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Are Science Fiction Conventions Dying?

I recently met a person who was a major supporter and volunteer for the Boskone science fiction convention. He was concerned that the cons were dying. He indicated that attendance was down at Boskone and at other conventions across the country. He had a few reasons why he thought cons were waning in popularity, but most of them traced to the Internet. He felt that fans no longer felt the need to go to a convention to be with like-minded folks – they had friends online now all the time. He felt that artists and authors no longer had to attend a convention to meet with publishers since they could use the ‘net to host portfolios and email treatments.

Honestly, I couldn’t find fault with his thinking. Of course I pointed out that the economy this year might be part of the problem – fewer people are traveling to conventions (obviously a luxury item to most.) But he felt it had been declining for years and this wasn’t a new phenomenon.

So what do you think? Are they going by the wayside? Is the Internet to blame?

[Image courtesy unforth]

21 Comments on Are Science Fiction Conventions Dying?

  1. euphrosyne // January 25, 2009 at 1:40 am //

    If cons are diminishing due to the Internet’s ability to connect–which I think is an eminently plausible explanation–then here’s my extrapolation:

    -They will continue to decline over the next few years.

    -Weaker cons will die off.

    -Before long, the remaining cons will experience a resurgence in popularity and attendence.


    If ‘normal’ was once a near-total absence of like-minded people in one’s day-to-day life, the Internet offers a permanent haven, reducing the need for interaction at cons. But as our expectations recalibrate, and ‘normal’ becomes daily Internet connectivity, cons will (once again) fulfill our need for in person interaction. Cons will no longer be the temporary respites of yore, but necessary indulgences for a baseline. Those participating only online will be peripheral.

    And hey, if unemployment contines its upward trend, a lot of us won’t have anywhere else to be anyway 🙂

  2. Were any other cons mentioned other than east coast ones?  Cause I know of three conventions in California alone that have seen a lot of growth (Fanime in San Jose, Anime Expo in LA (if I recall correctly) and San Diego Comic Con, which was apparently so crowded this year that it was actually a bad thing).

    Maybe it’s an East Coast thing?  The cons are more spread out there, I imagine, whereas there are something like 30 or 40 cons in California alone for various subjects…

  3. Isn’t it more likely that people can’t afford to travel or stay in hotels as much as they did? Also a factor is the greying of fandom – as fans grow older and cease going, so less new young fans begin attending.

  4. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a Con that wasn’t always a half-inch away from being a financial disaster. But any con that ‘quits’ during the recession won’t be able to re-open again. There’s already enough competition for people’s time and money that a con can’t take a sabbatical and hope that they’ll still make it back onto the calendar in future years. If necessary, scale back, but still do *something*. And, with some aggressive plannning, a con could actually do better out of this…

    Bizarrely, the recession and the decline in gas prices probably means that travel and hotels are cheaper than ever before. Cons could be a good ‘bargain’ weekend away for many people. And cities and convention centers, desperate for traffic of any sort, should be especially friendly and helpful when it comes to organizing one.


  5. Time: If you work multiple part-time jobs or a full-time job that is more than full-time, it is hard to get away.

    Travel: Air travel is expensive and time-consuming. Ground travel takes more time.

    Interests: Less the internet, than the focus of cons. Gaming. Costumes. Alternative lifestyles. Comics. Movies. Television. A lot of conventions seem to be less about science fiction the community than science fiction the automated teller machine (lots of things to separate fans from their money). How are more focused conventions doing? How about “relaxacons”? How about smaller conventions that aren’t circuses?

    Family: If I want to go to a convention, I’m going by myself. I spend enough time away from them as it is.

  6. Christopher Weuve // January 25, 2009 at 8:53 am //

    Perhaps it has something to do with Boskone being in a $170/night (plus taxes etc) venue, and that it is one of THREE cons held in the Boston area?  Or that there are many people that don’t particularly like Boskone?  (Note: I’m not one of them — I had a blast last year, and they treated me very well.  I’m looking forward to it next year.  But I know plenty of people who will not go to Boskone.)  

    Arisia this year was at their cap for attendance.  I don’t know if they actually had to turn away people, but if not it was close.  And several people commented that the crowd was a lot younger this year, which everybody thought boded well for the future.

    There are things you can do online, and there are things (like costuming) you can only really do in person.  Cons that limit themselves to the former are to some degree competing with the internet, cons which include the latter are facilitated by the internet.

  7. I planned to attend my first con this weekend, Vericon IX at Harvard University. I was really excited back in early December when I learned Kim Stanley Robinson, Elizabeth Bear, Allen Steele, Paul Di Filippo, and Don D’Ammassa were the guests. But after checking the Vericon website for 32 consecutive days, waiting for the panels to be posted, I lost interest. Finally, earlier this week, after online registration had closed and just days before Vericon started, the organizers posted the panels. Sadly, I decided not to attend Vericon IX, even though I wanted to hear the guests and get some books signed. Instead, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’m in the middle of an awesome weekend of college basketball!

  8. bifemmefatale // January 25, 2009 at 10:06 am //

    WisCon has sold out in the last few years. I think it depends on the con.

  9. I think it has more to do with the economy that the internets.  Travel is expensive, hotel rooms are expensive, and even people who have worked the same job for decades are concerned about their employment status.

    At Windycon in November, our numbers were up from the previous year?  Why?  Partly heavy promotion, partly a new hotel. Pre-reg numbers for this year’s Capricon also look good.

    And Paul, usually cons don’t have a panel schedule to post until close to the con.  It is often the last thing finalized.  When I create a panel schedule, as I’ve done for many cons, I usually publish a listing of potential panels in the program book and only finalize the panels and panelists about a week to ten days before the con because that is when I need to get the panels to the publications person to send to the printer.

    The death of cons discussion belongs right up there with the death of SF discussion which was old when Earl Kemp published Who Killed Science Fiction? in 1961, or the internet replace fanzines discussion.

  10. Unlike technology conventions, I think that economic factors play a larger role in the SF convention attendance.  Technology cons like CES and E3 can easily be handled through the internet and I have seen folks like Leo Laporte indicate that he can review the items shown through blogs like Engadget.  SF Cons on the other hand are different, and I think the state of the economy right now is affecting some conventions.  The comic cons are still quite well attended, and I dare say that the New York and San Diego Comic Cons will do quite well this year (if I were to speculate). 

  11. I think the conventions that have branched out from sci-fi to include comics or other things have found a way to tap into an audience that still wants the convention experience.  And I agree that the costume element is better in person than in picture (although I certainly see plenty of people trading pictures on the net instead of face-to-face.)

    An interesting question is why are comic conventions thriving while pure sci-fi ones might not be?

  12. It’s the same reasoning that I’ve heard for nearly the past 10 years (ouch! that’s almost as long as I’ve been building websites). I believe it’s just the economy – conventions ain’t goin’ nowhere. They’ll be around as long as publishing (no, really!). They still fill a valid niche in the SF/F/H biosphere. While some of the older cons are experiencing dwindling numbers, younger, newer cons keep cropping up, in a wide variety of fandoms (ALL THE TIME).

    “He felt that fans no longer felt the need to go to a convention to be with like-minded folks – they had friends online now all the time.”

    When a convention based around a company that makes Massive Multi-player Online RPGs has record number of attendees (BlizzCon nearly doubled from 8,000 in 2007 to 15,000 in 2008) you can’t lay the blame at the feet of the Internet. Nothing compares to meeting IRL.

    We have to get the stereotype out of our heads that kids today simply hang out in their basements reading science fiction pulps reading comics watching Star Trek playing Dungeons and Dragons playing Atari playing games online!

    N.E. Lilly

  13. Tomasthanes // January 25, 2009 at 12:35 pm //

    I agree with SMD and Tim about the San Diego Comicon.  It’s so successful, it’s overcrowded.  They’re looking for a bigger venue, not a smaller one.

  14. footnotegirl // January 25, 2009 at 3:32 pm //

    I think the problem may be an East Coast thing or perhaps a con by con thing. SDCC keeps getting bigger. Anime cons are huge no matter what. I’m in the midwest, and I know that several local cons appear to be getting smaller/less attendance, but the con that I am involved with (CONvergence), Anime cons, and some other nearby more focussed cons (WisCon, etc) are doing just dandy healthy and/or growing. Perhaps the folks from Boskone should be less worried about why Cons in general are dying, and more focussed on why Boskone isn’t doing as well as it could in this environment?

  15. Nachtwulf // January 25, 2009 at 5:58 pm //

    As a long time con-goer, I can cite at least three things that seem to be impacting cons these days.

    1) The lack of support by Gaming and Media companies both big and small for smaller cons, in lue of larger cons like NYCC and SDCC. (And by smaller cons I means conventions as “small” as Dragon*Con). In the last couple of years several “high profile” Gaming and Media compaines didn’t even bother to send token reps to show off wares and support this event, or others in the area. Choosing one of the larger national convetions over the smaller regional cons might make sense as far as the budget goes, but they’re alianating large sectors of thier customers… customers in this day and age they really can’t afford to lose.

    Consider showing up at as many places as possible – not just the “Big Two” – because the guy that’s going to get my entertainment dollar is the guy that sells me on how great his game/book/movie is. If you’re not there, you don’t have a shot.

    2) The growing lack of support for cons to work with local retailers and dealers. I don’t know how many cons I’ve attended that have more out-of-town dealers than local ones. Most of the local dealers that I talked to simply say things like “they never have room,” “they cost too much to deal from,” or, and my favorite “I don’t want to compeat with Company W for selling thier product.” Conventions need to make sure that they give incentives for these local dealers to show up… not only is it support the local dealers, but it can also draw in people that might not go because it’s a local con.

    And never EVER let an “exhibitor” undersell a dealer. Company W should be happy to step aside and not sell thier products when dealers are carrying them on the con premises. In fact, they should be encouraged to work with those participating dealers to make sure they have pleanty of stock on hand. This builds a better relationship with everyone involved. The exhibitors can simple refer the various customers to the dealers that have thier product avalible in the dealers room, after thier presentation.

    I NEVER buy a product from an exhibitor over a dealer present (key word) at a convention… period.

    (Oh and my one contradictory statemenrt to point one… if an Exhibator insists on not showing up at your convention unless they can sell thier wares for three or four days in direct competion to the dealers that sell thier wares for the other 361 to 362 days of the year… tell them to have a nice day. If they’re too greedy (stupid?) to realiaze that’s bad all around business then they probably shouldn’t be in business anyway.)

    3) The lack of professionalism shone by many cons. For example, I was (pleasently) surprised that North Carolinas “Stellercon” was much better organized that long time east-coast juggernaut Dragon*Con in just about every way. There’s simply a point that these conventions have to leave the “buddy getting together” status and become a professional endevoure – usually the point that you charge more than 10 bucks to get through the door – and there’s simply no excuse for a response of “that’s just the way it is at fill-in-blank-con” when questions come up such as “why is such-and-such late” or “I went to room “X” and “Y” talk is not there, why did it move?”

    Your staff should be held to a zero-tolerance policy as to professionalism reagardless of paid or voulenteer status, your guests should be wrangled correclly (and keep in mind, most guests are paid to show… they’re at your sufferance, not the other way around), Bands know exactily how liong it takes to set up and break down thier stuff, make sure they realize it’s thier job to work to YOUR schedule (and don’t be afriad to pull the plug to allow for the next event), and as the con owner you’d better damn well know whats going at all times.

    That, or you’re going to lose my admission to that other con that has the clue you don’t.

  16. For me I think it is the introduction of NYCC that has killed a lot of the stuff on the East Coast.  For me it is a great thing as I live in the NY area.  I have someone coming from Boston to attend and another person from NY attending with me this year.  NYCC covers everything, which includes science fiction and fantasy writers.  Less it is less personal then the other cons, but most of the time people just want to see their favorite authors and say hello rather then get into a discourse with them on a particular subject.  With publishers having money cut for them for going and advertising, they are going to pick the biggest cons to attend, and for the East Coast that now happens to be NYCC.  The only con besides NYCC that I really get upset about not being able to attend is Dragoncon, but I have no idea how that is doing in popularity.  Readercon is on the table, but I just dont know yet.

  17. Fandom hasn’t greyed at all. The NEA just reported the first increase in reading in 26 years, and the largest increase was in the 18-24 year old range, ie the generation raised on Harry Potter. And during this recession, the books that are selling the best for the entire industry are mystery, fantasy and science fiction books. Plus, what are these midnight book parties for the latest Rowling, Meyer, etc.. if not cons for folks too young to rent hotel rooms. Cons in general are fine, though they may not be the same cons, or feature the same programming, they used to. But cons in general aren’t going anywhere.

  18. I’ve been fretting about the death of cons for a while, too. And yes, my experience is mostly limited to the northeast US. But I was pleasantly surprised by Arisia this month; so much so that I wrote <a href=””>this blog post</a> about my experience.

  19. Stephanie // January 26, 2009 at 9:59 am //

    None of the above are reasons that my husband and I stopped attending conventions nearly 6-7 years ago. To be honest where we are (the Pacific NW) it was the fetish crowd. Conventions seemed to center more and more around alternative lifestyles and less around science fiction. We stopped meeting other people interested in science fiction or fantasy at conventions. That and the conventions as a whole seemed to become less professional and just sloppy. It could be the area we have yet to test this theory as vacation time is precious.

    We have a fond memory of conventions as we met at one and married not long afterwards.

  20. I wrote about this myself a while back, and as a guy who has helped run convention, my general take is that

    A) The economy is enemy #1 right now and since most cons barely make it in good times lean times will see some culling of the herd.

    B) The Internet is hurting “traditional” conventions because these cons are holding onto activities that were vital in the 1970s or earlier but that the Web has made unnecessary.

    For example, how many cons still have movie rooms? These were awesome back before VCRs and the only way you could see stuff no longer in the theaters–or even obscure when home movies first came out–was at conventions. How many cons still have LAN parties, when with the exception of casemodders there is no reason to pay to network game when you can do all that online from home today. And so far as dealer’s rooms? Name me one item you can get here that you can’t get cheaper online?

    I’ll even take it one step further and ask why do we need masquerade skits when we have Youtube humor videos? Why do we need filking when we’ve got Jonathan Coulton, MC Frontalot and Paul & Storm–all with stuff free online? Why do I need single-author panels when I’ll get less out of that one hour with person than I can get with that author’s blog.

    These are all legacies of a bygone convention era, and most cons waste their energies catering to the dying throngs of fandom that NEVER WANT CONS TO CHANGE. Yes, the old guard are your most reliable customers, but it’s a shrinking market and focusing on them means you won’t grow new customers fast enough to replace them.

    The conventions that succeed today are the ones that offer me experiences I can’t replicate from my PC or in the regular course of my life. Some of that is primacy–SDCC let’s me see clips and hear announcements first. Origins and GenCon do the same with game debuts and playtests. Other cons simply offer scale–if you like costuming, enjoy the DragonCon parade, it’s HUGE. Smaller cons win by specializing. PenguinCon, for example, combines sci-fi and Linux enthusiasts, with a decide sci-tech bent. That crossover appeal is key here.

    Cons can offer experiences I can’t get from my PC. First of all, multi-authorpanels are awesome, because the interplay between multiple experts and celebrities is an experience that can’t be matched through blogs and online interviews. Genuine, in-person tabeltop games with experienced game masters offer an untocuhable con experience–I get to try new stuff with people who really know how the games work and are excited about them. (Personally, I’d love to see a convention that combined the above to experiences–a celebrity gaming con that let me play D&D with Wil Wheaton or Scott Kurtz.)

    Stop selling me minitaure wargaming models or boffer nerf swords and run workshops that show me how to paint minis are build boffer blades. Don’t show me your fan film, let’s make one over teh course of the con. Don’t just show me anything, interact with me. That’s the only way conventions will survive.

  21. footnotegirl // January 28, 2009 at 11:06 pm //


    The con I am most involved with has most of the ‘bad old ideas’ mentioned in the previous posts, and they all are major parts of what pull in the younger crowds. Perhaps it’s because they are done a little differently? People start lining up for the Masquerade sometimes three to four hours before it starts and the room is always standing room (even with the overflow room and now being simulcast on the hotel TV’s)

    We have a movie room. Again, it’s standing room only. Part of this may be due to the fact that the movie room isn’t full of normal seating, but couches that have been donated and gotten cheap over the years, so it’s much more of a ‘group watching movies in a living room’ feeling. And there’s a focus on specialties like local movies, or movies that guests were involved in that come and do their own life commentary tracks. Generally, the room is packed and overflowing all weekend. 

    Our skits are very popular, again sometimes we have to lock the doors. But we get actual improv and sketch artists from the local theater community to come in, and have interesting programming like a late night all adult comedy. Same with the music… we don’t have ‘filk’ so much as an accoustic music space that has filk, comedy, trad, folk, whatever scheduled throughout the weekend. 

    I don’t think that it’s that these ideas are bad or worn out, it’s that they are so often so poorly done with no apparent grasp of the reality that they’re not working well. Everything has to be gone over and looked at frequently to see if it can be done better. The old standards aren’t bad, but they should be in the mix with new experimentation. 

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