So, you would like to put on your own convention. A word of advice: don’t. Don’t do it! Just do not. Do you like sleeping? Do you enjoy having time to relax? Do you value the fact that you don’t spend every moment of the day consumed by teeth-grinding worry about the work you have created for yourself that you believe will ultimately be your tomb?
Yeah? That’s what I thought. Don’t do it.
You really want to? You want to bring nerdery to your greater community? Fine. Let us consult the cautionary tale of Ivy Noelle Weir, a public library, and Insta-Con 2014.
Do Not Ever Listen to Teenagers
I run a program, as part of the many hats I wear at the library where I work, called the Teen Advisory Board (or, “TAB,” which is our cooler, hipper name). This program is comprised of a twice a month meeting with a group of teen volunteers, mostly high-strung wannabe-valedictorian types (oh, as was I, at their age), who tell me what sort of things they want to see happen at the library. They feel heard; I have to work less hard on coming up with ideas for programs. Win-win! The group of kids changes year to year, and this year’s cohort was particularly geeky. This adorable little cadre of nerds first approached me with the idea for an in-library comic convention in April of this year. Why not? I thought, this won’t be a big deal. A couple of local creators, some dollar issues, a fun Saturday for everyone.
Well, fast forward to July, and I am standing in a library packed with people, crowded with vendors and guests and a special effects artist, and I am wondering how I got there.
I knew, when my kids asked me for a Con, that what they really wanted was the “Con experience.” Convention culture has become a much greater part of the mainstream consciousness, and you can safely say “cosplay” in mixed company without getting too many weird looks these days. Most of the teens involved in my library programs are between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. They hear tell of these magical oases of geekdom, and they want to go, but they can’t because they don’t drive, or maybe their parents disapprove. So they get this crippling anxiety of missing out, feeling isolated in their nerdy interests, left out of the paradise where a love of Homestuck is approved of and encouraged. So, I set out to make this (then) nameless Con as true to form as I could: guests, panels, cosplay, and photo-shoots, I would even generate long lines if I had to, dammit. I would give these adorable dorks the Con experience.
Pitching it to my director was essentially as easy as saying “I want to do this, let me do this, please.” I find that my position of knowing more about “trendy” topics than the average library worker often puts me at an advantage when it comes to convincing people I should be given money for things. “This is COOL! Youths like this! Pizza! Skateboards! THE INTERNET!” is usually enough to convince them to at least hear me out. As I’ve said before, my director is immensely positive and very progressive. I’m aware that I’m pretty privileged as far as librarians go.
Please Come to My Thing
Once the idea was approved, the hard parts started to present themselves. Who was I going to get to come to this thing? How was I possibly going to round up enough stuff to fill our library, which is small, but not miniscule? Who would talk? How would I get people to show up—nothing would be more crushing to my teenage geeks than to plan the thing and have it be crickets at showtime. I reached out to the comic book shop that employed me at the time, and they came on board with a ton of help in terms of advertising, hustling local creators and vendors, and setting up their own storefront in the library on the day of. Collaboratively, we rounded up a good number of people to show up to the convention (including the wonderful: Amy Chu, Phil Chan, Dave Bullock, Justin Piatt, and Luke Foster). Another big win in terms of attendees was the local Star Wars 501st, who automatically add double geek-points to any event. The Comic Book Shop also came through with the help of two shop regulars who agreed to come out and host a free Heroclix demo (which our library director got really, really into). But I needed a name. I needed a draw. I needed someone for my kids to get so hyped about, they wouldn’t be able to believe we were actually pulling this off.
I am a member of The Valkyries, a group run by cartoonist Kate Leth for women who work in comics retail. With the assumption that she would swiftly say “Where? What? No,” I shot Kate a Facebook message, (tip: do not subtweet a creator you want to appear at an event: “man I wish @kateleth would sign at my shop LOL!” Send a direct, professional, and courteous message through Facebook or email), explained the situation, and asked her if she would like to be our guest of honor. Much to my surprise, she immediately agreed. I approached my director, explained who Kate was, and asked for two thousand dollars to fly her from Canada and put her up for three days as a guest. This was, essentially, the entire budget for the Con, and a significant chunk of cash for a one-day summer program. Not to mention the utter and complete mortification I would feel if I threw down this money, dragged Kate all the way out to the Philly suburbs, and then had no one show up. My director agreed, handed me the credit card, and said, “I trust you,” one of the most terrifying phrases you can say to somebody. When I told my kids that Kate of Kate or Die was coming, one of them actually made a noise that could be phonetically represented as “squee.”
Guests settled, I had to consider panels. The best advice I can give you in this department is just to think of who you know. Do you have a friend who does costuming? Do you know a lot, like, a lot, about zombie comics and movies? I reached out and asked people in my friend circle if they would be willing to talk and ended up with a talk on LARPing, a lecture on comic-to-film adaptation by a friend pursuing a doctorate on the topic, and a really adorably enthusiastic Doctor Who panel from two dudes who had never met before the Con and left as good friends.
Please Give Me Money & Also Look at These Posters
Promotion was integral to the success of the Con, and the biggest mistake I made was that I didn’t start until it was pretty late in the game. A large reason for that was that neither me nor my kids could come up with a name. “Library Con” was too boring. “Kennett Con” (my library is located in a town named Kennett Square) had too many hard K sounds. “All Things Geeky Celebration and also Doctor Who,” suggested by an eager fourteen year old, was a bit of a mouthful. One day, during a particularly fraught brainstorming session, one of my kids blurted out—“well, it’s an instant convention, like a pop-up? Why not Insta-Con?” and we were all immediately sold. From there, slogans started flowing: “That’s no library, it’s a convention!” and “a wild convention appears!” were the favorites and eventually ended up on the posters. For posters and flyers, we chose three designs: Doctor Who, Pokemon, and Star Wars. Once I booked Kate, we added a fourth Adventure Time design, though it lacked a quippy slogan. A website was slapped together with enough design finesse that the kids felt it was a “real thing,” and I started getting some emails from people who wanted to take part.
I was lucky to have my convention be funded by the library that employs me, but I did raise extra funds to cover some extraneous expenses that popped up as things went along (mostly purchasing tee-shirts. You think tee-shirts are going to be the fun part? Well, guess what: you are wrong. They are expensive, and the ones I ordered came in looking like they were not intended for any human body that has ever existed). Oddly enough, raising money through crowdfunding opened up further promotion opportunities, as people reblogged, retweeted, and otherwise shared my pleas for cash. Local newspapers approached me for interviews, and slowly but surely, the Con built traction.
Actually, Do Listen to Teenagers
Really, I left a lot of the important decision-making to the teens, in terms of where to place tables, where to advertise, and how to schedule the flow of the day. I was regularly amused and proud of the serious, grim determination they showed as they shifted tables around, walked around with measuring tape, and came up with names for panels and events.
Of course, there were hitches—more than a few, and most of them directly related to the fact that I was the one handling most of the behind-the-scenes library stuff solo in terms of budget, staffing, and all that frustrating stuff (thankfully, the comic book shop could take care of their own, which was a huge help). But in the end, it came together and we saw a few hundred kids, teens, and adults, many of whom had no idea the con was happening and just wandered into the library. Insta-Con went well—almost suspiciously well—and I felt the kind of humming, vibrant togetherness in my library that day that happens at the best kind of geek events. Little kids walking in the door to the free bags of treats donated by The Comic Book Shop were in utter disbelief. My teens were, at the end of the day, exhausted to the point of collapse, but deliriously happy.
So, maybe I retract my opening statement. Insta-Con was an incredibly rewarding experience. If you have the resources, time, help, and stamina, I wholeheartedly suggest bringing a positive geek experience to your community. Just don’t do what I did and agree to your director and board of trustees to host one every year for as long as you’re employed. See you next year, I guess.
Next Time: How to Sound Remotely Professional When Explaining How Cerebro Works