WorldCon quasi-report

As usual, I doubt I'll manage a full blow-by-blow con report. But here are some notes.

The low point of the con for me was probably the frustrating "future of short stories and magazines" panel on Friday morning, about twelve hours after I arrived in Boston. I asked very belatedly if I could be on the panel, but (for a variety of reasons, some of them entirely my fault) was told "absolutely not." So I sat in the audience.

After the usual discussion of how to improve the circulation of the print prozines, there was a fair bit of trashing online publication—by which the panelists apparently meant people posting their own stories on their own websites. There were several comments that suggested (at least to me, though I should note that I'm oversensitive to such things) that no online publication pays at all, that the best an online publication can aspire to is to be a training ground for novice writers who want to graduate to the print prozines, and that online publications are short-lived by nature. I can more or less understand SH being below the panelists' radar (and in some sense we are a training ground, in that we like to publish new authors and we hope that our authors will go on to publish in higher-profile places too), but I was baffled at the fact that not one of them mentioned SCI FICTION at all. The magazine pays three times as much as any other sf magazine (and the audience were mostly writers, so presumably that's something they would want to know), it's been running for four and a half years now with no sign of faltering, it has published Nebula-winning stories, it's edited by a Hugo-winning editor with a long and distinguished career, and its stories appear with increasing frequency in the Year's Bests; why is it not worth mentioning in a panel about the future of short sf?

I eventually started raising my hand to get called on; by the time Dr. Schmidt called on me, I was so annoyed by the ongoing dissing of online stuff that my voice was actually shaking, which I suspect didn't help in my attempt to make them think of us as professional. But several audience members did come up to me afterward and thank me for my comments. I'm dropping a note to next year's programming committee to ask them if they would consider putting someone associated with online magazines on that panel next year.

I suspect that what was really going on was that the print prozine editors think of the term magazine as referring specifically to print magazines that turn a profit; from that point of view, questions about the future of magazines will inevitably focus on discussions of how to improve circulation for those magazines. So probably to be really effective, my comments would've had to start by re-examining the definition of magazine and questioning the notion that magazines must turn a profit. The statement that online magazines are "not self-sustaining" (as one of the panelists put it) is kind of true, in the sense that they don't directly bring in enough money from sales and advertising to fund the publication; but the phrase strongly implies that they can't last long, and I think that's an idea that needs to be laid to rest.

I meant to try to talk with a couple of the print editors about this stuff later in the con, but didn't get around to doing so.

Anyway, enough about that. The high points of the con for me were things like hanging out with cool friends (especially when we managed to hang out in quiet environments; I don't hear so well in noisy places, and I speak quietly, so going to dinner at a loud restaurant is often an exercise in frustration for me and sometimes for the people I'm with), meeting a bunch of our authors in person (as I noted earlier, at least 34 of our fiction authors were at the con (and I saw and at least said hello to almost all of them), along with several contributors in other departments and half a dozen staff members), seeing people I know and like win various awards, attending roundsinging late Saturday night (thanks again, Jim!), and having a leisurely lunch with Juliet U. on Monday. Also, it was immensely gratifying to have people I didn't know come up to me and tell me that they really like reading the magazine.

Overall, the con seemed to me to be pretty well-run. Names on badges were as visible as they needed to be, for once (yay!), though if it were up to me I'd still make the names a little bigger. The people staffing the con office were gracious and friendly and went out of their way to help solve problems in creative ways (rather than just saying no, which they'd have been perfectly justified in doing), despite being under what must have been tremendous pressure. The programming person I talked to was rather more negative and rigid than the situation really called for (I got the impression she suspected I was a terrorist out to destroy WorldCon), but I imagine that she too was under a lot of pressure—if nothing else, the logistics involved in managing that enormous number of program items would be enough to drive most people mad. I do think it was a little draconian to require panel moderators to ask for permission before adding people to panels; on the other hand, I can see that that rule could help take pressure off the moderators by giving them an excuse if they didn't want to add some random person who asked to be added.

I once again failed to sign up as a volunteer, though I'd intended to. Maybe next time.

As has been true a lot recently, I attended very few panels. Went to a bit of one that Ben and Cory were on, and a bit of one about GLBT stuff; I wish I'd stayed longer at the latter, 'cause I later learned that the discussion of whether various works counted as sufficiently queer was actually in the service of deciding what works qualified for the Spectrum award, and if I'd stuck around I would've heard the actual award presented.

I went out of my way to attend readings this time. The ones I attended weren't all excellent, but they were all enjoyable. Reminder to self yet again: attend more readings. You like 'em. (Also, note to self: write up your thoughts about how to read aloud well soon, so it'll be before you inevitably attend a con reading where the author isn't very good at it, so that nobody will think you're talking about them.)

I was pleased to meet various people I'd encountered only electronically, such as Matt (Mumpsimus) Cheney and Andrew (andyhat) Hatchell. I was disappointed to still not meet various people I've been wanting to meet, such as Jonathan Strahan and, um, I know there was someone else in particular but I'm blanking.

I did very little actual hiding in my room, and not much actual sleeping, but I did spend too much of the weekend sitting with a group being too dazed to hold up my end of a conversation. I didn't make it to any of the pro parties, for various reasons, nor to the SFWA suite at all. I once again failed to attend any filking, though I was pleased that it took place in a less remote part of the con than I've seen elsewhere lately. I spent a couple hours now and then sitting at the Speculative Literature Foundation table in the fan-tables corridor. Entirely missed various programming items I wanted to attend, such as Vandana's "Imaginative Fiction: A Third World Perspective" talk. Picked up a few books in the dealers' room, including So Long Been Dreaming. Saw about 15 or 20 minutes of the Masquerade/costume contest, but didn't see the halftime show, Charles Ross's One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, which got enthusiastic reviews from attendees the next day. Attended only the second half of the Hugo awards ceremony. Met a bunch of people whose names I recognized from submissions. Tried to balance hanging out with Swarthmore friends and hanging out with writer/editor friends. Watched about half of the Retro Hugos ceremony. Decided to take a serendipitous approach to the con—if a new opportunity came up that was at least as appealing as what I'd been planning to do, I went and did it, and that worked pretty well.

All in all, not a bad con. Don't know if I'll make it to Glasgow next year, but LA in 2006 definitely.

27 Responses to “WorldCon quasi-report”

  1. David Moles

    Yokohama 2007. Start planning now.

  2. Mike Mearls

    I was at the Future of the Magazines panel, and I don’t think you were offbase in your reaction. There seems to be an endemic allergy amongst print publishers against online publication – I’m not sure if they see it as a threat, or if they’re simply uninformed. Personally, I was surprised to see such casual dismissal of technology at a science fiction convention, of all places. Judging from what I can gather from what they’re trying to do with digital sales, they don’t seem to have a real handle on the Internet.

    I work for a roleplaying game company, and we release PDF versions of our books about 30 – 60 days before our print versions. From an economic and marketing stand point, I don’t understand why more print publishers don’t do this. It’s been a tremendous help for us both financially and in getting word out about our stuff. Everyone overlooks that while a print book or magazine might disappear from store shelves after a few months, a digital version is always in stock.

    Yet, I consistently hear complaints from other RPG design studios about how online publishing is a waste of time, or that only amateurs engage in it. There’s also an inflated fear of piracy. To be blunt, we sell more books and turn a bigger profit than these guys, but they refuse to treat our model seriously. I guess that’s a good thing for us from a business POV.

  3. Celia

    The panel about discouraging writers also managed to miss both SH and Scifiction, though if I remember correctly the person who was being completely dismissive of online publishing was the non-pro on the panel, and was the reason hannah rocked back and forth chanting spork a lot during that panel.

    And Jonathan Strahan was at the SH tea party. I only know this because I managed to remember why I knew his name *completely* wrong and thus sounded like quite a dork while talking to him. Hopefully he won’t associate the dork there with the amusing person at WFC. I think I was nearly dead at the tea party, or at least all my social skills had been suspended in favor of keeping life support going.

  4. David Moles

    Who was on the Future of Mags panel?

  5. Nick Mamatas

    The statement that online magazines are “not self-sustaining” (as one of the panelists put it) is kind of true, in the sense that they don’t directly bring in enough money from sales and advertising to fund the publication

    if that’s the definition of self-sustaining, then neither Asimov’s nor Analog is self-sustaining. They are sustained via cross-subsidy, meaning that the magazines can be printed for the costs they are because Crosstown Publications/Dell also produces all those puzzle and horoscope magazines. Production scales upwards as they can do things like buy their own paper and have their printers use it, rather than have the printer buy paper and sell it to Dell at a markup. They also save greatly on shipping, production, and other expenses.

    If Dell’s fiction magazines had to really depend on subscriptions, newsstand sales, advertising and the occasionally anthology deal, they’d be dead Dead DEAD. Those digest circulations don’t have even *approach* “big mag” status, and would, for any other sort of magazine, be literal shotgun-in-the-mouth stuff.

  6. Mike Mearls

    David –

    The panel consisted of Gordon Van Gelder, Sheila Williams, John Betancourt, Stanley Schmidt, and Nicholas DiChario.

  7. Merrie Haskell

    *eep!* I need to find my notes, but I know that at least one panelist (but which panel??) mentioned Sci Fiction with utter love, if only for their payrate. I want to say it was Gavin J. Grant at the “Tough Love for New Writers” panel, but I could be way off base.

  8. Lisa Nichols

    I don’t remember hearing Gavin Grant talk about Sci Fiction at that panel, but then he pretty much killed me with his suggested writing goal for the room, so I might have missed it. 🙂

    Still kicking myself for not making the SH tea party. *sigh*

  9. Jed

    Clearly I ought to have told people I wanted to meet Strahan; I had no idea he was at the party. Ah, well.

    Lisa: I didn’t realize you were at the con! Sorry not to have met you—or if I did meet you, doubly sorry not to have recognized your name. So make that at least 35 SH fiction authors who were there. (Which is, btw, over 25% of all the authors whose original fiction we’ve published.)

    Nick: Good point. That was a definition of self-sustaining that I made up on the fly while I was writing this up, when I realized I didn’t really know what the panelist in question meant by that term; now that you’ve pointed out the hole in that definition, I’m even less sure of precisely what he meant by the term. Wish I’d been more on the ball during that exchange. Maybe next time.

  10. Lisa Nichols

    Heh. You didn’t meet me, Jed. Believe me, I would have tried to refresh your memory if I had. 😉 I was almost absurdly reclusive during the whole con, so I hardly met anyone. It was my very first one, and I got so distracted by the shininess of the panels that I forgot to say hello to folks!

  11. Shmuel

    I’d have to disagree with Nick. Granting that the companies that publish Asimov’s et al can afford to do so because they also publish other publications, through economies of scale, through having an established distribution network, and so on, the fact remains that the print science fiction magazines aren’t losing money. To claim that any given magazine can be described as “self-sustaining” only if it could leave its publisher and make it entirely on its own is absurd; it makes as much sense as claiming that a magazine is self-sustaining only if it can afford to buy its own printing presses, mill its own paper, and hire its own mail carriers.

    The point is this: as it stands, the print magazines aren’t losing money. They make enough revenue to cover their costs of printing, payment to authors, and salaries to their employees. Barring some external reason why they ought to be dropped by the publisher, they’re pulling their own weight, and hence self-sustaining.

    I don’t know about the other online magazines, but this doesn’t apply to Strange Horizons, whose employees get bupkis. From any conventional economic standpoint, this means it’s operating at a loss. It survives on the goodwill and sacrifice of volunteers. This may be working, but self-sustaining it ain’t. And count me among those who believe that while this can be used to start up a publication, it’s an untenable long-term business model. Eventually, you need to at least break even — which includes the cost of labor — or throw in the towel.

    (N.B.: I have no knowledge of the actual financial situation of any of the print magazines; if they’re actually operating at a loss, that’s obviously another story. Either way, the above reasoning stands.)

  12. Jed

    Shmuel, I’m afraid I have to disagree with your assessment.

    If an organization is run by volunteers who don’t expect to ever be paid, I’m not seeing a reason to count the cost of their labor as a monetary loss.

    Nor do I see anything inherent in a volunteer-run organization that requires it to eventually shut down if it can’t afford to pay staff.

    Why do you eventually need to either pay staff or give up? Paying our whole staff is not a goal of SH; as far as I know, we don’t expect to ever be able to do so. But we’ve survived four years on volunteer labor and donations, and we’re in at least as good financial shape as when we started. So what would cause us to have to throw in the towel?

    If a business’s goal is to be profitable, but it continues to operate at a loss, then it’s true that eventually the business may fold. (Though, on a side note, tell that to Salon. Also, I gather that it commonly takes a new print magazine ten years to become profitable.) But if the goal isn’t to be profitable, and if the organization receives enough donations to cover costs other than the volunteer labor, then I don’t see a financial reason for it to stop operating.

    Also, most businesses fold eventually, regardless of whether they’re making money. Science Fiction Eye was actually turning a profit, but (as I understand it) the publisher shut it down because it wasn’t turning as much of a profit as some of their other magazines. So being “self-sustaining” in the sense of bringing in enough money from non-donation sources to cover costs is no guarantee of long-term survival.

  13. Mike Mearls

    It also helps to keep in mind that “profit” is something that doesn’t have to be measured in dollars/euros/pounds/whatever. The emotional and social reward of doing something, or the practical experience it provides, can offset any monetary losses or time spent. For example, a fanfic writer might use that outlet to hone her craft and eventually write and sell a novel that’s a wise investment. If she just enjoys writing fanfic, she doesn’t even have to sell that theoretical novel to “profit” by the experience. Or she might develop a following, and the social “reward” keeps her motivated.

  14. Ted

    Jed, I think you mean Science Fiction Age, not Science Fiction Eye. The former was the profitable magazine edited by Scott Edelman; SF Eye was a fanzine edited by Steve Brown.

  15. Jed

    Yikes—thanks for the correction, Ted! I kept looking at that title and thinking “Is that the right title? Wasn’t there some other magazine with a similar title?” But I was too sleepy to go check.

  16. Shmuel

    Saying that the goal isn’t to be able to pay the staff begs the question; that the intention from the beginning is to drive a car over a cliff will in no way diminish the impact when it hits the ground… you don’t get something for nothing, at least not for long. That said, I’ll grant Mike’s point that profit and compensation don’t have to be monetary.

    Still, I’m sorry to hear that SH does not, in fact, have paying the staff as a long-term goal– I’d suspected that, but hoped otherwise. Let’s just say I’m skeptical, and time will tell.

  17. Jed

    You don’t get something for nothing, at least not for long.

    I’m pretty sure that there are organizations that have run for a very long time on volunteer labor. I repeat that we’ve done this for four years now (closer to five, really, since we first started) and aren’t any worse off than when we started; you seem to be starting from your assumption that it can’t possibly work, rather than examining the actual evidence that it’s working. Do you have any evidence for your belief that it can’t work?

    One thing you may be missing is that an organization can persist even if staff comes and goes. You don’t need to have the same volunteers running the organization the whole time. Volunteers come and go over time; the organization continues.

    Here’s an even better example than SH: I’m in an APA called SWAPA. It’s been running for over 20 years. Every few years, the Organizing Editors get tired or busy and pass the job along to other members. Nobody has ever gotten paid at all for it. I can’t see any basis for believing that it’s doomed to fail. It’s already outlasted many businesses that do pay their staff.

    I’m told that PTAs never have any paid staff, but they keep going year after year. I’ve also heard that local chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous don’t have any paid staff, but I don’t know about that for sure.

    I’m also pretty sure that there are a lot of long-running fan organizations that don’t pay staff, but I don’t know for sure. Do SF3 and NESFA have paid staff? I’m not sure.

  18. Karen

    SF3 doesn’t, no. It’s an organization of people who feel they’re doing good and necessary work that they learn from and enjoy. Would be nice to get paid for it, I’m sure. But instead they use the resources they have to forward their mission. And the board of SF3 goes through regular rotations, so nobody gets too burned out on running things.

  19. Vardibidian

    I hate to drag back the original panel into it, but surely even if you don’t believe that individual on-line magazines in the SH vein will be around for more than, say, five years each, or even an average of three, the ‘future of short stories and magazines’ should take them into account.

    Look, I know nothing—nothing!—about the business of sf, but it seems to me that once you are on the topic, you can’t help talking about the on-line stuff that exists. It’s essentially hopeless to predict what the internet World O’ Tomorrow will be like, but the evidence at the moment seems to be that there will be a succession of sites that pay for original short stories, most of which will fold in a short time, but some of which will not. I’d guess that the number of original stories bought for on-line distribution will increase in the next few years, and probably increase a lot. That seems likely whether the business model works or not. So if you are interested in more stories, you want to exploit that. If you want the same number of stories read by more people, well, that’s a different topic.

    So, Jed, what are the good questions? How can more people be persuaded to read the Hugo nominees? How can more people be persuaded to nominate stories? How can a wider variety of stories be nominated? How can short story editors get paid more? get laid more? How can more writers be encouraged to use the short story form? How can they use it better? How can we sow the field for more good stories? for more great ones? For fewer dreadful ones? How can we get more and better movies made from the good ones? How come all the good writers are dead (or married)?

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  20. Shmuel

    Jed, you can feel free to drive the point into the ground, just don’t pretend you’re arguing with me. I backed off “my claim that it can’t work” in the sentence immediately after the one you quoted, granting that, while the staff must be compensated for any publication to last, that compensation doesn’t have to be financial. The following paragraph made no claims regarding theory, only an opinion regarding the case at hand.

  21. Shmuel

    Umm, replace “my claim that it can’t work” with “your belief that it can’t work” in the preceding comment, or move the first quotation mark forward a few words; I think I’d meant to do the latter. Sorry about that.

  22. Jed

    Vardibidian wrote:

    what are the good questions?

    One of the better questions is a variant of what the panel was talking about: is there a way to make money selling fiction online?

    So far, the only place that I know of that’s done so successfully is Fictionwise, and they’re doing mostly reprints.

    Another question might be: what models are there for online publication that are more suited to the medium than the traditional for-profit model is?

    Another: what will happen to electronic publication as people grow more comfortable with reading from screens, as screen resolution begins to approach the resolution of a laser printer, and as a generation grows up comfortable with computers?

    How can more people be persuaded to read the Hugo nominees? How can more people be persuaded to nominate stories? How can a wider variety of stories be nominated?

    Those questions are good ones, but to really address them requires digging a bit deeper. A lot of people don’t vote in the Hugos ’cause it costs a fair bit of money to do so. A lot of other people don’t vote in the Hugos ’cause none of the nominated fiction appeals to them. A lot of people don’t nominate fiction because they have no idea they’re eligible to. But it’s still a mystery to me why only something like a fifth of those who are eligible actually nominate and vote.

    I don’t know if it would be possible to significantly increase numbers in Hugo nominating and voting without drastically changing the system and/or drastically changing the public’s reading patterns and levels of interest in fandom.

    It’s possible, though, that more outreach to WorldCon members could help with some aspects.

    …I suspect that Cheryl and others who know more about Hugos and voting patterns would be able to address those questions better than I.

    I think most of your other questions are centered around the general question “How do we encourage people to write more good short fiction?” Unfortunately, I think that answer too may require changing the public’s reading patterns. Short fiction just isn’t as popular as it once was. I talk with a lot of people who tell me they have pretty much no interest in it—not because they haven’t found the good stories, but because shorter lengths inherently can’t pack as much into the story as longer lengths can.

    That said, I think there are things that can plausibly be done. David M’s Bite-Sized Epics might be a good starting point, for example. And of course part of SH‘s goal is to bring more people writing more different kinds of good short sf to the table. I think that various recent books focusing on other-than-Anglo cultures (the Dark Matter anthologies, Nalo’s anthologies, Cosmos Latinos, etc) have a chance of bringing in more diverse readers, which I hope will bring in more diverse writers as well. And so on.

    …You had other interesting questions too, but I think I’ll leave it here for now.

  23. Dawn B.

    Jed, I was really pleased to be next to you at the Future panel and even more pleased when you got up. I know that I felt similiarly, though a little different.

    As a writer I’ve gone back and forth on the value of POD and E-zines. Most e-zines I won’t touch. SH and SciFiction are my exceptions. Not the rule. Mars Dust, though I hate the design, might garner some attention from me. Ideomancer is another one that I think is worth watching. But the vast majority pay on publication (if they pay at all) and fold quickly. And that I don’t care for. I believe those and the personal webpage “publishing” was what the panel was discussing. I really think they should watch their words as they are feeding the same bias that I subscribed to for years. I think they tried to backstep because they do respect SH and SciFiction, but just don’t know how to down the personal publishing without hitting the good stuff.

    Need something like the difference between pro, semi-pro and fanzines for the electronic world so that SH and SciFiction are recognized.

  24. Melissa Mead

    I wish I’d gone to that panel after all, if only because I’m surprised that Strange Horizons and SCIFICTION got so little recognition. They’re both in my first rank of markets to submit to, and they have great stories.

  25. Jed

    Pleased to have met you both at WorldCon, Dawn and Melissa, and sorry not to’ve gotten more of a chance to chat. Thanks to both of you for the praise!

    Dawn: I’d say POD is a separate topic, and not one I know enough about to discuss. Regarding online publications: I honestly don’t think that a much higher percentage of new online magazines fold quickly than of new print publications. It’s not the online-ness per se that’s the problem.

    There are plenty of other online magazines (in addition to the ones you mentioned) that are fairly well-established. Chiaroscuro, for example. Would That It Were, which has been around (and paying at least 3c/word for most stories) a couple years longer than we have. I don’t hear much about Oceans of the Mind these days, but they launched in 2001 and they appear to be still publishing, and they pay better than we do.

    There are some lower-profile (and mostly lower-paying) semiprozines that’ve been around for a while too. Anotherealm, for example, has been running since 1996; there aren’t all that many print semiprozines that’ve lasted eight years. Cafe Irreal has been around since 1999. I thought I had heard that Cyber Age Adventures folded, but it looks like they’re still going, five years after they launched. EOTU reaches its fourth anniversary next month. The Pedestal focuses on non-genre fiction, but it appears to be open to nontraditional sf, and it pays well and is nearly four years old.

    And there are several newer online publications that I can’t yet point to as examples of established sites but that are publishing good material and seem to be doing a good job all around; I’m hoping those will still be around in a couple years.

    I don’t know which magazines pay on publication and which pay on acceptance. I suspect that that’s less of a big deal for most online publications ’cause I suspect the time between acceptance and publication is lower, on average, than for print publications; but I’m talking through my hat here, and I don’t have any data at all to back that up.

    I think one thing that happened was that a lot of people saw various heavily hyped high-profile online publications fail spectacularly (GalaxyOnline comes to mind), and concluded that online publication was a dead end; but I would say there are still plenty of good online publications around, and that several of them are just about as established as an online magazine can reasonably be, given how short a time the web has been in the public eye.

    As for pro/semipro/fanzine categories for online magazines: I think that (except for the old circulation/readership issue) they fit fairly well into the established categories for print. In particular, pay rate continues to be SFWA’s primary measure of a publication’s pro status; seems to me that works as well online as in print.

  26. Dawn B

    Jed: Thanks for another long reply. You’ve pointed out some stuff I’m going to have research and check out.

    I think that the pro/semipro/fanzine works well too, in terms of pay rates. However, it is getting people to use those when discussing e-zines. Just like you would never put FlyTrap [which is a neat fanzine] in the same vein as Asimov’s in discussing payrates/reliability/circulation/etc. I don’t think Strange Hoirzons/SciFiction should be put in the same category as AlienSkin.

    As for acceptance versus publication: As long as the piece is published, I don’t mind on the delay. But I’ve seen far too many e-zines fold to trust “pay on pub”. I haven’t seen it as much for the print semipro/fanzines, but that’s because I don’t follow them and have very little experience with them. I suspect the rates are about the same. So pay on pub is a flag for me to be very sure about that market’s frequency and longevity before I’m willing to submit something to them. That’s a personal thing as a writer. Readers shouldn’t care about that.

  27. Melissa Mead

    Thabks for posting those links.


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