Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Thoughts After the 2012 World Fantasy Convention

The 2012 World Fantasy Convention is over, and I feel deflated. I met so many people, and bought (And got for free!) so many books when I was there that I now feel like Cinderella after the ball – kind of ragged, slightly in disbelief that there was so much fun to be had, and sad that it passed by so quickly.

I think a full accounting of all 4 days will be too long to write, but I do want to provide summaries of certain aspects of attending, so here we go.

The Panels

I only attended about half a dozen panels in all. Some of them were unmemorable or downright frustrating, but the two panels I attended on Sunday, one about maps in fantasy fiction and the other about the intersection between the real and the fantastic, were fabulous.

In particular, I was surprised by how forceful and eloquent a speaker Jo Walton was, and I think that I may need to reassess my opinion of her book Among Others. I was also impressed by Gregory A. Wilson, who gave an extremely cogent explanation on the difference between fantasy fiction and magical realism. I wish I could quote him verbatim here but, in essence, he said magical realism takes the fantastic at such face value that no one feels awe or wonder when encountering it. Because the fantastic is so accepted, it becomes normal, then boring – and he finds that this eventual acceptance and contempt makes magical realism the most depressing genre in speculative fiction.

My biggest regret about the convention is that I didn’t attend the Friday afternoon session on e-publishing, as both Mark Leslie (who works for Kobo) and Michael J. Deluca (who helps run Weightless Books) were on the panel. However, it was on at the same time as a reading by Cat Rambo, which brings me to the next part of the convention experience…

The Readings

I attended half a dozen readings and they were almost uniformly excellent. It all started off on Thursday afternoon with Patrick Rothfuss reading a new (as-yet-unpublished) short story and a funny poem about Cyranos de Bergerac. Immediately after that was a reading by Aliette de Bodard.

Friday afternoon was Cat Rambo‘s reading, and when you consider that she made her audience collectively gasp at a key point in her story, you could say that she knocked it out of the park. The second one on Friday was by Gabrielle Harbowy of Dragon Moon Press – she and I had had a lovely conversation together earlier that day, so I was happy to support her as she read a story about a fortune teller, two lovers, and intricate tattoos.

Then, on Saturday afternoon there was a group reading between C.S.E. Cooney, Caitlyn Paxson, Amal El-Mohtar, and Patty Templeton that included music. Amal El-Mohtar played a miniature harp, which I watched with great interest. However, of the four authors, I think C.S.E. Cooney’s reading was the most memorable – indeed, it was the best one I saw in all 4 days. I wish I had the presence of mind to record her story; her voice flooded the room like a storm, so forceful was her reading.

The final one I attended was later on the same day, and the one that i looked forward to the most: Garth Nix. He entertained us all with a sneak peek of his upcoming book Clariel, the long-awaited prequel to the Old Kingdom trilogy. In fact, I have a funny story about that, which I’ll share in my next post.

The Books

Never mind the huge dealers’ room where publishers of all shapes and sizes set up shop. Those books you pay for, like any other. Instead, imagine a giant canvas bag nearly the size of a pillowcase stuffed to the brim with free books and other goodies.

That’s what I’m talking about. Every single person who showed up at WFC got one, and there was even a table set up where people could swap out books they got in their bag but didn’t want with books from other attendants that they actually did want. My fiance, who also attended, and I made off like bandits with a huge stash of free books.

Seriously, this is the pile of books that we managed to score from WFC. Even within that pile, I can still think of 1 or 2 books that are missing.

Of course, beyond that stash, we also bought a number of books from the dealers’ room. Never let it be said that I don’t support the publishing industry!

The Authors

One of the best things about WFC is how it concentrates the fantasy publishing world into one small place. In a space of days, I got to talk to luminaries like Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran, and up-and-comers like Ian Rogers and Rio Youers.

My favourite author moment was a conversation I had on Saturday morning with author Karen Lord (the one behind my personal favourite Redemption in Indigo), famed illustrator Charles Vess, and Stonecoast MFA graduate Jennifer Brissett. We talked about the value that autographs bring to books, and how hard it is to write good characters. Not good as in successfully-drawn, but as in honest and decent. It’s hard to write someone who has integrity, but is well-rounded and not a boring cardboard cutout like Superman. That’s part of why I love Lord’s character Paama so much.

The Hotel

This was probably the most frustrating aspect of the convention, as the convention hotel technically wasn’t located in Toronto, but in Richmond Hill, one of its suburbs. I wanted to save money and stay at home during the convention, but this meant that I would have to commute an hour and a half each morning using public transit and rely on someone to pick me and my fiance up each evening.

It also meant that I couldn’t attend any of the cool after-hours impromptu happenings, like Charles de Lint’s jam session with other authors on the top floor. My fellow WCDR member Jenny Madore stayed at the hotel and got to see this happen, the lucky duck.

While I understand why they chose to have the convention in Richmond Hill – Toronto isn’t exactly cheap – getting there was a pain. It would have made a lot more sense, I think, to host it in downtown Toronto, especially considering the WFC website and official program pamphlet talked about all of the wonderful world-class restaurants that the downtown core had.

What I Learned

Those I spoke to at the event told me that the way the World Fantasy Convention handles things is unusual. For example, it’s a con focused on the professionals within the industry, so there was a higher proportion of editors, agents, and publishing houses than normal – this also meant that there were absolutely no people in costume. However, WFC sets itself apart from other cons in a few more ways:

  • Almost no other con gives out the humongous bag of free books to its attendants that WFC does.
  • WFC’s massive autograph session is also unusual – most other cons have authors signing at different times in different locations, instead of the single huge free-for-all in the same room that WFC does.
  • WFC also offers free meals to attendants, though the quantities are limited. The quality and variety of the food was quite good, though, and word of mouth spread through the hotel about it within a day.

Future Plans

Several people I spoke to at the convention talked about how wonderful Ad Astra (an annual fantasy convention hosted in Toronto) is. Because of this, I’m pretty sure that I’ll register for it and attend next April. The World Fantasy committee also announced which cities will be hosting the event in 2014 and 2015: 2014 will be in Washington DC and 2015 will be in Saratoga Springs, New York. I’m about 90% sure I will attend one or both of those events, though time will tell about my availability.

So, there we go! I said I wouldn’t write an exhaustive account of WFC 2012, but I did anyway!

Should eBooks have DRM?

I bought myself a Kobo Touch last year for Boxing Day, as I figured that reading eBooks would give me a better understanding of changes within the publishing industry. I chose the Kobo over other eReaders for a number of reasons, but I liked the fact that it supported ePub, the (current) industry format, and that you could expand your library by inserting a MicroSD card into the device. A homegrown alternative to Amazon could do all that and get excellent reviews from Wired in the process? Sign me up!

Once I started using the Kobo, though, Digital Rights Management (DRM) software reared its ugly head, and things weren’t so simple. Books bought through the Kobo store can’t be transferred onto a Micro SD card – instead, they are automatically stored on the Kobo eReader itself. The innate storage capacity of the Kobo Touch is 1 GB, which is good, but not great, hence the allure of being able to expand your library through the Micro SD.

However, books from the Kobo store are normally formatted with Adobe’s DRM, and the Micro SD can store eBooks only if the stored files contain no DRM at all. This means that I can’t save space on my Kobo by transferring Kobo’s ebooks to the card. Sure, I can delete the Kobo books once I’m done and then download them again for free if I wish, but that’s an unpleasant solution at best.

Isn’t having a huge number of books at your fingertips one of the biggest reasons why people buy eReaders? Maintaining a large collection is rather hard to do without the extra storage capacity the Micro SD provides, and the Micro SD card is incompatible with Kobo’s own store. This is critical to understand.

So, here we come to today. The next series of Canada Reads debates starts in a few days, and I haven’t read any of the books in the lineup. I want to read at least a few of them, so I researched what eBook options were available. Here are the results:

  • All 5 books are available at the Kobo store
  • One of those books, Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce, was available only from the Kobo store
  • Two of those books, Ken Dryden’s The Game and Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran, were available for purchase from the publishers’ websites
    • Wiley, publisher of The Game, explicitly stated on the purchase page that the eBook had Adobe DRM enabled
    • Penguin, the publisher of Prisoner of Tehran, didn’t state whether the eBook had DRM, but a subsequent search of the site revealed that Penguin books do have DRM enabled
  • The two remaining books, Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road and John Vaillant’s The Tiger, were available for download from the Sony eReader store at much higher prices

The result? I didn’t buy any of the five books promoted by Canada Reads, and placed eBook holds through the Toronto Public Library instead.

This evening I encountered something completely different. Quite by accident (thank you, Strange Horizons book reviews!) I stumbled upon The Bone Spindle published by Aqueduct Press. I hadn’t heard of either the book or the publisher, but the review was so intriguing that I bought the book once I found out that Aqueduct Press specialized in publishing feminist science fiction.

It turns out that Aqueduct Press sells ePub books without any sort of DRM. Finally, a publisher whose wares I could buy without using up my Kobo’s limited storage!

Poking around on Aqueduct’s blog led me to Fantasy Magazine (now merged with Lightspeed Magazine). And Lightspeed led me to Weightless Books. Let’s take a look at Weightless’ About page, shall we?

We sell DRM-free ebooks because we believe those who buy ebooks here should be able to move them around between their devices at will.

What we’re hoping to do here is to make this the first site to go to for interesting ebooks from independent presses.

Let’s go over that a bit more slowly:

  1. None of the books or magazine subscriptions that Weightless Books sells contain any DRM.
  2. They sell books from independent presses, meaning that the books have gone through some sort of editorial process before publication.

Weightless Books is okay with selling quality books without subjecting me to the anti-piracy hassle that traditional publishers would typically force down my throat? You mean to say that because of this policy, I can buy as many books as I want and store them without any fuss on my capacious Micro SD card? How amazing! It’s difficult to explain how much peril my credit card is in now.

Because of the lack of DRM on both sites, I bought both The Bone Spindle and a year-long subscription to Lightspeed Magazine. Those purchases cost just over $30 total. And it was precisely because of the existence of DRM software (and what DRM meant in terms of my eReader’s storage capacity) that I decided against buying bestselling books offered by the traditional publishing establishment.

This leads me to wonder: How many others are there like me with the same concerns about DRM, and how much do we represent in lost sales? More importantly, will publishers ever regard DRM software as a limiting factor in the way that I do?