World Fantasy Convention 2013

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 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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

44 thoughts on “World Fantasy Convention 2013

  1. Objections to WFC policies and typical programming was the genesis of Fourth Street Fantasy Convention (in the runup to the first Minneapolis WFC, for which I was treasurer and one of the investors, it not being a non-profit). I’m not surprised it has gotten worse; I’m older by a bit now, so everything looks worse. We certainly didn’t manage to set off a productive reform movement.

    One thing I do have to disagree with — “lost…items have to be repurchased at full cost” is completely clear to me, and it means buying a new membership if you lose your badge. I’m quite startled you could interpret that the way you apparently do; the inclusion of “repurchased” absolutely clinches it for me.

    1. Membership of a convention typically gets you lots of things. A souvenir book, a program book, at WFC a nice bag to keep your books in, at Worldcon a restaurant guide; a badge is only part of that. Would you make someone pay the full cost of a membership to replace a lost program book?

      1. WisCon is full price to replace a lost badge. (The site says 45$ and membership is 50$, but I think it just wasn’t updated in all the spots yet.)

        I have to say it makes sense to me. People could ‘lose’ a badge and hand it off to someone else. For cons with a lot of swag, it’d make sense to deduct the cost of swag. If you lose it on a Sunday, it’d make sense if they only charged you the Sunday rate.

        But that badge is really what you paid for with the membership. It’s worth a lot more than the 50 cents in materials.

  2. She was told that she had joined the convention too late to be considered. She had joined in October 2012.

    Jesus wept. For every slight and oversight, a shoddy excuse conjured seemingly at random.

    I am doubly agitated this week by the revelation (or outright lie, who can tell?) from one of the con folks that they had a “secret plan” to refund all the Kaffeeklatsch fees all along. I have not yet found out if this was actually done, but this plan was certainly NOT discussed in advance with those of us originally invited to hold Kaffeeklatsches… ergo, even if there was a secret plan genuinely in effect, we were being enlisted to unknowingly run these things under false pretenses. The fact that anyone could have found this remotely acceptable astounds me, and I thought I was past astounding at this point.


    1. They have apparently refunded people who booked online for the Kaffesklatsches, will still leaves people like me who paid in cash at the con, shit outta luck. So poorly done.

      And Cheryl, I ran the number on recurring authors on panels – just panels, I ignored signing and special events – and got this: reoccuring men outweighed women 60 to 36. So it’s really nice that some authors, experts and others didn’t get on a single panel even though it’s meant to be one per person.

  3. “Communication was in fact a disaster zone throughout the pre-con period.”

    Yep. Due to personal reasons and an enforced email address change, I dropped off the mailing list and was only able to get around to trying to catch up about a month before the convention. The tone of the reply to my query felt very much along the lines of “Well, we’ve sent out PLENTY of progress reports with ALL the information in them, but you won’t have seen them. You can find them on our website. Idiot.”

    Granted, I know I was a bit of an idiot for leaving it so long to chase up the change of email address, but given that (a) they don’t know my personal situation, and (b) I was a paying customer, I would have much appreciated a reply that politely answered my queries *without* telling me I’m an idiot. Not necessarily anything OTT, but even a simple “Hi, thanks for your query. We’re sorry you’ve missed out on seeing our progress reports, you can catch up on all of them on our website at…” would have sufficed.

    So I went and read some of the progress reports on the website, but couldn’t see any mention of registering in the most recent ones, and didn’t really feel I had the time to trawl back through the rest of them (not least because, as mentioned, the tone of them was quite offputting), so I sent another email, asking, basically, “Will you be sending out registration information later or is that information already on the website?” Meaning, of course, ‘if it’s on the website then tell me where’.

    The reply? “Yes, it’s all on the website. Everything’s on the website.” But, you know, no specific pointers.

    Fuck it, I thought. I’ll turn up on the day and take it from there. The day in question being Saturday (again, personal reasons curtailed me from attending the whole con). So I rock up Saturday, find the hotel easily enough, and then… am stymied by the Total Lack of Signs. Every other con I’ve been to, the moment you step into the hotel there are always clear signs pointing the way to registration. At WFC? Nada. I did several circuits of the ground floor looking for any signs, nothing. Found the bar, but having heard horror stories about non-members at the last UK one being chucked out of the bar, was disinclined to chance poking my head in to see if there was anyone I knew. And crippling anxiety precluded me from simply stopping and asking the nearest random person with badges (of which there were many).

    In the end I had to use my phone to look up the website. And with the signal inside the hotel being non-existant, I had to do this outside the back door, in between rain showers. After a few false starts, I found a page which gave the name of the room where registration was being held, and with that knowledge was able to go back in and follow the hotel signs to the room.

    At the top of the stairs I then finally saw a sign pointing to registration. Which was pretty much the most useless place ever to put such a sign, because (a) from that point, it was actually impossible to proceed further into the building *without* hitting registration, and (b) it was at the top of the stairs! I don’t know what kind of crazy world whoever put the sign up came from, but in my world you don’t go randomly climbing up stairs on the offchance there may be a sign at the top! You need the sign at the bottom to tell you that you’re *allowed* to go upstairs!

    Honestly, by that point I was all set for there to be some kind of problem finding my registration and then I’d cause a scene with a blazing row and get chucked out, but what actually happened was that the volunteer at the registration desk was brilliant, found my badge right away, and told me where I’d find everything.

    The rest of my con experience isn’t worth noting. But just from what I have noticed, I think there are clear lessons:

    1) Communicate respectfully. I don’t particularly care if behind my back you think my email query is stupid or obvious. Just reply to queries politely and with the right information.

    2) Actually, the above follows through to all forms of communication, really. Don’t talk down to or treat your audience like idiots. They’re all customers who deserve to be treated with respect.

    3) Pre-con registration information packs. Even if it’s just a one-sheet, it’s so important this information is out there and easy to find. My personal preference is for a paper copy in the post; that I can pin on a notice board when I get it so I *know* where it is. If you must distribute that information electronically only, put it in an *obvious* place on the website. Somewhere where it’s clear what it is, and where it takes only *one* click to get there from the front page.

    4) Signs. There are various schools of though on signposting, I know. But, at minimum, *signpost the shit out of the way to registration*. The goal is, when someone walks in for the first time, you want them to find their way to registration as easily as possible. You *don’t* want them wandering around trying to figure it out. So make it obvious! From EVERY possible entrance!

    As I say, those are the only things I can speak about from experience. I only attended one panel, didn’t buy anything in the dealers room (as, only being there one day, couldn’t carry too much, and the free books had already seen to that), and basically didn’t have much interaction with the rest of the convention.

    Will say this about the kaffeeklatsches, though; what a clusterfuck. If the charge was always supposed to be a refundable deposit, why not just say that upfront? If it’s the case that it’s a change of mind, crowing about it is the wrong way to announce it; especially when there were people who paid cash on the day, how are WFC supposed to trace them to issue the refunds?

        1. Not true; I’ve been to conventions before, I’ve been to several Eastercons, I was at Worldcon in Glasgow, and I don’t remember having any issues with signs at any of those. Certainly in each and every case I’ve always been able to find my way to registration without trouble, and the last time I went to an Eastercon the whole hotel was absolutely festooned with signs and directional arrows.

          So, no. I’m not going to give a pass to WFC on this for reasons of being British, sorry.

  4. The “no comic books” rule is probably my fault. When I ran the dealers room in 1999 (Providence RI, for MCFI), Ken Gale of Evolution Comics was one of my dealers. When Hartwell grumbled, I replied “graphic novels are books,” and moved on. I don’t think Ken sold much, but he was grateful for my support. (And at least half his display was books without pictures.)

    I’ll be running the dealers again for Saratoga Springs NY in 2015. I wonder if I should invite Ken again? After all, Hartwell owes me: at the last WFC in Saratoga Springs, I ran the first–and last–WFC kids’ program, which kept his two kids busy for the weekend.

  5. Snobbery is sadly a growing phenomenon in what used to be a comfortable and friendly ( at least amongst the fen working the ground ) event. The newer authors for whom World Fantastic might be their first convention experience, seem to be getting some very poor examples of 1-What to expect,
    2 – How to act,
    3 – What the responsibility of panelists is,
    4 – How a convention should deal with attendees and guests
    The board should either run a few themselves to get a better feel for what it takes to run the event, or clearly spell out what they expect the committee to do and then let them get on with the job.
    If keeping attendees happy isn’t a part of their priorities, say so.
    It seems likely that such clarity would result in fewer groups wanting to put on a WFC.
    However, the expectations might be more in-line with what the board appears to want, and the disillusioned groups would be able to concentrate on other events that are more to their liking.
    The stroking of pro egos seems to be an interesting topic which might one day be a good SMOFCon subject. Not likely to happen, but it would be very interesting to me. But I’m just a cynical old Fangirl.

  6. In other words, the WFB is precisely the sort of group that immediately comes to the fannish mind whenever anyone starts talking about SMOFs, is that it? But it sounds to me as though the reason the WFB doesn’t actually run conventions is that they would be totally incompetent at doing so. And why would any group that isn’t really, really good friends with the board ever want to host a WFC?

    I don’t think I’ve ever met Steve Jones, but based on what you’ve said about him, he sounds like an amazingly irritating twatwaffle. I think someone should remind him of the old adage that God gave you one mouth and two ears, and that they should be used in that proportion. He might actually learn something in the process.

  7. WFB meetings, except for the part where they decide who wins upcoming conventions, are open to all WFC attendees (a handful of whom generally attend).

    The Board consists of people who have chaired WFCs.

    1. The WFB board members are also supposed to be serving 3 year terms, yet many of them remain on year after year after year, etc. That rules does not seem to be enforced either. Hence, with Steve Jones taking another turn on the WFC Board, I’d expect that much of what happened with Brighton will now be considered to have set precedent, so that aspects of it can be expected to happen again. Some of it was very very good, and an improvement – much of it just wasn’t a World Fantasy Convention.

  8. It’s Sunday. No one has lost their badge and no one has been harassed.

    I was one of the people who reported harassment on the Saturday night. That night I barely slept and when I returned to the con on Sunday I felt completely uncomfortable to be back there.

    I’m very, very glad I didn’t see that message.

    What I did see was the tweet from WFC2013 before the account shut down asking that anyone who was harassed should “contact them”. I raised a formal complaint and heard nothing. Like hell am I tweeting them about it.

    1. I’m so sorry you had to go through that. Thank you for speaking up.

      There’s a note on Laura’s blog saying that con did respond to someone who reported harassment on Saturday night. I’m disturbed to learn that there was more than one official complaint, and that they did not act on all of them. It is beginning to sound like another case of “who you know”.

  9. Not much to add, except to say that the postcode for the hotel did not appear to be on the convention website at all, so I had to waste (just a little) time looking at the hotel’s website to feed the info into routefinder. Just one (of many) small irritations that could have been avoided.

    An inaccessible registration area is flat out unacceptable, as were the often ramshackle stairs (especially in the less public areas, like down to the cafeteria) and the incredible lift system.

    I pointed out that ‘Sunday morning and…’ remark to my daughter, Melissa (who was attending as a fan with Worldcon, multiple Eastercon and many other cons experience) and she showed me her twitter feed. ‘Well, that’s a f***ing lie for a start!’ She was exercised by the parity ‘policy’, which doesn’t seem like much of a policy to me.

    I’ve never actually met Steve Jones, although I’ve squeezed into an auditorium with him before. Am I lucky?

  10. Hmmm. A convention vowing to correct past mistakes books the Brighton Metropole. Is there any truth in the rumour that Fred Hutchings was on the committee?

  11. Since I am not a writer, WFC is not a convention that usually draws my attendance, unless I think the particular one is a good venue for my art or I’ve been asked to be a panelist. However, some of the issues raised in your post seem to be decades-old problems. And from the sound of responses, mostly unfixable, due to being caused by the board or higher convention management. One of the definitions of insanity (and I know I am misquoting) is if one continues to try something that got unsatisfactory results the first time, with hopes that the results will change. If the convention runners (Lord bless you all for taking on such difficult tasks) and the convention attendees want a convention that is basically a professional meeting for writers, publishers and agents, why not run a DIFFERENT convention with a different name that is not under the thumb of the WFB? “International Fantasy Book Writers” conference or some such. Just sayin’.

    1. As a con-runner, I’d be delighted if that happened, but I can’t see it working. You see, most people don’t go to WFC for the convention (which is often poorly run and almost always has bad programming). They go to see their friends and colleagues. It is a networking event. To get a rival event off the ground you would have to persuade a significant proportion of the existing attendees to go to your event instead.

      I think that SFWA’s Nebula weekend is trying to be the sort of event that WFC should be, but as it can only take place in the USA I haven’t been able to check it out.

  12. We were underwhelmed and disappointed with many aspects of the con. At the heart was the fact that we had chosen to attend WFC instead of Loncon 3, primarily because we had heard such good things about the pro nature of WFC. The reality was that the con felt just like any other fan run con, but with a higher than normal number of pro attendees and a lower than normal number of panels for those pros to appear on. The programming didn’t appear to be any more pro-oriented than any other large con that we have attended. This was not the WFC we expected.

    On the brighter side I got to see Brian Clemens (and others) talk about writing for TV and movies which was a great delight. The rest of the programming was less than great and the use of deliberately provocative panel titles is getting a bit tedious now. I think most panels would have been improved if there had been a chance for the panellists to get together beforehand to plan. A green room – how hard is one smallish room to organise – is what one would expect from a pro con. I really wonder how much con-running experience this team had.

    The on-line booking SNAFU was another irritant. By the time it eventually appeared all of the allocated rooms were sold out on at least one night. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if they had stuck to the 850 person limit, or maybe negotiated a larger block of rooms in the first place. At least we weren’t left complaining about the Hilton’s wifi prices (definitely not the con’s fault) since we ended up at another hotel. We are able-bodied so the stairs didn’t really bother us but it must have been a nightmare for anyone with mobility problems.

    Just on Foz’s breakdown of the panel members, the 11 POC she mentions looks to have been every POC at the con. This was the whitest convention I have been to in a long time, especially compared to the streets outside. Not something I would lay at the concom’s feet, but it was slightly unsettling. I guess I’m getting more used to the pop culture style event (Comic Con etc) which has a more mainstream attendance.

    1. Dear me no. No one goes to WFC for the programming. It is a professional networking event. People go there to sit in the bar and chat, go out to dinner and chat, and so on.

      As to the concom’s level of experience, one of the things that interested me about this event was the the WFB had summarily rejected a bid from a very experienced UK group, and gone instead with one that had very little experience. We’ve now seen the result of that decision.

      A green room, of course, costs money, as you are expected to provide refreshments. In the UK it is traditional to provide beer if panelists want it. I’m not surprised WFC2013 didn’t have one.

    2. High wifi prices “definitely not the con’s fault” … except that free access to the wifi for attendees is the sort of thing that most conferences I’ve been to manage to get negotiated into the hotel contract, or at least into the room rate.

      1. One of the things I dislike about Readercon is the incredibly high fee for wifi. At other cons I attend, it’s already free with the hotel, or the con has contracted to get it free for attendees. I think this should be high priority for any con organizers. (Not higher than accessibility, but right up there!)

      2. Having dealt with a UK Hilton previously I can confirm that with them negotiating in free wifi isn’t really possible. Their Internet and other technical items are all provided through a third party that they specify. The only way of providing the membership with free wifi is for the con to pay for it itself. We did look at doing this for the 2011 EasterCon (~900 attendees), however it would have cost tens of thousands of pounds, probably (from memory) in excess of £100,000 to do it properly.

        Getting wired Internet in rooms would probably be the only thing that might be possible at a UK Hilton.

        1. Providing free wifi would simply have been a question of the hotel having a charge code for refunding wifi purchases at checkout. Some conferences may get them to do that. It isn’t like it is unusual. Hotels refund charges for various reasons all of the time.

          It is worth noting, however, that “free” wifi simply means that the cost of it is included in the accommodation charge. The room rates we paid at the Metropole were around half rack rate. WFC might have taken the decision that wifi was not a general requirement, and bargained down room rates by excluding it.

  13. You know, until just now I had not realized the parallels between WFC’s communications style and that of the computer from West End Games’ classic game of community spirit and team building, Paranoia.


  14. “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. “

    Point of fact: I was the moderator on that panel, and I was the one who discussed the topic with the panelists I could reach beforehand, including Juliet, redirecting the topic from a direction we found offensive to one that was actually relevant and of interest.

    I admit, I stopped reading the convention updates after a while because they made me want to smite someone (or at very last, force them to take a basic PR communications course). The tone there, and at the convention, came across as a slap at every professional attending.

  15. I turned up and got shouted at by one of the organisers for having an opinion on something con-related on my own Facebook page. That went down well with me. As you can imagine…

  16. Cheryl, many thanks for this write-up. This was my first WFC, and one of my first cons at all, and I’m still trying to suss out what to be upset about, if you follow me…

    I was so burnt on the programming before even getting to the UK that I skipped all the panels, but I did sit in on some fantastic readings — I have to call out Rochita-Loenen-Ruiz’s riveting story, which I cannot wait to read.

    And “upset” doesn’t even begin to cover the miserable handling of the harassment. It sounds like the problem Sunday night was a lack of a clear plan (or any plan) for the redcoats (who were otherwise great) to report and immediately act on an incident of harassment. A printed policy is useless without a solid, 24/7 plan for enforcing it, yeah?

    I won’t even touch the tweets, signs, or progress reports, as others far more qualified have done so. I’d like to think clumsy covering-your-butt tactics can’t survive a network of persistent clearly-expressed critiques: if you can’t change their minds, maybe at least you can convince them to bugger off elsewhere. Or so I hope.

    1. I’m sure you are right that they had no clear plan for dealing with harassment reports. However, in this case I think that is less down to lack of foresight and more down to their posting of a harassment policy being yet another butt-covering tactic rather than anything they had any intention of acting upon.

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