I’m very sorry to all of our Pittsburgh-area fans, but we will not be at Steel City Con this December as originally planned. Shell and I are extremely disappointed, and not least because Pittsburgh is our debut city and has been the home of our most enthusiastic fans. I can assure you that we had every intention of being there and, up until unexpected events occurred, we were still gearing up for the show. We had intended to debut The Dismal Tide, the second book in our series about Pittsburgh teen superheroes, at the con, just in time for Christmas.
What changed? A longer explanation will come below, but the short story is that Steel City Con decided to violate our vendor contract and alter the terms at the last minute, flipping us the bird.
A mere 3.5 weeks before the first day of the convention, Steel City Con sent out a blast email to all vendors that they would no longer be allowed to set up on Friday morning and anyone who wasn’t set-up by Thursday evening would have their table sold without refunds. At every previous Steel City Con, and in the terms specified for the December 2015 con, there were always set-up hours on the morning of the first day. If this wasn’t an option, we would not never have bought the table.
Like most independent creators, I have a day job that pays the bills and makes it possible for us to print books and T-shirts, travel to conventions, and buy con tables in the first place. In order to do a three-day convention like Steel City Con, I already have to sacrifice a full day of work. As I am a contract software developer, I don’t get personal or vacation days. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. By not working on Friday, we were already losing about $400. By taking off Thursday as well, we would have lost about $800 before we even left the house. I imagine the situation is just as bad for artists and vendors whose day jobs include paid time off, since not everyone can just call in a vacation day on short notice, especially on the run-up to Christmas. (And in any case, those people should not be forced to give up a vacation day because the con organizer has a stick up his ass.)
The most we have ever brought in at any convention (and by the way, it was not Steel City Con) was $500, and that’s gross revenue, not net of expenses like travel, lodging, table fees, book printing, and promotional advertising. (It’s a dirty secret of the convention scene that most graphic artists and authors don’t make very much money. The vendors bringing in the lion’s share of the sales are people who make jewelry, trinkets, and clothing accessories; even comic book and toy vendors don’t make as much. As we sell paperback books and e-books which retail between $5-$10, we simply don’t have the potential to make the same sort of money that someone who sells expensive collectibles can.) So, when considering the costs of missing an additional day of work alone, we are already at a guaranteed net loss.
But in fact, the situation is even worse than that because we would have had to incur the additional costs of an extra day of lodging (at least $100, probably much more, presuming we would have been able to find a nearby hotel room with such late notice), plus an extra day of boarding for our dogs. As I said already, had these been the terms of the agreement when we bought the table, we would never have purchased.
To add insult to injury, Steel City Con also announced that vendors are no longer allowed to bring their own chairs; hence forward, they must rent them off the convention. Yes, that’s right: Steel City Con makes you pay extra for two chairs. That’s actually not so silly if it allows you to save $10-$20 by bringing your own folding chairs, like it used to, but now it amounts to a naked grab for cash.
And let’s be clear on something: these chairs they’re charging rent for are the property of the Monroeville Convention Center and came with the facility when they rented it. There is no additional cost to the organizers of Steel City Con to provide these chairs. How do I know this? Because last time we were there, I paid $10 for the extra chair. When we arrived, the second chair was nowhere to be found. When I complained to the convention desk, they told me to just go into the storage area and take one myself from the convention center’s sky-high stacks of hundreds of metal folding chairs.
If you’re thinking that it would be hard to come up with a more petty and greedy act than that, don’t worry, Steel City Con has done all the thinking for you. Pretty much every con we’ve vended at (and we’ve done about a dozen different cons by now) gives you two passes and two chairs along with the table. As I’ve already mentioned, Steel City Con only gives you the one chair. But, to further nickel and dime you, it also only comes with one pass. If you think I’m joking about this, go read their vendor agreement. Since virtually no con vendor goes it alone (it’s an almost impossible workload even for two people, and that’s assuming no one gets hungry or has to go to the bathroom), this is a tactic worthy of shyster used car salesmen (“Oh, you wanted tires with that car? That’s gonna cost ya extra!”). And, as I already implied, that second pass doesn’t cover the second chair either. You still need to buy the chair separately.
OK, OK, so the stuff about the extra chairs and extra passes is spelled out clearly in the vendor agreement. It’s a display of how greedy the con organizers are, and a good example of their nickel-and-dime-vendors-to-death agenda, but it’s not a violation of contract. On the other hand, changing the set-up date and telling you you’re no longer allowed to bring your own chairs certainly is.
When Shell expressed these concerns to convention organizer Dominic Alessandria, his response was, uh, less than sympathetic:
All the updated policies are necessary due to vendors who have abused the rules in the past. None of these policies are changing and will be strictly enforced with no exceptions.
Thank you again for your comments.
Did you get that? Unspecified others have “abused the rules”, so therefore Dom gets to unilaterally alter everyone else’s contract at will and with hardly no notice.
So, we went to Paypal to get our money back. Dom said we were lying even as he admitted to the substance of our claims in his response and claimed carte blanche to alter the contract any way he saw fit, with no recourse to the vendor. That sounds like a “Soviet Russia” joke in the making, but in a moderately free society, that ain’t how contracts work. This is the M.O. of a two-bit mafioso shaking down the local deli (or a Sith Lord shaking down a mining colony!), not the behavior of an honest businessman.
(By the way, this is not the first instance of Darth Dom arbitrarily “altering the deal.” Last year, he decided to increase the hours of the Friday show mere weeks before the con, long after all the vendors had already paid and agreed to their set times. Now, Steel City Con is already too long–10 hours(!) on Friday and Saturday and 7 hours on Sunday–but tacking on a few more hours to the slowest day of the show is a plain ol’ kick in the nuts.
And it isn’t just vendors getting shafted with the changes, because for this year’s December show, after lots of attendees had already bought their tickets expecting the show to be open until 9 PM, he decided to end the show at 8 PM. (Do you think the attendees will get a partial refund or an apology?)
Paypal ruled against us with this mind-boggling declaration:
After careful consideration, we’re unable to decide this claim in your favor at this time.
The seller confirmed that the item was shipped.
Which is funny, considering that there was no item to ship in the first place and the dispute was over a last minute contract change for a convention that didn’t even occur yet. Maybe the nitwits at PayPal thought we were disputing shipment of a coffee table or something? Who knows. They neither asked for documents or clarification, so they obviously were not too concerned about getting the decision right or even making sense. This is exactly the sort of complacent incompetence I have come to expect from PayPal, though.
And that’s the end of the story. We will not be attending Steel City Con in 2015 or ever again. We apologize to anyone who was looking forward to seeing us again and buying our new book, but there’s really no way around it. This is a business for us, so we have to be able to justify our expenses. More importantly, we are simply not going to vend at a place that treats us like crap.
We will, however, be back in Pittsburgh in 2016. We plan to attend Confluence and possibly also the new Three Rivers ComicCon. And if you don’t mind making the drive out to Altoona, we’ll also be at Sci-Fi Valley Con, which is probably the best convention experience we’ve ever had. If you’ve had enough of the high prices, lack of parking, and shady business practices of Steel City Con, you’re sure to love it.
And if you don’t have plans for New Year’s, might we suggest New Year’s PartyCon in Allentown, PA? It’s going to be awesome!
See you next year, Pittsburgh!