This weekend, the Minneapolis Convention Center is hosting NerdCon: Stories. It’s the second year the event has come to the Twin Cities and by the accounting of one of its creators, this will also be the last year.
Last month, Hank Green, who co-founded NerdCon: Stories with author Patrick Rothfuss, posted a couple videos to Youtube about failure. The first is called “Let’s Talk about Failure,” and in it, he talks about the origin of NerdCon: Stories and what it was originally meant to be–a celebration of ‘stories’– and how the expectation for year 2 met reality: 3,000 tickets budgeted, as of Sept 16, 1,000 tickets sold. Which means that Green, “as a human person who owns NerdCon: Stories, stand to lose a lot of money.”
That video, just over three minutes long, is here.
The second video is longer, and much more detailed. In “Why NerdCon: Stories is Failing,” Green spends almost 25 minutes discussing what it is that led to NerdCon: Stories failure. Green tries to “zero in on the thing that it needed to be,” and recognizes that the event never defined itself clearly to the community it sought to attract. Both videos are admirable for their honest investigation of what, according to Green, can’t be denied: NerdCon: Stories, as an annual event, is over.
I tried to talk with Hank Green in the weeks after his videos appeared, but was unable to get through. He was expecting a baby, NerdCon staff told me, and was unavailable for interviews. Fair enough.
Instead, I’m here for the first day of NerdCon: Stories, trying to understand what it is that went wrong. To discover why the event failed, though, I first had to understand a much more complicated problem: What is NerdCon: Stories? Is it a convention for fans? A conference for writers? Or something in between? Truthfully, after these first four hours, I have no idea.
My first impression of NerdCon: Stories was this. The Friday morning agenda had an event on friendship, literally how to be a good friend, and a variety show hosted by Dessa Darling and Darin Ross. As I entered the ballroom to Dessa and Darin amping up the few hundred people in the auditorium, I had to wonder: how many people are getting what they paid for, here? Admission for NerdCon: Stories is a steep $100, and kicking off the two-day event was Dessa joking around with a sign-language interpreter.
Good fun, yes. But to what end? I left the variety show during Daniel Jose Older’s live, musically accompanied reading to peek into the first of the small-group sessions with featured guests. Kaffeeklatsches, they’re called, and the attending names are impressive. John Scalzi, Mikke Kendall, MT Anderson, Maureen Johnson. People I would be excited to sit around the table with for an hour. Unfortunately, these are open only pre-selected attendees. Rebuffed, I went and bought a coffee.
This morning made immediately apparent the problem that Hank Green spoke of in his videos about the failure of this event: What exactly is Nerdcon: Stories? What more vague an organizing principle is there than ‘stories?’ The event slips around the edges of definition; it’s not built simply for creators, but not a fan convention either.
For fans, there’s an exhibition floor with vendors selling games, books, jewelry, and booths for autographs, all the stuff of fan conventions. There’s also fan-based events with creators like the John Green Yoga Adventure and the aforementioned Variety Show. For creators, there are panels like Mental Health In Young Adult Literature, How to Write Straight Characters and Independent Podcasting. These are in-depth, highly directed events for people who are not casual fans of John Green.
Then there’s the stuff in the middle, the librarian-style events like Harry Potter and the Banned Books and A Brief Exploration of Feminist Publishing. In his video, Green said that the problem with NerdCon: Stories was the marketing, and being here, it’s not hard to understand why. The question: what is NerdCon: Stories remains, to me, impossible to define.
But here is the other thing I learned about NerdCon: Stories: the lack of definition is the exact thing that makes it special to attendees. I spoke to 27 guests who paid for $100 admission for NerdCon: Stories. (I actually spoke to 30 guests, but three received complimentary tickets). Of my 27 surveyed paying customers, 16 of them were women and 11 were men (that reflects about the ratio of guests, in my estimation). The youngest was 15 years-old, the oldest, 54.
Breaking down the results is easy: three women said they were here to see John Green. Two men said they were with family (one with his wife, the other with his daughter). Everyone else said they were here because they value the community and the fluid, uncertain nature of NerdCon.
One high school aged woman, Tatyana, told me that she came because the event made her feel “validated in her interests.” Another, a 15 year-old male who is “not local, but Midwestern” called NerdCon an “incredible community event,” with nothing comparable happening elsewhere in the region. This kind of testimony went on an on. The word community came up more than a dozen times. Both of these attendees said they weren’t writers, but they felt part of this community, and came to celebrate their place in it.
There were many writers, too, who come for similar reasons. Kayla Jean West told me about her blog, Silver Sky Press, which she writes with her friend Brooke Stewart. West came because tries to “get out to all the lit events” that happen in the Twin Cities. She noted another event, the Rain Taxi Book Festival, which is at the State Fair Grounds this weekend. “There’s a lot that goes on here,” West said. One Hennepin County Librarian told me the same: she wanted to support the local community, and she’s interested in what the YA writers and readers are up to.
West was one of about 10 people I spoke to who were writers in attendance, but each of these was also here because of the community NerdCon draws. She told me this just as she excused herself for the Improv Workshop. “It’s supposed to be hilarious,” she said.
That community has edges that are definable. Hank and John Green, and their Vlogbrothers/Nerdfighitng online worlds were the most often mentioned. But not really in the manner I expected. Some said they had been fans of the Greens for years, but they came not to see Hank or John, but to spend time with friends they’d met through that fandom. They paid not to meet anyone in particular, but because if the Greens were putting the event on, then it merited attendance. Gregg, in his early 20s, told me he came specifically to support Hank Green, even though he knew Hank Green would not be in attendance. “I wanted to support Hank and Pat,” he said, even more so because this might be the last NerdCon: Stories to take place.
The potential end of NerdCon: Stories lingered over many of my conversations. The people I spoke to, paying guests and invited speakers and creators, were aware of Hank Green’s videos, and the idea that this event might be the last of its kind.
So is NerdCon: Stories over? Is this is the last event? If sales reflected the numbers Green mentioned in his video, then it’s very possible that this will be the last we see of NerdCon in Minneapolis.
I had hoped to ask the founders that question directly. Hank Green did not attend. My only chance to to speak with Patrick Rothfuss came when he was with his young daughter. He declined to comment at the moment as he was “actively dadding,” but informed me we could speak more another time. Alas, that moment did not come.
Standing in for the founders, then, was sci-fi author John Scalzi. I asked Scalzi what he thought about the potential end of NerdCon: Stories. His response echoed what so many attendees had to say: “I hope not.” Scalzi mentioned the unique nature of the event and the experience it offers. “I liked the event last year,” Scalzi said. “I really love the concept. What we need to do is sell the idea and the experience. We need to let people know that the experience is worth seeing, and worth sharing. And if we can do that, more people will come.”
NerdCon staff member Silvia Roma told me that the event had sold “about 1500 tickets,” and noted that sales did increase after Hank Green’s video aired, though a total amounting to only fifty percent of projected sales. Roma also said that tickets continued to be sold on site.
How many were left to be sold by late Friday morning was unknown, of course, but there is encouragement on that front. Three of the 27 people who I spoke to said they came on a whim. One young woman told me her mother woke her up that morning and decided to take her and her brother to NerdCon. Then there was Neal, who decided three days ago to drive to Minneapolis from Florida, by himself for the weekend just to attend NerdCon: Stories. I asked the 41 year-old Florida resident what possessed him to make such a journey? “The Greens have a passion for everything they do,” he said. “And it’s a genuine passion.”
Asked about the whether he made the trip because this might be the last time NerdCon: Stories is held, Neal was reluctant to believe the end was nigh. “The Greens are too good at improvising,” he said. It might look different but it won’t disappear completely. How was Neal so sure? “The world needs more misfits. And everybody that’s here is one.”
UPDATE: After my visit to Nerdcon ended, I received an email from NerdCon: Stories’ Executive Producer Monica Gasper about the state of future NerdCons. Wrote Gasper: “Obviously we’ll be very disappointed if this is the last NerdCon: Stories (as, right now, it is) but if there is any hope at all of resurrecting it we will certainly do everything we can to make it happen again someday, somewhere.”