THE CON GAME – The Long Way Forward

Nothing I am going to write is new. None of it is revelatory. None of it will do more than cause a bubble in the ocean but all of it comes from someone at ground zero of the killing fields of convention life.

Anyone who knows me knows my record but I’ll restate it for the sake of credentials –

I have been vending at conventions on and off, since 1994.

Of those twenty-two years we’ll say five of them had no cons or shows of any sort.

I started as a ‘guest’ at the table of the publisher of a magazine some friends and I did and then moved on to having my own tables to sell my books and stories.

I also have vended at art shows and book shows.

I have put on arts and culture events since 2007.

I have put on a horror convention since 2011 with one year off, though we still did horror events.

Each year we’d do several events leading up to a convention or bigger show.

And I write.

So that’s me.

So when I say I have been around the convention scene for a minute, I mean more like three minutes, and that I have seen the front, back, and middle of the shows.

So there you are.

And here I am.

And where I am is in a place to see that the snake is devouring its own tail and that the convention industry is heading for a big, big fall.

Man it’s been a hell of a ride though.

If you are a genre fan (Which is sort of a catch all for anyone into horror, fantasy, or sci-fi and the many sub-genres therein) then this has been a very good time to be alive. The theaters and television is filled with genre fare. Zombies, aliens, ghost, vampires, Vikings, dragons, man alive, there’s something for everyone. Then you go to the theater and find more of the same. It’s been glorious. AND you can find merch for every obscure property you ever loved as well as amazing special editions of most of those same properties. Heck, we have even been given the begrudging respect of mainstream media, though it’s generally still full of judgment and derision. Even cosplayers, the ‘freaks’ of fandom are being embraced – finally – as the creative geniuses many are and not the shut-ins they are often portrayed as.

It’s a great time.

Heck, almost every weekend of the year you can head out – if you are willing to travel a little – and meet genre and pop culture heroes and villains and buy a house-worth of nerdy good stuff.

It’s amazing.


Because there is always a but.

We’re at the point over oversaturation and worse than that we’re at the point of market instability.

Let me explain.

Once upon a time it was hard to find a comic convention let alone a genre convention. You had to look long and hard to find them and when they did pop up they popped up once a year. It was a long wait but the wait was worth it. Then small shows popped up. Generally, these were comic shows where some stores would band together and sell comics and merch, bring in a few indie comic creators, and vendors would be stores, zine-creators, artists, writers, or anything that was in the outlying areas around comics. These shows were a great stop-gap for fans that couldn’t make it to bigger shows or couldn’t wait for them. OR for those cynical indie stalwarts that shook their fist at anything mainstream.

When I was a kid I went to two horror conventions and they made a huge impact on me. They were part of a bigger convention tour and only landed in the Detroit area twice but they were amazing. I have gone on and on about them so I won’t flashback to them now. They were impactful to a young teenage guy though that loved horror and had never even been to a comic con.

Thanks to the growth of the ‘nerd’ market, bolstered by a resurgence in superhero and comic properties as well as the resilience and persistence of horror and sci-fi fans, the market grew. Horror conventions appeared and spread and slowly super-conventions also grew and spread. The smaller shows that would offer five to ten guests became big conventions that offered fifteen, twenty, and more guests. With more guests there were more vendors. With more guests and vendors there were more fans. And for fans it was a hey-day. Suddenly the handful of guests that did the circuit, so-called ‘has-beens’, were joined by people that would never be seen at a convention were it not for the lure of the money. Where those on the circuit did shows to keep themselves in the minds of fans, and to make a little extra money when their careers weren’t as vibrant, the new blood and their management saw this as a way to really tap into a money vein none had really hit before and that’s the ‘nerd market’. People who are passionate about something, deeply passionate, FANS, in other words, want things connected to their passions. If it’s sports, or horses, or games, or movies, or whatever, people want that. It’s one of the things that we have that lets us create comfortable and happy environments. It’s part of our process of nesting. Birds want pretty baubles and in our way, so do we. We also want to interact and ‘touch’ the creators of what we love. We want to share with them our passion and have a keepsake. We want that autograph or picture, not because it means anything in the great picture but because it means we got to share a moment with someone we admired or whose work we admire. Is it sensible? NO! But life isn’t about sense, it’s about finding moments of bliss in a hurricane of madness. The story behind collectibles is often more interesting than the collectible itself but without the having the story isn’t as meaningful. Fans will pay for these things; boy will they pay. Suddenly more and more ‘name’ actors made their way to genre fare and to the convention circuit and with them there was a place for more conventions. People will spend money on their passions and hobbies and there was a lot of that money to be had.

Conventions have always been businesses but suddenly they had become BIG business, and bit by bit the smaller shows, the indie shows, died off.

It’s basic economics – It costs ‘X’ to put a show on. In order to afford ‘X’ and to do that show again you need to make ‘Y’. If you do not make ‘Y’ then you either close up shop or find sponsors, backers, or your own money to proceed. Even the smallest, most basic show requires a heady investment. There’s booking a venue, there’s booking guests, renting tables, promotion, materials for the show, food for guests, and so on and so on. Even a small show with local or regional talent can still run you much closer to a grand than not. Not that intimidating until you factor in that you have to price your show to sell – in example – If you are offering top tier talent and have rented a top tier venue then you must book as many vendors, for as much money as you are able to, and you still will need to charge fans a premium. You book the big guests and then pass the expense on to fans and vendors. That’s how this works. Vendors and ‘dealers’ – the comic shop or business owners – are there to make money, and since you have premium talent for fans to meet, you bank on there being a LOT of fans and that everyone will have an opportunity to make money. Build it and they will come. For a vendor small, local shows can go anywhere from $25 to $75 with the big shows, the ‘super-cons’ wanting $150 on the very low end and upwards of $350. That’s for a three-day show. Not ‘a lot’ until you look at the fact that most creators sell comics for, say $4 a piece, or books for $15 a piece, or art for around the same price. THEN it becomes a lot to sell. And you have to factor in that most average fans want to meet the stars and want to buy merch, not art, books, or comics. SOME do, for sure, but not all. So part of your market is already gone. Then you factor in that some shows charge fans to park but we’ll say they done. So a fan goes to a big show and will pay $20 on the low end and $35 on the high end to get into a convention. Then the guests will charge for photos or for autographs. Low end – $20, high end hundreds of dollars. Fans come with pockets of cash, real or virtual, but there’s only so much money one has. So if you spend $30 to get in, get say, three autographs, and maybe a piece of merch that’s easily around $200 they spent and they haven’t even made it to the vendors area yet. And that is the risk you take as a vendor. You know going in that out of say, 1,000 or more people that may attend the show only about half will give a darn about anything beyond guests, and of those you have to find the ones into what you do. THEN you have to sell. It’s not easy. It’s part of the deal, but it’s not easy.

But there’s only so much money.

It is a golden age of fandom and conventions but this golden age is on the edge of collapse.

Fans have caught on to the game and are growing more and more bitter at celebrities that act like they are slumming and are charging fans exorbitant amounts for that moment of interaction and a photo. Fans are tired of seeing children brought before them, children who even if they are in genre fare shouldn’t be at a show like a con – they are loud, weird, and fans can be a lot to handle with their ‘excitement’ – and then it’s weird to be paying them a bunch of cash to get their autograph. Throw in the collector’s market that already ruined the fun of just getting an autograph by flipping them so often that celebrities grew bitter about the whole scene, a bitterness that remains to this day. You have big shows competing with one another for the ‘name’ guests, so much so that they’ll petulantly refuse to work with guests who don’t appear when they are requested due to other obligations. You have more and more shows popping up that aim too high and end up collapsing under their own weight, only hurting fans and the industry in the long run. You have the growth of harassment to cosplayers from people who feel entitled to their behavior because they were paying customers and the cosplayers ‘shouldn’t have dressed that way’. You have vendors who can’t make their ‘table’ back, which means they don’t even make enough money to pay for themselves to be there. You have the older guests who are not as active with their careers being cast to the side in favor of ‘Background Actor #3’, who will charge money to sign things because they happened to be an extra on a genre show. You have artists blatantly ripping off or ‘re-imagining’ famous or not as famous artwork to sell at these shows.

Conventions have turned from something beautiful into a cash cow that is starting to go dry.

The rub is this – if the vendors cannot make money they they’ll stop doing shows. And while promoters and fans may say – so what? There’s other fish in the sea – the fact is that there will come a time when the only vendors you have will be cons looking to emulate whatever trend is hot – dwarves, boy, I just happen to have a dwarf book, and painting, and necklace – and not creating the next trends. You’ll have a superstore of pop-culture, which sounds swell until you realize you paid $50 to get in and park just to see the same stuff you can see at the mall or on Amazon. Vendors are the lifeblood of conventions. They spread the word about the good ones and the bad ones and they can be as big of a draw as any guest if you are lucky enough to get the right ones. And the thing about the ‘lower tier’ guests is that they are a part of the fabric of what made the genre what it is. Without those ‘has-beens’ many of the films and properties we love would never have existed because, well, the genres existed for more than five years.

As much fun as conventions are we have forgotten our roots. We have forgotten the small shows, the low-dough shows, and the shows that were about being a fan and not a collector. We have forgotten meeting that one person who was in that one movie that we loved. We have forgotten discovering an artist or comic creator that showed us a world we’d never have seen in the mainstream. We have forgotten that these were once put on by fans and not business people. We forgot that this was once about sharing your passion with other fans and interacting with creators of all kinds.

We forgot what conventions used to be.

I am not naïve. This is the monster we made and that we wanted. We want to meet the ‘big stars’. We want to have their photos with us. We want their autographs. We wanted bigger shows and bigger shows cost more money to put on. Vendors want more people to sell to, and a better chance to sell, and sometimes this is what happens. We have let the beast get out of control though. There is a place for big shows AND small shows but all we have done is kill the small shows and let the big shows oversaturate the market so that you’ll see the same guests at the same shows over and over and over again.

We need a convention revolution.

We need the creatives to take back the shows.

We need to remember our heritage in the genres.

We need to make shows about the fans and make them affordable for them once more.

We need to make shows affordable for vendors and creatives once more because we WANT them to profit because if they do well then they tell everyone and the shows do well.

We need to stop serving as ATMs to people who have no interest in the genres or the fans but who are there just to make money hand over fist.

We need to let the super-cons crumble so that only a few remain, giving birth to the smaller shows once more.

And we need to understand that WHO you are a fan of and WHAT you are a fan of is just as important as what you support. If you are cool with paying tons of money to people who are bored by having to speak to you then player, play on. If you are cool with supporting artists who eschew original art for recreations of famous photos or art then again, you do you. But we are reaping what we sow. We have wanted so desperately to be taken seriously and to be seen as more than just ‘nerds in basements’. Well, we have the power, and we are choosing to be ATMs. We make the choices here, no one else.

It is a golden age for fandom but unless we start making better choices and stop waving dollar bills at everything with the name of our particularly beloved franchise then all we are is more consumers, blindly buying whatever is put before us and darn it, as a fan, I think I am better than that, and I think you are too.

I have been doing shows for a long time, and in a lot of different capacities and it genuinely makes me sad to see how things have progressed. Conventions are becoming havens only for the ‘haves’ and not the common fans. These are not places to mix, mingle, and to fall in love with worlds we may never see but are marketplaces made for money where you are little more than a customer. Everything has become an up-sell. Get the VIP package. Get the super-VIP package. Get the ultra-limited-exclusive package. It’s all a hustle and we’re all suckers.

I for one am tired of being played for a sucker.


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