Last year Karen W, long time romance reader and author of the review blog “What I’m Reading and Other Tales” agreed to let us post a report she wrote about “Celebrate Romance,” the convention she helps organize each year. We asked her to let us republish this year’s report and here it is.
I just got back from Celebrate Romance, and I thought I’d post my annual report on the conference! I had a great time this year, as always. This is really long, so feel free to skip it!
I got to Columbia, SC early on Thursday afternoon. We were staying at a smaller hotel, affiliated with the local university, which turned out to be really nice. It’s always a trade-off to find a good hotel and a good city – the larger cities are easier to fly into, but it’s hard to find a reasonably priced hotel that will accommodate a small conference like ours. The smaller cities and smaller hotels are more willing to cater to a small group and we can get decent prices, but it can be harder to get flights. Happily, I was able to get a direct flight from Philadelphia, so I didn’t have to spend too long in the airport.
Thursday and Advertising
I had a great time on Thursday, seeing my “CR friends”. Some of them I see and talk to more often, but many of them I only see once a year – but we always pick up right where we left off! We spent the afternoon getting organized for the conference and running errands (although we did find time to hit a bookstore!) One new thing we did this year was sell advertisements in our program. We had the pages professionally printed, but we assembled them ourselves to save money – I brought my heavy duty stapler in my suitcase! It was interesting to see which authors bought ads, (although many of them did it to support us financially, more than just to advertise themselves) but it was a glimpse into what the authors are thinking. I wasn’t surprised to see the bigger authors buying ads, but it’s interesting to see the lesser known ones who spring for ad space.
We’ve never really done this kind of thing before – selling ads, soliciting sponsorships for different events, having a logo designed for us. An ongoing question – how far to go down that road? CR started as a fairly casual get-together, but in the years since we’ve taken it over, we’ve really had to think about how to keep the “friends getting together” feeling while also keeping the conference going financially.
More stuff to do on Friday, leading up to the beginning of the conference around 6 pm. We basically took over the hotel as everyone started talking and hugging and having animated conversations in every available corner. We were finally herded into the main conference room, where we had a great dinner, followed by the “Romanceapalooza” hosted by Elizabeth Hoyt and Jade Lee. We were divided up into teams and played a romance version of jeopardy – only with a lot of funny hats, prizes and hilarious questions. It’s always a problem, figuring out how to get strangers to break the ice and get to know each other, without the “oldies” becoming cliques and the newbies feeling left out, but this worked really well – it’s hard to stay strangers when you are answering questions like “Fact or Fiction: The smallest penis on record was 1 centimeter in length”. (Fact!) Or watching the “designated extroverts” sing the alphabet song while hopping on one leg. (And I won’t mention the strip tease while singing “Like A Virgin”…) Because the teams were mixed up from different “groups”, it really got people talking, and I noticed the newbies laughing with their team members all weekend. That’s really important, so I’m so glad Elizabeth and Jade did all the work to make it happen! (We might have scandalized the waiters, though – I noticed they kept walking past our conference room all evening!)
Keynote Speaker: Stephanie Bond
After a late night stuffing goody bags and organizing book trade books, I skipped breakfast so I could get an extra 30 minutes of sleep. We managed to start the day almost on time, with our keynote speaker, Stephanie Bond, who talked about “New Genres & New Settings: How Dead Bodies Lead To Romance“. A lot of our speakers and authors this year were “cross-genre authors”, and they were all really interested in knowing what romance readers think of crossover books. (They’re not my favorites, but a lot of people really love them.) Stephanie talked about the appeal of romantic suspense (dating back to Nancy Drew and Phillis A. Whitney) as well as the problems with covers and bookstore shelving. All three of our speakers mentioned the importance of having to appeal to buyers from the bookstore chains – the buyers for Borders and Barnes & Noble have enormous power, even to the point of nixing potential covers if they don’t find them appealing, or deciding whether a crossover author will be shelved in romance or in another genre. Something I didn’t necessarily know about. Stephanie suggested that in the future, we might see different covers for the same book, depending on where they’re sold.
A random factoid I got from Stephanie – Harlequin Blaze is going to start putting out historicals! I guess erotic books are still selling like hotcakes.
Jenna Black spoke about “urban fantasy” which is a term I’ve heard a lot, but didn’t really know what it meant. (It’s a sci-fi or fantasy book that’s set in a “real world” setting, rather than in a “Lord of the Rings” pseudo medieval world. Doesn’t necessarily have to be in a city, despite the “urban” name.) She talked about the difficulties in writing an “alpha heroine”, since some alpha characteristics that might be accepted in a hero might come across as “bitchy” in a heroine. She also talked about the HEA, and how urban fantasy writers have to walk a fine line when appealing to a romance audience that expects an HEA (which an urban fantasy may not provide).
Linnea Sinclair was our last speaker on Saturday, and she talked about the intersection of science fiction and romance. (As she put it, who didn’t love Captain Kirk or Hans Solo?) She has a lot of male readers, and she also talked about issues with covers and shelving, when you have a large crossover audience. Some of her older books are being reissued with more romantic “couple” covers, in part to attract the romance audience, but will that alienate the sci-fi audience?
Panel Discussions: Beta Heroes
After the speakers, we split into two groups for panel discussions. (Each group talked about one topic for 40 minutes, then switched to the other topic.) The first discussion was “Nerds, Mythical Beasts and Betas: The New Unconventional Heroes“. This was led by Rosemary Laurey, Vicki Lewis Thompson and Cindy Holby. There was a lot of discussion about how to sell unconventional heroes. Rosemary said it took her ten years to get a publisher to accept her vampire heroes. Vicki said she wanted to write about nerds for years, but she wasn’t able to do it until she’d become established – and even so, the book almost died until Kelly Ripa promoted it on her TV show. Cindy Holby said that she slipped her beta heroes into a series about a group of friends, but had to write the alphas first before the betas could come to the forefront. Interestingly, all of them said that a lot of readers like unconventional heroes, but publishers could be resistant to them. On the other hand, readers did have a comfort level – whether it was physical appearance (what’s “just too icky” when it comes to shapeshifters?) or alpha/beta-ness.
Another factoid that came up – Silhouette Nocturne requires its authors to write super-alpha heroes. One author – I can’t remember which one – said Nocturne told her that they’d only accept her book if she made the hero more of an “arrogant alpha”. She didn’t want to change it and ended up selling it elsewhere.
Panel Discussions: Blurring Genres
The second discussion group was on “Blurring of Genres: The Good, The Bad and the Just Too Weird“. This was led by Linnea Sinclair, Jenna Black and BA Tortuga. We got off on an interesting tangent during this discussion. BA Tortuga writes male/male romance (among other things) and she said her readership was 95% female. (One of her vocal readers is a 94 year old woman in a nursing home!) We had an interesting discussion about male fantasies vs. female fantasies, both in terms of romance and sex. Several authors said they had male readers who enjoyed the romantic elements in their stories (even the very lovey-dovey stuff), but they didn’t necessarily have the same ideas about what was sexy and erotic.
Panel Discussions: Changing Face of Romantic Fiction
We broke for lunch at this point, and then had a final discussion: “Bringing It All Together: Unconventional Tales and the Changing Face of Romantic Fiction“. This was led by Isabo Kelly, Linnea Sinclair (we kept her very busy!) and Julia Talbot. One interesting thing that came up in this discussion – several people asked about the paranormal romance market. According to a couple of authors, paranormal sales are not as big as people might think by looking at the bookshelves. Even now, the sales numbers aren’t as high as traditional historicals, for example. But because paranormal fans are so vocal, they get a lot of attention, because they’re willing to write letters to editors and publishers, go out and buy books on the first day they’re released, support authors they love, etc. Linnea was particularly emphatic, telling us that if we wanted a particular kind of book, or liked particular things about a book, that we needed to give feedback to authors, who will pass it on to editors, book buyers, etc.
All of the authors in the final panel talked about the “new world” we’re moving into within the genre, where there’s a lot more interaction between the readers and authors.
Another factoid – dragons seem to be really hot right now. Vicki Lewis Thompson, Jade Lee, and Rosemary Laurey all have dragon books coming out, and I think there are other authors who are writing dragons too. I don’t really get the appeal, but it seems to be “the thing” right now.
I ran the book trade in the afternoon – the one thing I noticed was that we had a lot fewer rare books than we usually do. A lot of once-rare books have been reprinted (Brockmann, Roberts, Krentz) and the ones that haven’t been reprinted have become so rare that no one wants to part with them (Balogh Regencies, for example). Other authors have just faded away – Iris Johannsen’s old categories used to be rare, but now they really aren’t – not because they’ve been reprinted, but because no one knows her any more.
On Saturday evening, some of the authors had a book signing at a local bookstore (a new thing for us, but the authors seemed to like it), followed by a great barbecue dinner. Made me homesick for the South – no one up here in the Northeast knows how to made decent pulled pork or sweet potato fries. After dinner, we got a bit lost trying to find the hotel, but finally made it back. Then a group of us sat up in the “hotel library” and just talked until 1 am. This is my favorite part of CR – not the official events (although I love them too) but the casual conversations. I’d never met Sabrina Jeffries before, but I had a great time talking to her – not just about books, but other things as well. Always great fun!
Keynote Speaker: Sabrina Jeffries
On Sunday morning, I skipped breakfast again in favor of shut-eye! Then we started out with our other keynote speaker, Sabrina Jeffries. A lot of celebrating, since she just made #2 on the NY Times mass-market list. (I had no idea she was that popular! I don’t read her that often – she’s a bit too light for me – but I think that says something about the popularity of the “traditional” romance historical.) Sabrina gave a very funny talk about how she’d been corrupted by romance – to the horror of her literature professors (she has a PhD in English lit), she got such shocking messages as expecting men to treat her well, expecting a husband to love and support her, etc. She decided that writing romance was more interesting than becoming a lit professor.
Sara Reyes and Isabo Kelly
Sara Reyes talked about starting a book club – she runs a reader’s tea in Dallas that’s been meeting monthly for over 10 years – and then Isabo Kelly talked about mythical beasts. Lots of interesting factoids about how myths where myths might have come from – did myths about dragons come from people finding dinosaur bones and trying to explain them? Did the Cyclops legend come from skeletons of a dwarf elephant that once lived in Greece? Then we had our usual, wild and crazy book signing. I was good this year and didn’t try to win any raffle baskets – I usually end up trying to haul one on the plane.
The conference was great fun this year. We’re still talking about what’s going to happen in the future – we want to continue, but do we need to change things in order to attract more readers? The eternal problem – we get lots of authors but it’s hard to get readers to attend. But I think CR is fundamentally about readers rather than writers, which puts us in a quandry. I think the conference will go on, at least for another year, but every year, it’s an ongoing question…
Sometimes I wonder how a shy introvert like me ever got involved in something like CR, but I always end up having a lovely time.