Romance doyenne Nora
Roberts (top), a 24-year RWA member,
extols the organization's benefits,
as does Jennifer Crusie (middle), who
credits her own knowledge of the
business to another RWA member.
Newbie Kelley St. John’s first
novel is being published next
month by Warner Forever.
While Romance Writers of America boasts 9,500 members, only about 1,600 of them have published books. That can make for some uncomfortable moments at the group's annual conference, says agent Irene Goodman, who maintains that these aspiring authors "often view editors and agents as gatekeepers who are the bad guys barring them from their dream."
The agent, whose clients include bestselling romance writer Debbie Macomber, continues, "They act as if we're all part of some semishady, sub-rosa group." Still, Goodman attends the conferences, wading through "this vast population of the great unwashed masses of inexperienced, unprofessional people trying to break in," in search of "a brilliant newcomer."
And there lies the paradox of RWA's highly democratic (anyone willing to write a $75 dues check is in) admissions policy. On the one hand, it is the group's greatest strength, enabling it to claim the largest membership of any not-for-profit genre writers' association in the world. And it creates an important mission for the group, with a national conference and numerous local conferences each year that make up a kind of finishing school for romance writers. But this inclusiveness may also be the group's biggest weakness, diluting its clout by making it seem amateurish and, as Goodman points out, making it harder for agents and editors to discover the truly motivated writer among the dilettantes.
Still, as the group celebrates its 25-year anniversary, it's a safe bet those unpublished—or, as some prefer to call them, "pre-published"—writers will continue to be welcome in a group that also boasts such big names as Nora Roberts and Jennifer Crusie. Providing networking and support for aspiring authors was, after all, the original mission when 37 charter members founded the association in 1980.
Former Wannabes Give Back
Today the group counts more than 150 chapters—both local groups arranged geographically and special-interest chapters, like RWA Heartbeat, for writers of medical romance. RWA also encompasses specialized groups such as PRO (for aspiring writers who have completed a manuscript) and PAN (the Published Author Network). The group also has its own awards—the RITAs for published books and the Golden Heart awards for unpublished manuscripts.
For established writers, RWA has evolved into an advocacy group, scoring such victories as persuading Harlequin to register copyrights for authors' works and also allowing writers to "own" their pseudonyms even if they move to other houses. RWA president Gayle Wilson (author of Double Blind, published this month by Harlequin/HQN), who began a one-year term on November 1, is evaluating the possibility of establishing a for-profit arm that could purchase a building to house the headquarters or publish how-to books.
For writers who've already broken through, the group is also a way to give back to an association that nurtured them before they made it. "The best thing I've found at RWA is the willingness of authors who have achieved major success to share that knowledge," says Kelley St. John, whose novel Good GirlsDon't, the first in a two-book deal, will be published by Warner in December. St. John, who joined RWA in 2001, remembers the thrill of being near writers of Roberts's and Crusie's stature.
Likewise, Crusie, who has been writing single-title romances for St. Martin's for a decade, still recalls starting out. "I sold my first book, including copyright, for $1,500 to Harlequin. The RWA had warned everybody, but I wasn't a member," she says. Crusie, who says everything she knows about the business she learned from another RWA member, is more than happy to share the group with aspirants. "RWA's strength is that it's got unpublished members. That's where all the juice comes from," she says. "I was a wannabe once."
Roberts, the reigning queen of romance, also appreciates the association's role in developing the professionalism of would-be authors. "If you join RWA and pay attention, you'll know how to submit. That way you're not sending in a scented manuscript with a ribbon around it." Roberts, an RWA member since 1981, says the business has changed: "In the early days someone actually did slide a manuscript to an editor under the stall of the bathroom. But that's not going to happen today."
A Chance to Turn Pro
To help more members make that leap to published author, two years ago the group started the PRO program, open to writers who have completed a manuscript and can prove that they've queried at least one agent or editor about submitting it. The PRO program offers online boot camps and booklets on the business of publishing—a more substantive version of a previous program, in which every RWA member who completed a manuscript received a pin to commemorate the occasion. The PRO program currently has about 2,000 members.
As for why thousands of other people belong to RWA, but don't seem to be actually writing, board member Jennifer Crump says, "People may join chapters for camaraderie, but they don't have the time to commit to finish a manuscript." And even those who do finish may not be on the road to publication. "We have no illusions that when you see a manuscript from a PRO member, it's gold and you should buy it," says Crump. "We can't guarantee quality."
Contemporary romances were
up in 2004 over 2003, while
historicals have been declining.
Nora Roberts, meanwhile,
remains impervious to statistical
fluctuations (titles from Avon,
Berkley and Jove).
Nevertheless, agents and editors looking out for the next romance writing star continue to show up at the national RWA conferences. Held in a different city each summer (the 2006 event will be in Atlanta, July 26—29), the national conferences attract about 2,000 attendees and feature more than 100 workshops as well as panels, roundtables and one-on-one appointments with editors and agents.
The conference offers editors and agents a chance to showcase themselves and to check out the talent. But it's no free-for-all. "The casual writer probably doesn't get to talk to me," says Harlequin/ HQN executive editor Tracy Farrell. Still, there are occasional Hollywood-and-Vine type discoveries at the conference. Pam Spengler-Jaffee, director of publicity for paperbacks at Avon/Morrow, recalls that two years ago at the RWA conference during a panel on ethnic chick lit "an author raised her hand and said, 'I've got this romance and I've been hearing it's too Latino or not Latino enough. Do you have any advice?' The Avon editor on the panel said, 'Yes, send it to me.' That author was Mary Castillo, who's now one of our rising stars."
Shauna Summers, now a senior editor at Bantam, first met author Tina St. John in a group appointment at an RWA conference before acquiring her historical romances for Ballantine/Ivy, but Summers cautions, "It's not about meeting me. It's about the quality of the material." She didn't recall having met St. John until after the writer was under contract. And agent Steven Axelrod at the Axelrod Agency met his current client LaVyrle Spencer at an RWA conference. The organization promotes professionalism, he says, and "creates an orderly playing field" among the writers.
That isn't to say there aren't complaints. "The group has tended to homogenize a lot of writers," says agent Karen Solem of Spencerhill Associates. "A lot of times the group dynamic takes a lot of freshness and individual voice and creativity out of the projects."
And it isn't always a lovefest among the members. At the annual conference this summer that marked the group's 25-year anniversary, some attendees felt less than celebratory after viewing a video montage with a right-wing bent that was the centerpiece of the awards presentation. It edited together footage of important political events from the last 25 years with a pop-tune soundtrack, so that bouncy music played over sobering images—none of which had anything to do with romance writers. Roberts, who had been scheduled to serve as emcee, opted out. "I could not and would not be a part of a ceremony that, rather than honor the organization and the nominees, took the audience through 25 years of world tragedies," she says in an e-mail. "I felt, and continue to feel, that it was horribly inappropriate and offensive."
Crusie, who served on the RWA board for three years in the late 1990s, says, "there's always upheaval," but adds, "it's the same with any organization." She recalls the "e-pub uprising" of 1997, when e-book authors were upset by a requirement that PAN members be published by a house that has sold at least 5,000 copies of any romance novel, a mark no electronic publisher could reach at that time. "The whole point was to stop them from getting suckered into going with those publishers," says Crusie.
But the occasional conflict—including those that may be inevitable between people at such vastly different points in their careers—doesn't affect member loyalty. "I went to the first conference very green. I think my first book had just come out the month before, and I was fortunate enough to meet a woman who was in pretty much the same circumstances, Ruth Langan, and we've been best of friends ever since—we still room together at every RWA conference," says Roberts. "That kind of thing is extremely valuable not only for the emotional impact but for continuity, a support system, having people to talk to who really get what you do."