Paid in Full - work and rewards in Nine Worlds
When we founded Nine Worlds, we had a few core aims in mind. We wanted to build an annual, London-based residential event with lots of content covering lots of interests. We wanted to include historically marginalised or disadvantaged groups, and to bridge the gaps between different communities. We wanted to increase our knowledge and improve the convention year-on-year by using the same core team and resources. And we wanted to do so in a sustainable and non-exploitative way.
Since then, many people have put a lot of time, work and love into making Nine Worlds what it is now. We’ve succeeded in most of our aims, and the event is growing rapidly. However, we’ve reached a point where we need to make some decisions to ensure that Nine Worlds has a long term future that doesn’t exploit its organisers, guests or attendees. It’s time to articulate more clearly how we will seek to ensure that all involved with the event are treated fairly.
What do we do to make Nine Worlds non-exploitative and sustainable?
We don’t support the widespread use of unpaid internships and ‘but the experience will look good on your CV’ for professional workers. Equally, we can’t pay an hourly rate for every organiser, steward and speaker without upping the ticket price to at least £800. We seek to operate on the basis of a clear, mutual understanding of what people give and gain from involvement with the convention, and review this each year to ensure that there’s an equitable trade off. This applies to attendees, organisers, guests and commercial suppliers, and we’ve laid out our rough expectations of the relationship with each as follows.
Full time organisers
The event’s full time organisers are a hive mind of three people, Dan, Ludi and Erich. The intention was always to keep this central team from year to year, and building up the convention rather than recreating it from scratch each time has really helped us to improve on the inclusivity and quality of experience of attendees. At this point, we have each put in several thousands of hours without pay of any kind. That’s substantially more than is reasonable or possible to expect on a permanent basis.
Therefore, for the 2015 event, Dan and Ludi will use a portion of event income to cover living expenses. It won’t be much, but it will provide enough of a top up to our other incomes that we’ll be able to work on the event without struggling financially as a result. None of the 2013 or 2014 event income has been or will be used for this purpose, and no money was carried forward from either event. This is our day job for the months around the event, and we’re exploiting ourselves if we don’t recognise that.
Part time organisers
In addition to the hive mind, around 40 organisers manage volunteer wrangling, registration, tech, vendors, marketing, accessibility, press, and each of the dozens of tracks. These roles can be very rewarding - engaging with the wider community, the pleasure of creating and executing a project, the joy of curating sessions around your favourite interest and interacting with leading figures in the field in question, and the gaining of new skills and experience are all valued by our organisers.
None of the positions are paid, and we work hard to ensure that they don’t become just unpaid work or impinge on people’s day jobs. For example, we generally treat professional accountants, designers and the like as commercial suppliers since the work is clearly an extension of the day job that they get paid for. We also try to ensure that nobody incurs costs from their carrying out of the role, and we encourage the recruitment of deputies for most tracks and functions to spread the load and provide backup.
Despite their many positives, organiser roles are also the most tricky to balance. Some of them are critical to the convention’s success, but we don’t want to place undue pressure on those involved and want to ensure the rewards match the effort involved. Our experience to date is that, each year, two or three of the roles become onerous to those engaged with them. The hive mind and other organisers jump in to help, but this still makes the experience less positive than it could be for those individuals. Nobody has expressed regret to us that they were involved with Nine Worlds, but it is important to us that people have a full understanding of the work involved in any commitments they make. We’re exploring ways of improving our modelling, management and support of organising roles, and will discuss this with individual organisers as part of agreement for their contribution to the 2015 event.
Many attendees choose to help out with the running of the convention, whether by stewarding, helping with registration, or setting up and tearing down equipment. There is no compulsion to do this, and people choose to help because it enhances their overall experience of the event and gets them more involved. However, we do offer rewards intended to ensure that people do not lose out by their support of the event. These may include recognition of their contribution in the form of t-shirts or mementos, reduced or free entry, and snacks or drinks while on duty. The volunteer coordinator will send out more details closer to the time of the event. To be clear, we do not operate a ‘groats’ system of payment in vouchers, as our view is that that constitutes a payment for work. We want people to help out because they’re having fun, not because of the rewards on offer.
We make commercial arrangements in the same way as any other organisation. Currently, we have no arrangements which leverage our event’s status to obtain favourable rates. As policy, we try to treat professionals working in their field of expertise as commercial suppliers, in order to avoid exploiting those who work with us.
Different fields of work have substantially different expectations for event appearances. In our experience, writers attend to market their work and to connect with the wider community, and often allocate costs as a business expense. Performers and actors may expect payment for attendance. Academics don’t expect payment, but may request coverage of expenses. In general, if somebody is coming to the convention specifically to appear as a guest, and would not be attending otherwise, then we do not charge for entry. Any further agreements are made individually. Given the breadth of interests at Nine Worlds, it would be very unusual for us to pay a substantial amount for an individual guest. Instead, we’re reliant on finding guests who gain from attending the event, sharing their thoughts and interacting with the Nine Worlds community.
The ticket price for Nine Worlds is comparable to that for other weekend residential fandom conventions, especially those that take place in similar venues. We’re happy that less than £100 for three full days of panels, games, workshops, parties and performances is a good deal. It’s more than many expos, but expos do not have over 400 programme items and 30 different content tracks, and most of their content relies on further purchasing of e.g. merchandise, signatures or photographs.
Our aim is to provide a full experience at the basic ticket price, without placing large proportions of content behind further paid barriers. However, we have and will continue to have a small number of paid workshops each year, both to cover additional costs for specialised content and to limit numbers for popular items. These have included swordplay workshops, gin tastings and liqueur design. These have made up less than 1% of all programme items to date, and we don’t see that increasing substantially. In our current location, there are unavoidable additional costs for accommodation and travel. We’re looking at other options in the longer term, but will ensure that we don’t drastically change the overall cost of attendance without fair warning.
What do other types of convention do?
In recent times, there have been two main types of fan event in the UK:
- Volunteer-run conventions tend to be organised by a different core team every year, who are voted in to host the event after presenting a bid to a previous event’s ticket holders, and work on an entirely unpaid basis. Guests are usually not paid, although travel and rooms may be reimbursed. There’s a strongly defined culture and language, and such events normally top out at 1,000 or so attendees.
- Commercial conventions or expos, such as the various Comic Cons or meet-the-cast events for TV shows, frequently charge a smaller entry fee, still rely on volunteers for stewarding and related functions, and make money by charging for large numbers of stallholders or paid signings and photographs with celebrities. They generally do not focus on programming.
Both approaches can offer great value to attendees, but they also impose limitations on what can be achieved, and neither of them is immune to charges of exploitation. Volunteer-run conventions are resistant to ‘gouging’, i.e. using position power to make excessive profits, and offer a way for people to give back to their community without feeling that they’re being taken advantage of. However, organiser burnout from the heavy workload is a recognised issue, and the burden on core staff is part of the reason that different teams run the event each year. Also, no pay doesn’t mean no power or no privilege, and the strong community focus can make them initially quite tricky for newcomers to fully engage with and appreciate. Commercial fan conventions need to produce commercial returns, and this can’t come from tickets as nobody is willing to pay the hundreds of pounds that corporate events charge. So instead it comes from a focus on selling signatures, photos, merchandise and other goods. This creates a strong commercial incentive to minimise unpaid entertainment and content options at expo-style events.
As with all generalisations, there are not just individual but entire categories of counter-example. For instance, video games expos have lots of free video gaming, which is provided by the game producers as a way of marketing their products. The split also doesn’t work the same in other countries - e.g. SDCC is a non-profit event that looks from the outside like a huge commercial expo, but also has a lot of content lurking inside. And Dragon Con is the canonical example of a massively multi-track pop culture convention with relatively low entry costs and a huge mix of paid and unpaid content, relatively little of which is expo-style.
Originally published at
https://danieljohnston.co.uk/2015/01/19/paid-full-work-and-rewards-nine-worlds on January 19, 2015.