Cost Benefit Analysis on a Convention

The first day after a convention is for sleeping off the exhaustion, but the next day is for cost benefit analysis. A successful convention gives more than it costs in emotional, career, and financial rewards. We’ve had lots of successful conventions. Sometimes the sales aren’t great, but a business contact is made which opens up a world of new possibilities. Other times there are no particularly shiny business opportunities and the sales are mediocre, but we get to share laughter and conversations with lots of good people. There are always good things and bad in every show. Howard comes home and unpacks his brain, complaining of the unpleasant things, joyfully telling about the fun stuff. As he talks, we try to figure out how the next show could be made better.

Sadly Chicon (WorldCon 70) lands in the red for us. Howard had lots of fun. He’s spent hours telling me about conversations with fans, writers, personal heroes, and friends. He had our dream team of booth help, a crew that stuck with him not just for retail, but also who bolstered him up during the emotional ride of the Hugos. We have fun pictures, and business cards of people to contact after the show. Unfortunately we planned poorly and spent too much. Taken over all, the show simply did not pay all that back. Howard began the show with a slight emotional deficit because of the low buffer and GenCon fatigue. We figured that sales in Chicago would be higher than they were in Reno since the convention itself would be larger. We budgeted accordingly, arranging to have extra booth help and ship the necessary product to support that. Our expenses where higher than they had ever been before. This was not helped by the fact that Chicago kept surprising us with extra fees for things like parking. We did not lose money. The booth sales covered our expenses, but not enough to pay for the week of lost work, or the stress involved in preparing and running the booth. We sold less in Chicago than we did in Reno.

Our analysis of why is ongoing. It was certainly not our help which was fantastic. The booth was always hopping with conversation and transactions. The truth is that retail sales are always capricious. The dedicated fans will always find us and brighten Howard’s day by standing there to talk to him while he draws. They are our bread and butter, the reason we are able to continue to do this crazy work, which doesn’t seem like it should be able to support a family of six and a colorist. We love the people who seek out Howard. But if the dealers’ room is hidden off in a corner (as it was in Chicago) it reduces foot traffic. Fewer people wander by the booth to be exposed to Schlock. Sometimes there is just a mis-match between the general convention populace and Schlock Mercenary. The comic can’t appeal to everyone. It appealed to a smaller proportion of people in Chicago than it did in other areas of the country. That happens too. Either that, or a larger portion had already bought stuff online. We misjudged and let the cost of coming nearly wipe out profits.

If it were only insufficient profits, the conversations with people would be more than enough to balance out the emotional ledger, however Chicon also had the Hugo awards. Being nominated is a huge honor, and a tremendous benefit to Howard personally and to Schlock Mercenary as a business. All weekend Howard had people coming up and telling him that they had discovered Schlock because of the Hugo nominee packet. But once Howard arrives at WorldCon, he starts to feel the strain of hope. He begins to realize that he’d really love to bring home a Hugo trophy and he’s probably not going to. Then in self defense, he tries to negate that hope, which leads to him denigrating his own work to himself inside his head. It becomes a weekend-long effort to try to not think about it too much, while all the time people are coming up to wish him luck. (Some of them do so while confessing that they voted for someone else. Yes. People do that. Lots. Hint: if you didn’t vote for someone, the appropriate thing to say is either nothing at all or “Good luck. I’m rooting for you.” Not “I didn’t vote for you because _______, but I’ll vote for you next year.” Pretty much anything other than “good luck” is pouring gasoline on the flame of creative neuroses. You do not have to fell guilty or apologize for your votes. Howard is strong and can laugh this type of thing off. Not everyone can.) Win or lose, the Hugos require a huge emotional expenditure. Howard works hard to find his fellow nominated friends and help them deal with the stress. He struggles to find helpful words. He tries to make sure that he is always gracious no matter how people approach him, even if what they say manages to gut-punch him right in his insecurities. It is exhausting and exciting and thrilling. But ultimately even excitement is exhausting. High emotions always take a toll, even if they’re positive emotions.

Presumably winning a trophy pays for all of that effort, someday maybe we’ll be able to report how that works. However, I’ve spoken to people who’ve won and they tell me that having the statue can make the next project harder to tackle, the fear of not being able to live up to prior success is real and can be crippling. There is also the emotional ride of having won when your friends didn’t. Whether or not Howard came home with a Hugo, I knew this week would require some emotional rebalancing.

Special note to anyone who may, in the future, be arranging the pre-Hugo ceremony photography. It can be a mad scramble to get this done in the time allotted. I know it is a hard job, like herding cats. People don’t hear announcements or disregard them. However, if you run out of time before the ceremony, do not ask the losers to come back after the awards are handed out and be photographed with the winners. Just don’t. Those who lose do not have the emotional resources to put on happy faces for the camera. The winners are in shock and may feel guilty for winning over the others in their category. Don’t make them stand together while they are still in the first hour of processing this emotional shift. Before the ceremony it is “all in this boat together” after it is different. If you don’t get the picture before the ceremony, let it go.

Also rolled up in the weekend was my absence and the reasons for it. I was pretty miserable because I was sad to miss out on friends and even more because I was actively working to disconnect the anxiety triggers which I’ve had connected to WorldCon since last year. “Disconnecting anxiety triggers” is a lot like defusing bombs, very tense and no fun at all. I tried not to let any of that leak into Howard’s experience of the event, but I was only partially successful because he is perceptive and I am honest. All of which is enough for it’s own story sometime, so I’ll leave it at that.

Among the good gifts that Chicon gave to us, are some valuable lessons. As we pick apart what worked and what didn’t, we’re better able to plan for future conventions. The glaringly obvious thing is that we have to figure out how to make WorldCon in San Antonio cost less. If we can lower the financial and emotional costs of the event, then the rewards will be sufficient to have Howard coming home excited for the next event. Obviously we need to spend less money setting up the booth, but we also need to have more comics in the buffer so that the week off of work does not feel so expensive. We need to make time for Howard to play. There were friends that Howard did not get to spend time with because he was tied down at the booth. We need to figure out how to get Howard to allow himself to play, to recognize that the emotional rewards of a convention are far more important than the financial ones. If he gives up most of the emotional rewards in pursuit of financial ones, his convention experience suffers. I think I’ve managed to locate my personal emotional landmines surrounding WorldCon, which will make next year easier. There’s more detail and quite a lot of talking in circles as we sort it out. In the end we don’t regret Chicon, we just have a list of what to do differently.

If you are one of the people who came to tell Howard you love Schlock. Thank you. If you bought something, or just said hello, or asked Howard for advice, or chatted with him at a party, then you are the reason that Chicon was not a disaster for us. You are the reason that Howard came home determined to pour his effort into the comic, instead of collapsing into a fugue of despair. To paraphrase from a Doctor Who episode: Chicon for Howard was divided into piles of good things and piles of hard things. The fact that, at the end, the pile of hard things was a little bit bigger is our fault and does not at all subtract from the goodness of the good things. If you did anything at all to add to Howard’s pile of good things. Thank you. He’s been telling me about what you did and I am grateful.

We live, we learn, we move onward.