The State of Romance Post RWA Nationals 2009: It’s Rocky Out There
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It seems romance has evolved to the point where we either get positive press by way of showing off the Ph.D’s writing romance or we get smarmy coverage about how romance authors are all smelling of yeast but still bringing home the bacon. A better article on the RWA Conference and its reflection of the romance genre would be thus: Romance is in a state of flux and represents both the good and the bad of the state of publishing. It shows that reading and publishing is on the brink of a change and no one really knows where it is going.
The RWA National Convention happens once a year when over 2000 registrants converge on one unsuspecting hotel. The registrants are there to revive old friendships, cement new ones, and generally get their spirit revived. Writing is a solitary business with few rewards. Under all the conviviality, however, is a discordant note of stress. Nationals is about business too.
Contracted authors meet with their agents and publishers. Some will be told that they no longer have contracts or will have to change their name to continue writing for the publishing house. Some authors will break up with their agents or told by their agents that representation will no longer continue. Others will have news of their great new deal.
This year’s RWA was no different. It’s hard to say whether there were more authors who are suffering the ax than in previous years but the signs of economic stress showed in at least one house who nixed its annual author dinner and opted for a more casual cocktail party.
I heard from more than one editor that they are tiring from the sameness of submissions and are looking for something, ANYTHING different. As a reader, I rejoiced. From authors, though, I got a real sense of unease. Not about writing something different but how the market isn’t stable anymore.
It used to be that there were some markers of reliability about what will sell and what will not sell in the romance market. This year, that sense of inevitability is gone. Some authors are in denial. I heard a few of them state that they didn’t really believe that publishing was in as dire straits as the news made it out to seem. Many believe that digital books are the future but are uncertain how far out into the future that was. Further, these authors didn’t really know how to be part of that digital future. Their agents and editors didn’t know and no one is telling them the “need to know” things.
We readers laugh at how ridiculous plot settings are from Pamela Palmer’s Feral Warrior series with the hero named Lyon nicknamed Roar to Ally Blue’s Eight Arms to Hold You (yes, the eight arms refers to a were shifting beastie), but authors are looking for any kind of hook. There seems to be a greater need for authors to make it in two or three books and not the eight or ten that they may have been allotted in the past. Even editors are unsure why certain authors, covers, hooks, themes didn’t work.
Conferences like Nationals offer up one or two hour seminars about how to create that good hook with the high concept, how to sell yourself online like a champ or how not to do anything but write. It was mildly ironic that Steve Axelrod, agent to the stars (Brockmann, Quinn, Krentz, Feehan, SEP, and so on), told attendees that online promotion does not work and that authors should just write while his author, Julia Quinn was on another panel describing her facebook ads and interactive quizzes (what kind of Julia Quinn heroine would you be). I suppose as an author or aspiring author, you take away what fits you best.
Like the rest of publishing, RWA is unsure what to do with digital publishing. While Angela James (Samhain) and Treva Harte (Loose Id) were invited to participate in an exclusive publisher meeting along with print publishers and given special RWA commissioned data about readers, Diane Pershing made it clear during the AGM that those authors that get $1,000 advances get first shot at RITA slots. The tension between digital and print publishing is still being navigated. In five years, we may look back at this time period and laugh, but right now, I do feel sympathy for organizations and businesses that during this tumultuous publishing time.
One thing that is clear to me is that there is no shortage of readers who are hungry for romances. Romance is the bright spot in publishing. It is making money (even if the sales are flat) when other areas of publishing are faltering. Going forward, though, publishers and authors need to work together to make sure that the content, the story, is available to every reader willing and able to buy the content in whatever format the reader so desires. Readers are becoming more impatient. One new RWA attendee observed that books are the only form of entertainment that isn’t fully digital. We want to be entertained and we want in now. We need to have more conversations, even if they are contentious ones, about the future of this industry, our industry.