Why We Are Not Going to Steel City Con

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:

Hi Shell,

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.

– Dominic

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!

24 thoughts on “Why We Are Not Going to Steel City Con

  1. No!! I’m so bummed you guys won’t be there. It sounds really crappy, and I’ve heard a lot of rabble rousing from the vendors on how strict and penny pinching Dom can be, to the vendor’s detriment… if it makes a difference, Ellie or I can “set up” and hold your table Thursday night and secure a second chair for you (I’ve NEVER been asked to pay for a second chair or badge, and those’ve been in their contract for as long as I’ve been a vendor). Also, as far as lodging and pet boarding, you guys can stay in our guest room! We have a dog (male, neutered) and we can crate them in the same room or segregate them. Let us know if that will help you guys get here! Shame to lose your money AND your booth…


  2. That’s shameful! If they want to lose the business of artists and other creative vendors, this is the perfect way to go about it. Sorry to hear you won’t be participating in future Steel City Cons – after reading this post, neither will I.

  3. You guys need to appeal Paypal’s decision. I would call them and they should escalate the matter. I’m totally linking to this when I do my Con review on my site.

    • We did contact PayPal about their nonsensical judgment. They replied today, stating that they sent the wrong message, but they stand by their decision anyway. They agreed with Dom Vader that the vendor agreement allows him to change the vendor agreement unilaterally in whatever way he wants. :S

      As I said in the post, this is utter BS. The idea that one party to the contract can alter said contract at will invalidates the entire point of having a contract in the first place! Clauses like the sort in the vendor agreement are to cover irrelevant incidentals, not to provide a means for one party to actively screw the other. Changing the day of the setup is a significant change that materially alters the agreement. It’s tantamount to changing the day of the convention itself.

      Maybe Paypal and Dom Vader think it would be perfectly acceptable for him to give everyone a three foot table instead of the agreed upon 8 foot table, or move the already purchased tables out into the parking lot so he has more tables to sell on the inside of the building.

      Oh well. Steel City Con is already getting a lot of bad press over this and similar incidents. I hope this is the most expensive $180 he’s ever “earned.”

      • Please call and talk to someone at PayPal, and keep talking until someone listens. Escalate to a supervisor if you need to. If that doesn’t work, contact your bank to issue a charge back. But keep making noise. This guy is changing the terms you agreed to without your agreeing to the new terms, so he has no right to keep your money. Please don’t just let go of it!

  4. I always wanted to go to Steel City Con,but based on this I think I’ll pass. One of my friends owns a food concession and I’ve seen how greedy organizers can screw vendors over.

  5. Pittsburgh is my debut City as well. When I received the same email, i was taken back. “Who does S.C.C. think they are? Wizard World?” I said to myself. I already have too much invested into going, so I have to make the new Thursday setup deadline work. Depending on how this goes, I may or may not do it again this Spring. I will be doing Sci-Fi Valley Con and quite possibly the new 3 Rivers Con (done by New Dimension Comics). I think part of the problem is that Pittsburgh is saturated by Conventions. I’m just waiting for S.C.C.’s prices to jack up like W.W. See you at Sci-Fi Valley Con.

  6. That’s too bad. I enjoy Steel City Con and I have watched it evolve so much over the past few years. I completely understand your concern over the new changes, there are a lot of them. Looking at it from their perspective I can see how they would be faced with tough choices. They have to either adapt or die.
    Managing people can be a real pain.
    I do go to these conventions alone. It ain’t easy. Long hours with little reward and many people turn their nose up at small press, however, it’s when people actually do buy the stories and enjoy them as much as I enjoy making them…it’s all worth it. Steel City Con has been good to me, I sold my first real comic book there and because there are 3 every year, I have been able to use that structure as a deadline for new content. I don’t know what the future holds, I just have to show up and find out. Best of luck to you with everything.

  7. I noticed this after the one con we went to there. The early bird prices for tickets ended in just a couple of weeks. We just spent a good bit of money at that one. We would not have had the money in time for the next one. So we missed the following steel city con. This will be the last steel city con we will be going to.

  8. This is a true case of “U mad bro?” if I’ve ever seen one. I can’t help but think there’s a bigger picture behind this and you’re mostly directing your frustration on the basis of “I got the short end of the stick”. I’m assuming the convention has not denied you the ability to setup, you’re just choosing not to.

    You further point out your convention financial situation:
    “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.”

    So if you’re making less going to (any) shows than you are just staying at home working, why go at all?
    Exposure? It seems like people such as myself that never heard of you before today were able to be reached by social media.
    Sales? obviously not.
    Fun? sure, but if you’re going for fun, why spend all weekend behind a table just to make a paltry sum.

    That “we can do anything we want” clause is in any vendor or artist alley contract I’ve ever seen over the last 20 years of running, staffing, attending or selling at conventions. At least you still CAN setup, and the convention didn’t disappear with your money and not run the event at all (that’s a classic).

    More probable is that you’re the bottom rung of a ladder where rules have been handed down starting from the convention center, to the convention, to you. The convention center bills by what’s on paper, so that’s probably where the chair policy comes in. The rules probably got muddled and filtered on the way down, so it may appear that the convention is screwing you over, but more likely is that your contact (nice nickname) got an ultimatum himself.

    TL;DR – If you want to survive the convention circuit, suck it up and deal with it. Posts like this won’t make you any more favorable in dealing with vendor coordinators. You will sometimes win some, and always lose some. If it’s not financially viable, find another alternative that is (EG ad-only participation at conventions, patreon, social media promos, etc..).

    • There’s always at least one person on an Internet discussion who will defend the indefensible. That doesn’t bother me anymore. What does bother me, though, is when someone who has no idea what he’s talking about nonetheless decides to tell everyone how it really is. Your claim that some convention center rule or billing policy requires Steel City Con to charge for chairs is refuted by the simple fact that other conventions I’ve attended in the same building (i.e. Pittsburgh ComicCon before it was bought by Wizard World) made no such attempt to nickel and dime the vendors.

      The convention has denied me the ability to set up at the time I was originally going to set up–the only time that made it worthwhile for me to attend. If I had known that he was going to require me to appear the day before the convention I would never have purchased the table in the first place. This is all spelled out clearly in the article. If you just think it’s no big deal to require me to take an extra day off of work and incur the other expenses involved with leaving a day earlier than planned, then I would guess that you don’t work and have no other responsibilities yourself. And if you think it’s acceptable to antagonize your customers with 11th hour changes, then you are probably related to Dom Vader.

      I am not sure what you don’t understand about our reasons for going to cons, or if you’re just calling me a liar and insinuating that I secretly make boku bucks at Steel City Con. If I pulled in a million bucks per day at Steel City Con, it wouldn’t change the fact that they changed the set-up day, charge you for chairs and extra passes, and generally treat their vendors like crap.

      We go to cons with the hope of making some money, but primarily to get word out about our books. We are willing to take a certain financial loss, but that willingness is not unlimited. If you don’t understand this, then perhaps you shouldn’t instruct people how to “survive the convention circuit.” I’m not exactly new to conventions and I don’t need your advice how to handle them. We’ve never received this kind of treatment at any of the other 11 conventions we’ve done in the last couple of years and that tells me all I need to know about the way Steel City Con operates.

      Here’s one final thought for you: it doesn’t make me happy that this post is one of the most viewed and reshared things I’ve ever written. It is enormously disappointing that literally thousands of people are coming to my website not to read about and purchase my books, but to read about the skullduggery of Steel City Con. Do you think that maybe, just maybe, the reason that this post, written by someone you’ve never heard of, has attracted all this attention is because a lot of other people have had similar dealings with Steel City Con?

    • Your defense of an obvious money grab (limiting the number of chairs just so people have to buy chairs … really?) reeks of investment. Are you the show organizer?

      Every single vendor I’ve spoken to is disgusted with these changes and sees Steel City Con for what it is: a small show that’s turned into a cash-grab. It’s actually good for the industry in the long run, though. People who are just in the business for the short-term cash grab end up being black-listed pretty quick. Like you said, there are tons of shows in the area; ones that are run by shady organizers who are now pissing off vendors after already overcharging for admission won’t be around long. Better ones will take their place.

  9. I’ve been coming to Steel City for a few years since it was fairly close and the prices were good. This past show was a real eye-opener with the added badge fee. Now………….I just found out I HAVE to come set up on Thursday and pay for another chair since we can no longer bring one of our own. How stupid is that????? Some vendors stood in line at the last show, ready to pay for this one, complaining. I asked them why we were all complaining but standing there with money in hand. My reason was so I could meet Danny Glover and maybe make some money. Well, Danny Glover will not be appearing and I just don’t have the money for a hotel so I either have to find it or drive an hour back and forth each day. I’m so upset with many of these stupid rules and feel that everyone needs to band together. Either things will change or someone else will come in and accommodate vendors and artists. At this point, I may just have to lose my money that I have paid since I can’t bring the same person all 4 days. The wrist bracelet thing is just crazy. I thought the Nazis were gone. Seems not. And, don’t get in line 1 minute before 9 because you won’t get in. 1 minute!!!!!!!!!!!!! I’m not sure if I’ll be there or not. Depends if I can get hotel money. I’m sure I won’t make expenses as I never do. I just enjoy meeting people and getting autographs.

    • I intend to write another post about the wrist bands and the parking lot goon squad, I just haven’t had the time yet.

      I am curious what you’re referring to about the “1 minute before 9” comment. Are you saying that attendees who queued up in line before the 9 AM opening were denied entrance, or are you talking about dealers? I’d like to hear more about that.

  10. How about how this convention years ago was only $10 to get in, and advertised “Don’t pay what those other shows charge”. Now ticket prices have gone from $10 to $12 to $20 to $25 on certain days!? So basically, to attend this show you have to contribute funds for them to acquiring autograph guests. I only went to buy collectibles and refuse to pay $25 to get in the door for the “privilege” of perusing dealers tables. Won’t go back and I hope others will refuse but I seriously doubt it will happen.

    • It’s even worse this time: $30 for Saturday admission. It’s hard to believe that when we started going to this con, $25 got you a three-day pass plus a bag of goodies. And what are attendees getting out of this extra money? Nothing.

      This is obviously bad for attendees, but vendors also suffer from this policy. If someone has to pay $30 for themselves and their families just to get in, then they’re shelling out $50-60 for signed photographs with some celebrity, they don’t have much money left to spend on vendors. And after they’ve waited in line for an hour and dealt with the con’s rude and clueless employees, many don’t have the patience or the energy to walk the vendor floor. I don’t blame them.

  11. I used to be a vendor at the show but when my dad passed away 2 weeks before one of the Cons back in 2005, I asked Dom for my money back because I wasn’t in the right mind to do shows for a while because that is what my dad and myself did for 20 years together. He refused to refund my money because I couldn’t attend and so I said that was enough and never have been back. Plus reading everyone’s comments, shows should be fun and a great experience…it’s not about how much money the promoter can make!!!

  12. After reading this article I will never go to steel city con. If that is how the organizer treats the vendors I will not support that. I hope dom reads this and knows he lost me as a customer, and I doubt I will be the only one.

  13. I read your story with much interest, as I run a gaming club here in Pittsburgh that runs a 3-day convention at the Monroeville Convention Center (MCC) each November (GASPcon 16 just finished on Nov 6-8). We opened a dedicated dealer’s room this year for the first time, and we bent over backwards for our vendors. Thursday evening set-up, Friday morning set-up, extra tables and chairs, we paid for electricity, we even closed the dealer’s room for a lunch break each day. All this for $50 for a 10×10 booth.

    We don’t have our date yet for next year, but the dealer’s room was a huge success and it will return. If you’re interested in coming to a small con with a big heart, look us up. I’ve heard similar horror stories about the SCC, he even tried to rope us into running demo games for him, but of course we had to all buy badges, and pay for a booth, and be there all day each day – needless to say we passed on his “offer”.

    Sorry for your headache,

  14. The SCC folks blocked me on Facebook only because I had the nerve to complain that a third of their guests weren’t there once on the Friday afternoon, as advertised, and for complaining that they failed to note anywhere in their page that the Parkway East was closed for the weekend. And guess what, folks? The Parkway East is going to be closed again this Saturday and Sunday, cutting off the main road for travelers from the south, west and north. Lots of luck, folks!

    • No surprise there, Jerry. This is the same guy who refuses to announce the license plate of a car that has its headlights on, or a car that is about to be towed from the neighboring parking lot.

  15. I would have to agree with you on the not going back thing. I enjoyed doing them in the past, even if it was a little money hungry with the whole $30 dollars for a tablecloth and 10$ for a chair. I was set up in the artists section most of the time, and even though it was kind of annoying with people making prints of things they didn’t create and were selling them in the dealer room, it was still a profitable venture. You never knew exactly what you were going to make, but for 79 dollar tables, as long as you could find a place to stay for cheap you could normally make a profit.
    This last December con tho, things changed. I didn’t even know dealers only got one badge, because it’s hard to read all of the emails Dom sends literally every day. They ended up in the spam folder.
    Then when confronted about the whole issue of Friday setup he said it was because he didn’t want people driving forklifts around and not being set up in time.
    That makes sense. For vendors who need pallet loads of merchandise.
    There is literally no one in the artist section that has a need for a pallet load of goods though. Why should we have to pay an extra hotel day because of that? Basically, with one extra wristband cost and chair rental and table fee along with 3 hotel days, you are looking at having to make over 400 dollars to break even, not including production costs. That’s just not feasible to most people.

    They also ramped up the cost from 15 dollars last year in August to 30 dollars to get in.
    If he is soo desperate for money, why not cut some of the money out of the 3000$ costume contest? I’ve never heard of a contest with that kind of prize limit.
    I attempted to email him in a professional manner about it, because lots of artists were complaining. But when it came time to put up or shut up, on day 3 several of them who said they wouldn’t come back were later heard talking about where their tables would be.
    Disappointing but not unexpected.
    I told Dom id love to come back if he would simply make some changes back to how it used to be. People dos abuse the hell out of the badges. The wristbands were a smart idea. But only one per table?! That’s insane. That and the set up times were what simply weren’t feasible as an out of state artist.
    I’ll let you know if I ever hear from him. So far though that’s a negative.

  16. A little late but I wanted to speak up too.

    My last show was right around when the Thursday rule suddenly happened. As an out-of-towner, Thursday is very inconvenient, especially on account of what a ghost town Friday always is. Not even tumbleweed shows up on Friday. No matter how many walls of text Dominic pumps out about the show running RIGHT NOW LOL. Those don’t spur people to jump up and drive to the convention center. They lead to mail being filtered/ignored. It was very lucky this time that enough had missed the update and there were so many bare tables to persuade him to delay punishing those vendors. That does highlight his warped mentality, though, that their status ever a question at all.

    For the life of me, I do not understand how this show has not collapsed. The latest iteration is advertised as $180…before the helper badge and second chair and other add-on fees. It’s a far cry from when $120 got two people in just 4 years ago. Even then, it was a little on the pricy side for a store-brand convention. As guest badge prices have risen as well, there’s less and less money for dealers to make. I believe artists have it a little easier, with lower overhead, but those spaces are deliberately limited so more vendors don’t shift to art.

    For the money, you really don’t get much either. Tables are bare with no wi-fi or electricity. Guests still have to pay for autographs and there are relatively few panels. Alright, there’s a costume contest. Let’s be serious, though, cosplay is an additional expense that makes it more difficult to take home much stuff. I love cosplayers, I really do, but when you’re paying hundreds of dollars for a tiny 6-foot table, you really need as many people who have a free hand and aren’t stopping for a photo every 10 seconds as you can get.

    Having to say that…really sucks the fun out of the show. I’d love to cosplay as a dealer/artist. But having to overcome the enormous fixed costs, feeling trapped behind the table for fear of missed sales, and having to repack 95% of what I brought on Sunday anyway? I just can’t do it. When you deprive yourself of something fun and _still_ don’t make a buck, it’s soul-crushing.

    And that’s where I think Dominic’s real attitude problem is. He’s not a fan running a fun event but an accountant managing a business. It’s all down to dollars and cents and command structure. He will squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until everybody else shares that warped POV or quits. Well, I chose to quit. I just wish more people would wake up and realize they don’t need what he’s selling.

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