Attending conventions as a guest is a very different experience from attending them recreationally. That probably comes as no surprise, but some fans seemed shocked by the amount of work that goes into working a convention. Work, and expense.
I’ve been doing conventions since 2002 (the first MAGFest, as I will tell anyone who will listen). In the intervening sixteen years, I’ve truly lost count of the number of conventions I’ve done. I have my staples (MAGFest, Anime Mid-Atlantic, Katsucon in more recent years), but I’ve also done some one-time appearances at places like Otacon and WorldCon. I have yet to make it to DragonCon but it’s on the to-do list. Given what I have heard about working DragonCon, I must confess it isn’t a priority.
And that’s the thing. Working a convention is just that: work. Conventions are a job. A fun job! A part-time job for most, but it’s still a job. There’s an inordinate amount of book-keeping that goes into running a table for a convention, preparing merchandise, and tracking sales. There’s probably about an hour-for-hour ratio of work that goes into a convention as comes out of it (meaning a three-day convention probably requires about three days’ worth of pre- and post-convention work). That’s just running a table where merchandise will be sold. And that’s also not generating new products, whether for sale or to promote (business cards and other handouts can be a notorious time-sink).
People ask why I don’t yet have a banner at my table and it’s because I’m busy and those things take a lot of time. Oh sure, I could just throw my business card logo on there and be done with it in ten minutes…and it will look awful. Or worse, it will look…off. It look just a little weird, a little amateurish. In a lot of ways, it would be better to look bad than to look amateurish. These things take time. You know the expression, ‘you get what you pay for’? What you ‘pay’ isn’t always money. Often, it’s the time put into something.
Some of this can be outsourced, of course. You can hire a person to do the work for you, and the results can be truly stellar. In fact, unless you have a background in layout and design (not just ‘art’), it’s usually a good idea to bring in a professional. The catch is professionals cost money. As above, you get what you pay for and when you are talking about convention attendees’ first impression of you, it is worth paying for quality.
Panels are another time sink. For professionals who genuinely commit to their panels and try to bring excellence, not just sit up at the front and yammer, a panel probably represents about ten times the effort. An hour-long panel? That probably took ten hours of overall work to produce. Some panels, maybe a little less. Some panels, a LOT more. My Top Ten Episodes of Transformers panel, if we account for the time it takes to watch the entire series, is knocking on the door of more than a week of preparation time. Presenters like Charles Dunbar probably clock in at closer to a hundred times the panel time for his panels (next con you see him at, ask him about how much time he put into his North Korea panel).
All of this time and effort can be hard to quantify. Some of my panels are planned out and worked on while I’m stuck in traffic or waiting in line at the grocery store. Some require deliberate, hard time in front of the computer or at the library. A lot of trial and error goes into panels, both gathering the information, cutting out the superfluous, and then trying out the presentation. When I give a panel at a convention, I’ve probably given it two or three times in advance to prepare the rhythm and meter. Maybe a few more times than that for new panels.
And there’s another factor. Most panelists and presenters will give the same panel again and again, for good reason. We put a LOT of time and effort into these panels, and often there is interest in seeing them again. But presenters also have to constantly be offering new presentations. This means that in any given year, a professional convention speaker is likely going to be offering one to three new presentations. I like to offer at least one new panel for each convention I do, and that time adds up fast.
But here’s the kicker: we barely get paid for this work. Most conventions will provide a hotel room and some accommodations. Some may pay travel. A few will pay an honorarium. But dollar-per-hour, this is not a money-making venture. Not by a long-shot. The way some panelists try to handle this is by selling products. They will try to monetize their presentations in booklets or notes, or some will give lectures and use that as a way to promote some written work that they also sell. For many speakers, this will allow them to recoup some of the expenses that come from creating content. But the downside to this is that you become a merchant, working the table to sell products. You’re working retail. Working retail in a really fun store is still working retail. Like making graphics and promotional materials, you can outsource this too and hire people to work the table for you, but again, this costs money.
This isn’t to whine. This isn’t to complain about what is an often very joyful and rewarding job. It’s simply to illuminate how much work goes into conventions, and how little money can come out of them. I make a profit some cons, I lose money too, and I break even sometimes. But I don’t do it for the money. I would wager most of us don’t do it for the money, and those who do, don’t do it for very long.
Speaking of conventions, I will be in Williamsburg Virginia this April for RavenCon, and then come June, in Norfolk for Anime Mid-Atlantic. Come see the panels, buy the books, and check out the table with (hopefully) a snazzy banner on the front!