Keycon Econ Report

Well, there it went.  The first and hopefully the last Online Keycon was held over the May long weekend. How was it? A bit wobbly here and there, but on the whole, it worked out just fine.

I think people don’t really realize how demanding a Convention is, and how much work and dedication goes into running it.  The people who work on and volunteer for these conventions are really a breed apart, they put a lot of time and energy into it. You have to acknowledge that.

This was a pretty unusual Keycon, due to the Coronaclypse.  Last year, Keycon cancelled entirely, hit full bore only two months into the Coronaclypse, and amid a provincial shutdown. There was no way it could go on.

As people adapted to the Coronaclypse, we saw the rise of online Cons, E-Cons including When Words Collide in July, and World Fantasy Convention in October.  Unfortunately, Keycon was too early into the pandemic to make that jump.  There just wasn’t enough time to revamp  and reformat the entire Con, and the list of precedents and innovations that allowed for E-Cons wasn’t there yet. Still, the Keycon organizers set about planning for the next convention in 2021, and they kept their eyes and ears open, learning the ins and outs of E-cons, just in case.

I think by March or April, they’d figured out that things weren’t going to be opening up, and they were able to switch gears and reformat their convention.  The revamped online Keycon E-con, or as I like to call it kEycon would be free to anyone who signed up, and considerable thought and effort went into adapting the normal activities of a convention – panels, hospitality rooms, social events, etc., into an online format.

By and large, I think that this was successful.  There were glitches of course.  This was the first time they’d done this, and some of the organizers were particularly inexperienced and were working without advice or guidance, so everyone had to feel their way.  The choice of online server was Discord, and it had a few problems, but it mostly worked.

From what I can tell, kEycon got a reasonable number of people signing in from all over the country, including people who might not normally have been able to attend.  I think it was somewhere around 100 to 150 but don’t quote me.  And everyone seems to have had a positive experience.

Myself – I got to do three panels. Discord didn’t seem to like me much. I got all sorts of curveballs – weird echo effects, I got frozen out once and had to reboot to get back in, I was invisible to my other panelists, etc. But then, electronic media tends not to be fond of me. I heard other people had problems as well.  But the technical people tried to be right on top and after some teething troubles, it would get worked out.  As for the panels themselves:

Plotting, Pantsing and Quilting – different approaches to writing, with Susan Forest, Chadwick Ginther, Reed Alexander, Barb Galler-Smith and Ron Hore. Ron didn’t make it, I don’t know what happened there, he may have had even worse struggles with the online stuff than me, or it may have simply been something coming up.  For myself, I was looking forward to being on a panel with Chadwick, whose work I’ve been reading and collecting since Thunder Road. I knew Barb from SF Canada. Susan was the Guest of Honour.  Reed was my new discovery.  This was the panel where I got frozen out.  I was hearing “What about Den? Is Den here? Has anyone seen Den?” and I’m shouting at the laptop like an idiot, and waving my arms like a fool “Yes!  Yes!  I’m right here! Hello!!!”  No one else (except possibly Ron) seemed to have trouble. But we sorted it out (thank Jared) I rebooted in, and it worked out. The discussion was interesting and useful and Susan was able to lead us through new insights.

Worldbuilding – A panel run by and for Brain-Lag Books for its writers. Brain-Lag is a small press sci fi/fantasy/horror publisher based in Ontario that’s been around for a few years.  They’re up and comers, and they can usually be found with a couple of Dealers Tables at Ad Astra. I think that this may mark one of their first forays into Keycon, but then again, I don’t keep track of things.  I wangled myself onto the panel at the last minute, since I had a history of doing similar work.  It was a little different than I expected – instead of discussing world building generally, the participating writers were invited to talk about their own world building for their own novels and stories. That made it very concrete and writer-centric.  It was almost an hour long promotion for Brain-Lag and its authors (and me). And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. I hope it sold a few books for everyone. Setting aside the mercenary mercantile aspect, it was a great opportunity to hear writers talking intelligently about their work, giving a sense of both the persons, and the work itself. It was great to meet Catherine Fitzimmons and her stable of writers, they were gracious, thoughtful, intelligent and their work sounded interesting. I’ll look forward to running across them again, and I wish them all the success possible.

Writing Deep Characters – This was actually a throwaway suggestion I made back in April that got picked up.  I’m not sure why. I had a half dozen better ideas. 😉  But this is the one that got picked up.  I shared this panel with Casia Schreyer, another local writer I have great respect for.  Casia’s written 20 books, including the five book Rose Garden (Rose Princess?) series, and she’s a driving force behind Author’s of Manitoba, and getting her and others books marketed. She’s one of those people who is so energetic and prolific, you just get tired watching her. Anyway, we suffered a bit from lack of coordination, and we had a reverb issue on this one, so we kept having to shut off our mikes for each other. It slowed things down. But apart from that, it went well, and we managed to get a thoughtful discussion going on.

Aside from my own contributions, I hung out in Panels by or featuring Stephen Pearl, Reed Alexander, Susan Forest, Paula Johansen and others.  In particular, Stephen B. Pearl and Reed Alexander were absolute pleasures to listen to.  This isn’t to denigrate Susan, Chadwick, Paula, Leia or others, I just knew their work already. Stephen and Reed were the new discoveries. Mostly I lurked  – Discord, I’d learned from my panels, didn’t like me that much. So better to listen quietly.

I zipped in and out of the ‘Not Safe For Work’ bad fanfic live reading forum hosted by Laurie Smith, and encountered bits of an extremely graphic, one fisted description of the MCU’s Thor and Captain America having romantic raunchy gay sex. Definitely not safe work.

I bounced in and out of a number of forums for online chats. I hung out for a while with the Winnipeg Worldcon Bid people, that was my only live casual conversation.

And I mercilessly abused Shameless Self Promotion, incessantly plugging The Mermaid’s Tale, Torakar of Mars, The New Doctor, The Greatest Unauthorized Doctor Stories, LEXX Unauthorized, Giant Monsters Sing Sad Songs, Bear Cavalry, There Are No Doors in Dark Places, What Devours Also Hungers, Dawn of Cthulhu various free short stories, and my own web site. But hey, that’s what it was for.

For kEycon, there were of course glitches, but it was a first attempt and a learning experience for the people involved. So I’m not inclined to condemn.  There were things that could have been done differently – among them, more focus on training sessions or workshops for panelists in advance, it was almost sink or swim.  But undoubtedly if they had to do it again, they would almost certainly do it better. That’s how it works, experience allows us to improve.

But then again, with any luck, the Coronaclypse will be over, and the next Keycon will be held live. So they won’t have to do it again.

Or maybe…

Allow me to venture a thought.  Over the last decade or so, in Winnipeg and many other cities, small fan run Cons have been increasingly pushed aside, and perhaps pushed towards irrelevance, by commercial Comic-Cons.  What we’ve been drifting towards is media driven, star driven, super-cons that are essentially gigantic Dealers Rooms, with at best a vestigial track of programming, and massive attendance.

For people like Chadwick or Casia, who do the Cons and sell their books there, I think that’s where the majority of their exposure and sales come from. Venues like Keycon have grown marginal.  As the nature of commerce, and even the very nature of fans and fandom changes, I’ve wondered if Cons like Keycon even have a future.  There’s a struggle to define and maintain a stable niche, although admittedly, Keycon has been extraordinarily good at creating and maintaining its niche, 38 years testifies to that.

I’m wondering if the E-con experience of the last couple of years might offer a way forward.

I mean, look, everyone wants to go back to real live cons. E-cons are okay, but I think people want real face to face.  But at the same time, geography is an issue – it’s not necessarily cheap or easy for Reed Alexander or Brain-Lag books to travel. A friend of mine spent eighteen thousand dollars travelling from Con to Con promoting his books and his career one year, that both costly and physically punishing.

As we all age, there are more and more fans  who, for reasons ranging from infirmity, to physical disability, social anxiety, mental health issues, have difficulty attending in person. For some, it’s a matter of struggling with scheduling in busy lives.  I think for all these people, the options offered by an E-con has been a boon. It’s given them access and opportunities that simply weren’t open to them, or that otherwise were only available at great financial or personal cost.

I think that there are opportunities, as we go back to live Conventions, for the traditional fan driven Cons to grow a new dimension, an E-dimension, to give themselves greater access to talent and content providers, to give those providers more opportunities, and to find a place for fans and participants who might not otherwise have as much opportunity.  There are definitely is something here which can help us find a pathway into the future.

If we can make our world bigger for everyone, shouldn’t we?