The 21st century SF/F professional at Conventions

November 6, 2012

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Lynne M. Thomas was the Apex Magazine editor-in-chief for 24 issues (30-53).

I became a professional at SF/F conventions through a retro route; I started as a fan. For years, my husband and I attended conventions (mostly media), went to panels, attended parties, collected autographs, and made friends with fans, conrunners, and pros. (Part of our honeymoon was at a Xena convention.) I was a part of a community, one that gave me a found-family and acceptance for my daughter with severe disabilities. I wrote about this, especially my marvelous experiences at the Chicago TARDIS Doctor Who convention, in my essay for Chicks Dig Time Lords.

Based on my fannish experiences at media conventions, I began attending general SF/F conventions, specifically to speak with authors as part of my SF/F librarian-archivist mission. I realized that many contemporary writers were not being archived at other institutions. When you ask people for their literary papers, it’s an easier, more effective conversation to have in person.

Authors attend conventions specifically to talk face-to-face to their readers, potential readers, and other professionals; it’s the perfect opportunity to chat, as they have already committed their time and energy to being publicly available. Over time, I talked to authors… and editors, fans, convention runners, and dealers. They welcomed me with open arms as a professional librarian and as a fan, and when I began editing, the community’s response was even warmer, if that’s possible.

I’ve transitioned into a more traditional SF/F professional role through my editorial work on The Geek Girl Chronicles and this magazine. While wearing all of these hats, I’ve volunteered as a panelist and was even a Guest of Honor at CONvergence in 2011.

I am deeply grateful to have made some wonderful friends here.

I’m here as an active member of this community, to connect with other people, including fans of my work, readers, and colleagues. I volunteer for panels at conventions to give back to this amazing community that has given me so much, both personally and professionally.

Nonetheless, when I attend an SF/F convention, I’m working. I’m representing some aspect of my professional life: my library and/or university, The Geek Girls Chronicles books, Apex Magazine, or the SF Squeecast. Often, all of the above.

So that’s why seeing friction between the conrunning community and some of the attending professionals bothers me so much. I realize that many of the pros didn’t follow the same path as me or the pros of previous generations. They didn’t first come as fans. Many are there because others told them that this was a good way to sell their books or network (there’s an entire other-essay about that subject).

I’d like to see some of that friction dissipate. I believe that the best way to accomplish this is by starting a strong dialogue between the pros and conrunners. My friend Steven H Silver penned an essay in this issue that covers things from the viewpoint of a programming head. I want to give the other side of the story. Many of these lessons I learned as a fan, and they then evolved as my roles changed.

I think it’s important to remember that we (both fan convention runners and SF/F professionals) are nearly all volunteers at any given convention.

We should attend conventions because we love this community, and we want to add something to it. If you don’t enjoy participating in this specific community, it’s okay to not attend. The Internet has given us numerous avenues to interact and network without attending SF/F conventions.

The folk running conventions are almost always unpaid volunteers. They give up nights, weekends, time and energy, to put together a fun event that is open to the public. When I attend the conventions that they run, I do the same: I volunteer to appear as an SF/F professional and participate in panels. I was able to become part of this community because people were warm and welcoming. It’s an important contribution to the convention culture for me to turn around and exhibit the same behavior when I meet new people.

This is a symbiotic relationship between two groups of volunteers. We need each other to make a great convention. And that is the goal, right?

Here’s what I expect as a professional, who often volunteers to do panels, reading, signings, and workshops at conventions. (I understand that mistakes will be made by both sides. The important thing is that we all attempt to achieve these ideals.)

1. Common courtesy should be the rule. Just as the attendance of authors first drew me to attend conventions, conventions use my name (among the other professionals in attendance) to draw attendees to the convention. If you don’t know my work, that’s fine. It never hurts to be courteous anyway; you can always Google me later.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate. If something about my schedule, attending professional status, or the availability of my work in the dealers’ room changes, please tell me.

3. Recognize that doing panels is work. It takes preparation, thought, energy, and expertise to do panels well. If being really entertaining in front of an audience was easy, everyone would do it. That goes double for moderating panels (which I do quite often).

4. Recognize that I, too, am paying to be at this convention.  Unless I’m one of the Guests of Honor, I’m spending money to be here: on travel, lodging, food, and registration if I’m not eligible to have it reimbursed or comped. Writers and editors are often freelancers. When I’m attending conventions, here’s what I’m not doing: billable writing or editing to earn money. Nor am I doing any of the following: relaxing, spending time with my family, or performing upkeep on my house and yard. Travel, logistics, and being away from home take their toll.

5. My convention experience matters, too. Make me feel welcome. Just go back to number 1, and, if you have the resources and inclination, add some fun and silliness, or genuine warmth. I talk up the conventions that I love the most, both online and off, to anyone who will listen. That means more attendees, both fan and professional.

6. Make me feel safe when I’m there. Have a public, visible code of conduct in place that ensures that everyone follows the rules of common courtesy in addition to local laws. Take reports seriously. Enforce your code of conduct as written. Amidst the fun of Klingon Karaoke or BarCon, the rules and laws that apply in the “real world” still apply at conventions. As they should; many of us (including me) are still at work.

Here’s what conventions can expect of me when I’m in attendance and participating in panels:

1. Common courtesy in all dealings with me.

2. Clear communication. If there is a problem, I will do my best to communicate it directly, clearly, politely, and succinctly to someone who can do something about it. While I may check with friends or colleagues to see if their experience matches mine, I will do so privately, and maintain communication with the convention.

3. I happily provide bios or fill out programming questionnaires, indicating the areas in which I’d be a useful panelist. I expect that effort to not go to waste. I will decline any panel assignments where I didn’t express interest in the panel, or I don’t have enough expertise or interest in the panel topic to warrant taking up a slot that others could better fill.

4. Preparation and punctuality. I will do my best to meet programming deadlines before the convention wherever feasible. If I miss deadlines, I don’t expect to be placed on panels (although if it works out anyhow, that’s great). At the convention, I will be on time and prepared for my panels. My panel commentary will be germane to the topic at hand, and, hopefully, entertaining as well.

Conventions are a great opportunity to connect in person and to celebrate our community. We work, we network, we play, we greet old friends and new.

And isn’t that the point?

© Lynne M. Thomas

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  1. Kay Shapero

    Speaking as a longtime convention staff volunteer, I appreciate this. Thank you! One more thing that should probably be made clear to the newbie pro – sf fandom has never really been about “the performers” and “the audience”. Much of what attracted me to it in the first place in fact was the chance to DO lots of entertaining things from singing and writing filks, fanzine creation, costuming (I love the modern term “cosplay” for this), rolegaming, sitting on panels of stuff I’m familiar with, and so forth. Hanging out with fellow engineers for all hours in the con suite. And this works both ways – the PRO is allowed to do all this fun stuff too if he/she wants to. Yes, a certain amount of care is required if you’re a Big Name, but in general it’s a far more egalitarian setup than you’re apt to see at any other sort of convention. Whatever else you came for, be sure to have FUN.

    • Lynne Thomas


      Thanks for your comment. This is indeed true (especially for me), but the point I’m getting at is that there are also pros who have little to no interest in those fannish aspects of conventions, and that’s okay. They are there to give their time, interact with their readers, and promote their work.

      Even if they don’t join the party, they add to the convention experience, and we shouldn’t penalize them for not being part of the party.

      As both Steven and I said, the expectation at that point is a two-way street. Con-runners working with non-fannish pros and the pros themselves need to collaborate to make this ongoing professional relationship a positive experience.

      • Kay Shapero

        Well of course – being allowed to do something is not the same as being required to do it.

    • Lynne Thomas


      Thank you for this. I was indeed aware of Brenda’s piece.

      While I agree that there is a long history and lots of culture behind science fiction conventions (and, as a professional archivist, I am personally working towards documenting at least a portion of that history), not every SF/F professional will be aware of that history, or care to learn about it if it doesn’t meet their professional needs. While in the early days of SF/F, professionals often (possibly even predominantly) came out of the ranks of fandom, that is simply no longer true. Many current SF/F pros have no history of convention attendance before they are told by an agent/publisher/colleague that they should attend one to promote their work. Many, of course, may end up embracing the fannish community, but others may have no interest in being there for anything other than professional reasons.

      And that needs to be treated as valid and a reasonable choice.

      Lack of historical knowledge of conventions should not preclude having a reasonably positive convention experience. A professional having a good experience (even if they are not particularly fannish) at a con is still hugely important. How do we expect them to want to embrace our community if they don’t feel welcomed?

      These non-fannish professionals still add a lot to the convention experience for the attendees, as fascinating panelists and by engaging their readers at readings and signings. If they don’t feel welcomed and stop attending, I feel that guts an important part of the convention experience for attendees.

  2. Ronald Searby

    The other thing that most people, both professional, and volunteer
    tend to forget, is that we all have our good days, and we all have
    our bad days. Once again, clear open communication is the key.
    Just let people know that you are not having a good day, and it has
    nothing to do with them or the convention your at, and the other person just accepting it for just that. Or if it is an issue with these, you speak directly to the individual that can make the difference.
    One of the Security guys from Chicago Tardis

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