Brad R. Torgersen

World Science Fiction Convention and Salt Lake City Comic Con

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In 2012 I was fortunate to be literary science fiction’s triple-nominee: Nebula award, Hugo award, Campbell award. This means I got to go to Chicago’s Chicon 7 (World Science Fiction Convention) and participate on panels as a featured guest, as well as suit up for the Hugo ceremony proper. I had some good moments in Chicago. Mostly meeting old friends, and many new friends alike. I got to enjoy a slice of the Worldcon limelight. I didn’t win anything, but this was okay by me because the Hugo and Campbell are not cash prizes. Plus, the Campbell tiara certainly looked better on the female winner than it would have on me. So I left Chicago satisfied that I’d gotten the most I could out of it.

In 2013 I was fortunate to be invited to sit at Kevin J. Anderson’s WordFire table at Salt Lake City Comic Con, in addition to sitting on panels as a special guest. This was Utah’s first ever Comic Con, and had been expected to draw as much as 30,000 attendees. That it drew an estimated 70,000 attendees was a complete surprise to even the most optimistic con-planners. Certainly none of us who were working the vendor tables expected so many people. And the panels were almost universally packed. Standing room only. It was a complete blow-the-doors-off five-alarm success story. Biggest inaugural Comic Con of any kind to have ever been held anywhere in the country. I left SLC Comic Con feeling like I got way more out of it than I’d expected going in.

Observations, from the pro side and the fan side:

Worldcon is smaller as well as older. Both in terms of its historical roots, and in terms of its total audience. I think the best estimates place Chicon 7’s attendance at around 5,000 people. A fraction of SLC Comic Con’s. So if you were a producer of product looking to move your wares, the Comic Con was definitely the place to be. SLC Comic Con also had youth. There weren’t a lot of younger fans in Chicago—at least not ones who weren’t joined at the hip to their parents. SLC Comic Con had piles and piles of families in attendance, but also a large contingent of teenagers too. Something I didn’t see a whole lot in Chicago.

Worldcon had editors and agents, whereas SLC Comic Con had actors. Anyone who came to SLC Comic Con hoping to find a literary agent or a receptive editor from a major magazine or novel house, went away disappointed. There were some people from the regional publishing scene in attendance, but nobody national that I knew of. Worldcon on the other hand had many editors and agents from magazines as well as novel houses, both large and small. It was definitely the better venue for prospective writers or new authors (like me) with a track record, and hoping to expand their professional contacts and/or secure interest from people with the ability to pay for work. Whereas SLC Comic Con was a great place to come and meet your favorite actor from any two dozen different television and movie franchises.

Worldcon had the traditional masquerade, but SLC Comic Con had far more costumed fans, per capita. Perhaps one in four SLC attendees was dressed up (or dressed down, in the case of certain people) for the event. Chicago did have some costume people, but they were much fewer and further between. And some of that costuming was definitely tied to after-hours parties—occasionally of the risqué variety. (aka: “Bar Fleet”)

As business ventures, I found both Worldcon and SLC Comic Con advantageous—just for different reasons.

When I went to Renovation in 2011 and Chicon 7 in 2012 I was there strictly as a new pro writer, looking to making connections. Meet old friends and make new ones, sure, but the business connections were the key. Talk to agents. Secure open doors. Etc. SLC Comic Con on the other hand was a chance to actually put finished product in front of brand new eyes. People who’d never heard of me before, and who were coming from outside the somewhat insular community that calls itself “fandom” in the parlance of Worldcon. These were general audience consumers. The kind of “big tent” audience I ultimately want to reach, because that’s the kind of audience I came out of as a teenager. And that’s where the vast bulk of the money is too.

Oh, sure, as a teen, I probably read more SF/F than many similarly-aged fans who were strictly television or movie fans. But I still came into the genre “sideways” as a writer, because I didn’t do it coming up through the traditionally inculcated ranks of “fandom” which still consider film and television to be separate and apart from Science Fiction (capitals) as we know it. Therefore I think I felt much more comfortable at SLC Comic Con. I recognized myself in the young eyes of the many teenaged boys tromping past the WordFire table: just out with their buddies, having fun, sneaking peaks at the more scantily-clad female costumers, picking up game stuff, maybe buying some comics or books, and just generally enjoying being part of the event—utterly oblivious to Hugos or Nebulas or Campbells or anything else associated with Worldcon.

Which is not a putdown of Worldcon. Really, it’s not. I’m just noticing the differences. I thought Worldcon was pretty good, as a business trip intended to establish connections. I met my editor at Baen Books because of Renovation 2011. I got to sit on a panel with my editor (now retired) at Analog magazine because of Chicon 2012. There was solid value (for me, as a new pro writer) in Worldcon as a result.

But as a seller of merchandise, and as someone who was a fan of Star Trek and Star Wars in my youth, and who wore those stripes proudly when I broke into writing science fiction in 2009, SLC Comic Con definitely felt more homey. More crowded, true. But more homey. I was a comic collector for a few years as a teen. Aliens and X-Force and Sandman. I remember those days, and I remember my enthusiasm. I’m still an enthusiast (albeit older) for certain beloved animation franchises, such as Robotech. There was nobody dressed like Rick Hunter or a Zentraedi warrior at SLC Comic Con, but if we’d been holding SLC Comic Con in 1986, there might have been. (May still be?) Gotta see what kind of costumes come out of the woodwork for next year. And there will most certainly be a next year, based on 2013’s receipts.

Looking to the future, I do have to wonder about the long-term prospects for Worldcon. In the 1950s and 1960s Worldcon could count on a steady stream of young fans and aspiring writers to bolster the ranks of established fans and pros. Now, the large bulk of young fans and consumers flock to the general interest cons (such as Comic Con) or the many special-interest anime and gaming cons—which didn’t exist when Worldcon was the con.

Just as newspapers have suffered in the era of instant world-wide internet media, Worldcon has suffered in the era of fan-interest diversification and mainstreaming of the genre as a whole. Ergo, sci-fi isn’t just something restricted to your parents’ basement anymore. It’s a multi-billion-dollar enterprise spanning games, movies, television, comics, and literature alike. The genre has left the nest, so to speak. And it’s doing very, very well.

The Hugo award could continue without Worldcon, assuming Worldcon folds up. One of the more well-known genre cons (such as DragonCon in Atlanta) could adopt the Hugo. Or Worldcon could simply shrink down to become a purely professional event for lit industry insiders: writers and agents and editors, much like World Fantasy con is now. In which case the Hugo would become a truly niche literary award, like the Nebula. Meaningful to those of us on the “inside” but otherwise unknown to consumers and fans on the “outside,” which (based on conversations I had at SLC Comic Con) isn’t much different from the way things are now. Of the hundred or so people I engaged in conversation longer than one minute—while I was working at Kevin J. Anderson’s book table—perhaps ten of them knew what the Hugo or the Nebula awards were. I had to explain it to the rest because my short story collection Lights in the Deep has the words, “Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award nominee” emblazoned across a gold banner right at the bottom of the cover, under my name.

Now, I understand that there are a lot of people who are defensive about Worldcon’s purpose, its prestige, and also its future.

I am not writing this as a criticism of fans of Worldcon, nor is this a criticsm of those who volunteer to produce the yearly Worldcons. I am writing this as an observation and evaluation for the many fans and prospective writers who have all asked me (usually quietly) about my experiences. Ergo, which con(s) offer the most bang for the buck?

So, these are my observations. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. I’m very much about the bang-for-your-buck conversation, because it’s the one I have every year when planning my calendar.

I do think every new writer (especially Writers of the Future winners) owe it to themselves to go to at least one Worldcon—for as long as Worldcons exist. As the most venerable of the cons, it’s still an experience to go and rub shoulders with the many great writers in the genre, meet editors, and make yourself into a known quantity on the radar of those who consider Worldcon to be a focal point of the SF/F publishing industry.

Then, if you can, the next year, go to DragonCon or a Comic Con. San Diego. New York. Salt Lake. Seattle. See if you can arrange to be on panels and have some product to sell at a table. Evaluate for yourself which venue works best for your career goals and interests, not to mention your personality.

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