AussieCon 4 - Day One

This was the first WorldCon that I'd ever been to, and since it was in my erstwhile home town for only the fourth time in its 68th iteration, it was a chance I was not going to miss. I had been involved in conventions before, but usually as a presenter, and working while not presenting to ensure the conference was a success. To be a spectator was a bit of a novelty.

For the uninitiated AussieCon 4 is the 68th World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) held in Australia (and specifically Melbourne) for the 4th time. The first (AussieCon, with no suffixed numeral) was in 1975. To be honest I was an ardent fan of Science Fiction from before then, and I am amazed that I hadn't realised that these events had taken place in my city. It is easy to forgive the first one as I was just a teenager, but then there have been another two in the intervening 35 years, and I managed to miss both of them. Well not this time.

Like all WorldCons, AussieCon 4 is entirely run by volunteers, and they do a fantastic job. Registration was a breeze and even when problems arose the organisers handled it with simple yet effective solutions that meant that nobody was grumbling. The only problems I heard of from other members were of the venue, and not of the convention. And even then they were minor - like not having freely available WiFi, and the fact that the seating provided in the foyer was deceptively uncomfortable.

I only managed to get to two sessions (apart from the opening ceremony) as I wanted to sit in on a session that conflicted with that of Cory Doctorow, so I managed to get a ticket to his session on the same topic (Copyright and Creativity) at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Even so, the sessions I did attend were well attended and provided an interesting contrast. The first ("Spoiler Alert: reviewing plot-driven fiction without giving the story away") was a panel of reviewers (mostly fans) and their experiences and tips on reviewing. It reawakened my interest in reviewing and I'm sure KC will be happy to hear that! (As one who takes her reviewing duties very seriously KC has very strong opinions about my rather more casual attitude to the task).

The next panel was "Perfectly packaged: designing and marketing science fiction". Four panelists from publishing houses explained how they see their role in bringing a work to market. A lot of the discussion was around cover art, and the differences in different markets. An example was that the American covers tended to have more text on them (with at least three or four "selling points") and tended to be more action oriented, while British markets tended to shy away from too much text on the cover. The importance of the cover was then countered by the stats that admittedly were off-the-cuff but suggested that 99% of books were passed by without a reader viewing more than their spine. It was suggested that you had less than a second for the book to capture interest - then perhaps two or three seconds for the cover art to entice the prospective buyer to turn the book over or flip open the cover. I guess the most interesting idea that I took away from this session was that the cover art is there to give the reader what it feels like to read the book, and not try and be descriptive about the story.

Then I had to hot foot it up to the Capitol Theatre in Swanston Street. Although I did manage to confuse myself and walk around 1km too far as I headed up to the LaTrobe Street end before having to come back down to the Collins Street end. Yes, both ends have RMIT campus buildings, and Capitol Theatre is one of them.

Cory Doctorow's talk on Copyright and Creativity was, as usual, insightful, commanding, and entertaining. If you are a writer and have ever been convinced by your publisher that E-books are going to kill the industry and strong DRM (Digital Rights Management) is going to save the day, take the time to search out one of Cory's talks. I think you may come away with at least a more balanced perspective on the state of the art in DRM and the size of the problem it is supposedly trying to solve. This is a man who has released all his books both in traditional published paper form and as electronic books covered by a Creative Commons license, and done so successfully to both the amazement and delight of his publisher.

Points that Cory covered (and forgive me if my rendering of them has changed the sense or intent - all errors are my own):

Copyright has gone beyond its traditional role of regulating the entertainment industry to becoming an all pervasive regimen for controlling the lives of ordinary citizens. Good use of copyright makes good sense - pervasive use makes no sense.

Art has never been a discipline that followed the rules of economic rationalism and virtually no artist ever got into it to get rich. While Cory didn't mention it I might make the point that Vincent van Gogh died virtually unknown and never made a fortune (or even a decent living as far as I can tell) from his art, as did many artists we now know as greats. Cory was quick to point out that this is not how he would like it to be, but it is how it is. The extending of copyright will not change this dynamic as it doesn't address the underlying problem.

The current discussion on DRM is actually not about copyright, but about distribution control and putting more control into the hands of the distributors of works and not the creators.

No DRM works. Or more correctly it can never work as intended. Consider DRM on an ebook. Since you must still be able to read the book there is no way to stop you (using DRM) from retyping the book, effectively getting around any and all DRM no matter how supposedly secure or strong it may be.

It is difficult to monetise fame, and impossible to monetise obscurity. To take something that I know a bit more about as an example, MySQL in its early days had as its prime aim "ubiquity". That is, make sure everyone that is doing anything with data thinks of using MySQL first. Then the money will come later. Building an audience and then connecting with them in real ways is more important than trying to treat everyone as a potential criminal and expecting to "protect" revenue that way.

Looking forward to tomorrow's feast and wishing I could clone myself so I don't miss anything!

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