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Monday, February 02, 2009

Science Fiction/Fantasy Awards: The Hugos and Other Things

Recently the blogosphere has been somewhat up in arms about the whole SF/F awards thing, particularly the Hugos. After reading some of what Adam Roberts had to say and what some others said in response, I decided that I should give my two cents on the issue.

Apparently there are two primary items that folks are discussing: the Hugo Awards aren't getting enough votes (apparently a horrendously dismal amount); and whether or not awards like the Hugo, Nebula, etc. are worthless.

My personal opinion on the voting problem for the Hugo Awards is that the folks that run it are simply outdated. Back in the day (assuming that they've run the Hugos relatively the same since when it first started out) there weren't a lot of ways for folks to communicate about their favorite books. There was no Internet, telephoning people you didn't know was pretty much impossible (or creepy), and basically the only way to really connect was either to go to one of those new-fangled conventions or hang around with a local SF/F group.

In those days it made a lot of sense to have an award that was voted on by attendees of a convention. There weren't a lot of books to read back then (so the big ones tended to shine through) and the folks who were likely to vote were already going to be at Worldcon. But with the invention of the Internet, the Hugo Awards are a bit outdated these days. The problem is that folks who can't attend the convention aren't likely to spend $50 to be able to vote on a favorite book, and those at the convention either aren't voting because they don't care, or aren't voting for the same books (or something of that nature).

The thing is, the Hugo Awards are a fan-based award (primarily speaking). Why is it that most fans can't vote? Now, granted, $50 isn't a lot, but if you can't go to Worldcon, it's kind of a lot of money just to be able to cast a vote. And with the economy in crummy condition, do you honestly expect anyone to fork out $50 to get to vote for an award that largely means nothing to them?

My suggestion on how to fix the Hugo Awards to make them more appealing is to change the entire structure to allow for folks who haven't paid to vote. Sure, that might tick people off, but at the very least you could make it so the votes of Worldcon members are worth more than non-Worldcon members (like Locus). This would get more people involved who don't have the money to become a member. We have to remember that one of the largest audiences of SF/F is not a bunch of old guys with steady jobs; it's teenagers and college kids. We're the ones consuming these books in large quantities (especially fantasy). How many teenagers do you know that are willing to fork out $50 to vote? I don't know any. I wouldn't have. I'd rather have spent that $50 on movies and crap that I didn't need. The Hugo Awards, in my opinion, forget about these folks precisely because they are outdated. This needs to change so that the Hugos do more than be remembered as "some award," but become something more fans actually care about. And that's where my thoughts on the whole "awards are rubbish" thing come in:

To me, none of the awards really matter at all. While I think they are wonderful for the authors and probably have a good impact on sales, I don't necessarily care. A book with "Hugo Award Winner" on the cover is not likely to make me jump with joy to read it. I simply don't buy or read books that way. I think of these awards along the same lines as the Oscars. They're more symbolic than anything else.

But that's me and I am in no way the only opinion. There are those who think the awards are garbage and worth nothing. I disagree. I think many do pay attention to the awards when buying books (or at least notice them in a good way). I think the awards need to exist to congratulate good authors for good genre writing. But I get the point. For folks who really don't care, who hate the politics behind it, etc. awards really are valueless. That's just the way it is.

I also understand Adam Roberts' point about SF/F awards having too much focus on the fanbase. I think there need to be more significant awards that don't take fan-voting into account, but judging. This might sound screwed up, ignoring the opinions of fans, but fans tend to latch onto the same kinds of books and don't always move outside of that comfort zone. The awards aren't really about that; they're about the best works in the genre. That has to be emphasized more. The Hugo is great for being a fan-voted award, but we need more judge-voted awards out there to make sure that none of the greats that folks might not have read or ignored for some reason slip through the cracks.

What do you think about all this?

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23 comments:

  1. Agreed.

    I'm personally not a big Hugo fan. If I'm going to pick up a science fiction novel solely because it's won an award, you can bet it'll be a Nebula every time.

    The only SF award in the community that seems to take risks is the Arthur C. Clarke award. At the same time, though, they're not even that risky as they just seem to give it to a literary novel with SF elements. But at least they provoke some discussion, which the Hugos never really do.

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  2. I get the impression that the Hugo has sort of lost a lot of weight in the community in the last few years. The Nebula has always seemed to be particularly more important, which I think is unfortunate considering the difference in voting. But, of course, the Hugo awards aren't really all that inclusive anymore. I read somewhere that they get about 700 people to vote on a good day, and when you think about the size of the specfic community, that's really pathetic. io9 can do better than that.

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  3. Your 'read more' links are all screwed up. They're either not there, or right at the bottom of the post. If you're not going to use them, get rid.

    And I actually do pay attention to the Hugo award, because it's one that isn't voted by a load of airy-fairy idiots on a panel board. I have no seen how those panels work, and they're not much of a way to judge books. With the Hugos, if a lot of SFF fans like it, it'll get good votes, which means it's generally a good read.

    Apart from the Hugo, I specifically avoid books that win awards, largely because I hate books that panels like. Apocalypse by Tim Bowler is the one I wheel out every time--it won, well I forget what, and it's at the bottom of my bookshelf, but it's the most godawful book I've ever read. Cliche and shockingly written (worse then Paolini!), it's also confusing, yet some snooty morons thought that was wonderful and slapped it with an award.

    I'm bored with talking about this now. *goes to write Amazon review of Apocalypse*

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  4. Not there? When are they not there?

    The panels for the really big awards are usually judged by a collection of authors, significant fans, and organization runners. The Hugos are sort of a privately voted award, since you have to be a member of Worldcon to vote. I think that's one of the problems with it.

    Never heard of Apocalypse...hmm

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  5. I recognize that you think this is part of the problem, but you make the basic mistake of saying that the Hugo Award is an award voted on by All Science Fiction Fandom. It's not. It's an award voted on by the members of the World Science Fiction Society, just like the Nebula is voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America. In both cases, you have to be a member of the club to vote. Now while I have been one of those saying that the cost of having to join WSFS is higher than it should be, I have not said "we should make it free," although there are people who have characterized my position in that way.

    I'm not troubled by having to pay dues and meet entrance requirements to be a member of a club. My only complaint is that WSFS, for complex reasons that actually don't have much to do with "wanting to exclude people," charges most for their entry-level membership than I think they should be charging. I have suggested that WSFS introduce an additional membership classification with voting rights but fewer things that cost Worldcon money to administer, and that such membership cost around $20 or so. For this I have been denounced as a wild-eyed radical who would Destroy Us All.

    Paraphrasing one of those people who thinks I'm trying to destroy the Hugo Award by daring to make membership in WSFS less expensive, I suggest that people who think that voting for the Hugo should cost nothing at all should go out and set up their own award from scratch, make voting free, and see if they can get any traction. They may find it harder than they think it is to do so. WSFS has spent more than fifty years building up the Hugo Award's reputation, and I don't think it's unreasonable for WSFS to require that people become members of the society before voting on its awards.

    At the moment, the only no-cost-to-participate awards in the field of SF/F with any significance are the Locus Awards, and you've noted that even they have decided that subscribers' votes should have more weight than just any random person with a web browser.

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  6. Kevin: Actually, I didn't make that mistake at all. I very clearly stated in the post that the Hugos are voted on by people who are members of a convention, and therefore have to pay $50. I'm saying that it would help the Hugos if it were opened to the wider public.

    The Nebula Awards are far more limited in voting population because ONLY people who have actually met the requirements of the SFWA (i.e. a certain number of sales at a certain pay level) are allowed to vote. I may have misspoke in the post. But unlike the Hugos, not EVERYONE can vote for the Nebulas, since MOST people are not published authors.

    "At the moment, the only no-cost-to-participate awards in the field of SF/F with any significance are the Locus Awards, and you've noted that even they have decided that subscribers' votes should have more weight than just any random person with a web browser."

    But at least they have opened it to the general public so that they can have a say and will actually give a flying fig about which book wins. I don't think most people even care about the Hugos anymore and that's the problem. They're great and they used to be worth quite a bit in the SF community, but these days most people don't care because they either don't know about them or it's irrelevant to them. This is the same with most awards, but the Hugo is the only one with any clout besides the Locus (and maybe a couple of others) that make it possible for fans to vote. I'm suggesting that perhaps the Hugos need to be more like the Locus, or at the very least, like you suggested, the feed should be reduced for people who want to vote, but are unable to attend the convention. I, for one, am not willing to shell out $50 for membership to something I can't attend (because it's usually too far away and too expensive to get to) just to vote on a book. If I like a book enough that I want to vote for it I can just talk about it here on my blog.

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  7. I agree with you that the Hugos have fallen behind the times, but there are reasons for having some sort of qualification to vote: it ensures that people have confidence in the awards.

    You can have online voting with no qualification, but you end up with something like the WebLog Awards where people are encouraged to vote as often as possible. No one has any confidence that such awards represent anything other that the commitment of people to stay online and vote as often as possible.

    In contrast, having a small fee for voting will make it clear that the people who vote do actually have an interest in the awards. It would also make a lot more people feel part of the World Science Fiction Society, which I think would be a good thing.

    So yeah, $50 is ridiculous, but free might be too.

    As to whether awards should be fan-voted or judged, I think you need both. The Hugos are fan voted, the Nebulas author-voted, the Clarke and World Fantasy Awards are juried. All of these tell us something different and interesting about books.

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  8. Okay, so, as I said, reduce the cost for people who can't go to the convention. Maybe $5 to vote, $50 to attend. I doubt this will ever happen, though, because I imagine the Worldcon folks make a good amount of money right now and trying to adjust the way it all works would be difficult and could reduce profits or something along those lines.

    I think the Hugo has to remain fan voted, to be honest. I think the fact that we do have awards with various means of voting attached to them adds a lot of variety (sometimes, at least) to the SF/F community.

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  9. S.M.D.

    I can assure you that profits have absolutely nothing to do with this. I'm pretty sure that offering a cheap voting membership of the type we are discussion would bring in a lot of extra profit for Worldcon.

    But you are right, it won't happen, because too many of the people in charge want to keep voting rights for themselves and people like them.

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  10. I might bring extra profit if they could get the news out in proper fashion. That's the difficult part.

    And yeah, I guess there is a certain flavor of the elitist there...

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  11. S.M.D.

    I'm interested to know what you mean by getting the news out in proper fashion. Where do you expect this news to appear?

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  12. The Interwebs, of course. But not everyone reads the same pages or the pages that the Hugo stuff would most likely appear on.

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  13. There is an official web site
    http://www.thehugoawards.org/

    with an RSS feed. And people like io9 and Locus do keep an eye on it.

    There will be a Twitter feed this year too.

    Any more that could be done?

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  14. It helps if it feeds through the entire specfic blogosphere.

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  15. I imagine the Worldcon folks make a good amount of money right now

    What? Worldcons are all run right now as non-profit organizations with no paid staff and no compensation to the people running them. I co-chaired the 2002 Worldcon in San Jose (ConJose), and not only did I not "make a good amount of money," I personally am deeply in debt in no small part due to the amount of my own money I spent traveling to promote it. ConJose did have an operational surplus of around $60,000 or so (on gross revenue of nearly $1 million, so you can see it's not much of a return for four years' work), mainly because few of the things that could have gone dramatically wrong did so. But that money didn't go into individuals' pockets, but was dispersed over the next several years in form of various grants from our charitable non-profit corporation. And we were obliged to file reports with WSFS showing how the money was spent, which we did.

    Worldcons cost what they do for a variety of complex reasons that I can detail for you if you want to know them, but the main reason is that every Worldcon is a brand-new, start-up, one-time-only event, with no room for error and no track record. Worldcons aren't a single entity -- they are a series of 5000-person one-shots, with no reserve, no backup, and no recourse if anything goes wrong. (Again, if you want a more detailed explanation, I'll be happy to give it to you, with figures to back it up.)

    ...trying to adjust the way it all works would be difficult and could reduce profits...

    Do you actually think Worldcons are run as a profit-making enterprise? I'm not being sarcastic. I'm dead serious. If you do, I'm very sad and sorry to hear it.

    Actually, if we were trying to make a profit, we'd hold the convention in the same place every year and have the same organization run it every year, and go for a growth strategy like Dragon*Con or ComicCon. But I don't think it would be a Worldcon anymore if you did that.

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  16. "It helps if it feeds through the entire specfic blogosphere"

    Dead right, but you can't force people to spread a story. They have to care enough to want to spread it. Which is why it is important for the Hugos to have a good public reputation.

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  17. Cheryl: I agree. You can't force people to talk about it, but you can appeal to the blogosphere's better interests (well, the SF/F blogosphere's that is). It's possible.

    Kevin: Calm down. I didn't realize that Worldcon is non-profit. I've never been. The reason I've never been is because I live in Santa Cruz, I'm young (and somewhat new to the specfic world in relation to many others), and quite frankly am not rich enough or willing to fly halfway across the world for a convention. I've heard it's a great convention, but if I'm going to fly for hours on end and spend that kind of money, I'm going to go to Montreal or Australia or Japan or wherever Worldcon at any specific time; I'll take that opportunity to go somewhere with my fiance. I'm much more likely to go to conventions in my backyard.

    "Worldcons cost what they do for a variety of complex reasons that I can detail for you if you want to know them, but the main reason is that every Worldcon is a brand-new, start-up, one-time-only event, with no room for error and no track record. Worldcons aren't a single entity -- they are a series of 5000-person one-shots, with no reserve, no backup, and no recourse if anything goes wrong. (Again, if you want a more detailed explanation, I'll be happy to give it to you, with figures to back it up.)"

    Perhaps something needs to be done about this to make it less terrifying than you've made it sound as far as setting it up goes. Granted, I suppose it would be difficult to fine-tune it considering it moves around every year (sort of like the Olympics).

    In any case, don't be sad or upset. I didn't realize Worldcon itself was non-profit. Knowing that, then it's certainly a good idea for Worldcon to allow for a lesser fee for non-attending folks who want to vote. But that's my opinion.

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  18. I didn't realize that Worldcon is non-profit. I've never been. The reason I've never been is because I live in Santa Cruz,...

    Okay, I understand. You probably are too young, then, to have even known about the most recent Bay Area Worldcon, which was ConJose in San Jose in September 2002. There was also one in Anaheim in 2006. Either Reno or Seattle will host the 2011 convention, and San Diego has expressed some interest in hosting 2015. (That's me in the video in that last link.)

    Have you attended any general-interest SF/F conventions? Like SiliCon in San Jose, for instance? (Link is to last year's con; 2009 site isn't up yet.) Or were you planning on attending the 2009 World Fantasy Con in San Jose. Both of these, like most general-interest fan-run SF/F genre conventions, are put on my non-profit all-volunteer groups. (WFC2009 is being hosted by SFSFC, on whose board I sit and which was the parent non-profit of the 1993 and 2002 Worldcons.)

    Yes, there are for-profit "shows" like the Creation media conventions, but most conventions are run for love, not money. I'm sorry you seemed to think that nobody would run these things unless they were Getting Paid. (It's a common misconception, even among people who have attended them!)

    Perhaps something needs to be done about this to make it less terrifying than you've made it sound as far as setting it up goes.

    Well, to be quite honest, it's a pretty daunting undertaking. People who bid for a Worldcon are saying, "We're going to organize a 5000-person, $1-million-dollar-turnover, all-volunteer event from scratch, and once we've done it, we're going to tear down the entire structure and throw it away. And nobody is going to provide us with backup or reserve. And many of the people who attend will complain bitterly about how expensive it is and we shouldn't really charge anything because Everyone Knows you're all raking it in under the table." Running Worldcons is a form of insanity, but people keep stepping forward to volunteer to do it.

    Granted, I suppose it would be difficult to fine-tune it considering it moves around every year (sort of like the Olympics).

    The Olympic analogy is excellent, and I use it myself. The expenses are very similar (if two orders of magnitude smaller). You have to build up an infrastructure for a one-shot event. You have no reserve built up from previous events. (Olympic committees don't get any surpluses generated by their predecessors; their successors aren't responsible for their debts, either.) The Central Office (the IOC) isn't going to give you any money; indeed, you have to pay them for the right to hold the even, and you have to obey their rules. And so forth.

    There have sometimes been calls to anchor the Olympics in one permanent site (Greece is traditional, but I think Sydney would be a better choice, facilities-wise) in order to keep the costs down. But the world-wide nature of the event would vanish, I think, if it did so.

    Knowing that, then it's certainly a good idea for Worldcon to allow for a lesser fee for non-attending folks who want to vote.

    I've proposed this myself. The static I've got from my peers is incredible. I may sound like a conservative, hidebound, stick-in-the-mud, but trust me, to a significant number of the people who take an active interest in the ongoing affairs of Worldcon and the World Science Fiction Society, I'm a radical bomb-throwing lunatic with crazy schemes that will Destroy Us All.

    The depth of my Worldcon madness is such that if I had $1 million, I'd put it down as a bond behind a Worldcon willing to attempt to lower operating costs and therefore membership costs with a goal of increasing membership by more than the amount of money "lost" by lowering prices. A lot of people figure that there's no point in lowering prices because all that would happen is you'd get less income, and a huge proportion of the costs of running a Worldcon is fixed expenses that don't vary with the membership. If you assume that membership will not change with price in any significant way, then you tend to set prices in order to cover costs with a little bit of reserve against problems, since you're not intending to actually earn a profit. (Consequently, nearly ever Worldcon actually does have a small surplus.)

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  19. Kevin: I'm not too young (25), but I didn't even know there was a Worldcon in San Jose in 2002. I heard about it coming to San Jose, but think it's during a time I can't attend, because as luck would have it, I am going to be somewhere else for graduate school.

    I have attended an small anime convention in Sacramento and have been to FanimeCon in San Jose three times. I didn't go in 08 because I didn't really have the money. I am trying to see if I can go to some of the cons around these parts, though. I didn't always live here. I lived in Placerville before, which is worse than living in Santa Cruz because there basically isn't anything around those parts...

    Also, I never assumed that Worldcon or any con is "raking it in." I'm sorry if I gave that impression. I know cons are not exactly super profitable for anyone (except the dealer's room folks). I just made the assumption that Worldcon made money off membership each year.

    In all honesty, $50 to attend Worldcon (I'm assuming that's the entire fee, right, or am I wrong) is really not that bad at all. It costs roughly that much for four days at FanimeCon. I don't see that as being expensive, per se (too expensive for me considering airfare, hotel, etc.). However, it is too expensive if all you want to be able to do is vote, you know?

    I'm all for keeping Worldcon on the move. With what you've said about this sort of "xenophobic" attitude about letting outsiders vote...man, kinda ruins Worldcon for me...

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  20. Incidentally, although I currently live in Fremont, I was born in Oroville, my home town is Challenge (Yuba County foothills), and I was living in Sutter (near Yuba City) when I attended my first Worldcon at age 18 -- I rode Greyhound all night to get to Anaheim in 1984, then went straight from the bus station on my return to my first day of class at Yuba College. There used to be more fan activity in those parts -- there were two Westercons in Sacramento in the 1980s -- and a friend of mine is helping organize a new group called the Science Fiction Association of the Western Sierra around that general area.

    In all honesty, $50 to attend Worldcon (I'm assuming that's the entire fee, right, or am I wrong)

    Sorry, that's not the attending membership price. Attending membership costs up to $200 or more (the sooner you buy, the less you pay). The $50 "supporting membership" can be looked at as your membership dues to the World Science Fiction Society, while the rest of the cost is the "convention supplement" to actually attend the convention.

    Worldcons tend to cost between two and three times as much as most "stationary" genre conventions per unit of time. (I use that measurement because there aren't a lot of other five-day long SF conventions out there.)

    I heard about it coming to San Jose, but think it's during a time I can't attend, because as luck would have it, I am going to be somewhere else for graduate school.

    San Jose is not currently bidding for a Worldcon. SFSFC is bidding to host (and is in fact the only bidder for) the 2011 Westercon, which will be in San Jose over the Independence Day weekend that year assuming we are selected. (Westercon, like Worldcon, moves around, but it's limited to Western North America, is usually held over the Independence Day weekend, and is generally much smaller and cheaper, with prices more in line with conventions like BayCon, Silicon, Loscon, etc.)

    The Worldcon bids for 2011, as I mentioned, are Reno and Seattle. If Reno wins their Worldcon bid for 2011, it will be in mid-August. Seattle is bidding for the "traditional" Labor Day weekend dates.

    (I say "bidding," because both Worldcons and Westercons are selected by vote, with the members of the convention two years previously voting where to hold a given event. For example, the members of this year's Worldcon in Montreal will vote between Reno and Seattle for the 2011 Worldcon, while the members of this year's Westercon in Tempe will vote whether to agree to San Jose's Westercon bid.)

    I'm all for keeping Worldcon on the move. With what you've said about this sort of "xenophobic" attitude about letting outsiders vote...man, kinda ruins Worldcon for me...

    The attitude is more complicated than that. It's not that the regular attendees explicitly want to keep everyone else out; what they want is for other people who think roughly the same as they do to join. To over-simplify, they think, "I had to pay those dues; why shouldn't other people have to do so?" And the rules are made by people who attend regularly. Every single attending member of the convention can attend, propose rules, and vote on them at the annual Business Meeting held at every Worldcon (I'm chairing this year's meeting in Montreal). WSFS is governed as if it were a New England Town Meeting; however, it's rare to see more than 100 of the 3-6,000 attendees actually attend.

    Personally, while I'm in favor of lowering the price to join WSFS and therefore vote (albeit not to zero), I'm just as unhappy that with more than five thousand people already eligible to vote without paying anything else because they're already members, fewer than 500 nominate and fewer than 1000 vote on the final ballot. Possibly people who want to nominate/vote ought to try to track down people with memberships who don't plan on voting and ask those people to cast ballots on their behalf.

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  21. Kevin: At $200 you can be sure I won't be attending. I'm not paying that much money for something like that, especially when I can go to other conventions for cheaper and get similar experiences (or, in some cases, better experiences).

    It also worries me that of the thousands of members who are able to vote, only a fraction of them actually do. Seems somewhat idiotic, if you ask me. You can vote, so vote!

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  22. Kevin: At $200 you can be sure I won't be attending.

    That $200 or higher price is for people who wait until late to decide whether to go or not. If you buy at the earliest opportunity, it's less, although probably not less than $150. Single-day admissions typically are in the $50-$75 range.

    I'm not paying that much money for something like that, specially when I can go to other conventions for cheaper and get similar experiences (or, in some cases, better experiences).

    A lot of that depends on why you go to conventions. For what reasons do you attend genre conventions? What experience do you expect to have at one?

    Worldcons are one of the few places where you actually get the world-wide mix of authors, artists, and fans coming together that isn't 100,000-plus people. I can point you at the programs of past Worldcons and you can see who was there and what was on programming. And that's just the formal programming. At few other events are you likely to be able to meet and talk with such a mix of people within the field.

    BTW, as the Seattle in 2011 bid has (as of today) withdrawn from the 2011 race due to being unable to conclude a contract with its facilities, the Reno Worldcon appears to be a near-certainty for August 17-21, 2011. That's likely the closest it's going to be to you within the current decade.

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  23. "A lot of that depends on why you go to conventions. For what reasons do you attend genre conventions? What experience do you expect to have at one?"

    Well, when I attended FanimeCon it was to see new anime and live-action stuff, buy things, meet new people, hang out with friends, go to interesting panels headed by staff or celebrities (particularly directors), etc. That's somewhat what I want from other conventions, although I would replace some of the above with meeting authors I've heard of and haven't heart of, buying books and getting them signed, finding new things to read, and other typical things.

    The thing for me is that while it maybe a great convention (and I have NOTHING against it), I would rather save $150, go to a cheaper convention, and then use that $150 to buy books or whatever else I find that I want. I'm somewhat of a cheapskate when it comes to things like that.

    2011: I probably won't even be in the country then. I'll likely be studying for my PhD in England...

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