In 1980, Romance Writers of America held its first annual conference. It was joined in 1983 by the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention. Known respectively as RWA and RT, these two events host thousands of authors, readers, agents, and publishers each year, providing attendees opportunities network with industry professionals, connect with readers, and find new inspiration.
RT and RWA are of comparable size, but they draw very different crowds. RWA’s website says, “RWA’s primary goal is to advance the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy, and the conference is developed with that in mind.” In contrast, RT’s FAQ says, “Readers, published authors, aspiring authors, booksellers, publishers, agents, editors, cover models, and more are all welcome.” All RWA attendees sign up for the entire weekend, while RT sells day passes. What the events share is a mission to support and celebrate the people who create and consume romantic fiction.
At the May 2014 edition of RT, 2,400 full-convention registrants—and another 1,000 attendees who registered for various single events—converged on the Canal Street Marriott in New Orleans for six days to mingle, attend workshops, and expand their networks of readers and publishing professionals. “What sets us apart from any other book industry events are the fun social events,” says Carol Stacy, publisher of RT Book Reviews (formerly Romantic Times) and one of the organizers of RT. “And we are reader-centric like RT Book Reviews, which represents the voice of the readers.”
During Saturday’s Book Fair, 3,600 fans bought books and 750 authors signed them, with an average sale of 20 books per title—adding up to an estimated 45,000 paperbacks. Fourteen genres were represented at the event, and up to 20 workshops took place concurrently at any given hour, for a grand total of more than 200 workshops with programs for writers (aspiring and published), readers, booksellers, and librarians. That’s not even counting Saturday’s Teen Day and FAN-tastic Day workshops.
Authors and readers took advantage of the playful atmosphere to network in- and outside of the scheduled events. “Besides workshops that cover craft, career, writing life, marketing, and reader focused events,” says author Jennifer Probst (Searching for Perfect), “there are plenty of opportunities to meet informally and hang out with other writers and connect with readers. One is the bar! I’ve met people in elevators, at restaurants, and even on the way to the ladies’ room. Everyone is extremely friendly and approachable, and no one really gets the opportunity to meet others in this industry outside social media. It’s a one stop shop for writers!”
At RT, which has open attendance on all six days, authors sign copies at the Book Fair for readers and connect with them before, during, and after panels. “I consider myself as much a reader as an author,” says Jill Shalvis (It’s in His Kiss), “so I love to go to places like RT and other reader-based conventions because I love to interact with other readers. I want to find out who they’re reading, who they’re loving, what genres are trending, etc. I could talk books all day long. On the other hand, I find the industry-based gatherings like RWA equally valuable because of the networking opportunities. Where else can I go and meet with my agent, my editors, my PR team, and fellow authors all in one place?”
Author Vicky Dreiling (What a Reckless Rogue Needs) agrees that a convention’s biggest draw is the opportunity to build relationships with readers. “There are numerous promotional opportunities available at most conferences, but the ability to meet romance readers is a highlight for me,” Dreiling says. “Making connections is so important to me that I’ve made advance plans to meet up with several of my readers at a conference this summer. I think a real connection makes far more of an impact than a poster.”
From Hobby to Career
The annual RWA conference brings in around 2,100 attendees. Like RT, RWA attracts published and unpublished authors, publishing professionals, librarians, and booksellers. On Wednesday night, RWA also hosts a “Readers for Life” Literacy Autographing, at which romance authors meet with readers and sign their books. The proceeds from “Readers for Life” go to literacy organizations. Author Sandy James (Signed, Sealed, Delivered) cites RWA as a key player in her literary career. “I credit RWA National Conference with much of the success I’ve had in publishing,” she says. “The workshops have such a range, helping every author, from the newbie to the New York Times bestseller. The networking opportunities are literally everywhere, from appointments with agents and editors to cocktail parties. I honestly believe that being a part of these conferences helped me take that big step from writing as a hobby to writing as a career.”
The presence of established authors also helps aspiring authors chart out a path to publication. “Romance conventions like RWA and RT have helped me at every phase of my career,” says author Sophie Jordan (Tease). “When I was starting out, conference workshops, led by the rock stars of the romance world, enabled me to build my craft. Once I was ready to submit my work, they were there for me again—offering networking opportunities with my target agents and publishers. Now that I am a published author, these conventions still offer me valuable face time with industry professionals and fellow authors, plus the bonus of high-volume interaction with romance readers. I can attest that I have expanded awareness of my author brand at each and every RWA and RT con I’ve attended.”
2014 marked the first year Penguin had a presence at RT, where it joined other major publishers such as Simon & Schuster, Sourcebooks, St. Martin’s Press, and Random House. At publisher spotlights, representatives of the publishing house spoke to aspiring authors about their acquisition processes, and their roles working with and supporting authors. “Both RT and RWA provide great opportunities to meet with agents and writers who are not based in New York,” says Louise Burke, president of S&S’s Gallery Books Group. “The assembled power of a strong author base combined with the presence of in-house staff from editorial, marketing, and publicity enables us to fully represent the Gallery/Pocket brands, giving fans and potential new authors a sense of our personality.” She says that Gallery has seen a lot of success at group events, which she calls a “physical manifestation of social media connectedness.” Gallery recently hosted the Belles on Wheels multicity bus tour, in which 10 Gallery authors got together on the road for the five days leading up to RT. They did group book signings in seven Southern cities before the bus’s final stop in New Orleans for the convention. “The authors selected share similar fan bases,” Burke says, “readers whom we felt dovetailed nicely with RT and its attendees, since fans of one author can connect with fans of another to discover new authors they might love.”
Publishers and authors take the differences between the RT and RWA into account when planning publicity. “We have very different tactics for RT and RWA,” says Pam Spengler-Jaffee, senior director of publicity and brand development at Avon, “although both are closely aligned to increase discoverability and awareness of our authors among consumers, media, and accounts as well as promote both the Avon brand and the smart, savvy authors and readers who define everything we do. At RT Booklovers, we take a very consumer-focused approach. We set up fun, interactive events where our authors can mix and mingle directly with consumers, super readers, and each other. We also host seminars introducing Avon to the many aspiring authors attending RT to build awareness of our print and digital publishing platforms, as we are always interested in acquiring, and fostering, new talent. First and foremost, we all must remember to keep it fun at RT—this is an event for which readers save all year to attend. It’s more than a vacation to them. It’s a passion!”
Avon’s presence at RWA is more focused on “author relations and education, networking, and aligning authors with key accounts.” As Spengler-Jaffee notes, “RWA is where many authors come to learn, to build their craft, and to connect with other authors, and we do our best to foster and support that atmosphere through workshops and one-on-one engagements. While it all sounds very professional—and it is—we also have a lot of fun at RWA.”
RWA’s program tends to be more business-oriented, while RT is more focused on being a convention for both readers and writers. Both are also founts of inspiration. “RT is one big educational seminar,” says Cleis Press publisher, Brenda Knight. “Our new romance imprint, Tempted Romance, came from RT. It was inspired by the convention itself and its liveliness and passion—we wanted to give fans what they want, with a twist. We have big plans to kick off Tempted Romance in 2015.”
Publishers aren’t the only ones developing new strategies courtesy of romance conventions and conferences. “Author Delilah Devlin has devised a unique and highly effective strategy for getting on and staying on bestseller lists that she learned from fellow authors at RT,” says Knight. “Her ‘Street Team,’ made up of authors, fans she met at RT, marketing aces, and other convention-goers, promotes her new books. This strategy recently worked to get Cowboy Heat out of the gate and galloping up to bestseller lists.”
Whether it’s for business meetings with editors or a chance to connect with readers, there’s an inherent value in meeting face-to-face. “Conventions are invaluable for industry professionals,” says Lucienne Diver, an author and literary agent for the Knight Agency. “The in-person, one-on-one time helps to cement relationships, building real understanding, trust, and
rapport among all parts of a writer’s team—agents, editors, publicity managers, etc. Phone calls and emails are great but so often get right to the business at hand. It’s wonderful to meet in a more social setting where there is a greater chance for those impromptu conversations from which so many book series are born or during which an editor’s mention of something on their wish list that you just happen to have going out on submission becomes a book deal. Also, many overseas editors come to the national conferences now, giving you a great chance to spend more time with them outside of the back-to-back meetings at the international book fairs.”
Author Melody Anne (Submit) took advantage of those international opportunities at 2013 conferences. “Last year I met with foreign publishers and so many amazing people who have helped my career grow by leaps and bounds this year,” she says. “In the changing book market, it’s essential to make connections. What a joy it is to meet face to face with people whom I have worked only online or over the phone. RT and RWA are can’t-miss conferences for me! I love the network of people I meet, from other authors both new and old to publishers and marketing people. I go all out for the conferences with advertisements, swag, and giveaway copies because, when I walk in, I love seeing my books displayed and I love the opportunities provided for me.”
RT and RWA also offer authors and publishers the chance to connect with booksellers and librarians. “Conferences and conventions are not just a place where we can showcase and promote our titles to the industry at large, but also a place to really interact with readers and booksellers,” says Cindy Hwang, vice president and executive editor of Berkley Books. “This year the RT convention has a panel just for booksellers and librarians where publishers can communicate directly with them about upcoming titles we’re particularly excited about—in this case, Virgin by Radhika Sanghani, which we will be publishing in August as a trade paperback. There’s nothing like personal interaction to convey our enthusiasm and passion for this book, and my goal is to have everyone leave the room buzzing about it.”
Craft and Community
While many indie authors weren’t in favor of the segregation of authors at the Book Fair at RT 2014—traditionally published authors met in one room and self-published authors across the hall in another—they were grateful for the panels. “For me, the most useful and interesting part of romance-focused writing conventions are the panels,” says bestselling author A.L. Jackson (the Regret series). “It’s incredible to be in a room full of talented, successful authors and listen to their wisdom and experience. Plus, those moments before and after the talk are the perfect time for networking with other industry professionals. There are few places other than conventions like RT and RWA where an author has the opportunity to learn, contribute, and meet with their peers and colleagues in an intimate setting. I find it especially helpful from the perspective of a hybrid author like myself. It’s a merging of both worlds, traditional and self-published, where all information is relevant and timely.”
Education and craft workshops are a considerable draw for authors at both events. “I often find that educational opportunities at conventions like RWA and RT lead to networking opportunities, which lead to more education,” says author Karen Rose (Watch Your Back). “I taught a workshop titled ‘Writing Romantic Suspense: Some Basic Stuff’ at an RWA local chapter conference last fall. Among the attendees were a retired DEA agent, a ballistics specialist, a social worker, and a nurse. During the q&a portion of my workshop, the nurse offered to be a future resource for all workshop attendees. That led to another professional offering herself as resource, then another. By the end of the hour, we’d developed a wonderful—and unexpected—network!”
When it comes to branding and marketing, craft workshops serve as a way not only to learn but also to give back. “It’s all about networking, baby,” jokes Jesse Hayworth (Harvest at Mustang Ridge), “but in the sense that people form true connections at the conventions. Early in my career, when I thanked über-author Suzanne Brockmann for some help, she said, ‘Pay it forward.’ So I have, by helping to spread the word about wonderful books, doing pitching clinics, and offering ‘bar hours’ where I talk to writers about their stories. And when people thank me, I tell them to pay it forward.” A decade after that first encounter, Hayworth will be collaborating with Brockmann and Virginia Kantra at an RWA panel on reinventing oneself over a long career. “I’ve got strangers coming up to me,” Hayworth adds, “saying that they’ve received help from people two, three, even four ‘pay it forwards’ deep and that they’re looking for their chance to pass it on. To me, that’s the kind of networking that matters.”
That feeling of community keeps readers and authors coming back every year to RT and RWA, where they can gather with like-minded people who share their deep love of stories and often find inspiration to write the next one. Perhaps award-winning author Shelley Coriell (The Broken) says it best: “Writing is a such a solitary endeavor, and writing conferences provide sorely needed connections to help authors refill the writing well. At romance writing conferences, I get a chance to learn from master writing instructors and subject specialists, such as those in law enforcement and the military. I also come away deeply inspired by my fellow authors who have shared candid stories of struggles and successes. Getting out of our story worlds enriches our lives and leads to richer stories.”