Alt.Fiction is a rather different sort of convention. Indeed, a lot of fans would not recognize it as a convention at all, because it isn’t run by a fannish group, but by an arts organization. And, like Imaginales, it is funded in part by the local council.
The current parent organization is Writing East Midlands, an Arts Council funded body that works with writers of all sorts. Alt.Fiction is specifically devoted to the various strains of speculative fiction, and significant funding was provided by the University of Derby and by Derby City Council. That allowed the event to invite a lot of industry professionals. Here, from memory, is a quick list of who was there: Guy Adams, Tony Ballantyne, John Berlyne, Chaz Brenchley, Ramsey Campbell, Mike Carey, Julie A. Crisp, Mike Cobley, Paul Cornell, Pete Crowther, Steve Erikson, Marc Gascoigne, Lee Harris, Colin Harvey, Jenni Hill, John Jarrold, Steve Jones, Graham Joyce, Paul Kane, Kim Lakin-Smith, Juliet McKenna, M.D. Lachan, Tim Lebbon, Mark Charan Newton, Marie O’Regan, Sarah Pinborough, Andy Remic, Liam Sharp, Rob Shearman, Mike Shevdon, Kari Sperring, Gav Thrope, Ian Watson, Ian Whates. The program lists others, but I didn’t see them so I can’t be sure they were there. It is, however, a very impressive line-up, especially for an event that was only around 250 people in total.
The venue, The Quad, is right in the center of Derby (though Google Maps manages to have the location wrong, which caused some confusion). It has some decent function space, being a purpose-built facility, though it is spread over several floors. The bar is OK, though the beer selection would not pass muster at an Eastercon and it was very busy even with the relatively small number of attendees.
There were five separate streams of programming, which is a lot for a small event. However, only two of those were full program streams. One was a collection of book launches and the like that took place in the Dealers’ Room; one was writing workshops; and one was in the podcasting suite and intended to be put online after the event as much as for listening at the event (a welcome innovation as far as I’m concerned). Paul Cornell commented on Twitter that the profusion of programming resulted in poor audiences, and he’s probably right, but I was also concerned about the simplistic panel topics: things like “Sci-Fi Panel” and “Fantasy Panel”. That’s great for people new to conventions, but not for old hands like myself and most of the pros. More about this later.
Although it was a one-day event, programming continued late into the evening, including a double-bill horror film showing and a comedy improvisation session. Panels included material on writing for comics and TV, but there was no art show, or art-oriented programming. The Dealers’ Room was fairly poorly populated, but was entirely book-based.
The general view of the experienced con-going attendees was that the event had the feel of World Fantasy, though obviously without the World Fantasy Board lurking behind the scenes looking out for Improper Behavior. I spent almost all of the day in the bar talking business, which is a very much a World Fantasy way of doing things.
However, few conventions can survive on industry attendees alone, and Alt.Fiction is, at least ostensibly, a literary festival. The attendance of large numbers of industry people is great, but is the event for them? And if not, who is it for?
And important point to remember here is that few, if any, conventions are for a single group of people. Most of them have multiple groups of attendees with different interests. (One of the big failings of SMOFdom as a con-running group is their tendency to assume that the only people who matter at Worldcon are the fans who attend every year.) So the fact that Alt.Fiction provides a great opportunity for industry people at relax together, chat and do business is great. But it can’t be the be-all and end-all of the event, especially as many of them were being paid to attend.
Given the nature of Writing East Midlands, an obvious purpose of the event is to enable young (or young-in-career-terms) writers to meet professionals and learn about the business. It seems to do this quite well, though I don’t know how the workshops actually went. However, this is a fairly small audience. It won’t provide a lot of income, and there isn’t much possibility for growth.
Expanding the event to cater more to a traditional Eastercon audience may be difficult. The venue doesn’t look like it can handle a lot more people. There isn’t an obvious large hotel nearby that could house a large, traveling attendance. And much of the programming that happens at a fan event would be of little interest to the folks at Writing East Midlands. Obviously there will always be fans who attend, just like there are always fans who attend World Fantasy, but they will tend to be those who are friendly with lots of industry people, and of course those with ambitions to be writers.
What we may well see is the event expanding locally. I have felt for a long time that the UK needs a full-blown literary festival devoted to science fiction and fantasy literature. What I’d like to see is a few outreach events in off-site locations designed to make use of the large number of writers in attendance. I’m sure the city council has suitable venues, and there’s a Waterstones in the city (presumably in the large Westfield Mall) where signings could be held. If a large hall is available they could even do a WFC-style mass signing that is open to the public. Some of the local people who attend these outreach events would choose to attend the main event as well. Also some people who would never attend a “science fiction convention” would travel to Derby for a day to listen to favorite writers speak.
There was a fair amount of talk at the event about how it being only a single day gave it added focus. I can see from the point of view of a hard-working writer that a single-day, well-focused event is preferable to four days of Eastercon that includes lots of programming that is of no interest. However, Alt.Fiction isn’t really a one-day event. Unless you are based in Derby or one of the nearby Midlands cities, to get there for the start of the event you either have to leave home in the middle of the night, or arrive on Friday. Equally programming goes on so late into the evening that everyone except locals needs to stay to Sunday or they have to miss much of it. I caught a 7:15 train in the morning, got home at around 23:00, and was very tired by the end of it. And I still missed a lot of what went on.
The key here I think is understanding your market segments. As I said earlier, not everyone is at the convention for the same reason. There will be many people who will be happy to come just for the main events on Saturday. The dealers, and those who are there for the social side, will probably want to arrive on Friday afternoon and leave Sunday afternoon. The workshop classes will also probably benefit from being there over the weekend. Local people will benefit from some Friday afternoon and evening events which might, for example, include school visits. The program should be structured around this understanding. Friday evening might feature one or two fairly serious industry-specific panels. Introductory level panels could be put in larger rooms outside the main venue where they would attract lots of locals, while the smaller rooms in The Quad would be reserved for more in-depth discussion. Those outside events might have single-entry pricing but also be available to anyone with a full event pass.
Of course in these days of austerity anything reliant on Arts Council and municipal funding is somewhat at risk. Nevertheless, I very much hope that Alt.Fiction survives and thrives into the future. Those of us who attended appear to have had a great time, and a certain amount of variety in conventions (or convention-like) events is, I think, a very good thing.