We are back from Sci-Fi Valley Con 2015 in Altoona, PA and WOW, did we have a great time! Usually when people ask how we liked a con, I can smile and say some good things about it, happily share some pictures of cosplayers, and report that we sold enough merchandise to make it worthwhile. But saying such a thing about Sci-Fi Valley Con would be an injustice. Somehow, this eccentric convention in out-of-the-way Altoona became something extraordinary.
This was the sixth convention which we attended as vendors, and except for one (last weekend’s Lehigh Valley Comic Con), we’ve done well enough to make the trip worthwhile. Shell and I feel pretty seasoned at this point, and we’re quite good at selling our books. Even so, the experience is often exhausting physically and sometimes emotionally. We expect to go through at least several consecutive hours of disappointment as people walk by our booth, their noses turned up with disinterest. It hurts and it’s frustrating, especially if you’ve sunk a lot of time and money into the con (and believe me, most vendors have). You start feeling desperate, like this whole independent creator thing isn’t going to work and the only thing you’re going home with is a battered ego and a big hole in your pocket. You want to stand up and run away from the social rejection pressure cooker that is your table and check out the rest of the con, but you can’t. What if you walk away when someone really interested comes by? And besides, you can’t afford to spend any more money! (My worst experience with this was the 2014 Pittsburgh Comic Con. When all was said and done, we had a lot of fun and did pretty well, but that first day and a half was a soul-searing experience.)
Well, it wasn’t like that at Sci-Fi Valley Con. The con-goers were receptive and easy to engage with. I’m not saying it was Elysium for independent authors or anything, but it didn’t feel like an up-hill battle. Maybe it was just our con-going experience, but I think the audience was really different. Since we sell illustrated novels instead of comic books, we like to start our pitch by asking people if they like to read; at other cons, you run into a distressing amount of people who roll their eyes and proudly proclaim that they do not, in fact, like to read. There was much less of this at Sci-Fi Valley Con. We had been told beforehand that this was a very good con for indy authors, and, at least from our perspective, we were told right. By my count, there were about one dozen authors of primarily prose books there. I can’t speak to how well they did, but it didn’t seem like they had a hard time getting people to stop by.
Of course, there were also a lot of indy comic book creators and visual artists there. Likewise, I can’t speak to their success, but I saw tons of people walking around with bags filled with new comics, graphic novels, prints and commissions. There was such a range of cool and original stuff there, you’d have to be a real dud not to find at least one thing that fired your imagination. Several times my jaw dropped and I uttered a “Wow, that’s awesome!” Seriously, there was just so much different stuff there: etchers, engravers, sculptors, game designers, clothes and armor makers, home artisans, and a ton of creators more interested in talking about their original creations than their 50th illustration of the Doctor or the X-girls in a bikini. There’s nothing wrong with that art, of course, and there were many fantastic examples of comic book, movie, cartoon, and TV show character illustrations on display, but that wasn’t all there was to see. And most of those artists had something original that was even more beautiful and captivating than their takes on established characters.
I mentioned indy game developers, but one of the really cool things about Sci-Fi Valley Con was that there were two game store vendors who sold RPGs and a variety of miniature games. Now, such a thing is not really unusual at a convention, but they did something that I have never seen outside of a dedicated gaming convention: both stores had several tables (one of them had a whole room off the main convention floor) where they demonstrated their games to curious customers. Besides being a great marketing idea, it was just one of several reasons this convention felt more like an experience rather than just another excuse to empty your wallet. Of course it had the usual stuff like a costume contest and discussion panels, but it also had less-usual things like block printing demonstrations and the great ConQuest (more on that later). For the most part, people seemed to actually be enjoying themselves; they could take the time to have fun and discover something new instead of merely trying to survive amid the noise and body odor of thousands of surly people.
This, I think, is one of the virtues of having a con in a somewhat out-of-the-way location like Altoona. The con felt more relaxed, somehow, even when the convention floor was packed shoulder to shoulder on Saturday afternoon. The people were easy-going, not constantly in a hurry, and not pushy or rude as the crowds in bigger cities often are. (Sorry, but it’s true.) The convention center was spacious and modern, with plenty of parking. You didn’t have to fight a traffic snarl in or out of the convention center, nor did you have to worry about getting your car towed for having the temerity to park in the next lot over.
Of course, hosting the con in a smaller area like Altoona has financial benefits, too. The hotels are much cheaper than, say, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia (we used AirBnB as we usually do, but the prices were close enough that we actually considered a hotel), to say nothing of New York or San Diego. The convention center food was much less expensive than any other con I’ve been to, and it was actually quite tasty with a surprisingly wide selection. All of this combined with the low cost for a table ($50 for artists, $99 for dealers as of the time of this writing) makes it almost a no-brainer for vendors. Every penny you don’t have to spend on the hotel, or parking, or eating out is a penny added to your bottom line. Unlike a lot of cons where you’re throwing money down a hole, just hoping to achieve some awareness, creators can actually make a profit at Sci-Fi Valley Con.
Now I have to talk about ConQuest, easily one of the best things about the con: basically, attendees who wished to participate had to go around to various vendor tables and complete challenges which would earn them tickets for prize drawings. Although it was set up by the con organizers, (CORRECTION: ConQuest is actually set up by the nice folks folks at Gearbox Union, a collective of ‘geek’-culture enthusiasts of all stripes who also happen to run a nifty podcast that we may or may not have been interviewed on. Check them out!) it was executed by the individual vendors, many of whom came up with some very fun and funny challenges (and the Ascension Epoch booth was no exception). This was a great feature of the con, both for attendees who got to have a lot of fun and win prizes, and for the vendors who now had a golden opportunity to sell to people who they might not have met otherwise. A bunch of people who might have never even given us a second look went home with Ascension Epoch books thanks to ConQuest. If you want to buy a table at this con (and I think you should), then you’d be a fool not to participate.
ConQuest also introduced Shell and I to Dave, David, and Josh, a trio of friendly locals that we later met up with at the con-organized after party at a bowling alley on Saturday night. We had a blast hanging out with them. This was very new to me, for while I’ve hobnobbed with guests and artists after a con before, I’ve never had the pleasure of really getting to know attendees. They came back again on Sunday and picked up some books; I don’t know whether they’ll become fans of Ascension Epoch, but we’re certainly fans of them.
So the con was cool, Altoona is cool, and the price is right. You should do this con, either as an attendee or an artist/vendor, no doubt about it. But that doesn’t mean it was perfect. There are a bunch of things the organizers need to keep a handle on, most of them minor, but others pretty important. For starters, they had some problems clearing the queue of eager attendees on Saturday, and I noticed some grumbling as people waited in an ever-growing line. They’ve also got to crack the whip on the convention center to make sure that their staff is continually cleaning and re-stocking the restrooms; by late Saturday, the men’s room was a mess, and from what Shell told me, the lady’s room was, too. Yes, there were a lot of people there, but it was like the cleaning staff simply gave up. The situation was not considerably improved by Sunday morning, either. I’m sure the organizers are paying a lot of money to host the con there, so they should expect top-notch support from the venue. I also heard complaints from several of the vendors along the back wall (rows X and Y especially) that relatively few people were passing by, and were instead turning around and returning back down the aisles they came from. I’d like to think that this is primarily a flow issue and something can be done about it, but it may just be an issue with the relatively low density of the tables back there. I don’t know, but I hope they give it some thought.
Those problems aside, I’m going again, and I recommend you go, too. In fact, I’ve already purchased our table for next year. Sci-Fi Valley Con was our best convention experience to date and I hold little hope of it being superseded except, perhaps, by next year’s Sci-Fi Valley Con.
Looking for our pictures from the con? Click here.