View Full Version : Convention Drama - Why?

Cathy C
06-13-2015, 11:50 PM
So I recently changed my attendance at one book convention this summer for another and came to find out that there’s a bit of a controversy among conventions lately that is making me sad, because I like both kinds of conventions. Since I’ve actually put together and run conventions in the past, I have a unique insight into the process that makes me surprised that the fight is even happening. Usually, con organizers sort of band together into an exhausted heap in the corner of the bar and celebrate each other’s success.

For the sake of discussion, let’s call them "Sponsored Cons" and "Indie Cons". A Sponsored Con is one which is organized and put on by a group or business of some kind, using the staff of the business as the staff of the convention. So, when (for example) the Texas Bar Association puts together their annual convention, they’re using both the staff of the association, along with volunteers from among the membership, to do the work. An Indie Con is . . . well, “indie.” It’s put on by a group of dedicated volunteers who really want to put together a bunch of like-minded people to do something they all love. A lot of regional book conventions are Indie Cons. It’s a group of book lovers in some genre (SF and Romance are notable for doing Indie Cons) that want to put together a bunch of readers and have them meet authors to talk about books. It’s a wonderful goal, but along the way, the BUSINESS of conventions can turn ugly. So, for all of you reader and author types, I thought it would be good to put together the anatomy of a convention so you stay in awe of the people who manage to make the magic happen, and are nice to them when you run into them.

Whether Sponsored Con or Indie Con, they all start the same way. The convention head(s) sit down and decide some basic things: Where to hold the convention, how long it’s going to be, and what authors do they want to bring in. Let’s say they decide the following in June, 2015:

*It’s going to be a weekend con (because everyone they want to invite has to work a day job), so Saturday and Sunday only, and they want it to be this September, because it’s good weather.
*They want to hold it in, let’s say, New York City (because there are LOTS of readers there!)
*They want to bring in a whole bunch of SF/F authors, including NYT and USAT authors.

They get excited and one of the group starts to call hotels. Here’s the conversation:

Con Staff: “Hi, we’d like to have a convention at your hotel!”
Hotel: “Great. Let me get the event planner on the line for you.”
[Pleasant hold music...]
Hotel: “Hi, this is the event planner. You want to set up a convention? Great. When are you thinking?”
Con Staff: “September. Maybe mid-month.”
Hotel: “Okay, I’ve got mid-month in September in 2017.”
Con Staff: “Um . . . no, for September of this year.”
Hotel: [as soon as laughing ceases] Um, I’m sorry. We book conventions at least two years out. Our first available date is February of 2017.
Con Staff: “Oh. Bummer. Okay, well, thanks.”

The same conversation goes on for 15 more rounds (or more, if they’re really determined), until all hotels in the surrounding 100 miles has been called, with no bites. However, one upstate hotel is available for March of 2016, which, the con staff decides might not be too bad. It’s sort of pretty then, if it’s not too slushy or buried in snow. But no, it’s shot down because nobody wants to have to make the readers all take the train. “FINE! We’ll wait until 2017" (which is actually a good thing, they’ll discover soon.)

They call back the original hotel and get the same event planner.

Con Staff: “Okay, we’ll take mid-September of 2017.”
Hotel (who we’ll presume was nice and blocked it anyway until the end of the day.): “Great. How many people will be attending?”
Con Staff: “Well, see, we really don’t know. This is our first year.”
Hotel: [after long pause] “Well, we really need to sort that out pretty quick. We need to know how many meeting rooms, how big your block of guest rooms will be, how many dinners and parties you’ll want. We require a minimum of three nights for conventions at the reduced rate.”
Con Staff [thinking that people will probably want to fly in the day before anyway for the con]: “Oh, we want it to be BIG! Let’s plan for all your meeting rooms for the weekend, and at least 200 rooms for Thursday, Friday and Saturday.”
Hotel: [Planner’s voice now very happy]: Terrific! Come on over and I’ll give you a tour and we’ll get the contracts signed.”
Con Staff: “Contracts...?”

Those of you who have organized conventions that are reading this are :roll: right now, because you know what’s about to happen. For those of you who have never organized a con, let me explain:

When you sign up to attend a convention and there’s a “block of convention rooms” those rooms are GUARANTEED by the con staff to be paid—whether or not anyone is actually in them. Those 200 rooms someone in the staff spouted off, at $149.00 a night (which is damned cheap!) must be paid for three nights. So $149 x 200 = $3,000 x 3 nights = $9,000 that the con organizers had better come up with lickety-split. Without a sponsor, (and depending on the contract) it’s the actual organizing people who have to pay for them. :eek:

Let’s move on to meeting rooms. Every room comes with a price tag. Every microphone (“AV equipped”) comes with a price tag. Every table comes with a price tag, every bit of food or drink or container of water comes with a price tag. Oh, you want to serve liquor at a party? No problem. The “cash bar” only buys the liquor. It doesn’t include the set-up, break-down, clean-up and bartender rate that the Con Staff has to pay. Or you can pay full rate for top shelf drinks and the set-up, etc. are “thrown in” for the $10+ per drink. Pfft! Pretty soon, the Indie Con Staff is swimming in potential debt and they’d best scramble to get butts in those rooms.

This is why you’ll often have Indie Cons encourage authors to sponsor bags, badges, parties and events. I was, for example, one of the sponsors for a large evening fancy ball at a romance con for several years. The Con provided the room, but the sponsors (i.e., authors) did the details. All the decorations, all the party favors, all the giveaways, the FOOD— it wasn’t the attendees footing the bill, despite buying a meal ticket. The best the sponsors could hope for was that everyone would show up who signed up so all we had to pay for was the set-up, etc. Because the food gets bought whether or not someone shows up, and at $10-15 a plate, that cranks up the bucks pretty quick. I don’t mind telling you that I personally ate more than my share of desserts as I stared at empty seats in the room . . . just to sweeten the sting in my pocketbook when it was over. We did the set-up of the room, and the breakdown. We lugged decorations up back elevators and scrambled to find enough dollys to move chairs that never appeared when expected. We spread out tablecloths and rolled out extension cords and then raced to our rooms to look fresh and fabulous 10 minutes later when we were expected to meet guests. Then we were up until two in the morning putting everything back downstairs in the locked room before falling into bed. Think being a “sponsor” or “featured author” is a sweet gig that’s fully paid by attendees? :ROFL: Sponsoring sets me back more than my room and entry fee combined.

Your average attendee of a con isn’t the one who has to think about weird stuff like how many outlets a particular room has, or whether there are sufficient tables for a five author panel to sit at the front of a room. Or fire code issues for the big book signing room, or lack of Wifi or radio signals where the Con operations center is located.

Now, Sponsored Cons just have a budget that’s pulled from a convention budget of the annual dues, so that when combined with the convention fee, takes care of everything. Indie Cons? Not so much. I’m sort of surprised that Indie Cons survive past the first year, because they’re not money makers.

Then, there’s the needs of the various groups. Think about that for a moment:

[B]Readers want: Access to high-profile favorite authors, the newest books (especially advance copies!) Access to backlist of new authors they find, cheap food, cheap rooms, lots of freebies and convenient floor plan without a lot of walking. They want to bring in their own food, their own liquor, and walk out with an extra suitcase of goodies. And I don’t blame them. I want that too.

Authors want: Access to lots of readers, the ability to sell their self-pub books alongside their trade published books (if that’s an issue), discount on room, Green Room (or something similar where they can eat for free) and lots of panels to keep their name in the public’s mind. Again, I don’t blame them. I want that too!

So, we need BOOKS, and lots of them. So we need to find someone to bring in the books. A vendor/bookseller. But what do they want?

Booksellers want: Exclusive access to the readers purchasing power, no outside books brought from home which cuts into their potential profit. And realistically, they should require that because they’re having to order the stock, manage the checkout, pay the taxes, pay their staff overtime and then package and ship back any books not sold.

If the Con goes with Used Booksellers, then the traveling show can only bring what they can fit in their booth, and will generally only carry the featured or bestselling authors. There’s only so much room.

But people (both readers and authors) have come to expect a “Vendor Room” at conventions too, where they can buy cool stuff that’s book related—T-shirts, costumes, audio books, toys, games, jewelry, etc. Some bring tarot readers, or health food vendors, etc. All well and good, but again, management and money for the Con Staff for an extra large room. Fortunately, vendors who follow book conventions are pretty good at setting up in weird spots with few resources. Con staffs love them for that and invite the happy, easy-going ones back every time.

So hey, Sponsored Cons, give the Indie Cons a break. It’s HARD to organize a convention, even when the authors, readers and booksellers want one for specialized genres. It takes money and dedication and effort and sometimes hard choices have to be made to stay on budget without breaking a real person’s bank account. That’s not scamming, and not predatory. It’s the real business of the marketplace, and I applaud every small Indie Con who is wanting to set up a terrific experience for the people attending.

Next time any of you attend an Indie Con or Sponsored Con, take a few minutes to thank a staff person. Their job sucks for your benefit. If you’ve never been to a con, try to make it to one. The small cons really depend on new attendees. And please, don’t cheapskate it whenever you can. I know you can sleep at home, but even if you live in the town, spend at least one night at the hotel. Please? I know cons can be a budget-breaker, but plan to buy some meals at the hotel, or some meals at the parties thrown. Otherwise, there might not be a con next year. That would make me very sad, because how else are we authors going to meet you readers? :cry:

[end/ :Soapbox: ]

Thank you for listening. :)

06-14-2015, 12:10 AM
This is terrific, Cathy. I never knew how conventions came together and how complicated the organization of them could be. I'll be thinking about all of this the next time I attend a convention.

06-14-2015, 12:25 AM
This is not what I expected this thread to be about, and I'm glad to see that it's a helpful guide of what to expect for those folks arranging or attending new conventions

06-14-2015, 12:43 AM
Well said, Cathy. I've volunteered and/or presented at a number of writers cons -- usually on technology for writers or "getting tech right" in books. But my day job has me on tech staff, committees and presenting at 9-12 educational conferences a year. "organized panic" is a regular occurrence. ANYBODY who can full on organize one of these things is worth their weight in Spice.

Emily Winslow
06-17-2015, 02:32 PM
Wow, you've put things in a new light. Thanks for that.

Also, your calculation of the room costs is missing a zero: it's $90,000.00 that the organizers are guaranteeing, not $9000. Yikes!!