Around 2,000 members of the Romance Writers of America descended on Washington, D.C. this weekend for RWA's annual conference. Despite overall economic woes, romance is selling well in both trade and mass market, and the mood was quite upbeat.

Publishers who have been tightening their belts nonetheless threw their traditional cocktail parties at upscale venues, from restaurant Teatro Goldoni (Random House) to the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton (Harlequin, celebrating 60 years of romance publishing with strobe lights, a chocolate fountain, and an open bar). "We thought about not having a party this year," said Nina Taublib, publisher of Random House's Bantam Dell line, "but we really felt it was an important thing to get our authors together. It's a huge hotel, and you don't always see everybody. This way we can bring together agents, authors, and the press. And we wanted to show that we really support this genre."

Adrienne Di Pietro, v-p and marketing director for HarperCollins's Avon imprint, declared RWA the "perfect venue" to make personal connections with authors. "It's a chance to spread the idea of community that we have fostered within our publishing team and embrace the community which the Avon authors have built with each other and their fans," she said. "Avon Books has always been dedicated to embracing a sense of family, and our family loves a good party!" Karen Auerbach, publicity director for Kensington Publishing, noted that several reporters were circulating at the conference, including one from the Washington Post who gave RWA an extensive write-up on the front page of Saturday's Arts & Living section. "With all these journalists coming to our party," she said, "it increases our exposure in the marketplace."

Cocktails aside, RWA is three days of hard work. Authors attend tense rapid-fire pitch sessions with agents and editors (one called it "speed dating for writers") and countless workshops on the writing craft and the ins and outs of publishing. Hallways, lobbies, and the nearby bars and restaurants are crowded with people—mostly women—clutching piles of free books, handing out glossy promotional cards and pamphlets, and sharing valuable insider gossip. Fans mob the daily autograph sessions and get dressed to the nines for the Golden Heart Award and RITA Award ceremony, the Oscars of the romance world. In this intense atmosphere, every moment feels like it could make someone's career, and in the "sisterhood" of RWA, every author seems determined to help her fellow writers as well as herself. "I want to see lots of great books published because I was a reader before I was ever a writer," said romantic fantasy author C.L. Wilson, whose name may be more familiar from the numerous books she's blurbed than the three bestsellers she's written. Do those informal introductions pay off? Absolutely, said Trident Media Group agent Stephanie MacLean: "I have lots of authors coming up and saying 'I have this friend with a manuscript,' and I've found some very promising authors that way."

Despite an admission fee close to $500, the conference hotel charging over $200 a night, and the expense of travel, authors were adamant that RWA is a good investment in their careers. Leanna Renee Hieber, whose debut novel is due out from Dorchester in the fall, said she would have come to the conference for the networking opportunities even if she hadn't had a novella nominated for a Prism Award(she won.) "I had to make connections to get published because my work is very cross-genre," she explained. "When I started writing nine years ago, no one was publishing gothic Victorian fantasy. So many people helped me out. It took me a while to find a publisher, but now my story can be inspiring for other authors."

Christie Craig, a veteran author who joined RWA over 20 years ago, declared the conference as necessary for writers as continuing medical education is for doctors. "We're in an entertainment business," she said, "and entertainment changes. When I returned to writing after taking five years off, I had to re-learn everything. So I come here not only to pay back but to hear new authors talk." She comes to meet her fans, too, and make memories that get her through those times "when you're sitting in your pajamas and thinking that you're writing the worst book ever."

When Dorchester considered saving money by not sending anyone to RWA, senior editor Christopher Keeslar pushed hard for the company to make the effort and the investment. He finds that the opportunity to bring his authors together in person is invaluable for him and for them. "I love to work by e-mail or phone, but seeing people is critical if you want to really understand them," he said. "I also like to think of myself as a facilitator. I get my authors together so they can grow and learn from each other. I like that and I think it's partly my job to help make that happen." He added, "We're not a huge monolithic corporation off in the middle of nowhere. We're people, and we're people who love books. It's easy to lose sight of that if you're just connecting through email, but the job is a passion. That's why we're here."