NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 160, Winter, 2003.
MIKE: There’s some debate about whether the first convention was the 1939 Worldcon, or whether it occurred a year earlier when Don Wollheim, Cyril Kornbluth and a few other New York fans took a train to Philadelphia to meet a handful of Philly fans. (The total number of fans that got together came to 12, but if you read the fannish history books, most of them insist that it was a convention, and pre-dates the Worldcon.)
Worldcon wasn’t exceptionally prepossessing at the outset. NYCon I drew 200 attendees in 1939. You have to move ahead all the way to Portland in 1950 to find a larger attendance, and it fell below 200 again in 1951, which is a roundabout way of suggesting that not a lot business got done at the early conventions for the simple reason that hardly anyone showed up at them.
That is demonstrably not the case today. Worldcons tend to range from 4,500 to 9,000 attendees; even the foreign ones regularly top 3,000. World Fantasy Convention draws almost as many pros, editors and publishers as Worldcon, just a lot less fans. The Nebula Weekend usually draws a few hundred people who are intricately involved in the field. Conventions all around the country—Boskone, Westercon, Windycon, Balticon, Lunacon, and others—regularly top 1,000 attendees.
Obviously a lot of business gets done at conventions. But there are a lot of writers who hardly ever attend, and they still make a living. So there are clearly two sides to the issue.
Now, it just so happens that I’ve attended more than 30 Worldcons, and perhaps 150 other conventions. You have attended one of the last 19 Worldcons, and rarely attend conventions more than a couple of hundred miles from your home, on those infrequent occasions that you attend them at all.
I make no secret of the fact that I try to line up the following year’s business at Worldcon. You clearly have done no business at at least 18 of the last 19 Worldcons. As a writer and anthology editor, I’ve assigned, bought and sold dozens, perhaps hundreds, of stories at smaller cons. I rather suspect you haven’t.
Okay, we each hold diametrically opposite positions, we’ve each been working in the field for more than a third of a century, and neither of us has filed for bankruptcy yet, so it might be interesting to compare and contrast our views on this subject.
Be my guest.
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BARRY: You’re right. I’ve attended one World Convention in the last 19 years (Philadelphia 2001) and a total of four, one of which (New York 1967) might be called a Special Guest & Flee attendance. I met Judith Merril and Isaac Asimov, watched a legendary SF pro — whose name I shall suppress — invite 10 people to dine with him, and then run out on the bill; and generally had a wonderful time for two hours. Kept me away from the Worldcon until Boston in 1980, that did. (I know that your own thoughts on the 1967 World Convention are even less affectionate than mine.)
Hasn’t seemed to hurt me in any professional sense, this non- attendance. On the other hand you never miss that which you never see and it was at that 1980 Noreascon that I sold Engines of the Night; in Baltimore at 1983 I was able to bridge the gap with Judy-Lynn del Rey and sold her The Remaking of Sigmund Freud a month later. (I sold nothing in Philadelphia but then I wasn’t trying.) My advice to every nascent science fiction and fantasy writer for the last thirty years has been “Get to the World Science Fiction Convention if it is anywhere in your neighborhood or at all financially practicable.” This provides the quickest access to editors, to writers at all stages of development and (through the panels) to some real sense of the market. I’d call the experience irreplaceable. I was able to make my way around and about the World Convention (or even local Conventions; it was Lunacon in the Spring every year between l972 and l984 and that was about it) but I lived in or near New York, still do, was able to connect with the editors who could help me, had a strong sense of the market. (Worked at Scott Meredith for that matter, the most important factor of all.) If I had not been in the Metropolitan area I don’t think I could have done whatever I managed without regularly attending at least two of the major conventions a year—the Worldcon and one of the major regionals like NorWesCon, Balticon, Boskone, etc. Part of that True Unwritten History Of Science Fiction is how much of it has been sold through direct contact between writers and editors (who were likely to switch roles or occupy both roles often enough). More than half of it, I would guess.
So in the area of Career Advancement that is my opinion. That leaves out (and probably all for the best) the social advantages or disadvantages of convention attendance: the friendships, the hatreds, the late-night parties, the early-day parties, the feuds, the passion, the sex! More of all of this per capita than one would find at a Democratic National Convention and you’ll find plenty of it there. (And not nearly as much mean-spiritedness and a much more interesting program.) But if you’re thinking of attending the conventions only for the fun of it, career or business considerations being of no account, then I would suggest that there is as much fun available elsewhere although not more talk of science fiction.
In relation to conventions I find myself eager to go and—after about six hours—eager to leave. Mr. Bad News and Mr. Good News, a package deal “I’m always early at the dinner party but then again I’m among the earliest to go.” You’ve tried nobly for a long time to show me how to (apart from all professional considerations) enjoy the conventions; I am a singularly poor, if not ungrateful, student.
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MIKE: Well, as the advocate of doing business at conventions, I suppose the first thing I should do is explain which conventions (and why), and a couple of ground rules for going about it.
There are three major conventions that most of the editors and publishers attend: Worldcon, World Fantasy Con, and Nebula Weekend. I know a lot of pros prefer the smaller, more intimate atmosphere of the latter two (I disagree for esoteric reasons that have nothing to do with this dialogue), but for doing business, there’s simply no comparison: Worldcon is by far the best venue.
For one thing, it’s much the longest. Worldcon is officially five days—Thursday through Labor Day (or, overseas, Wednesday through Sunday). But these days, almost everyone gets there on Wednesday, and probably a third to half the attendees are there by Tuesday night, and stay until the Tuesday after Labor Day. For the pro who is not in great demand, who isn’t fighting editors off with a stick but actually would like to sit down and talk to some editors, that gives him a whole week to make contact. World Fantasy is three days, four at the outside, and Nebula weekend is really just two if it’s in New York (those hotel rates!), three elsewhere.
Second, Worldcon is huge. It draws thousands. World Fantasy tries to limit attendance to 750, and Nebula weekend rarely draws as many as 350. Furthermore, Worldcon has parties. Lots of parties. Maybe 75 of them going on simultaneously Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.
Why is that a good thing? Simple. It spreads people out, and it spreads editors out. The problem with World Fantasy Con is that of those 750 attendees maybe 500 or so are professionals: writers, editors, artists, publishers—about the same total that you’ll find outnumbered 10 to 1 at Worldcon. But since there are hardly any fans at World Fantasy (and none at the Nebulas), there aren’t 75 or 50 or 25 parties a night. There are one or two, given by publishers. That means you’ve got 300 to 500 hungry writers (no, not for food) crowded into a suite with a handful of editors and barely enough room to inhale and exhale. Have you ever tried to have a private conversation under such circumstances, or talk a little business without dozens of competitors being able to overhear, join in, and try to steal your precious Audience of One?
So I think its size and its duration both favor Worldcon for doing business.
There are other considerations, as well. You don’t really want to sit down in the lobby or coffee shop of the convention hotel to discuss business with an editor. It’s too public, too accessible. Every time you start to deal, fans will walk up and interrupt to ask you for an autograph, or pros will come up and strike up a conversation with your editor, which precludes her doing business with you. So the trick is to get the editor off the premises, preferably for a meal. Now, most editors are reluctant to leave the hotel for a couple of hours during a 48-hour Nebula weekend, or even a 72-hour World Fantasy weekend . . . but a few hours out of a week-long Worldcon? Most of them (and most of us) are thrilled to get away for a little while.
Other advantages? Well, I defy you to find any convention room that costs as much as a room in midtown Manhattan, where you’ll likely stay if you go to New York to visit editors. And very few convention meals cost what a Manhattan meal will cost if you’re not being treated by an editor (and how many of them are available to treat for breakfast or dinner?)
And still more. If you’re dealing with the small presses for reprints, collections, non-fiction, or whatever, you’ll never find as many small press editors and publishers assembled anywhere else as at Worldcon and World Fantasy Con (in that order).
And more again. The odds are about 20-to-1 that your agent (assuming you have one) will be at Worldcon . . . so if a deal is offered, it can be negotiated right there on the spot, before the editor or publisher has time to go home and have second thoughts. (Yes, most agents will be at World Fantasy and the Nebulas as well, but it’s almost impossible to pitch a project, get it accepted, and have an agent negotiate it, all in 48 or 72 hours.)
And yet more. The only time I’ve seen foreign editors and agents in any number is at Worldcon. There’s no better time or less expensive way to meet them.
And another thing. You’ll find more foreign fans—and translators—at Worldcon than anywhere else. And frequently they are the ones who will petition (well, nothing as formal as that; substitute “nag”) a publisher in their country to buy the rights to your books. I’d guess that translators are responsible for almost as many foreign sales as editors. Worldcon is the perfect place to meet and befriend them at your leisure.
At Worldcon you’re not trying to cram everything into two or three days, and just being able to sit down and visit with people you want to do business with is a proper prelude to actually doing the business. You’re not as rushed, things aren’t as frantic, you have time for some social amenities, and believe it or not, social amenities are noted, appreciated, and remembered.
I think the only other cons I’d recommend for trying to do business (unless, of course, you know a certain editor is going to show up at Podunkcon because his mother lives there, or some such thing) would be Boskone and Lunacon. There are bigger cons, but those seem to be the two regional conventions (the three I mentioned before are all national or international) that draw at least a handful of editors and publishers.
So how about it? On those rare occasions that you actually show up at Worldcon or the Nebulas, do you just schmooze with friends or do you actually try to do a little business? Or is one of the reasons we’re on opposite sides of the fence here the fact that you work in Manhattan and can see editors whenever you want, and I live a thousand miles away in Cincinnati?
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BARRY: NorWesCon in Seattle used to draw a huge crowd of New York editors and the annual Philcon has in my time always done the same, so Lunacon and Boskone hardly have the sub-Worldcon monopoly on doing business. Balticon and Discon similarly are both close enough to and far away from New York to make them provocative and I would think that some business gets done there. (I have no firsthand experience; I’ve never been to either.) And of course the Massachusetts Readercon in July attracts about 400 attendees and 20-30 editors, not a bad ratio and with programming centered on so-called sercon matters it is possible to live the illusion for a little while that Science Fiction Rules The World. (Rumsfeld and Spielberg probably feel that way all the time.)
My own experience with Conventions is obviously atypical of most professional writers and hardly functions as a working model. I don’t particularly like them, I don’t do much business there (above I mentioned sales initiated at the Boston and Baltimore World Conventions but these constitute the only business or pre-business I have ever contracted at any Convention) and I find myself becoming uncomfortable early and often.
The wonderful and terrible enclosure of the Convention, at least the science fiction Convention, is that it destroys time. I have written of this. By staying at one fixed point—hotel bar or lobby, Con Suite or the largest panel room—one may live the amalgamation of one’s life, a sudden and terrible (and occasionally stricken) phenomenon. Past this fixed point swirls last year’s editor and the enemies of one’s youth, various centers of sexual yearning or more than yearning, some from the deep past, some from the not-so-deep past, all of them gathering, making intersection. In the old days one could see three or four of one’s wives zooming in perspective like aspects of the Doppler Effect. When science fiction was a compact field it was possible in the hermetic world of the Convention to indeed live that synchronicity of past, present and future which has made science fiction such a wonderful outlet for some of us.
This phenomenon of collapsed time may have very little to do with the making of business and then again it may have a great deal; certainly it intensifies the editorial process. Novel and anthology proposals can be floated through three or six markets in a night. (Other processes may also be intensified and accelerated but this is a very solemn Dialogue for a solemn and business-oriented audience and there is no need to verge into that area.) Careers can bloom in a weekend. Multi-book contracts can explode like time-delayed photographs of flowers blooming. Everything happens more quickly at Conventions; even slow is quick in those forests of the night.
Apart from business, Conventions can be addictive. Professional careers which have bloomed there can also be dissipated or destroyed. I know that you spend most of your free time at Conventions being a Fan but you are no less a pro for all of that. Tell some stories, Mike. Discuss X, Y and Z. Explain how Z (a wonderful, paradigmatic example) could be said to have Lost It At Conventions as definitively as Pauline Kael Lost It At The Movies.
We’re all waiting.
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MIKE: Sorry. I do anecdotes as a Toastmaster, not as half of a dialogue.
Quick update for you: NorWesCon doesn’t draw the New York editors any more. Neither does Balticon—certainly not in enough quantity to justify flying in to schmooze with them, anyway. As for Disclave (which is the con you meant; Discon was the name for the 1963 and 1974 Worldcons), I don’t think it even exists any more; I know they had to cancel it after that incident where some bondage freaks—not fans, though the hotel refused to acknowledge that fact—hung a (willing) girl from a sprinkler nozzle, after which the pipe burst inside the ceiling and flooded out a couple of floors before they could get to it. (Okay, you got an anecdote out of me after all.)
I’m sure all the tales of sex and ex-wives and such are fascinating, and Lord knows plenty of writers mention such things in their memoirs, some ad nauseum, but they really don’t have much to do with the subject at hand, which is: are conventions useful in the pursuit of your profession?
Well, so far I’ve pretty much used the standard definition of editors—someone who edits a line of books or a magazine for a particular publisher—but there is another type of editor you’ll find at conventions, and that is the freelance anthology editor. He often looks just like you or me. In fact, he occasionally is you or me.
I think just being present and alive will result in an occasional sale. If you’re an editor who is putting together an anthology, there are a couple of hundred qualified pros to choose from—and it’s a lot easier to see one you know at a con and invite him than to go home, hunt up addresses, write letters of invitation, discuss money and deadlines, and wait for a reply. (No, it’s not difficult at all; it’s just not as easy as inviting someone face-to-face—someone who might have slipped your mind until you encounter him at a con. And of course you encounter more writers—and, the flip side of the coin, more editors—at a Worldcon than anywhere else.)
As an editor, I’ve probably assigned over 200 stories at conventions. Mostly at Worldcons since that’s where most of the writers are, but also at World Fantasy Con, Nebula weekend, Rivercon, Tropicon, Lunacon, Windycon, Armadillocon, and a handful others, including the one I most recently attended two months ago in San Diego.
Okay, off with one hat, on with the other. I just checked my records, and found that in the past decade, I have received 27 short fiction assignments at cons (mostly Worldcons, for all the reasons already mentioned), have sold two regular columns at cons, and have sold 8 articles at cons. I won’t count books, because while I certainly pitch and discuss books at cons, and I’d guess that 90% of my book sales are initiated at cons, I’ve never officially concluded a mass market book deal at a con, since at some vital point my agent steps in and does the negotiating. (Although I have concluded a trio of small-press deals, one at a Windycon, two at Worldcons.)
Conventions are the very best places for new writers to make contact with editors, to put themselves forward, to make a lasting (and hopefully favorable) impression. And again on the flip side, cons are equally good places for anthology editors to meet new writers, sound them out, and see which of them they’d most like to work with.
So I think I’ll ask again: do you think you avoid all this at least partially because you work in Manhattan and see too damned much of the editors without going afield to conventions to see them yet again? Or would you prefer to destroy my premises with a brilliant and incisive piece of logic?
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BARRY: “Brilliant and incisive logic” is beyond me, at least in relation to Conventions.
Commentary, I guess, is not. For instance, the Lunacon, held in midtown New York City for all of its decades, moved to the Sheraton at Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey sometime around 1980 and was there for five or six years. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t there any more, it moved to Rye, New York where it has now been for almost a couple of decades. The reason for the sudden transfer to Westchester had to do with the energetic couple who one of the hotel staff found enthusiastically collaborating in a stairwell . . . their shrieks of satisfied collaboration and general athleticism permeated the stairwell and the ears of other cleaning staff who had looked in on the party. Sheraton’s management for reasons I cannot possibly discern became rather stuffy about the event and ordered the Lunacon out.
And then of course there were the series of fire alarms at a huge Boskone sometime in the 1980’s (attendance at this regional had leapt to an almost uncontrollable three or four thousand) which emptied rooms, put people in corridors and outside the premises not once but three or four times on one February night, leading the Boskone to downscale suddenly and severely. Attendance figures have never gotten to that level again which all seem to agree is a damned good thing. (The identity of the alarmists was of course never deduced but as always the Convention staff blamed it on other guests. You know those riotous hardware and banking people, they’ll do it everywhere.)
So I have a couple of anecdotes too although in neither case first hand. (Hasbrouck Heights’ Sheraton was very much in my neighborhood but I was staying out of stairwells then and for the immediate future.) In the old days which aren’t so very old at all Conventions were far more raucous than they are now. “The only reason I go to these things,” the author of a dozen science fiction novels and at least as many short stories said to me in the early l980’s “Is for the sexual stuff.” (I am euphemizing what he said; I am sure that no one will mind.) While the science fiction convention even in its long-departed heyday could never compete with the MLA or State Police conventions for sheer expanse of unprintability, it certainly had its remarkable aspects. I could add some more secondhand information but I will not. This is a businesslike Dialogue and I am a gent of some advanced and perilous age.
I don’t go to Conventions, mostly, because they bring on a fight-or-flight reaction and I am indeed of too advanced and perilous age to do the former and find the latter somewhat circular . . . I mean, if I’m going to flee almost as soon as I enter the hotel or at least struggle with the impulse to flee, why go there at all? I have never had to transact business at Conventions, indeed the fact that I live in the New York City area and can see editors easily enough (mostly I did and do not) makes the Convention unnecessary; I have clearly missed some foreign sales or contacts by not attending the Worldcons but the first and second Law(s) Of Freelancing are that you do not miss what you never had.
If you lived in New York or its environs—perish the thought, I know—would you attend as many Conventions as you have? Or would you do your editorial business in Manhattan, attend almost every Worldcon because you love them, and otherwise let it all go?
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MIKE: I’m not provincial enough to live in New York. I believe that real live people of real merit live between the coasts, so I’m disqualified right there. But in answer to your question, even if I were forced by a malicious deity to live in the New York area, I’d still prefer to do my business in the friendlier and more relaxed atmosphere of Worldcons.
When I was younger and hungrier and less established, I used to fly to New York a couple of times a year to meet editors and hawk my wares, and yes, it worked. But even then I preferred to meet with them at Worldcon. I always felt that every hour I spent with them in their offices meant they would have to take home an extra hour’s worth of reading and editing that they didn’t get done during the workday. At cons, they’re more relaxed, as am I, and their way is paid by their publishers for the express purpose of meeting and courting writers. I just find it a more congenial atmosphere—not that every editor wasn’t congenial in New York, but there was always that knowledge that they had a hundred tasks waiting for them the instant I left their offices.
Okay, I see by the word-count on the wall that it’s time for your summing-up.
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BARRY: Here is my summing up . . . if I were trying now to get started, perish the thought and hush your mouth, I would force myself to attend at least four conventions a year—the Worldcon of course, the World Fantasy Convention and two major regionals. I’d also get to the Nebula banquet every other year, going to that banquet which involved less travel. But I’d go. I’d go because I see no alternative now; it may be possible to make a career from a post office box and through judicious one-on-one meetings with editors in New York, but it is extremely difficult; you’d have to be better than good, and the editors when in New York, as you so properly point out, aren’t so thrilled to see you most of the time unless you’re Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov (who aren’t likely to be showing up any time soon).
You’d probably correct me on the Nebula banquet and the World Fantasy Convention—too many professional or close-to-professional writers, too much competition for the attention of the editors. Hard to capture the attention of editors at those functions when they are outnumbered by the writers fifty to one. But I’d still recommend them because there’s a lot of market information going around, a lot of collegiality, and there are now so many writers commissioning stories for anthologies (as have you over the past decade) that just hanging tight with your colleagues can produce enough leads and possible assignments to cover the expense.
I see Conventions now as integral to the plans of anyone trying to start a serious or even a part-time career in science fiction. It’s always been an insular field, nepotistic and clannish as the New York State Legislature; now, when there are so many competent writers fighting desperately for shrinking space (and after the franchise work and the series and the fantasy trilogies are all booked, the available space for new science fiction by new writers has been sharply reduced in the book market as well as the devastated situation for magazines) you need, at the beginning or even the early middle, every bit of advantage to be found. That means the Convention circuit. (It may also mean Workshops but that’s another column and there we ran the issue pretty well to ground.)
Conventions are a business necessity; they can also be a great deal of fun. I’ve managed to find five or ten minutes of such at every convention I’ve attended and you, a merrier and far more congenial soul, can find five or ten days worth of fun in any three-day weekend. There are worse places to be. Isaac Asimov, writing of the Cleveland World Convention of l955, called Conventions “three days of heaven carved from necessity.” Not my idea of Heaven but I can understand his position and if I had been or was Isaac Asimov I’d feel the same way.
In fact, next time around I am going to be smart. I am going to be Isaac Asimov. I don’t think anyone had more fun being himself than our late, great friend (well, maybe Arthur C. Clarke) and Isaac was never more himself than in company. He attended Conventions because he loved them. And for those I advise to find them in early career: you can learn to love them, too.
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MIKE: A quick observation: editors are thrilled to see you if you visit them at lunchtime, because then you both go out to lunch on the publisher’s nickel. It’s damned expensive to eat in Manhattan if no one’s picking up the tab.
I think Worldcon is the one essential convention for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but I agree, the more national and regional conventions you can go to, the more market information you’ll pick up—and as we know from prior dialogues, 95% of all anthologies are by invitation only and don’t openly solicit contributions. Much the same is true of any new publishing venture: magazine, specialty press, even (occasionally) mass market book house.
As for enjoying conventions, I’m on Isaac’s side. I look forward to Worldcon like a kid looks forward to Christmas, and if I average 4 hours sleep a night during Worldcon week, that’s a lot. But as much as I love seeing old friends and attending parties and browsing the huckster room, I never forget what I’m there for: this is, when all is said and done, a business convention. The fact that it’s the most pleasant business venue around in no way alters the fact that it’s also the most productive.
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About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.