Time to throw open the doors

by Diana

I’m at the Romantic Times Booklover’s Convention this week, and I had this grand plan of doing quickie interviews of some of the urban fantasy authors here for today’s post (sort of like a “5 questions” format.) Unfortunately, it was harder than I expected to pin down authors when they weren’t busy/eating/inebriated, so in the end I decided instead to talk about the convention itself.

I grew up in SF/F fandom, and have been to more SF/F cons than I can count. In the last decade I’ve mostly limited myself to the “big” ones, i.e. World Fantasy and Worldcon, mostly because, as an up-and-coming author, I figured that those would be the most useful to me in networking, meeting new and fun people, and general enjoyment.

It wasn’t until last year that I learned about the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention, or “RT” as everyone calls it. RT is far more than what the name implies. First off, yes, it’s very heavily populated by people who love reading. And, yes, it’s very heavily slanted toward romance. After all, it’s sponsored by Romantic Times Book Reviews magazine.  However, much like the magazine, it has a reach far beyond just that of the romance field. The magazine reviews mostly romance books of every possible shade, but it also carries reviews of science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, thriller, mystery, mainstream, and so on.

That diversity is represented by the authors in attendance here as well. Barry Eisler, F. Paul Wilson, Piers Anthony are just a few of the non-romance authors here. And there are absolute scads of urban fantasy authors in attendance (as well as numerous panels devoted to the differences and similarities between urban fantasy and paranormal romance.)

As loyal as I am to my science fiction and fantasy roots, I have to say that for the aspiring author hoping to get a leg up, or for the published author hoping to reach out to fans and new readers, RT kicks some serious ass, and I really and truly hope that SF/F can take a tip or two from how RT operates, because I think that it can only benefit the genre.

First off, the member badges not only have the member’s name on it, but also a designation, i.e. Published Author, Aspiring Author, Reader, Bookseller, Librarian, Press, etc. My first reaction to that was a bit of a mental wince at what seemed like segregation, but as the week progressed I realized that it was incredibly useful for everyone involved when it came to networking and promotion and discovering new writers. Moreover, I never caught a single whiff of snobbery concerning the published vs. aspiring status.

Second, there’s “Promo Alley”: a long row of tables where authors can pay a token fee to rent a portion of a table to display promotional swag. Again, my first reaction to this was that there was just too much swag and too many authors and that the “signal to noise” ratio was way too high. But then I started seeing huge numbers of readers stopping and looking at all of this swag, and picking up the bookmarks, and taking–and wearing–the buttons and stickers, etc. Each member of the convention walked past all of these items several times a day, which, if nothing else, guaranteed that there would later be a flicker of recognition for an author’s name or a book cover. It was well done and nicely organized, as opposed to the one measly swag table at most SF/F cons where people can shove a pile of bookmarks into any empty space they can find.

Third, and this is the number one absolute biggie super duper way that RT kicks the absolute living ass of SF/F cons, especially World Fantasy and Worldcon:  The mass author signing is open to members for free, and open to the general public for a nominal fee (I think it was $5 this year.)

I can’t stress enough how much I believe this is a fantastic idea and one that World Fantasy and Worldcon needs to adopt.  RT partners with a bookseller (this year it was Barnes & Noble) who procures stacks of books for every author in attendance. Attendees can also bring in their own books to be signed (though they have to be marked with a special sticker before entering to avoid confusion and later problems.) Readers and fans have several hours to wander the hall, chat with authors, get books signed, discover new authors, and then can purchase their signed books at the exit where B&N has several registers set up. It’s a huge win-win scenario for everyone involved, and it has the advantage of reaching out to numerous readers who either have no interest in attending the entire event, or don’t have the financial means to do so.

I’ve heard that there’s resistance to this concept in SF/F because convention organizers want people to purchase memberships, and are afraid that if they throw signing events open to the public then there won’t be incentive for people to buy a membership to the whole thing. But I think that’s a terribly flawed supposition. The readers and fans who want to meet the authors and interact with them beyond the few seconds of face time in a signing will still pay for a membership. (After all, a membership for RT is over $400. And attendance at RT is usually well over a thousand strong, and in times of stronger economy I’ve been told that it’s closer to three thousand.)

Science Fiction and Fantasy needs to reach beyond the walls of its ghetto, and needs to give deep consideration to adopting this methodology as a way to reach out to new readers. By throwing the signing events open to the public, it will increase the opportunity to educate people about what the genre has to offer, as well as give up and coming authors a chance to interact with people who might never consider attending a convention.

8 Responses to “Time to throw open the doors”

  1. April 26, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Thank you! Have been saying stuff like this for years.

    Some SF cons do have an Artist Alley that does more or less what you saw for writers. Comic conventions do it too.

    Of course for Worldcon anyone could do ribbons that add designations to badges.

    But the big challenge is getting people in. For Glasgow I helped organize signings as local bookstores so that the authors could meet local people who couldn’t afford (or were scared off by) the convention. I’d be doing it for World Fantasy this year too if I could get back to the US. All conventions that get a large number of authors should do this. But what I really want to see is “exhibits only” memberships that are really cheap and allow people into the dealer/artist/signing areas.

    Sadly, as you note, whenever you mention this to the usual Worldcon crowd their standard reaction is horror because they are convinced that everyone who would ever want to attend Worldcon already attends, so the only effect of a lower-priced membership would be to reduce income. But because each Worldcon is a one-off event, fiscal prudence always wins over new ideas.

  2. April 26, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Only in the past year since I have been reviewing urban fantasy and paranormal romance have I become familiar with RT. Prior to that I was as ensconced and subject to the SF&F ghetto as much as any other fan. I have been to my share of Worldcons and I would have given my eyeteeth for events organized as you describe them at RT even as a full member. I have no idea what the old guard is so fearful of but they need to embrace new ideas. Events like this market your event, create awareness, build your audience and invest in your future fans. And how is a one-day exhibit only event going to hurt a convention at large? The only people that can take advantage of it are those in the hosting city and area. Someone is not going to travel, stay in a hotel and attend only the exhibit event to avoid the member ship fee. That is ludicrous. RT seems to be doing a lot of things right. Pay attention SF&F convention planners!

  3. 3 DB
    April 26, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    There are some interesting ideas here – and, of course, as Cheryl notes, we already have ribbons that are much more flexible for designating “functions” than RT’s label designations – but wouldn’t they be more appropriate for DragonCon or some other event that already leans more in the direction of this kind of appeal (whether or not they actually use these particular kind of ideas) than Worldcon?

    Call me stick-in-the-mud if you must, but to my mind Worldcon’s function is at least as much a “gathering of the clans” as it is a science fiction trade show. That kind of social glue can only work under practical limitations of size and stability, and I’d be sorry to lose that. A big trade show is a good idea, but it’s a different aesthetic and should take place somewhere else.

    And, of course, nobody’s actively being turned away from a Worldcon, even if costs and social factors are unwelcoming. Costs are a problem, I agree. (I’d favor Cheryl’s idea of an exhibits-only membership, even as we now do have “taster” memberships in the form of one-days.) But I’m skeptical of the arguments that SF cons are so unwelcoming. They were no less insular in the days when I first showed up, and they were just about the only social event in the world that I didn’t find unwelcoming.

  4. April 27, 2009 at 1:23 am

    I think adopting some of the successful tricks of other genres/fandoms is something SF/F cons should consider on the whole. There are a number of ideas from anime/manga fandom that help those cons appeal to a younger and more diverse audience, which SF/F cons really should try since they’re constantly complaining about having difficulty with this set.

    And I’m glad to hear RT is so interesting. I was thinking about attending next year, when my book comes out. But… FOUR HUNDRED DOLLARS?! And I thought Worldcon was ridiculous! How can ordinary people afford that??

  5. April 27, 2009 at 2:28 am

    Nora, it’s expensive, but it’s worth it. People save and scrimp to attend, because they get a good deal for their dollar.

  6. April 28, 2009 at 2:18 am

    I haven’t been to RT yet, though I plan on attending next year and have had several members of my writing group (published and yet to be published) attend with good reviews. I have however attended many a SciFi/fantasy con. I agree that we can probably learn something from RT and vice versa. An exhibit only membership would be fabulous. It would definitely allow for a more diverse audience. While I don’t think that any of these cons are unwelcoming, (I have always felt that come as you are vibe floating about), I will admit my first con was more than a little intimidating. I only attended because of the Guest of Honor, but once I was there I saw that it was actually a lot of fun, even if costumes and filking aren’t your thing! The exhibit only membership allows for the same thing–bringing in those fans on the fringe of the genre that might not take the risk of spending large amounts of money to attend a con that they know little about. But then again, I have no hope that things will change. People often need to be dragged kicking and screaming to something new. It’s nice to dream though.

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