In the science-fiction and fantasy field it is a truth universally acknowledged
-- as much as anything in our fractious community can be -- that if a writer
can attend only one con a year, it should be the World Science Fiction Convention.
It's nearly always a schlep, it's hot, crowded and exhausting, and it can
be expensive. But Worldcon is the major annual get-together of the entire
genre in all its diversity. Your editor, your agent, your readers past
and future, the dealers hawking your books and magazines, will almost certainly
be there, as well as all your fellow writers. So possibly you should
Once that decision is made, how should you get the most out of your Worldcon experience?
The first thing to decide is which Worldcon you're going to. Fortunately the venue of future Worldcons is set several years in advance. (See Sidebar 1 for locations, dates and web pages.) You can plan your summer vacations well into the future, shopping for discount air fares and hitting up relatives for crash space.
Buy your membership as soon as possible, and save. Laurie Mann, Programming Division Co-head for the Millennium Philcon in 2001, says, “It surprised me that a fairly high percentage of program participants who've been going to Worldcons for many years buy their memberships at the last minute. People who buy their memberships in the first year pay under $100 per membership. If you buy just before the con, it's going to be over $200. I don't understand why people put it off – even if you decide not to go, you can always sell your membership.”
Also, save yourself embarrassment and don't ask the con committee to waive the membership fee. Most cons will do that for program participants, but Worldcons, like World Fantasy Con, won't. The most the convention ever does before the event is compensate their Guests of Honor, the Toastmaster, and Special Speakers.
It's been suggested in the past that all SFWAns get a free Worldcon membership. Tell this one to Worldcon committee members if you're looking to raise a shout of laughter. Laurie Mann told me, not entirely facetiously, “SFWA, depending on its management, is quite supportive of Worldcons at times, but at other times it seems that the only support SFWA gives a Worldcon is a SFWA directory.”
Other con chairmen have pointed out that Worldcon is really about fans. They organize it, they run it, they pay for it: by any reasonable reckoning it is theirs, not ours. Although we writers can truthfully argue that fandom would not exist without us, nevertheless Worldcon is not about writers only. If you're looking for an event that focuses solely on the professional interests of SF and F writers, you want the Nebula weekend. If you cannot accept that a large number of things go on at Worldcon that are barely tangential to writer interests – the Masquerade, the filk program, the gaming track -- you will be unhappy attending it.
The other reason we pay to get in like everybody else is that the costs of staging the convention have only gone up. The convention center charges a hefty fee for its space, and then more rent for things like tables, lights, and audio-visual equipment. Worldcon is also often compelled to employ a proportion of union members. Con-goers these days demand things like internet access, computer rooms, phone lines to validate credit cards, photocopiers so that fliers or newsletters can be produced on site, and these things are not free. Former Worldcon Chair Peggy Rae Sapienza says, “One of the perpetual problems for Worldcons is money. One never knows how much income will be received at the door.” This uncertainty about revenue means that all comping is tightly controlled until after the accounts are settled.
The only way the pro writers' share can be made less is to increase the load on other paying members. If the fans each paid $500 to get in, then it might be doable. But a con of this sort would be a very different animal, driven even more than Worldcons are now to please the fans – after all, if an attendee pays that kind of an entry fee, he'd rightly insist on top value. It would mean that two or three dozen of the biggest stars in our field will go to Worldcon for free. The rest of us? Well, we'd probably be at the back, paying $500.
Even your $200 membership fee is not necessarily gone beyond recall. If the event turns a profit, as they have since 1987, North American Worldons reimburse a part or all of the membership fees of qualified program participants, staff, committee, and volunteers. Sometimes this is done on a sliding scale, depending on the number of program items you appear on. But this reimbursement won't appear in your mail box for an unknown and highly variable period, until after all the convention accounts are settled.
It is instructive, for instance, to look at the finances of ConJose, the 2002 Worldcon. According to a December press release, the committee worried about low pre-registration numbers and made cutbacks early in the planning stages. They had budgeted $125,000 for traditional membership reimbursements, a line item which at need would probably be sacrificed to other expenses. But over Labor Day weekend they were pleasantly surprised by higher at-the-door membership numbers and lower costs. All the major bills were paid by the end of the year, with reimbursement payments slated to start rolling out to program participants and volunteers in early 2003. On top of all this, the convention had $60,000 in profit. Each Worldcon operates as a separate financial and legal entity, but there is a tradition of passing on a portion of any profit forward as seed money to future Worldcons. Thus Torcon, Noreascon 4, and Interaction got some early pass-along funding. Compare this to the Millennium Philcon from 2001. They had problems settling the finances and have not gotten reimbursements out even at the end of 2002, although they hope to get them out eventually!
From the pro writer's point of view, it is obviously worthwhile to either be asked to be one of the Guests of Honor, or get onto programming. Let's concentrate on the latter, as a more common and solvable problem – if you're going to be Guest of Honor at a Worldcon within the next three years, you know it already. (See Sidebar 2 if you look forward to being GoH at some Worldcon in the farther future.)
As soon as you decide you're going to attend, email the Programming Chairman and ask to be included. Mention your book and magazine publications in the genre. If you have a new book coming out, include the title and publication date. Be specific about your qualifications. Remember that the Programming people are not all-knowing and can't be familiar with every nook and cranny of the genre. You may be the rising star in horror, hauling up fast behind Stephen King and about to sink your teeth into his fleeing heel. But the Programming Chairman might never have heard of you, since he gave up on horror in disgust after seeing CARRIE on Broadway in 1988. Throw him a bone, and tell him who you are.
Suggest any cool panel ideas you have in mind, especially ones you could shine in. Con-goers consistently report that what attracts them to a panel is the subject, not necessarily the participants. Don't be shy about your career interests and specialties, either. If you're a Gulf War veteran, an expert on HIV and AIDS, or know everything there is to know about chow dogs, say so. They may be planning a panel on future war or Plagues of the New Century, or trying to find participants for the “When Did Companion Animals Jump the Shark?” event.
This is also where previous con-going experience will be your friend – or your foe. Fandom is a small community, and all con committees know each other. Leah Zeldes has been on con committees since the ‘70s, and she says, “Fans who organize cons can and do trade information extensively about which pros are hard to deal with, inaccessible, bad speakers, unprepared, etc. While some of the more cowed and gushing prosuckers may still program these people, there's a rising movement among smofs (the Secret Masters of Fandom) to exclude pros who don't behave well or are poor value. And writers who get obnoxious about it may well find themselves scheduled for a 7 a.m. reading in an out-of-the-way location.”
So bring up your pleasant experiences at your local con, so that the Worldcon Programming people can consult the fan network and get the real skinny on you. Programming chairmen assured me that what they look for is pros who give good panel: who can be articulate and intelligent and audible for an hour on many subjects, not just their own books and selves. You may have written a dazzling space opera trilogy, but if you always speak to your necktie in a fast mumble, or if every panel you're on winds up as a wrestling match for the mike, you're not going to be a favorite.
And needless to say, if you've been the bane of your local convention, hijacking panels to blare on about crank politics, ogling costumed cuties, turning up reeling drunk in the con suite or in general making a pill of yourself, don't be surprised if the Worldcon committee is coy.
The sooner you get in touch with Programming, the better. Six or eight months before the actual convention date, the Committee will usually send around invitations to be on programming. Get your name on that long list early. Worldcon programming is like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, with its multiple tracks and hundreds of participants. It is much harder to get onto it once the entire program is firmed up. Peggy Rae Sapienza adds, “If you want to provide moral support for a friend's program items and readings, provide this information when you respond the programming queries. It's easier for the staff to build this into the program than it is to switch schedules afterwards.” If you are a SFWA member, mention to the programming committee that you want to be free to attend the SFWA meeting. Attending it, or at least planning to, will make your entire trip more convincing to the IRS when you deduct the expenses on your taxes.
Also, do reply to the invitation! Laurie Mann recalls, “Of the program invitations we sent out, we never heard back from 114 people. We tried multiple e-mails and multiple snail mails. If you're not sure you're going to a Worldcon, it is extremely helpful to say, ‘I'm not sure if I'm coming or not.' Once you know either way, please say so. Because planners can then invite other people.”
If you are a relatively new writer, this is where your rosy Worldcon plans may run off track. There are a limited number of programming slots. About 500 pros is all a U.S. Worldcon can accommodate, and overseas Worldcons run smaller. In this pond full of whales, you may not be a big enough fish. Remember the goal of programming is to draw in paying fans. Well-known writers are favored for that reason. Lois Bujold, Neil Gaiman and Larry Niven will always find a programming slot. Until you can pack a hall as well as them, you may not.
If this happens to you, do not have a tantrum! Do not threaten the chairman with lawsuits, or suggest that you will get the entire membership of SFWA to boycott the con, or flood the committee's email address with nasty emails. All these tactics have been tried in the past without success. Programming chairmen have already heard it all -- howling will simply mark you as a troublemaker.
Instead, be flexible and helpful, presenting yourself as part of a solution and not a problem. Indicate your willingness to do signings, kaffeeklatches, or autographings. Offer to be a last-minute replacement for no-shows. An air of pleasant professionalism may yet save the situation, and allows you to retain your dignity.
In the meantime it is quite kosher to gently manipulate behind the scenes to get onto programming. Ask your editor or publisher to throw in a good word for you, for instance. Review your connections, in and out of fandom. There have been cases where people with a personal tie to the Programming Chair have been appealed to for an intervention, successfully. Perhaps there is someone else working on the convention that you know? Or now would be a good time for your mentor, the Older Pro, to lend a helping hand.
The sensible thing to do is to go to the con anyway, and see what happens. In any case, you have other preparations to set in train. Several months in advance is a good time to email your editor or agent with your Worldcon plans. If your publisher is planning a private extravaganza at a pricey restaurant, you want them to have a chance to invite you! Also this is the time to set up meetings to discuss your career. Find out if there's a gang book signing in the works, organized by SFWA, by your publisher, or by the Worldcon people, and decide if you want in.
Bookmark the Worldcon web site, or keep up with the Worldcon newsgroups. When the hotel room blocks open for reservations, book your room early. It is traditional to save money by splitting a room with friends. Don't wait too long to organize this, or you will be reduced to rooming with casual acquaintances.
Consider your packing. If your book or magazine has been out for more than a year, it may no longer be available in the dealer's room. Plan to bring along some extra copies, to show off or perhaps to re-sell to hucksters. Do you have any promotional materials: posters, post cards, bookmarks, buttons and such? Pack them too. Load up your card case with business cards. Cover flats or dust jackets of upcoming books would be good to bring and pack nicely in suitcases.
Put some thought into your wardrobe. If you have tee shirts, baseball caps, or other garments that promote your book or characters or created world, plan to wear them. Comfortable shoes are a must. Pack at least a couple of dress-up outfits, so that you can go out to restaurants. If you plan to attend the Hugo Ceremony, break out your formal togs. (See Sidebar 3 if you are actually a Hugo Nominee.)
By the time you get to Worldcon you may be thoroughly tired of the whole process before it even begins. There are different philosophies about doing business at Worldcon. It is not difficult to spot the pro's pro, the writer or would-be writer who is nothing but business, dressed in suit and tie and carrying a briefcase full of mss, earnestly taking notes at the “How to Find an Agent” panel and handing out business cards. Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden has argued that as a solid diet this is stultifying -- the most important thing is to have fun. He has suggested staying up late, attending the programming that is amusing or attractive, and generally enjoying yourself.
I agree – because, paradoxically, it's better business. My analogy is the singles bar. There is nothing more repelling in a singles bar than those singles who have arrived in search of True Love. These are the women who are hungrily looking over the shoulder of people they're talking to, hoping to see a cuter prospect. These are the men at their last prayer, whose first mating move is to ask your astrological sign. Who is attractive, at a singles function? It is the people who have forgotten the business of shedding their singlehood, and have kicked back to have a good time, that you want to hang with.
And so it is with business at Worldcon. Desperation and lust repel conversation, while good humor and joy are attractive. Attract enough conversation, and someone is sure to tell you about that anthology which they simply cannot find one more story for, or confide that Editor A is starting a new line in trade-paper teen fantasy targeted at Hispanic girls. I can only supply personal witness on this point: but at conventions I have sold novels and short stories, generated nonfiction sales and gotten invitations to contribute to magazines, always while holding a greasy snack in one hand and a wine glass in the other. So either it's the greasy snack, or something is going right.
Aside from philosophical considerations, you will wish to do all the practical things upon arrival – get your badge, check your schedule, and so forth. Scope out the free handouts area, and add to it your leaflets or bookmarks. Case the dealer's room and note who's carrying your work, so that if a fan asks you where they can buy your book, you can send them to a specific table.
If you are on programming, check in at the Green Room so the con knows you're here. Peggy Rae Sapienza adds, “If your presentation requires a slide projector or an overhead or any other kind of equipment, include this information in your correspondence. Double check it when you check into the Green Room.”
If you have not been invited to be on programming, find the Programming Ops office and drop on by -- once. Since you did not have a screaming fit or utter dire threats six months ago, you can hope they will greet you with cordiality instead of backing into a corner and phoning security. Reiterate your offer to fill in on panels that seem to be short-handed, and leave them a contact number. Laurie Mann says, “Some things do happen at the last minute, and people running Program can sometimes accommodate very late drop-offs and add-ons).” Be aware however that a last-minute appearance by you on a panel is not going to be as well-publicized. You won't be listed on the Pocket Program, and your groupies may not be able to find you. Programming updates are distributed at least once a day during the con, but not every fan reads them.
But there are many other useful, professional and fun things to do at Worldcon besides programming. You could hook up with one of the many groups attending the con, and help with their work. SFWA alone supplies many opportunities – past Worldcons have included their Emergency Medical Fund Auction, the SFWA Suite, the SFWA Musketeers, and the SFWA table in the dealers room. Other groups are just as active or more so. And this is not even including the con events themselves – the Masquerade, the film program – or the friends you have in the art show or the dealer's room who might need a helping hand. You need never have a dull moment.
The SFWA Suite is a particular magnet to members. If you didn't learn where it was before arrival, query another SFWA member or officer, or ask in the Green Room. The Suite is usually open for most of the day, and is definitely open all evening every evening of the convention. In the daytime it is a relatively quiet place to rest your feet and have a snack. Parties in the evening usually mean the place is jammed. Members of SFWA get a sticker on their badge, to pass into the Suite. They can also pass in guests. Nearly every writer, agent and editor at Worldcon passes at one time or another through the SFWA Suite, so camping there, or better yet volunteering to help, means that you will see and be seen.
Other groups also have parties – find them by checking out the party bulletin boards, or hooking up with the organizers. The problem most of us have is not finding parties, but attending too many of them!
The whirl of activities over several days may call for specific organization on your part. Con organizers have taken to printing out stickers with your panel commitments, for you to stick onto the back of your badge as an aid to memory. Many of us have gotten into the habit of noting the room numbers of notable parties or suites in the margins of that sticker as well. Whatever else you wear or carry, you nearly always wear your badge.
And this brings us to the primary obligation of the pro on programming -- turn up at your scheduled appearances! It goes without saying that it's worthwhile to put your best foot forward in public. I have been on panels where the Big Name Pro didn't show up -- we had to make up excuses for his disappointed fans, increasingly creative and insalubrious ones as time went on. Of course an emergency can happen to anybody, but if you're planning to sulk or laze, recall that it would have been cheaper to do that at home.
Lace Gilligan, who has both been on and run programming, told me, “The stand-out best panelist I've ever had the joy to work with is Kevin O'Donnell, Jr. The panel is balanced, everyone has a chance to speak, excellent crowd/peanut gallery control, and he's read up on his subject and has notes, references, occasionally hand-outs, and good questions for fellow panelists who get suddenly shy or who aren't sure how to contribute. He shows up to everything he's scheduled for and is very courteous.”
We cannot all be Kevin O'Donnell, but we can try to give good panel. At the very least, don't begin by announcing you don't know why you're on this panel. On this point the verdict is unanimous, from organizers, audience, and panelists – saying this is irritating and unhelpful, whether it's true or not! Even if you've been mis-placed on a panel about which you know nothing, the fans in the seats don't know that.
On this subject Leah Zeldes remarks, “I won't deny that program organizers are sometimes clueless. That is not an excuse for the panelist to be clueless as well. The option in that case is not to appear on the panel, informing the committee as soon as you know about it. A comment, ‘Well, I didn't know about this ahead of time and it's not a subject I'm prepared to speak about extemporaneously' would be appropriate. Too many people show up anyway and ramble on. I repeat -- there's no excuse not to be prepared. If it's not a subject you know and you don't have time to prepare, opt out. You don't have to be on twelve hours of programming, even if the committee asks you to.”
At last it's over. What is left to do at the end of Worldcon? If you've met lots of people, it's worth making a note of names and occasions. A casual meeting at Worldcon is a pleasant thing to mention in a submission letter to an editor, for instance. Since she may have forgotten meeting you, you could weigh in with a helpful reference to your encounter at that publisher party. It's also good to sort out your receipts before you forget where it was you were dining and with whom. (See Sidebar 4 for a site that tells you what receipts to save.)
Thanking the volunteers at the con is always appreciated – don't forget that Worldcon is completely run by volunteers. SFWA often organizes a volunteer thank-you party on the last day of the convention, so turn up there if you can. Peggy Rae Sapienza reminds me that, “Often these fans don't get to attend some of the readings, panels, or Kaffeeklatches which they would like to because they are spending their time helping.” Politeness and gratitude are not only decent, but prudent. These same fans will be working at and running other cons in the future, when being a fandom favorite might do you good. And every single one of them, by their very presence at this Worldcon, is eligible to vote for the Hugo Award next year!
Then go home, put your feet up, and recover. Worldcon is over – until next year!