WorldCon: The Aftermath Part II: Constructive criticism

A good night’s sleep really does wonders, especially after a WorldCon.

So yesterday I talked about what a great time I had, and all the people and the moments that made it an amazing experience. And all of that still holds true. But today I want to take a more critical look at the con, and share some thoughts about what struck me in a less-than-squee way.

Before that, however, I want to recognize the immense amount of hard work that the all-volunteer staff put into making LoneStarCon 3 a success. Nothing a newbie con-goer might say will ever take away from that, and they deserve recognition and thanks for their herculean efforts. This is constructive criticism, and I hope it’s taken in that spirit.

I also recognize there is a strong fan subculture at work here. Some of the things I say here may go against the grain. I understand and respect the history and traditions of that subculture, but with that said, I’m gonna throw stuff out there anyway. Evolution can be a good thing.

All right, here’s some observations and ideas:

WorldCon is older and whiter than I would’ve thought. WorldCon is run by, and for, the fans, but I would’ve hoped fandom at this point would’ve been more inclusive. There’s a running joke about the Secret Masters of Fandom, and how they’re pretty much old white folks who shook hands with Heinlein and Azimov and want to see SF/F continue along classic lines.

That running joke had to start somewhere, and I can see why. I would put the average age of attendees at over 50. That’s not a bad thing at all, but there were very few groups of 20-somethings roaming the halls, and the only teens I saw were those accompanied by parents who were obvious fans. It ain’t Comic-Con, that’s for sure.

Furthermore, I think the group of authors and other program participants were far more diverse than the predominantly white attendees. That’s surprising, given that we were in Texas. Outside the convention center, San Antonio was a true melting pot — as is most of America these days.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that WorldCon made younger folks and people of different racial backgrounds unwelcome — the hospitality was great toward everyone. It’s just that there was no evidence of outreach to those groups, nor was there a heap of programming that would attract them.

I love the hardcore fans. But as they age out, who’s going to be there to replace them? Future WorldCons would do well to make the event more attractive to young people and “minority” groups. (I hate the term “minority,” especially given that demographics will turn the tables within my lifetime.)

WorldCon is far less slick, and far more homespun, than I expected. My experience with conventions is along the lines of Book Expo America, Comdex, the Consumer Electronics Show and all the media reports I’ve seen from Comic-Con. I think new con-goers would be surprised at WorldCon with those images in mind.

There is an immense amount of love that goes into a WorldCon, and it shows. But the vast majority of the displays and galleries and such have a DIY feel that may not play well with the younger folks. I mean, there was a homemade Star Trek bridge at the con, but many younger fans have sat on movie-class sets already. Heck, I have.

There’s stuff out there to be had to kick it up a notch. WorldCon did have the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, which was great. I would’ve loved to see other props — actual props — from movies and TV, and the movie companies probably would’ve lent some out to help generate buzz, even if all they offered were Comic-Con leftovers. The WorldCon artists’ gallery could’ve been better presented, too. If I were an artist, I’d be irked to see my cover art presented on pegboards. Get a corporate sponsor to help pay for it.

In fact, there are plenty of companies that would probably love to sponsor events like these. They basically give you money, and you put their logos around whatever they sponsor. This is not a bad thing if it means a better experience that can help attract interest in SF/F and fandom.

Filking is a particular SF/F tradition at cons that I was introduced to. Filkers are essentially folk singers whose primary subjects are fantasy and science fiction. And cats, apparently. They were lovely people and the performances were great. But there are a lot of other types of music that play with these themes. Where were the rappers and rock bands? A band that sings about SF/F would love to be at a con like this. They’d also bring their own fans, who might become more interested in the literature. Wins all around.

Where were the publishers? I was also surprised to see zero presence on the part of major publishers. Where was the Tor booth? Orbit? The only two publishers that had a presence in the main dealer room were Angry Robot and Tachyon, both relatively small. Now, the dealer room is for selling books and geek gear, which is what they both were doing. But why didn’t major SF/F publishers have booths where they could talk about upcoming releases, even if they weren’t hawking their wares?

Now, there were representatives of publishers there, and many of them. Dozens of book editors were milling about. A few bought me drinks, which was lovely. It was great for networking. But the fans, even the more hardcore ones, might not know who these people were. If I were a publisher, I’d set up a little something on the show floor with current titles and future releases prominently on display.

So why didn’t they? I have a feeling it’s a return-on-investment thing. Publishers could set up a spiffy booth at WorldCon…or they could go to Dragon*Con down in Georgia (held the same weekend) and interact with nearly 10 times the number of fans and potential customers.

I think working with the publishers to make WorldCon a broader, more inclusive event could benefit everyone, without turning it into another crazed Comic-Con. I don’t think it impedes the “by fans, for fans” ethos to encourage publishers to help make WorldCon more of an event, mostly because it will attract more fans and encourage more people to become involved in fandom. I hope the folks on the London and Spokane committees think about this one.

The Hugos are voted on by a surprisingly small number of people. The Hugo Awards are the people’s choice awards of SF/F literature. People who attend WorldCon get to vote, along with those who attended last year or those who bought memberships for the following year. There’s also a supporting membership, about $50, which allows people to vote — and gives them the works of all the nominees to help them decide. That’s a sweet deal: It’s a massive ebook package of awesome stuff for the price of a few novels.

But it’s still not a lot of people. There were roughly 3,800 on hand in San Antonio. There were only 1,649 ballots for the Best Novel category, the most of any category. For an non-jury award, that’s really not a heap of people.

My suggestion: Open Hugo voting to attendees of other conventions, both here and abroad. For an extra $20 to $30, say, attendees of other cons would get the voter packet and the chance to vote.

Which cons? Well, the big national cons of other countries, to start. And some big regional cons like Boskone, for example, though probably no more than a dozen global “satellite cons” in total. If you go to one of those cons, and you pay the Hugo fee, you get a packet and a chance to vote on that year’s nominees when the time comes. (Or the following year’s nominees, if the regional con is held after WorldCon.)

Will that diminish attendance at WorldCon? I doubt it. If folks didn’t want to go to WorldCon, they’d just buy a supporting membership and vote anyway, and the folks who make the trek to WorldCon each year are pretty hardcore fans. This proposal would broaden the Hugo voting base, encourage regional con attendance and make the Hugos more representative of a broader swath of fans.

Plus, there’s no Hugo for young-adult authors. Seriously? Some of the best work in SF/F is being done by YA writers, and yet there’s no YA category. This is an incredible omission that needs to be addressed far sooner than later. Not only do great YA writers go unrecognized, but it also helps to feed the perception that the Hugos, and thus WorldCon, are for the old farts. Want to get more young folks into fandom? A YA Hugo would do wonders. More YA panels at WorldCon would be good, too.

Some well-known, well-read authors were left off panels. I did three panels at WorldCon, and moderated two. Other authors, some of whom have far more fans (and book sales) than I do, were left off the program. The maddening thing is that two of my three panels had only three other participants besides myself. There was room for more. I know some were added to the program at the last minute, and overall the panels were engaging and fun. But still…something to think about, London and Spokane.

And that’s it. For now, at least. I may think of other things as I go. Fellow scribes Chuck Wendig and J.M. McDermott have excellent thoughts and criticisms of WorldCon as well. Go read.

So…I’m definitely going to LonCon, because it’s London. I expect that experience to be different, certainly, being in a major city with a huge SF/F fan base. I’ll have to weigh Spokane carefully, though, based on what I see in London. As a new author, I had an excellent time at WorldCon, especially in meeting fellow authors and some of the long-time fans. But I’m new, and I want to get my work out there. Had I gone to Dragon*Con, I would’ve missed a lot of camaraderie, but I might’ve also interacted with many more fans. And the fans buy the books.

It’s something I need to think about carefully as I grow this little author gig I got going.



Filed under Books, Events, Publishing, Writing

7 responses to “WorldCon: The Aftermath Part II: Constructive criticism

  1. That running joke had to start somewhere, and I can see why. I would put the average age of attendees at over 50.

    That IS alarming. Madeline Ashby has some good thoughts on this as well.

  2. UrsulaV

    *cough* We’re, uh, usually used to pegboards. Well, I am. That said, the Worldcon art show, leaving aside a few standouts and the touching Sweet retrospective, FELT hella dated…an entire set of bays dedicated to original (and not very good) art from the first D&D and Greyhawk supplements? Historically interesting, I guess, but artistically rather less so.

    The quality has, I am told, dropped enormously in recent years—a friend who had last attended 10 years ago was shaking her head in disbelief. “Where’s the Donato’s? Or the Whelan’s? What happened?”

    I’m jaded, I’m used to Anthrocon which has an insane art show, but I think this is actually a symptom of the overall problem. If you can get a lot more money for a piece at DragonCon/some other con, and a lot more eyeballs on it, why would you send it to Worldcon? The last Worldcon art show, I said “Eh, some nice stuff, but I can send my work to these two other things and they’ll DEFINITELY sell, so why go to the trouble of shipping everything to Texas next year?”

  3. I’ve been attending cons for… well, not a very long time, really. A little over ten years, maybe. But then, when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I was often one of the youngest in the room. It’s a tad discouraging to hear the trend would still hold.

  4. Funny that 20 years ago when I was the new kid and 30ish y.o. in the room we were saying the same thing about the greying of fandom. I would love to hear ideas about how to generate more young members – we have some ideas for Spokane but Sally and I would love to hear more ideas.

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