Let's Stop Conning Ourselves

By Patience Wieland

Are failures like JumpCon and FedConUSA a testament to science fiction fandom's limitations?

Forrest J. Ackerman at Worldcon

Sci-fi conventions have changed dramatically in scale and focus. Worldcon's 1939 launch had just 200 participants, including Forrest J. Ackerman in costume (above).

For fans of science fiction, 2008 was a summer of discontent. In June, FedConUSA shut down on the first full day of events in Dallas, amidst rumors that the hotel had forced the convention to clear out over unpaid bills. Fans were stuck with their non-refundable hotel rooms and tickets, and actors whose connecting plane tickets never materialized were stranded in airports. This media con's failure had an immediate impact on an older, similarly named literary convention, FenCon, also held in Dallas. FenCon had to explain to concerned fans that there was no connection between the two conventions.

The next month, ambitious new event company JumpCon LLC cancelled its major Boston convention, after previously claiming a triumph: mainstream Battlestar Galactica actors Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos's only American appearance. Soon after, JumpCon shut down, cancelling a slate of 12 additional conventions that extended into the winter and across the United States. Websites still extol a related business, "Sci-Fi at Sea"—a group of science fiction related cruises.

These were brand new events that imploded their first time around, but in the past decade, other major conventions failed after a previously solid track record: namely Flanvention II (run by Booster Entertainment), whose debt in bankruptcy totalled over $350,000, and Slanted Fedora, a convention company sued by the Kansas Attorney General in 2003.

In our stratified little communities, news of these failures often brings up memories of another. Remember, we ask each other, when that British TV show's official fan club disappeared, without fulfilling their magazine subscriptions? Didn't the same happen with that literary press, who published all those magazines? How about that fanzine agent who stopped sending orders? What about that famous anthology that never got published? Or the con where there were more guests than con-goers?

Sooner or later, a little rain must fall—it's the First Law of Weddings, and makes for great stories at the dead dog party. But perhaps it's time for fandom to stop reminiscing about war scars, and start asking—as a community—"How do we prevent this?"

There are those who feel a "told you so" moment should suffice to warn people off from future debacles. But that assumes that there is a place where fans can be—well—"told so." While there are solid resources to combat fraudulent publishers, such as the Absolute Write forums, Writers Beware, and Preditors & Editors, these places are for writers of speculative fiction, not the average fan.

It also isn't enough to blithely recommend the superiority of smaller, literary conventions over media conventions—or fan-run conventions over those created "for profit." Many literary conventions simply don't have the programming track to attract media fans, and vice-versa; nothing wrong with that. However, since many fans enjoy both literary and media fiction, it seems ridiculous not to pool our resources in protecting one another.

Meanwhile—if we assume that being a fan automatically implies honesty, let's remember that Shane Senter, the genius behind JumpCon, was a fan who likened himself to the "Emperor" of Star Wars. Steve Brazeal, the head of FedConUSA, was a well-known Star Trek fan, who claimed to be negotiating with Paramount Television. (Brazeal stated he would get Enterprise back on the air by giving Paramount fan money, including, his group claimed, $3 million from a private space enthusiast.)

No one doubts that Warren Lapine, the former head of DNA Publications, and a speaker at Odyssey, the Fantasy Writing Workshop, was a fan of science fiction and fantasy. (Unlike JumpCon and FedConUSA, DNA Publications had a track record with multiple publications, and Lapine had been nominated for Hugo Awards in the past. The business later shut down amidst accusations of subscriptions being unfulfilled.)[1]

In fact, business failures and fraud issues may be compounded by fandom's open-door policy. By its very nature, fandom tends to operate in a grey area, outside traditional boundaries of "professional" and "amateur." A published novelist writes a short story that appears in a literary fanzine; actors and crew members form a casual jam band that tours at conventions; a television actor appears free at some events, for $10,000 at others. Meanwhile, those who run fanzines, websites, and fan businesses usually do so while holding down a professional role in their "real" life. Happily, fandom offers a more fluid identity and safe space, where a tax law attorney can moonlight as a short story writer or cartoonist. It also means that a person with relatively little experience can decide to put on an event—and why not? Haven't some great events risen up from nowhere? There had to be a first DragonCon, right?

Yet, at the center of each failure, there is generally one person with delusions of grandeur. One of fandom's favorite jokes is that of the "SMOF"—the Secret Master of Fandom—who has read the Necronomicon and other tantalizing, yet secret data on running a successful event or enterprise. When someone literally brags of having SMOF-like power—("If you give me your money, I'll give you unlimited access to your favorite author, make you as rich as J. K. Rowling, or get your favorite TV show back on the air!")—that's a warning sign.

But in the first flush of passion, neofans—who don't know "SMOF" from s'mores—have nothing to judge these statements by. After all, haven't they just joined the new and colorful world of fandom, a blissful paradise where no one is teased for tilting at windmills, where fan and pros alike can discuss dark matter and the vagaries of Vorlon sexuality?

If neofans had known where to look, there was damning evidence against the leaders of FedConUSA and JumpCon. Steve Brazeal's dicey attempts to save Enterprise were known among serious Trek fans. Meanwhile, Shayna Avelman, an Atlanta-based fan using the handle "greycoupon," did research on JumpCon organizer Shane Senter, and shared her results on LiveJournal. In June, an inflammatory "Request for Proposal" (RFP) was still available on the JumpCon website. The RFP listed the gifts Senter had received from various hotels vying for his business. "I can be bribed," he wrote at the top of the RFP, chiding hotels for sending "bars of death," as he was allergic to nuts. "Gifts get contracts signed."

Avelman's persistent research got other fans, like me, motivated to join a new LiveJournal community and two Yahoo! Groups, where our information could be freely shared and, more importantly, substantiated. Another fan discovered an older newspaper article from the (Manchester, NH) Union Leader. In 2004, Senter had illegally collected money for a non-profit he'd founded, Benefits for Humanity International. Senter claimed the group would raise money for local schools—but without the proper requirements, breaking state law. Meanwhile, the schools' superintendent had never heard of the group. Senter's MySpace account originally listed his ownership of a travel agency, Prestige Travel, and another business, QLI; according to state records, the travel agency belonged to a different person, and QLI had been shut down for nonpayment of state fees.[2]

Yet, because fandom is a safe space for many people who are considered "strange" by mainstream society, it's possible to second-guess our own common sense, and let fan businesses get away with actions we'd never accept from the so-called "mundanes" we patronize in daily life. Fans' reaction to JumpCon reminds one of Michael Suileabhain-Wilson's "Five Geek Social Fallacies," particularly #1 and #2—"Ostracizers Are Evil" and "Friends Accept Me As I Am." Up until the end, Senter and JumpCon were defended by other fans, who insisted that they were looking forward to the convention, and that skeptics like Avelman were jealous and unfair.

At the same time, staff members responded rudely and unprofessionally to questions by prospective attendees on the JumpCon forum. Instead of using their full names, staff members went by the handles "Emperor" (Senter), "ComptessaofContempt," and "AltoTrek" on the website and its forum. Isn't that pushing Geek Fallacy #2 a bit far—and would you want to buy a used car from a man who only told you his name was "Cthulhu"?

At least in summer 2008, the timing of the FedConUSA debacle may have helped more fans and professionals from being hurt. Still, as of press time, the New Hampshire Department of Justice listed over 44 separate complaints against JumpCon, with only one person recovering their money. Fans for later conventions learned that even the hotels had not been informed of the cancellations. Considering that some fans paid upwards of $1000 to attend, and ex-staff claim that hundreds of tickets were sold for the different conventions, the fraud could encompass more than $100,000.

Now, it's also true that fan failures happen to decent people who get in over their head, and are caused by personal problems, or a slowdown in business. That apparently happened to DNA Publications' Warren Lapine, who (according to his post on sff.net) experienced a sudden bereavement in 2005. We usually know when mainstream businesses are troubled; even if we don't read the business section of our local paper, we have friends and neighbors who tell us which grocery or florist has slashed its staff, and is likely to shut down. We can choose to proceed with our patronage, or wait and see. Science fiction and fantasy writers have groups which provide this kind of information—whether it's a message board discussing response times, or a website like Writer Beware warning about vanity presses. But there's no current watering hole to tell us if there's a track record of trouble with other fan businesses, particularly conventions.

It wouldn't just benefit fans, either. After all, with FedConUSA, some of the loudest complaints came not from fans, but from professionals who were booked at the convention—Star Trek actor John Billingsley and Battlestar Galactica actor Aaron Douglas—people who deal with Hollywood's shark-infested water on a regular basis, and still got hurt. In 2004, Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin, as well as many Tolkien fans, were fooled by the leaders of Bit of Earth, whose unbelievable story involved a faked suicide and gender change by its leader. New Zealand-based actors and LOTR crew members were stranded in Los Angeles when Bit of Earth failed to put on a promised convention and provide air tickets.

In fact, while a few bloggers asked, "Are conventions dead?" after these failures, fan articles tended to focus on the cancellation of celebrities, rather than the money stolen from fans, who were struggling to get answers—and refunds. Even fewer stories were written about the last minute Boston "Mini Fan Con" run by staff of the New England Fan Experience, and about guest Mark Godard, the gracious Lost in Space actor—even though this was an example of fandom's ingenuity and warm heart. Godard, who now works as a teacher in Massachusetts, had taken time off his anniversary weekend to meet with fans. Meanwhile, the "Mini Fan Con" committee charged nothing to stranded fans, making it a free event for anyone who wanted to come, and what I hear is that this minor, last-minute convention was the way fandom "used to be." Yes, there was a guest there, but instead of offering expensive autographs, he sat down and told stories. Another visitor brought out a working R2-D2 model he had built from scratch. Above all, people sat down and chatted, making new friends. Once, these opportunities were big news to fans—especially in the days before the Internet united us at the touch of a keyboard button.

Have we become so blasé that we've forgotten what cons and fandom are really about—shaggy dog stories, shared chocolate bars, and new friendships?

Every day, there are new fans stumbling upon events and merchandise—fans who have nothing to compare their past experiences to. Think of the thirteen-year-old kids who got to go to San Diego Comic Con this year, for the first time. With its cramped panels and celebrity appearances, it's a far cry from the warm, comics-centered get-together I attended as a similarly aged "Marvel Zombie." Those teens may think fandom is about consumerism, not friendship—and as consumers, they may be scammed.

They may not realize they are buying bootleg videos, when they could receive the same video as a trade for free; that they should not send large sums of money as cash or through PayPal; that there are websites to help them avoid fraudulent publishers, and that there are many conventions run all over the country, including those run by teams of fans for decades. They may not realize that it is fair and even expected for them to contact fan businesses if they have questions, and that being a fan-run enterprise doesn't entitle anyone to avoid following the law.

It is arrogance to assume that every fan already knows all these "rules of the road," and that there is something functionally wrong with them—not fandom—if they don't.

Comic Con's new-found clout should teach us one thing. Fandom is now being used as a marketing tool by media behemoths—which is more reason than ever for fans to be educated about scams and questionable business practices. In past decades, fans of fantasy and Star Trek each had their "Welcommittee," which helped nurture thousands of fans as they joined a wider community. Today, fans need a similar resource—an efficient, ethically run watchdog that will help combat fraud against fans, and provide more ample warning of bad business practices.

Already, after FedConUSA and JumpCon's failures, their websites were cherry-picked for damning information, though much of it's likely to appear on archive sites in the next year. There are few records today about events like the "Con of Wrath," a 1982 Houston Star Trek convention whose failure was almost a blueprint for FedConUSA. If we're not careful, eventually people will also forget what happened to Flanvention II, JumpCon, and Slanted Fedora. Ironically, most of the people involved with these businesses likely had no plans to defraud or hurt other fans. If they wish to come forward and explain what specific mistakes were made, whether by posting online, or adding cautionary notes to the ConRunner wiki at http://www.conrunner.net, that can only benefit fandom in the long run.

One other thing is needed; more experienced fans need to periodically "rouse" the sleeping dogs. Yes, fans want to enjoy time with each other, and they want to enjoy fandom. But no one benefits when misdeeds are swept under the rug. As a gesture of friendship, older fans can remind neofans what questions to ask, and to cast a cheery but cynical eye on overtly ambitious "fanpreneurs."

Forrest J. Ackerman at Worldcon

The Rules of Acquisition (above) might not insist on open and honest business pratices, but you should.

Before attending a convention or ordering fan-related products:

Check the Better Business Bureau for any complaints listed on a company you haven't heard of.

Print out information, including copies of your receipts. Make sure the date is showing on all printouts. If it is a new convention or offering an unusual deal online, use the "Print Screen" key to take a snapshot of your web browser, and then paste it into a graphic editor, such as Microsoft Photo Editor. Save it as a graphic, where you can refer to it later.

Make sure the convention or ecommerce website offers at least two forms of contact—such as a mailing address, a telephone number, and either an email address or contact form.

Use your credit card for all major purchases, including convention tickets and hotel rooms. It is difficult to get a refund on a personal check or money order.

If you must use PayPal, do not use your checking account to fund the account; use a credit card. Take your time using the PayPal website, as their system defaults to drawing from your checking account.

Want to see a particular guest at a convention? Check their official website and/or forum to make sure they're attending. Some cons have been known to publicize guests before they confirm attendance.

When you have a business dispute with another fan:

Contact fans and companies by email or in writing; verbal agreements are not binding. Write politely and ask specifically for what you want (a full refund, a corrected item, etc.). Most fans and small businesses are honest; sometimes there's a mix-up or misunderstanding. If you are polite and specific about what you need, it's more likely the situation will be resolved in your favor—and quickly.

Be patient—if you don't hear back the same day, don't panic. Allow a few business days before writing again. Most fans have day jobs and/or family responsibilities.

If you're using a free email service, such as Hotmail or Yahoo!, or if you use spam filters, keep a close eye on your trash and spam folders, in case your email has been answered but misdirected.

If you receive no answer via one method, attempt to use another; for example, after sending two emails, you can send a letter via Certified Mail. Certified Mail costs just $2.70 and an electronic return receipt costs only a dollar more.

Feel free to file a Better Business Bureau complaint if you get nowhere, but understand that they are not a government entity and have limited powers of persuasion. They will forward your complaint twice before closing. They cannot force a business to do anything, though they do report businesses for not responding to your complaint.

If you have ordered merchandise that has not arrived within 30 days, and you've already contacted the business via two methods (email and mail) without hearing back, you can file a claim with the Federal Trade Commission and the Attorney General for your state and the other party's state.

If you ordered goods or services (such as con tickets) with PayPal, file a PayPal chargeback first. If PayPal denies your claim, you may be able to chargeback by calling the credit card you used to fund the account, but PayPal may opt to close your account.

Depending on your jurisdiction, you may want to file a Small Claims lawsuit. These suits can cost between $10 and $100 to file, and generally can only be served for amounts under $5000. You will represent yourself. Nolo.com publishes books and downloadable PDFs about doing your own legal work; you may also find copies of their books at your local public library.

Footnotes: Recent News

[1] As of press time, Warren Lapine had returned to publishing with his new company, Wilder Publications, and had launched a new genre firm, Tir Na Nog Press, which took over Realms of Fantasy in March of this year. According to an article ("Warren Lapine returns to sf with magazines, books, and checks," Ian Randal Strock, January 29, 2009) in online news site SFScope, he plans to reimburse all outstanding debts from his previous business. Lapine has asked that those who need to be reimbursed contact him directly at "warrenlapine at yahoo dot com."

[2] According to an article ("Man charged over failed sci-fi events," Andrew Wolfe, April 28, 2009) in The Telegraph (Nashua, NH), Senter has recently been indicted in connection to JumpCon on two counts of felony theft and four counts of unfair or deceptive business practices. Judges have already ruled against him in two small-claims cases related to the convention. For one of these small-claims cases, Senter failed to appear in court.

Sources

On TrekUnited/FedConUSA/Steve Brazeal

"Fans Contribute $3,000,000 to TrekUnited in an Effort to Save Enterprise," Gustavo Leao, March 1, 2005, TrekWeb.com, http://www.trekweb.com/stories.php?aid=422527670001c. Describes TrekUnited's announcement that they had secured money from a private donor in the space industry, in order to fund another season of Enterprise. (Original document has been removed from TrekUnited website.)

"Paramount Refused Fan Money," April 18, 2005, SCI FI Weekly, http://www.scifi.com/sfw/news/sfw_news_20050418.html. Describes how Brazeal, the head of club "Trek United," claimed to be in secret talks with Paramount Television regarding Enterprise. Paramount Television stated in the article that they had not been in communication with the group.

"Guest changes for FedConUSA, one week to go," Derek Kessler, June 6, 2008, TrekUnited.com, http://www.trekunited.com/news/content/view/1074/79/, stating that performers James Callis, Aaron Douglas, Jaimie Alexander, Dirk Benedict, James Cawley, and The Ninja Babes from Space would "all [have] to cancel their appearances."

"FedConUSA—The Disaster in Dallas," Alec Peters, June 13, 2008, Star Trek Auction Blog, http://startrekauction.blogspot.com/2008/06/fedconusa-disatser-in-dallas.html. Statement regarding FedConUSA, on his costume collection blog, during which he describes actor friends being stranded at airports.

"FedconUSA cancels itself during event?" June 14, 2008, Con-News.com, http://con-news.com/?p=578. Contains statements by a representative of FedCon Germany, attendees, and a major vendor from FedConUSA.

"FedconUSA—an sf con mess in Dallas, TX this past weekend," star_trekking community, June 16, 2008, LiveJournal, http://community.livejournal.com/star_trekking/47982.html. Lists multiple statements, including James Callis and Aaron Douglas's claim that they did not cancel their appearance, TrekUnited did; comments from radio personality Brian Rays, who refutes claims about FedConUSA's advertising; other comments from attendees, vendors, etc. (Original documents and linked-in posts have been removed from TrekUnited and FedConUSA website.)

Frequently Asked Questions regarding FenCon, undated, FenCon website, http://www.fencon.org/faq.html. Reiterates that FenCon and FedConUSA are different entities. Organizer Michael Nelson has also posted statements on the web explaining that despite the similar names, they are different conventions.

On JumpCon/Shane Senter

New Hampshire Corporation Division, Dissolution: "QLI Enterprises, Inc." November 20, 2002, https://www.sos.nh.gov/corporate/soskb/Filings.asp?468719. Document shows that QLI Enterprises, owned by Shane Senter, was dissolved after failing to file annual reports or pay all fees.

"Questions raised about Manchester-area charity," March 23, 2004, Mark Hayward, Union Leader (Manchester, NH). Details "Benefits for Humanity International," charity run by Shane Senter. State official quoted in article, describing how money may have been accepted illegally. Reproduced in full at http://greycoupon.livejournal.com/288911.html.

"Aftershock," March 8, 2008, Doctor Who Podshock, http://cdn1.libsyn.com/podshock/DW__Podshock_Aftershock_080302.mp3?nvb=20080825044825&nva=20080826044825&t=0043795ee0600ab4e3478. Podcast featuring interview with Shane Senter of JumpCon.

New Hampshire Corporation Division, Name Renewal: "Prestige Travel," May 14, 2008, https://www.sos.nh.gov/corporate/soskb/Filings.asp?477328. Shane Senter is not the owner of record of travel company.

"Planning to attend a Jumpcon? Please read!" June 14, 2008. http://greycoupon.livejournal.com/268950.html. Blog mirrors parts of JumpCon website forum, including communication by Shane Senter ("Emperor") and other staff members ("AltoTrek," "ComptessaofContempt") regarding JumpCon. Original forum has been taken down.

"Our fears about Jumpcon summed up here/coming true?" Originally published on Con-News.com, June 17, 2008, http://con-news.com/?p=588; includes updates from Richard Kiel, cancelled actor guest; representatives for actors Jason Carter, Mira Furlan, Robert Picardo, John Billingsley; agents Bob Catalano, Rick Albritton, and Julie Caitlin Brown; ex-JumpCon staff Fernando Martinez and AmandaGamer; and numerous fans who were affected by JumpCon's cancellation.

"Note from John re: Jumpcon," July 12, 2008, Gecko Forums, http://geckoforums.isomedia.com/Topic14088-31-1.aspx. Actor John Billingsley's statement regarding JumpCon.

"JumpCon Fail," July 15, 2008, galacticasitrep blog, http://galacticasitrep.blogspot.com/2008/07/jumpcon-fail.html. Quotes Erin Grey, representative for stars such as Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, regarding difficulties with JumpCon and owner Shane Senter.

"No Boston Tea Party for me," Colin Baker, July 19, 2008, Colin Baker Online, http://www.freewebs.com/colinbaker/apps/blog/show/528181-no-boston-tea-party-for-me. Actor Colin Baker describes his experience with JumpCon, which requested his presence at several conventions and failed to provide tickets or payment for any appearances.

Request for Proposal, JumpCon, undated. http://jumpcon.com/RFP.html, removed from the web, but quoted at http://greycoupon.livejournal.com/272764.html. Blog post also shows comparisons made between other convention websites, and that of JumpCon, which apparently plagiarized terms and conditions from competitors.

New Hampshire Corporation Division, Registered Agent Information, https://www.sos.nh.gov/corporate/soskb/agent.asp?5185798: shows that Shane Senter is the registered agent for a company called QLI Enterprises, Inc. https://www.sos.nh.gov/corporate/soskb/agent.asp?5417282: shows that Shane M. Senter is the registered agent for a company called JumpCon, LLC.

Listing for NHGTA, "Sci-Fi at Sea," on the "Official Travel Industry Directory," undated. http://www.otid.com/company/169717/NHGTA_Sci_Fi_at_Sea.aspx. Utilizes the same address as JumpCon.

"Business Complaint Lookup," New Hampshire Department of Justice, undated. http://www.egov.nh.gov/consumercomplaint/index.asp. Users must "agree" to above disclaimer, then type "JumpCon" into the box in order to see complaints pending.

MySpace, Shane Senter, http://www.myspace.com/cwtnh. Undated. Describes self as "Emperor of the Darkside." (Website has now been made "private.")

On Other Convention/Business Failures

"Kline files suit against sci-fi convention firm," September 22, 2003, Kansas City Business Journal, http://www.bizjournals.com/kansascity/stories/2003/09/22/daily9.html. Describes lawsuit by Attorney General, Kansas, against Slanted Fedora.

"Attorney General Files Consumer Protection Suit Against Johnson County Company," September 19, 2003, press release by Office of Attorney General, Kansas. Available online at http://www.thepsn.org/PSN/PS_Letters/presrel.pdf.

Zach Dundas, "Hobbits Gone Wrong," July 14, 2004, Williamette Week. http://wweek.com/story.php?story=5307. Details the exceptional and strange saga of Bit of Earth, a Tolkien fan group run by two women, one of whom had disappeared and faked her own death before then announcing she had gender-changed into a male hobbit. Bit of Earth leaders bilked fans out of thousands of dollars and were banned from operating a non-profit in the state of Oregon. Sean Astin and other actors from Lord of the Rings were also scammed by the couple, who reportedly now work in Hollywood as street performers.

Warren Lapine, "Re: DNA not defunct!" message posting, SFF.net, January 4, 2006. http://webnews.sff.net/read?cmd=read&group=sff.publishing.dnapublications&artnum=4275. Lapine explains how business was affected by recent death of his mother, necessitating time off to handle her estate.

"Reliability Report for DNA Publications, Inc.," Undated, Better Business Bureau of Roanoke, Virginia, http://vawest.bbb.org/WWWRoot/Report.aspx?site=143&bbb=0613&firm=8001600. Notes that fourteen complaints were closed for refund or delivery issues, with no response from the company.

Booster Entertainment's bankruptcy petition (with redacted personal details), February 1, 2007, http://www.serenitymovie.org/booster/BE-Voluntary%20Petition%20-%20Addesses%20Removed.pdf. Shows over $350,000 listed under "liabilities—creditors holding unsecured nonpriority claims" (page 6, details run pages 14-102).


Patience Wieland was not raised by hippies or Puritans, or named after one of the lions in front of the New York Public Library. She was ejected from her first convention, screaming loudly, at age seven, after her older brother unwisely took her to a video room showing Blade Runner.