MIND MELD: What Can Worldcon and Comic-Con Learn From Each Other?
San Diego Comic-Con attracts between 125,000 to 140,000 attendees over a four-day weekend, whereas the World Science Fiction Convention draws anywhere from 4000 to 7000 attendees over a four-day weekend, depending on location. SDCC stays in one city and operates with a fairly stable staff structure from year to year, while Worldcon changes cities and staff lineups every year and is essentially a wholly volunteer, fan-organized effort. The two are almost impossible to compare, but we asked this week’s panelists:
Read on to see the responses…
For the first time this year, I went to the San Diego Comic-con instead of Worldcon. I’d never been to Comic-con before, and while I’d been warned, the scale is truly beyond belief and has to be seen to be believed, from the hordes waiting to enter, the lines for anything and everything, and the mass of people and exhibits to the sheer spectacle.
Unlike Worldcon, attendees are younger–primarily teens up to 40s-somethings, including numerous families–and of all races.
And the joy and energy and excitement of the attendees reminded me of the first con I ever went to-a tiny Star Trek con outside of Philly, simply because it was there-where everything was new and so exciting and cool. I’m not ashamed to say that I had an absolute blast-being a geek is truly celebrated and welcomed there, and every turn had something fabulous to look at or explore. In the first couple of hours I saw Adama from Battlestar Galactica, amazing (and horrifying costumes), and ran into several people and authors I didn’t expect to-tons of fun!
What can Worldcon learn from Comic-con? Ignoring budgets, which simply cannot be compared, having a fixed location, timeframe, and many of the same staff and volunteers each year means Comic-con can focus on attracting stars (of all sorts), building their presence in re publicity/exposure/attendance, and constantly improving the overall experience (for example, selling all of the attendance badges beforehand, thus shortening the entrance lines), rather than having to start from scratch every time. Further, Comiccon’s constant location and timeframe makes it much easier for attendees to plan (and budget) for, versus the constantly shifting Worldcon (which this year was in Montreal and next year is in Australia).
In contrast, the dedicated Worldcon volunteers have just two years to plan their convention, and each year is a different set of staff, which means a lot of duplicated effort.
And the wider focus on sf/f/h in all venues at Comic-con means a huge number of attendees and potential readers. Granted, most are not interested in books, but some are-our panel had over 200 people at it-and even 5% of Comic-con attendees is more people than any but the absolute largest Worldcon (where not all the attendees are interested in books or authors, either). This is a huge pool of possible new readers for our authors, which is every publisher’s goal. Where Worldcon focuses on science fiction and some fantasy, many fans at Comic-con adored urban fantasy and paranormal romance-the largest, bestselling part of sf/f today–and were either fans of our authors or happy to try them. Plus there’s the chance for author exposure on a level you can’t guarantee and can only hope for, as when Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim was chosen as one of the top 10 Comic-con buzz-winners.
What can Comic-con learn from Worldcon? I’d love a return to a stronger focus on books and authors and the written format, which apparently was supplanted once Hollywood found Comic-con. The fans and pros at Worldcon truly love science fiction and fantasy, and there’s a history and dedication there that cannot be matched or found anywhere else. (I still remember Robert Silverberg’s story of the first Worldcon banquets with awe).
And Worldcon’s smaller scale means you aren’t overwhelmed from the first instant, and can meet people without a completely tactical plan (without cell phones, meeting anyone at CC would be a nightmare, and as it was I missed people I wanted to see or played aisle-tag). It’s harder to meet authors and fans, and you can’t have the late-night, middle of the hotel-hallway (or, well, the bar) conversations on everything and anything that are some of the best parts of Worldcon and World Fantasy.
But in terms of reaching new readers and growing the field in a difficult economy, I have to say Comic-con definitely has the greater appeal.
Not to mention Boba Fett in a leisure suit.
I went to both Comic-Con and Worldcon this year, and they were very different animals. As in, Comic-Con was sort of a massive brainless leviathan crushing all that is good and true under its hypertrophied bulk. Worldcon was more like a shy, noble gazelle … actually, never mind. Bad metaphor.
What can Comic-Con teach Worldcon? That the rapid expansion and mainstreaming of — for want of a better term — nerd culture is a dangerous thing. It has driven movie studios into a frothing feeding frenzy, and theyhave seized on Comic-Con, hijacked it and turned it into a marketing expo through which they now annually herd hundreds of thousands of brainless consumers in hopes of getting a few promotional tweets out of it.
There were undeniable bright spots at Comic-Con. I was on a wonderful, well-attended panel on the evolution of fantasy this year, with some really amazing writers, and another really successful one on Harry Potter. But those bright spots were hard to find and often critically over-subscribed. The line for the Steampunk meet-up was literally a quarter-mile long, for a room that held 50 people.
If there’s a lesson for Worldcon here, it’s that there’s a lot of corporate money out there, so if you’re tired of relying on volunteer labor, or want to add more glitziness to the Hugos, you might look into siphoning some of it off. But careful how you siphon. Increase your mass too rapidly and you will run afoul of the square-cube law and collapse under your own weight and become a rotting beached whale, the noxious corpse of the authentic sub-cultural haven you once were.
Worldcon to Comic-Con: Gosh, where to begin. Worldcon is good in so many ways that Comic-Con is ungood. I think the most important thing for Comic-Con to do would be to drastically reduce its size. Split into four or five regional conventions, maybe. Return to its roots and minimize promotional and non-comics-related programming. Either that or hurl itself into the purifying fire of Mt. Doom before its corruption infects us all.
I’d like to start with the second question. I don’t have any hard data, but anecdotally it is very much the case, and hardly surprising. If you want to get your name known, you go where the people are. Writers go to Worldcon because they have always gone, because they like the traditions, or because they are up for Hugos. Going to Worldcon instead of Comic-Con does not make any sort of economic sense.
Far more obviously, all of the major US publishing houses except Tor have abandoned Worldcon. They think it is a waste of their PR budget. I can’t think of any good argument against that.
So, what can the two conventions learn from each other? I think to start with it is worth noting that they are two very different events. What works for one may not work for the other. In particular Worldcon is committed to being a traveling event, whereas Comic-Con is in the same place each year. Worldcon is fan run, while Comic-Con has full-time staff. So the two conventions cannot always work in the same way, nor should they aim to. The argument that if Worldcon tries to appeal to a wider audience it will inevitably become like Comic-Con is, I think, silly — another example of the classic Internet nonsense that things can only ever be one extreme or the other.
Personally I have never been to Comic-Con, so I’m not sure what it can learn from Worldcon. However, my good friend Gigi Gridley did attend this year and she had some interesting comments. A particular point she noted was the lack of any pocket program or easily manageable program grid. That ought to be easy for them to do. Lines were another problem, though that may be a cultural issue. I am forever seeing people online talking about events and saying, “it can’t have been any good, there were no lines.” I think maybe you have to get old before you learn that standing in line is something that you shouldn’t have to do. Despite the lines, crowd control was something Gigi felt that Comic-Con was good at. She made particular mention of their use of separate “entry” and “exit” doors for popular panels, which is something Worldcon rarely does, though it is much harder if you are new to the venue each year and may not always be possible. Her main complaint, however, was that being at Comic-Con was like spending 4 days on the London Underground at rush hour. The trouble with being committed to the same venue every year is that if you outgrow it you can’t fix that easily.
What can Worldcon learn from Comic-Con? I think that lesson #1 has to be “kids do read books”. The average age of attendees at Comic-Con is, by all reports, much lower than at Worldcon. And those kids do buy books.
Lesson #2 should be that lower costs do not necessarily mean lower revenue. One of the reasons that Worldcon is so small is because it is so expensive. Charge less money and more people will come, provided of course that you have something for them to do and you let them know about it.
Lesson #3: get some program online early. Comic-Con 2010 is still a long way off, but the same people run APE (http://www.comic-con.org/ape/) which is in San Francisco in October. There is already program information online. You don’t need the whole thing – just your major events, but you do have to give people a reason to go.
Lesson #4: take note of popular culture. Being a Worldcon Guest of Honor is akin to a lifetime achievement award, but there is no reason why Worldcons can’t have other guests. The designation “special guest” has often been used as an excuse to bring in someone who is currently hot news but does not have the stature to be a GoH. You also want to make sure you cover all of what is popular. If that includes anime and vampire romances, so be it. If you don’t appeal to the people who like such things they won’t attend your event.
Lesson #5: use all of your big name attendees in your marketing. Worldcons have a fabulous attendance list, but they hardly ever make use of it. When they do it is almost as an apology. Worldcon should get details of well-known program participants online early. (Yes, inevitably one or two may cancel. That’s much less of a disaster than not advertising them.)
There’s lots more I could say. Worldcons market themselves really, really badly. But I’ve gone on for long enough and in any case this Mind Meld is specifically about a comparison with Comic-Con, not a general piece about Worldcon. I talk about these issues regularly on my blog.
As someone who’s only attended one Worldcon (this year’s Anticipation in Montréal), I’m not sure that I’m the best person to weigh in on Worldcon, but I can draw some cursory comparisons between it and the four Comic Cons I’ve attended (the last two years, both New York and San Diego). So with that caveat firmly in place, I do have some comments about one aspect of the cons in particular. Information services.
Both cons offer copious online tools and information on their respective websites before you get to the cons, from hotel-booking services to maps of the convention center. But much of today’s technology is actually useful and accessible when you’re on the ground, and sucking down information that’s being updated in real time. The people who put on the circus that is Comic Con leverage RSS feeds, Twitter accounts, online programming calendars, and even a surprisingly useful iPhone app in order to make the madness of Comic Con remarkably easy to navigate.
Unfortunately, the people behind Worldcon seem stuck in a previous decade, using large paper grids in a centralized location of the convention center for any changes to the programming (and there were many-I ended up running around looking for a panel that had been cancelled at least three times), scrawling out ad-hoc signs hastily pinned to walls, and distributing large and unwieldy broadsheets with changes to the schedule (not to mention the so-called ‘voodoo message board’, a wonderful concept that was a useful and inventive solution for a problem before the advent of mobile phones, but seems quaint and more trouble than it’s worth now). While this is all perfectly fine to have, the fact that there’s more efficient ways to disseminate this information seems to have gone completely unnoticed. Granted, maintaining those feeds is a full-time, ’round the clock job, and I’m aware that Worldcon is run by volunteers. I’m not saying that they should be doing everything that an organization the size of Comic Con can do, but at the very least, a shared Google Calendar and a Twitter account for constant updates (not just ten tweets during the whole con!) is certainly do-able. The need is for these services is there, and it’s being partly filled by sites like Conreporter.com, which did an admirable job of aggregating attendees’ various information feeds and chronicling some of the major goings-on at Worldcon. However, it’s not the same as having a dedicated stream of information free from commentary and direct from the source, as it were. Having this information made the gargantuan Comic Con much easier to navigate than the smaller, more intimate Worldcon, ironically.
The ad-hoc networks formed by the con-goers, however, was in full effect, and one of the things I really enjoyed about Worldcon was the intimate atmosphere, which allowed me to spend more time hanging out and meeting up with people repeatedly (updates about who was doing what mostly happened via Twitter and text message for me, and many others). That’s something that would be very hard to replicate with a con that’s big enough to take over a city, like San Diego Comic Con.
I think San Diego Comicon represents the “mainstreaming” of fandom. It is sort of a secondary result of “Science fiction conquering the world,” ala Thomas Disch’s famous thesis that one no longer needs to self identify as a science fiction reader in order to get the kinds of things that Science Fiction traditionally delivers and that formerly were only available in things specifically marketed as science fiction.
Worldcon comes from a tradition of Science fiction fandom…from the fandom of the written form that goes all the way back to 1937, and The Futurians. The fans who come to worldcon, for the most part, are self conscious that they are taking part in a long tradition of SF fandom, even if they are not aware the specific lineages of that fandom.
San Diego Comicon attendees are participating in a fandom that is focused on a broader meadia based culture…a fandom that is wider in scope (video games, manga, anime, comics) then that of the kind found at worldcon, but it is also one that is a relatively new phenomenon, with a history that is still being written. Additionally, it is one that is just as likely to draw its cues from the various types of Otaku fandom in Japan, as it is to being informed by Mid 20th century U.S. Science fiction fandom.
I’m reminded of the kinds of cultural appropriating and cross cultural pollination of motion pictures. The Hollywood studio films of the 30’s and 40’s greatly influenced French new wave directors of the late 50’s and 60’s, who in turn influenced many Japanese and Hong Kong directors of the 70’s and 80’s, who in turn helped redefine what 1990 and 21st century Hollywood thrillers and actions movies could be. It’s a big circle of life, with different niches and spheres of influence, but it leads to richer experiences all around.
Thus I think that the broader cultural appropriation of things that used to be solely the purvey of Science Fiction is a good thing, and huge media conventions like San Diego Comicon are a good thing. The vast majority of the 200,000+ attendees may only be “tourists” but that’s fine too. Enough of them continue to find their way traditional Science fiction fandom, and enough of them choose to stay, and make it their home, such that the catch-as-catch can semi-professional nature of science fiction fandom and its associated conventions will continue to thrive and grow, even as their activities are dwarfed by the more commercially and media driven enterprises like The San Diego Comicon. These types of conventions serve different niches, even though there is significant cross over. And it is the people and the elements of culture at the center of that cross over, where the future of science fiction will be defined.
I would like to see Comic Con try something like the Paul Krugman – Charles Stross conversation that happened at WorldCon. Usually at Comic Con when two famous people interview each other, it’s two big film directors or something similar. It would be great to see Bill Clinton interview J.J. Abrams, or something similar.
I have never been to a Comic-Con and don’t think I’m ever likely to attend one. I’ve been to more than thirty Worldcons, a good number of which I’ve paid my own way to and many of which I went to at the expense of the various publishers that employed me at the time. If I were still a staff editor, the odds of my ending up at a Comic-Con would probably be significantly higher than they are of me doing it on my own dime. I consider myself to be both an SF fan, in the classic, convention-related sense that applies in this context, and a publishing professional.
I’m not sure there are lessons that the one convention can teach the other. Both seem to be very successful at doing what they intend to do but what their purposes are is very different, although they started out with very similar goals–to draw like-minded people together, both fan and professional, to share common enthusiasms, discuss forthcoming and current publications (in all senses of the word) of interest to the attendees and to make sure that attendees have a good time. The first Worldcon was in 1939 and many or most of the people who started Comic-Con had attended at least a few Worldcons and/or other smaller SF conventions so the roots of the two conventions share a common point of origin.
Over the years the Worldcon, as directed by the individual committees that organize it on an annual basis and by the many long-term repeat attendees who have participated in and continue to participate in thinking about and planning the convention, has evolved and maintained the focus of the convention’s efforts to draw attendees who will understand the purpose of the convention and who see it and appreciate it for what it is. Worldcon attempts to be all things to all people in terms of addressing a very wide variety of interests from games to costuming to Georgette Heyer aficionados to you-name-it–with the generalized understanding that any and all of those interests are subsumed by and ancillary to an interest in science fiction (very broadly defined), primarily but not exclusively in printed form. Year by year, the convention takes place in many different cities around the world yet manages to re-create a recognizable and consistent atmosphere of openness and a focus on appealing to and accommodating fans of science fiction. The convention has, on occasion, chosen to manage the size of attendance by emphasizing and de-emphasizing certain sections of the “audience” for the genre that it appeals to and caters to with programming efforts and special events.
Comic-Con has a standing committee of developers and advisers, operates ever year in the same facility and city and has shown a continuing willingness and desire to expand its attendance and to incorporate larger and more varied groups of attendees with a developing emphasis on media-related programming that appeals to a very broadly-based audience that only marginally relates to the comic business that formed the initial core of interested attendees.
I think the lesson the Worldcon might be learning from Comic-Con is that maintaining the initial focus of interest is a key element in controlling the size of the convention and maintaining the “feel” of what a Worldcon is. The lesson that Comic-Con may have learned from Woldcon is that starting with a common interest and accreting all sorts of marginally-related additional interest groups opens up amazing growth opportunities at the expense of a coherent audience focus and a requirement for massive efforts at crowd control and a consciousness of the practical limits of growth associated with physical facilities. Worldcons can vary in size year-to-year and can flourish in many different situations. Comic-Con may be approaching an absolute growth limit that could only be exceeded by a radical re-conception and/or re-location to a completely different set of facilities, probably in a different city–which seems unlikely since the Southern California location is probably essential to maintain the huge and ever-increasing participation by media (Movie, TV and Game) promoters.
Professionals chose to attend Comic-Con because it has become a major launching platform for media-related properties which contain genre elements. Professionals attend Worldcons because it’s a place to have some fun and also pursue business objectives in an environment that draws a significant percentage of fellow professionals as attendees which can and does lead to a sort of convention-within-a-convention feeling at least part of the time.
Here are two favorite things that I think Worldcon does really well, and this was true this year in Montreal at Anticipation:
- Accessibility: Pros and fans can actually talk to each other and easily interact at a Worldcon. By contrast, the sheer, overwhelming force of 140,000+ people in one building at SDCC makes this harder and harder to do. No one is inaccessible at a Worldcon. Ideas can be exchanged one on one. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing attendances increase at Worldcon. If that happened, I don’t think accessibility would diminish because Worldcon’s annual attendance is so relatively small (well under 10,000) over the last decade or so. Worldcon has the advantage of being able to make a lot of improvements and expand, if it chooses, and yet not lose its current intimacy. That’s good news.
- Hollywood doesn’t rule: The fans do. If Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wants to interview Hugo Award-nominated author Charles Stross in front of a large audience (which happened at this year’s Worldcon in Montreal), it becomes a buzz item. Ideas are exchanged. Minds are expanded. It becomes a news item in the larger world and doesn’t get lost in the murk of the latest movie studio dog-and-pony show, Entertainment Tonight cameo, or Final-Crisis-Mutant-Massacre-Someone’s-Gonna-Die crossover cashgrab announcement. Krugman/Stross was a one-off, idea-centric event that brought the con together while demonstrating how interconnected sf and the world-at-large are. Worldcon garnered widespread media attention and looked great in the process. I wish there were more “summit” events like this that cross-pollinate the sf/fantasy art and literary world with the world-at-large. Worldcon is the perfect venue for this, and props to Farah Mendelsohn and the Anticipation programming team for recognizing it. I hope future programming teams continue to advance the dialogue between Worldcon and the larger world.
OK. So what about Comic-Con? Gosh, this con does so many things well, and has been such a well-oiled machine for so many years. There’s nothing like it. My first one was in 1992 when the con’s attendance was around 50,000 people. Crowds were huge and happy, but not overwhelming. Hotel rooms were plentiful. Helmets and protective padding were not required on Saturdays. No one was too big for the show. Back then, the scale of the event didn’t prohibit any fan or pro from having their moment with mega-popular creators like Frank Miller, Jack Kirby, or Will Eisner. Over the years though, it feels like it’s become a victim of its titanic success. I’ve attended nine or ten SDCCs since (most recently in 2006) and it’s now a 150,000+ all-consuming behemoth where it’s more about what you miss, rather than what you experience. As a professional, if you’re not selling product, or pimping loud and large at SDCC, (and both require very deep pockets), then you don’t exist, and I think that’s a shame. That said, I’ve gotta tip my hat to the people that built SDCC into what it is: fans with a dream who worked year-in and year-out to make it bigger and better, and they’re to be commended for building the ultimate convention machine. They’ve got the biggest concentration of fan money, media, marketing, and inertia at a scale that just can’t be rivaled. I understand why it’s the fan mecca for so many worldwide attendees.
Here’s the most impressive thing to me about SDCC, year after year:
They understand the value of visual artists and put a priority on using the art of each year’s special guests to explosively and effectively market to new audiences. Comic-Con long ago realized how expensive it is for artists to attend so it allows them a waiver of registration fees, if they can prove professional status. It CELEBRATES the visual artist with huge printed banners of its special guests’ artwork. It builds big programming events around them. It markets the visual artist to not only true believer art fans, but to the media at-large. It excites the artist community across all age groups. SDCC knows how to use the art of its special guests to garner attention and build community. It just flat-out knows how to create buzz with sf/f art.
With that said, here are three common-sense suggestions that would improve the Worldcon experience, in my opinion, and increase artist participation:
- Maximize the Artist Guest of Honor — Heck, I think the first thing is to actually NAME a professional Artist Guest of Honor every year and market that name with the same vigor as the rest of the GoHs. I say that because the art community at-large thought this year’s Worldcon fumbled that one. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that an Artist Guest of Honor wasn’t named until well after the other GoHs were announced. That name was eventually revealed to be Ralph Bakshi. The signal that pitched to the artist community was that Worldcon: 1) didn’t place a high priority on marketing the Artist GoH spot with the same vigor as the rest of the GoHs, and 2) with the choice of Ralph Bakshi (who eventually withdrew from the position, with no replacement given), that it wasn’t a relevant event for the current artist marketplace. No need to take my word for it. Look at the attending artist roster and compare it to previous Worldcon artist rosters (including the 2007 Worldcon in Japan). Most American and UK artists stayed home en masse from Worldcon this year. The better Worldcon handles the Artist GoH, the better the turnouts from the artist community.
- Think Big Pictures – Think Giant Signage. Think “wow factor!” Use the Artist GoH’s work as a marketing beacon every year. Yes, Worldcon annually uses it on program covers, badges, and t-shirts. That’s terrific, but I’m talking about big, propagandistic banners. If used properly, the Artist GoH can be a more potent marketing resource than any other GoH. Signage can make or break a convention experience’s unity and presence. This was never more apparent than at the 2008 Worldcon. The con shared a cavernous convention facility with two other gatherings — a John Deere convention and a statisticians’ convention – and both had signage that was bigger, more graphically compelling, and just more visible than Worldcon’s. Let that sink in for a moment: science fiction art is some of the most compelling, evocative imagery anywhere. Who could believe then that a farm equipment con and a statisticians’ con would visually own THE World Science Fiction Convention in a side-by-side comparison? I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see if with my own eyes. I love Worldcon and the people who run it, but that should never, ever happen. Our signage should be so giant, so powerful, and so eye-grabbing that it says unequivocally — “We’re Worldcon. We’re science fiction. And we own this place for the next five days.”
Here’s a suggestion: perhaps future Worldcon committees might consider concerted attention toward big, bold professionally-printed vinyl or cloth signage not only within the show, but outside of it. In 2010, the Artist GoH is Shaun Tan. In 2011, it’s Boris Vallejo. Both artists’ work have terrific visual presence. Every year, each Worldcon city could use the Artist GoH’s artwork on huge banners that help orient the attendees within the venue (to the dealers’ room, art show, exhibits, etc.). This not only serves functional purpose, but it visually “owns” the venue and unites the convention’s attendees into feeling like they’ve arrived and belong to something special. Here’s an example:
Worldcon can push that notion of visual ownership even further by visually owning the host city with banners like this along the street, again using the Artist GoH’s artwork on these banners. It attracts eyeballs, generates buzz, and invites newcomers to come check out what Worldcon has to offer.
If Worldcon invests more value in the visibility of its Artist GoH, then that cache can only improve the perception of the show within artist circles.
- Worldcon’s Art Show Should Be An Annual Must-See: And it should be marketed as such. I wonder if the Art Show could, in fact, be the centerpiece of an expanded art experience at future Worldcons. For instance, Worldcon is currently missing out on an entire generation of sf/fantasy artists and audience that would be a great commercial asset. Take a look at ConceptArt.org for example, an online worldwide community of 148,000+ registered users dedicated to sf/fantasy. Almost none of them attend Worldcon. These folks attend SDCC and other cons because there’s just not enough art opportunity for them at Worldcon.
In addition, ConceptArt.org holds multi-day conventions of their own aimed at sf/fantasy artists of all varieties, and Worldcon’s current structure completely misses out on this entire social network of artists that could enrich and invigorate the con. The ConceptArt.org events have the following in common with Worldcon: 4-to-5 day event, lots of panelists over a running schedule, happens in a different city every year all around the world; large registration fee. However, unlike Worldcon, it attracts hundreds of pro and up-and-coming illustrators every time; provides continuous programming targeted directly at improving skills; celebrates traditional and digital approaches; celebrates opportunity in the video-game, film, and book industries, amongst others; attracts many potential employers for those attendees. Bottom line – Worldcon attracts current and future authors and many of them come for the social/professional networking/potential job opportunities. The same is completely missing right now for the sf/f art community, and that’s a whole revenue stream of money and attention that would make Worldcon more reflective of the 21st century science fiction scene and provide uncharted enjoyment for pros and fans alike.
Times change, and all things must pass, but I don’t want to see Worldcon abandoned by the professional sf/f community. I admit it’s becoming harder to justify attending the show as fewer pros attend. I’m a Worldcon believer though, and I’m gonna stick it out and hope that the con finds new ground in the next few years. I hope the show can attempt to become more inclusive rather than exclusive, and attract more people under the age of thirty. I don’t think Worldcon ever needs to worry about being anything other than itself, but if it’s going to be a viable destination for sf/f professionals in coming years, it’ll need smarter marketing, and better usage of the resources currently at its disposal, including and especially its artists and art attractions. We’ll see. It’ll be in Melbourne, Reno, and possibly Chicago and San Antonio in the years to come. Wherever it is, I’m rooting for it to live long and prosper.
This is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, particularly as I’ve been wondering which cons to attend each year on behalf of Pyr books. This year, I attended both the San Diego Comic Con and the World Science Fiction Convention, within weeks of each other, so the strengths of both and the contrast between the two was front and center in my mind.
Two things impressed me tremendously about this year’s Comic Con:
One, that the attendees were largely in their teens and twenties, reportedly 40% female, and were very excited about all things speculative, including books. That a great many of them were in costume and weren’t paid to be so impressed me as well, as I think we are now firmly in the post cosplay age where costuming is mainstream. Secondly, that I was able to spend real time with the head SF&F buyers for both Borders and Barnes & Noble, neither of whom attend the World Science Fiction Convention. As someone whose primary interest in conventions is to sell books, that large a demographic and that access to the buyers makes Comic Con essential to me professionally.
Two things impressed me about the recent World Science Fiction convention:
One, the strength of the programming this year was exceptional. The discussion between Charles Stross and Nobel-prize winning economist and Time magazine columnist Paul Krugman was a perfect example of the type of event that World Con is uniquely positioned to take advantage of. It drew in well over 1,000 people; was respectfully reported in media coverage; was funny, intelligent, and interesting; and presented an example of how science fiction can interact with, speak to and about, and be relevant for today’s world.
The second thing that impressed me about World Con was how many big name professionals from outside the literary world were there. From the world of television, we had Doctor Who scriptwriter Paul Cornell and Star Trek: The Next Generation scriptwriter Melinda Snodgrass. From the world of comic books we had the aforementioned Paul Cornell (who writes many Marvel titles), Bill Willingham (whose Fables comic is huge for DC/Vertigo), and Pia Guerra (co-creator and penciller for DC/Vertigo’s Y: The Last Man). We also had Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman (who, with the publication of the bestselling The Magicians is now a fantasy author as well.) Add these to Krugman, and you have a really interesting, eye-catching, and impressive list of people. Time columnist, famous television authors, famous comic book people…All there already.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to a) better reach the demographic serviced by the San Diego Comic Con, and b) better utilize the most-already-available resources of WorldCon to enhance its core strengths.
Now, I had a marvelous time at both conventions-the best I’ve had at either in a long time-so I don’t really want to criticize either of them right now. Rather, I’m going to talk about what I would do if, hypothetically, all power fell into my lap from out of the sky. And we won’t set this at either convention, but in a hypothetical new venue that we’ll name something clever like “American Fantasy Expo,” or, perhaps more to my liking, “Lou Con 2010.”
So, to begin with, Lou Con isn’t a media con looking to be co-opted by Hollywood the way that Comic Con has been. But what Lou Con is, is a con that understands that today’s fan enjoys a wide variety of entertainment, from books to comics to games to film and TV, and thus Lou Con wants to cater to the full spectrum of 21st century tastes. Lou Con doesn’t want to be a big, 100,000+ behemoth. But Lou Con would be very happy if it could pull in 10,000 to 15,000 people. Therefore, Lou Con works like this:
- Every Lou Con has a YA guest of honor. In addition to the usual Best Writer, Best Editor, and Best Artist, Lou Con always has Best Young Adult Writer. There seems no better way to address the so-called “graying of fandom” than to bring in those who will constitute tomorrow’s fans. Last January, the NEA reported the largest rise in reading in a quarter century, with the largest single demographic increase falling in the 18 to 24 year olds. All those who said that the kids who grew up reading Harry Potter wouldn’t read anything other than Harry Potter were wrong. This generation grew up on Potter and is now entering its 20s, and looking for more to read. Not only does Lou Con reach out to them, but it also looks at today’s teens and what they are growing up on. Lou Con seriously considers having Day Passes for young people and investigating what can be done in cooperation with schools to bring in tomorrow’s fans.
- Every Lou Con has a Comic Book / Graphic Novel guest of honor. Neil Gaiman can’t shoulder the burden alone, and as I pointed out above, comic book giants are already attending literary conventions. To walk around with Bill Willingham at a convention as I did is to be constantly accosted by people who say, “Oh. My. God. Are you Bill Willingham?!? What are you doing here? You are amazing!” It is a non-stop experience of stunned exultation. Lou Con is interested in bringing in the really interesting writers and artists who work in this sister industry, and according them love and respect with a GoH position.
- Lou Con also has a “Media” Guest of Honor. Now, before you react in horror, see the above-mentioned assertion that Lou Con is not aiming to be Comic Con II (or IV, now that there is already a II and III in NYC and Chicago). Lou Con wants to keep the focus on creative, dynamic individuals, and on writers and artists, so we suggest inviting writers from Hollywood as our Media Guest of Honor. Someone like Joseph Mallozzi, who is not only the executive producer of many of the Stargate television series, but is also a very big advocate of the written word, hosting a monthly book club on his blog and bringing in SF&F authors on a regular basis for online Q&A sessions would be perfect. Stargate recently hired our own John Scalzi as a series consultant, and Mallozzi is a smart and articulate fellow with a firm knowledge of our field who is already reaching out to embrace the literary aspects of SF&F. He is also a damn fine prose writer, as the world will see next year when With Great Power hits shelves. Other potential media guests include other writer/producers of genre television, screenwriters, and even the game designers of those videogames noted for the complexity of their narratives. James Ohlen, one of BioWare’s leading designers, would be a wonderful guest. And including him reaches out to the gaming world, while keeping the focus of Lou Con on narrative.
- Lou Con is undecided if it needs a manga/anime Guest of Honor, or if this can be serviced under Comics and Media. However, Lou Con is certainly manga/anime-friendly. A manga/anime GoH might be something to consider for Lou Con 2011 or 2012, depending on how Lou Con grows. For now, Lou Con will have manga/anime tracks.
- Lou Con does more with the artists than just putting them in the art show. I have been very impressed with reports of how painting demonstrations hosted by the Society of Illustrators that aren’t even associated with any other event can pull in hundreds of eager spectators willing to watch and learn from the very same people who regularly attend World Con. Artists like Donato Giancola, Stephan Martiniere, Dan Dos Santos, Gregory Manchess and John Picacio are an incredible resource. These people, when not gracing our conventions, are working as lead art directors in videogames, providing concept art for top Hollywood blockbuster films, executing commissions for magazines as prestigious as National Geographic, and generally manifesting their brilliance across all spectrums of the SF&F world. Look at Deviant Art -which has over 10 million members and receives over 105,000 submissions a day. Look at ConceptArt.org -which art directors regularly surf when looking for new illustrators to hire. There is an unprecedented enthusiasm for illustration that isn’t being fully serviced. Lou Con wants to maximize the presence of these incredible artists by celebrating their work as co-equal to the writers who attend our convention. Lou Con wants to connect these illustrators with their millions of hungry young artists eager to learn from these masters. Lou Con envisions hosting workshops and demonstrations throughout the convention and to publicize same in advance. How do you plan to do this, you might ask. Lou Con plans to get down on Lou Con’s knees and beg the wonderful Irene Gallo, art director for Tor and Society of Illustrators member and advocate, and regularly convention attendee, to help Lou Con work all this out. Lou Con probably doesn’t charge its artists a membership fee to attend. Lou Con might donate a percentage of revenue to the Society of Illustrators and will certainly give them advertising.
- Lou Con has recently been impressed by the number of fantasy authors who are RPG “pen and paper” gamers. Lou Con is amazed by the overlap between swords & sorcery and gaming. Lou Con knows we are in a resurgence of S&S in this era of “new gritty fantasy.” Lou Con will investigate how best to maximize this connection between RPG gaming and fantasy literature. Lou Con suspects this involves more than giving gamers a room, sticking them in there and hoping they stay put.
- Lou Con plans to do real outreach to the media, and if that means taking out paid advertising, Lou Con will do it. Lou Con is happy to give up his nice tote bag in 2010 if that means another 1,000 attendees. When Lou Con reaches 15,000 members our tote bags can come with built in mp3 players or whatever.
Okay, that’s it. As ego-centric as I am, I’m getting tired of referring to myself as a third person amalgamation, and I’m 3 seconds away from typing “Lou Con Smash!” But the gist of this, if you haven’t gotten it already, is that I want to find a way to address the full spectrum of speculative entertainment, while keeping the focus on the writing and artistry of it, and the level of interaction between creator and fan. I want to find a way to maximize the talent that already attends our conventions, providing that talent with the best use of their own time and the best convention for their needs. And I want to find new and better ways to connect those creatives with the larger audience that already exists and exhibits great enthusiasm for what they do, but may not be aware of the traditional convention circuits.
Lou Con Smash!
Filed under: Mind Meld
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