ones? Previous WFCs? Worldcons? Various people asked for examples. I’d like to link you directly to what WFC2013 said on this but, like a third-rate celebrity trying to cover up a drunken rant, they have deleted their entire Twitter feed. Fortunately they can’t delete other people’s reactions:
— P Nielsen Hayden (@pnh) October 27, 2013
I did actually check on the links they provided to convention policies before they deleted their tweets. The four conventions cited were Dragon*Con, Gencon, ColossalCon and CanCon. The first two are huge events with tens of thousands of attendees, most of whom are fans. In contrast, WFC generally attracts under 1000 people, almost all of whom are industry professionals. I’m not familiar with the other two events, but I did click through to check the policies being cited, and as far as I could see not one of them mentioned punitive charges for lost badges. Yes, replacement badges have to be paid for, but not at a punitive rate. GenCon’s policy specifically says, “Lost, stolen or forgotten items must be repurchased at full cost.” I read that as paying the replacement cost of the items. WFC2013 seems to think it means the full cost of a membership, a much higher sum.
So unless their badges actually cost £75 to make, not only was WFC2013 comparing itself to events more than 10 times the size, it was also at best confused and at worst fibbing about the actual policies of those big events.
The comparison with Dragon*Con and GenCon speaks volumes about WFC2013’s attitude towards its members. In theory WFC is a professional networking event. They even say so in their newsletters when lecturing members about proper behavior. The majority of the attendees are involved in the business in one way or another. However, WFC2013 seemed to think that the attendees would be hordes of fans who needed to be viewed with extreme distrust. They even employed private security guards. Worldcons have security people, but that is because they take place in convention centers and the security people come as part of the package. Employing external security staff for a convention in a hotel is highly unusual. Employing them for what is effectively an industry conference is bizarre.
Thankfully I did not have any run-ins with the security. I gather from other attendees that I was lucky.
The difference in emphasis was not lost on the professional attendees, for example Anne Lyle and Elizabeth Bear:
@AnneLyle It's not FOR pros. That's its usual purpose, sure, but this year it appears to be for peddling access to pros…
— Elizabeth Bear (@matociquala) October 27, 2013
At the convention, registration went very smoothly. It helped that the fans who had been recruited to run it knew who I was. The badges were large and clearly printed, which was good. They also used a style of badge holder that was pioneered by SFSFC at our 2002 Worldcon, ConJosé, the irony of which was not lost on Kevin and I. (And yes, we do have a good idea of how much they cost.)
Registration is also where you get to pick up the goodies, which at WFC are generally extensive. A lot of work had clearly gone into the souvenir book, which was impressive. However, it was printed in hardcover and was very heavy. I know of several people who left theirs behind because of the weight. Indeed, Jonathan Strahan said on the Coode Street Podcast that he thought this was a widespread practice. So although the souvenir book was indeed very pretty, it was also a monumental waste of money.
In sharp contrast, the book bag was the poorest I have seen at a WFC. It seemed like most UK publishers had decided not to offer many books (and the Americans, understandably, could not afford to ship them). WFC2013’s publisher liaison does seem to have been busy, because Jo Fletcher Books had been persuaded to sponsor the book bags by advertising on them. Rather than getting publishers to provide freebies for the attendees, the convention had instead focused on reducing its own costs.
The art show is usually one of the highlights of WFC. Understandably most of the usual American exhibitors could not afford to bring much material, though I was pleased to see that John Picacio had made an effort. There are, of course, plenty of fine British artists. Jim Burns, Dominic Harman and Les Edwards/Edward Miller all had good offerings, as did others I have probably forgotten. I will be interested to see how Loncon 3 compares.
The Friday night mass signing caused a bit of fuss, with members who were not on panel being told that they would have to provide their own name signs if they wanted to participate. Many, it seemed, did not bother. And indeed a lot of the people who were on panel seemed not to bother either. I thought perhaps this was because their UK publishers were arranging separate signing events for them. Juliet McKenna’s con report provided another answer. Apparently the hired security had been refusing to let authors in to get set up, instead insisting that they join the huge queue with everyone else. Several authors gave up in disgust and went off to do something else with their evening. I note also that the tables were badly set out, causing traffic problems in the central aisle when people did get queues.
The dealers’ room was, as usual, delightfully full of books. It is my favorite part of WFC. I was particularly pleased to see a table representing Australian small presses, and one for ChiZine. I gather from dealer friends that sales were very slow to begin with, but the usual rush to catch the sales on Sunday morning helped a lot. I would have bought a lot more ChiZine books had Kevin and I not decided to keep one of the stupidly heavy souvenir books.
Also on display in the dealers’ room was the shameless hypocrisy of the WFB. In San José one of our book dealers had the temerity to have a small display of hats for sale. This caused outrage amongst the WFB. They were really quite rude about it. Thankfully we managed to save the poor lady from being thrown out. And yet in Brighton we had one dealer selling t-shirts and other fannish items.
One policy that Brighton did relax was the ban on costumes. WFC always takes place near Hallowe’en, often including the day itself. The WFB was furious with us in 2009 because we declined to ban people from wearing costumes for the holiday. Brighton also decided to allow costumes (although as it was in the UK hardly anyone dressed up). But in their newsletter they announced, in a typically officious manner, that:
we still have a strict “no weapons” policy that applies to both real and imitation weapons (no matter how obvious they may appear). Anyone caught carrying a weapon-like object may find themselves ejected from the convention without refund and reported to the police.
For Hallowe’en I was wearing my pirate costume, the same one I had worn in San José. There I had carried a toy ray gun. I left it at home, along with a recently purchased plastic cutlass, because I wasn’t going to give anyone an easy excuse to have me thrown out of the event. And yet, there in the dealers’ room, there were two companies selling very realistic-looking replica swords and axes.
I also saw at least one person wearing a costume on a day other than Hallowe’en. Of course, as he was a member of the committee, that didn’t count.
The truth about WFC’s “strict” policies is that it all depends who you are. If you are someone that the WFB doesn’t know, or doesn’t like, then you get the book thrown at you. If you are a friend of a WFB board member then you can get away with anything.
Well, anything except selling comics in the dealers’ room. That policy did seem to be being upheld. Apparently some things are utterly beyond the pale.
The centerpiece of most conventions is the program. That’s not normally the case with WFC, mainly because the WFB insists on micromanaging program development and encourages dull, predictable programming. Inevitably some panels turn out to be very good because they have good people on them who put on a good show, but that’s largely incidental. This year I gather that there were some very good panels. That was fortuitous.
One of the supposed firm rules of WFC is that you get one panel and/or one reading. Only Guests of Honor and really big names get more. A quick look at the program participants list will show that WFC2013 drove an Australian road train through this rule then reversed back over it to make sure it was dead. The rule is there because so many of the attendees are professionals in the field, and they all need to get a turn in the limelight. In Brighton there were many published writers who were not given anything, while others got multiple panels for no apparent reason.
What appears to have happened here is that the people putting together the program had no idea who many of the attendees were, and could not be bothered to find out.
Particularly absent from the program were women. Foz Meadows ran the numbers:
Of 306 panellists (not individuals): 197M, 109F. 295 white (190M, 105F), and just 11 POC (7 MOC, 4 WOC). WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK @wfc2013?
— Foz Meadows (@fozmeadows) October 28, 2013
WFC2013 responded to complaints in typically belligerent fashion:
World Fantasy Convention 2013 does not operate on a gender “quota” or “parity” system for programming. Instead, our aim is to match the best people available to us to the most appropriate panel topics, thereby creating an informed and enlightening discussion for your entertainment.
The “best people available”, it would seem, are a bunch of old white men. My Israeli friend Gili Bar-Hillel, who is a very experienced translator and has been on panel at previous WFCs, was not offered any programming. She was told that she had joined the convention too late to be considered. She had joined in October 2012. There was a panel on translation. All of the panelists were men. I wasn’t at the panel, but I’m told that one of the panelists uttered the classic comment, “I don’t know why I’m on this panel”. A second had not translated for years, and had only ever done so as a hobby. But apparently being male made these people far better qualified to talk about translation than a woman who is currently active in the field and has translated many top-selling titles.
Then again, perhaps it was the choice of topics that was at fault. I can’t find a single item on the program that has anything to do with diversity. There’s nothing on race, nothing on gender (unless you count the romance and YA panels as women-only), nothing on LGBT and so on. This is ironic, because one of the themes of the convention was “The Next Generation”, and nothing represents the concerns of the current generation of writers more than an interest in diversity. As one person commented to me at the convention, it seemed that the convention’s only interest in the Next Generation was finding those younger writers whom the old guard approved of, and highlighting them at the expense of everyone else.
I’ve also been told that a German lady offered to talk about the state of SF&F in her country, and was rebuffed with a comment to the effect that the convention wasn’t interested in such things.
Worst of all, however, was the actual content of the program. As information about the panels started to leak out, it became clear that many of the panel items were designed to be “controversial” but were actually either idiotic or downright insulting to the panelists. It seemed like much of the program had been put together by the sort of 12-year-old boy who thinks that calling the girls in his class at school “fat” and “ugly” makes him look cool and edgy.
Some people, such as Kameron Hurley, simply refused to be on panels they found insulting. Naturally they were not offered alternative panels. Others, such as Juliet McKenna, managed to arrange to subvert the panels they were on and talk about something sensible instead. Juliet managed that because she was able to contact the other panelists, who were sympathetic. Unlike many similar events (Worldcons, for example), WFC2013 did not put panelists in contact before the event, nor did it have a green room. I was only on one panel, and I was surprised to get that until I read the panel description and realized I had been put on it as a deliberate insult. I didn’t get to meet the moderator until just before the panel and was disappointed to find him determined to try to stick to the topic. A large part of our audience left in the first few minutes, and I can’t say that I blame them. I would have done so too.
The cornerstone of any WFC is the awards banquet and subsequent announcement of the World Fantasy Awards. WFC2013 managed to comprehensively wreck this by insisting on interleaving the WFA announcements with those for the British Fantasy Awards. I knew this would cause confusion as soon as I heard it announced, and sure enough soon after I spotted two very well known writers tweeting to congratulate Graham Joyce on winning the WFA for Best Novel, when in fact had won the BFA for Best Fantasy Novel.
It didn’t help, of course, that Graham’s very fine book, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, was up for Best Novel in the WFAs, Best Horror Novel in the BFAs and Best Fantasy Novel in the BFAs. It was a train wreck waiting to happen, and someone should have recognized the possibilities for confusion.
As it turned out, the convention committee even managed to confuse themselves. When the nominees for the BFA Best Fantasy Novel were read out, Kevin and I, who were following the nominee lists in the program book so we could tweet the winners without spelling mistakes, were horrified to see that N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon was not announced. Surely, we thought, they couldn’t be that crass, could they? However, we do tend to assume cock-up before controversy, so we said nothing online and after the ceremony I buttonholed Lee Harris, the BFS Chair. He quickly reassured me that Nora’s book was not listed on the envelope, and after further checking let me know that it wasn’t even a nominee. The mistake was in the WFC2013 program book.
By the way, usual practice at big award ceremonies is to put up the names of the winners on a big screen so that people can read the names (and tweet them correctly). WFC2013 had a big screen, but kept it showing the convention logo throughout.
What did go very well at the convention was the schedule. Everything ran pretty much to time, and programming staff were on hand to make sure that panels didn’t overrun. Inevitably some changes to schedule happened, and these were clearly indicated on display boards in the lobby. Unfortunately whoever was programming these boards could not resist the temptation to snark at the membership. They poked fun at Americans (as a group, not individuals), and on Sunday morning they posted:
It’s Sunday. No one has lost their badge and no one has been harassed.
That was unfortunate, because their Twitter feed had recently posted a reference to a harassment incident the previous night.
That was the incident referred to by Laura Lam in her con report. As you’ll see, the creeper didn’t only pester the person who reported him. I see from Laura’s post that the convention has responded to the person who made the complaint, but as far as I know no action has been taken against the creeper.
Nor was this the only example of sexual harassment at the convention. My friend Jo Hall personally witnessed two other incidents, as she reports here. To my knowledge, neither of these additional incidents were reported to the convention. I’ve also heard rumors of one or two other incidents, but nothing has been posted on line about them.
Quite frankly, I’m not surprised that incidents were not reported. The hectoring tone of the convention’s communications, and their obvious contempt for issues such as panel parity and accessibility, gave me no confidence that the convention’s senior management would take such incidents seriously. As one of my friends said to me at the convention, Steve Jones is to customer service what King Herod was to child care. I can’t speak for anyone else, but if I had just been sexually harassed I wouldn’t be wanting to have to report the fact to him.
More seriously I suspect that the style of WFC2013’s public utterances gave would-be creepers every confidence that they could harass people at the convention with impunity. If you want to run a safe event, it isn’t enough to have a policy, you have to make it sound like you mean it, and that you believe that sexual harassment is a far more serious issue than wearing costumes outside of Hallowe’en or selling comics in the dealers’ room. WFC2013 failed lamentably in that respect.
By the way, I have the names of all three of the creepers. I will not be naming and shaming them because the UK has libel laws that can be used to ruin anyone who dares speak out against the rich and powerful, or people with rich and powerful friends, even if everything that is said is true. I am assuming that the names will percolate through the usual back channels and that people will be on the lookout for these perps in future. I will note that I don’t know any of them personally. Nor, to my knowledge, are any of them involved in con-running.
People are, very reasonably, asking what will be done about this. The answer is almost certainly “nothing”, at least as far as the WFB is concerned. Each WFC is run independently, and to my knowledge there is no WFB policy requiring conventions to have a harassment policy, or any means of imposing sanctions against perpetrators from one year to the next. Individual con-running groups such as SFSFC may have adopted anti-harassment policies (ours is on our website). Individual future WFCs may make safety a priority. Whether the WFB will allow them to fully operate such a policy is another matter. All that they actually require is:
Individual conventions are encouraged to have a generally worded policy statement that the convention reserves the right to remove any attendee’s membership for irresponsible or illegal behavior.
The question of what the WFB actually requires of conventions brings us back to the issue of numbers. That quote above comes from this page. You will also see from that page that the membership limit for WFC is supposed to be 850. With the San José convention we got into a lot of trouble with the WFB because our event was very popular. We eventually persuaded them to raise the limit to 1000, and spent some of the additional money that brought in on flying Zoran Živković in as an additional Guest of Honor, something that made me very happy. According to some of the people I spoke to at the convention, Brighton’s membership count was in the region of 1400.
As an experienced con-runner, I know that there are significant costs to putting on a convention that may not be obvious to the attendees. In San José we had to pay a ridiculous amount of money to the hotel to pay off a mariachi band that they had hired, without asking us, to entertain members in the convention bar. I’m pretty sure that the cost of the private security guards that WFC2013 employed must have been significant.
I should note also one incident of great generosity by the convention. As many of you will know, Bob Silverberg had a heart attack shortly after arriving in London and was unable to travel to Brighton. His wife, Karen Haber, stayed with him at the hospital, but as neither of them were familiar with the NHS Pat Cadigan also stayed behind to look after them. I haven’t heard from Bob & Karen, but I’m told that WFC2013, without being asked, refunded Pat’s membership. I presume they did the same for Bob & Karen. That’s exemplary convention behavior.
On the other hand, the convention had a much higher than average attendance. As I noted earlier, WFC2013 seems to have concentrated on getting UK publishers to reduce the convention’s costs rather than providing freebies to members. I would be very interested to learn how big a surplus it generated. Furthermore, while many WFCs are run by fan-based non-profits such as SFSFC, this one does not appear to have such a parent organization. I rather suspect that every penny of surplus that the event produced will go directly into the pockets of the senior management.
A lot of people writing con reports have stressed that they don’t want to attack the convention staff, and note that it takes a lot of effort to put on such events. This is entirely reasonable. The various volunteers who worked at the convention seem to have done a very good job. And running a convention for 1400 people probably seems quite daunting to many people in the UK. To seasoned Worldcon runners, putting on World Fantasy doesn’t look like much of a challenge, but it still requires work to do it well.
The problem I have with WFC is that the WFB doesn’t seem to be much interested in running conventions well. The Board is an entrenched and secretive organization responsible to no one but itself. It is exactly the sort of secret cabal of (mostly) old white men that people like to think runs Worldcon. It makes life a misery for hard-working volunteer con-runners who offer to put on its event, and turns a blind eye to its supposed strict rules when people closely connected to the Board are in charge. WFC is not run for the benefit of the community; it is run for the benefit of the WFB. Every time I hear people saying that what Worldcon needs is a permanent organization to give it some structure and continuity, what I worry about is that we’ll get something like the World Fantasy Board instead.