At the Albacon '84 business meeting someone wondered aloud how we had managed to get 600 people to turn up for the con. The answer I gave was that we, unlike other conventions, set out to get members from the general public. To this they replied that they had tried to do the same for their convention, but had failed where we succeeded. This is a little piece about how we in Glasgow go about publicising conventions.
Now, there are some cons that don't want to publicise themselves, being ultra fannish, but most convention committees make some effort to get new members. The traditional ways are by issuing flyers and Progress Reports, putting ads in other cons' publications and taking memberships at a desk during a convention. These methods are, of course, directed at people already in fandom. To attract newcomers, posters in libraries and bookshops, radio and TV interviews and an ad in the local paper are examples of useful methods. Let's look at them in turn.
1) Flyers and Posters. It is amazing how simple it is to forget to include vital information in your publicity material: A Progress Report for an early Glasgow convention failed to include the words "Science Fiction" anywhere in it, which made it a little confusing for the journalists who were given a copy and asked to promote the event! A flyer or poster should have all the following information: the name of the convention, a contact address, the dates, the location and the cost. Anything else is optional, but I strongly advise that the largest lettering on it says "Science Fiction". It can be A3, A4 or A5 sized, with or without illustrations. Be prepared to see most of them left lying in puddles of beer or turned into paper darts. Other conventions may distribute them in their mailings or with their programme book for you. The BSFA also distributes flyers in their mailing, but may charge you for it. Try swopping ads and flyers with other conventions or the BSFA.
2) Progress Reports. In the days when cons were few and far between PRs were the way the con committee re-assured the members that the con was still happening. Nowadays they are used to introduce the Guest of Honour, give details of the hotel, show members how to get to the con. Some include membership forms or hotel booking forms. Based on the queries sent in over the years is seems that nobody actually reads PRs! Either that, or they don't believe what they are told in them and write to get a personal reply.
Posters, flyers and PRs are sometimes given to "outsiders" to promote the con. This is why it helps if they mention Science Fiction as prominently as possible. Joe Public is an SF reader. He doesn't know what "Albacon" or "Novacon" is and won't bother finding out. He IS interested in SF though. So grab his attention with the two magic words and then tell him about the convention. It helps if you get someone who knows nothing about fandom to look over whatever you have produced: they will be more able to spot assumptions you have made about the level of awareness the reader must have.
Posters and flyers are best left in bookshops and libraries: by "targeting" on SF readers you cut down on print bills and avoid wasting time giving out leaflets to illiterates in the street. The problem with bookshops is that they get so much promotional stuff from publishers they rarely have space for a poster, and even if they put it up it will be removed fairly quickly. If they will let you leave a pile of flyers it's probably a better idea than a poster. Obviously a specialist SF dealer will be the best bet.
Libraries present the same problem: rapid removal of your poster to make space for the local "gay whales against racism self help group" poster. The only solution is to keep checking that your poster is still there. Remember that people may go to the library only every few weeks, so start putting up posters at least two months ahead of the convention. Libraries can also present other difficulties. Your local librarian may feel they have to check with head office about putting up something advertising a weekend drinking session in funny costumes; so make the poster as inoffensive as possible. Connected with that is the problem sometimes encountered when the poster gives the cost of membership - Glasgow libraries won't put such posters up as they are considered adverts and not announcements. So emphasise that it is a non-profitmaking thing, run by amateurs, all local to the area in which you happen to want the poster put up. There is a book called "Libraries in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland" which most libraries have. It contains the address of every head office library in the UK and Eire should you want to get your material distributed to all or any of their branches.
Other places that you could try asking for posters to be displayed are: newsagents, laundromats, chip shops, supermarkets, community centres. Usually you stand a better chance if the poster is small and you come equipped to put it up yourself.
3) Press release. A press release should be fairly short, with headings to grab the attention of the bored hack reading it. Try not to use fannish terms or abbreviations. Give some information on the Guest of Honour and some idea of the events planned for the weekend. About two weeks before the event you should send the press release to the newspapers, radio and TV stations (local and national). In each case it is best to know the name of the person who should get the information. Don't send just one press release to each address, send one to the news editor, the features editor, the "What's On" column, any feature writers you think might be able to give your con a mention. With TV and radio the same holds, but more so. Producers of programmes don't like to pass on news of events to other producers in case they need a last minute item themselves. A little anecdote to illustrate this.
In the week before Albacon 84 there were three separate BBC Radio Scotland (R4) programmes wanting to interview Albacon's Guest of Honour on the Friday. When each producer found out that the other programmes were interested they re-doubled their efforts to secure the interview for their show. The "Jimmy Mack" show had been the first to approach us and a tentative agreement had been made for a 10 minute interview. Then the "Ken Bruce" show (who had already had me on describing the delights of an SF con) offered a 20 minute slot, claiming that they gave a more "intellectual" treatment of such things. Finally, the Sunday arts programme "Prospect" wanted to record an interview on the Friday. Each show wanted to be the only one carrying the story, as novelty is the keynote in radio. As it happened, the timing of the shows was the decisive factor: Jimmy Mack did an interview at 10.30 and the Sunday show, reckoning that nobody who listened to Jimmy Mack would also listen to their programme, had a recording studio booked for 11.00, so we lost out on Ken Bruce. This is typical of the BBC: for Albacon II there were 3 calls from different people involved in the SAME show to arrange an interview!
It is vital to include in a press release the daytime phone number of someone who knows what they're talking about. Be prepared to have everything you tell them about the con distorted horribly into the usual "Sci-Fi Loonies Beam Into Town" style story. Just make sure they say where it is and when! It doesn't pay to have too much pride in these cases: there's no such thing as bad publicity. In the run up to Albacon 84 we sent out the press release, mentioning the custard pie fight we planned to hold. It was this one item that attracted most press interest, with the local evening paper's top gossip/showbiz column devoting its headline and a whole quarter page to the event.
The problem with TV is that they rarely commit themselves before the day of the con - essentially they're only interested if there aren't any juicy disasters to cover instead. However, it's worth trying to get your Guest of Honour interviewed, either at the studio or at the con. The vital thing is to get the coverage on the first day.
One thing worth trying is to invite the press and TV to a photocall, either the day before the convention or the morning it starts. Have as many visual things there as possible: this usually means people in fancy dress, but can also include artwork, models and guests. The idea is always to get maximum coverage on the first day of the convention. A TV crew making an hour-long documentary about the convention, whilst flattering, does you no good as it is transmitted after the event. Better to have a ten second mention before the weather report.
4) Other methods. You could try handing out flyers to people queueing up for the latest SF film to hit town. Alternatively, advertising in your local cinema through Pearl & Dean or Rank Screen Advertising is relatively inexpensive, but it varies with the size and location, so ask your local manager for a quote. Offer convention memberships as prizes in competitions in newspapers or radio programmes (it doesn't cost you anything as the winners will probably not have joined anyway). If your area has a "What's On" sheet or booklet, make sure you get a mention. SF magazines like Analog do a free con listing but need the information 4 months in advance. Print up bookmarks and leave piles of them with booksellers and libraries as freebies for anyone taking an SF book. Or you might get permission to go through all the SF stock and insert the bookmarks. If all else fails (or even if it succeeds) you could take out an ad in the local paper; again, make it appealing to SF readers - mention Guest of Honour, dealers' room, films, fun and games. Some other types of adverts are really cheap e.g. a 40'' x 20'' poster mounted in the busiest pedestrian precinct in Glasgow only cost £25 for a month! An ad placed with Marvel comics will appear in every Marvel publication coming out in the month selected, at a cost of around £40. In each case you must weigh the cost against the probable return. For one year's Albacon we spent a huge (by convention standards) £140 on advertising, which is what 14 on-the-door members brought in in revenue. In the end there were over 200 walk-ins, most of whom had never been to a con before so must have heard about it through some form of advertising. I only wish we knew which! We had planned to ask people as they registered but this was neglected in the chaos that arose as the greater than expected numbers arrived, mostly all on the Friday between 3pm and 6pm and on Saturday morning.
There is a school of thought which wishes either to keep conventions hidden, or promote them discreetly as literary events. I believe that every SF reader, film fan or TV fan should be told that conventions exist and be allowed to try them out if they wish. They may not like what they find, or they may stay and become part of fandom, but they cannot make that choice unless they are given the word in the first place.