When I'm at RWA, I carry a notebook with me, partly for writing down any excellent things I overhear, and partly to take notes on things I notice, because by the end of the conference, I can't remember my name much less what I heard three hours prior. Or three days prior. So I have a few notes and different pieces of RWA written up, but I want to start with Stephanie Laurens' keynote, which you can read in its entirety on her site.
This speech left me baffled and more than a little disappointed in Laurens. The section that I had to read a few times just to make sure I was understanding it correctly, was this part:
For today, the one point I want you to take from this picture is that the publishing industry is not our business. It's a segment of our business, it's the necessary bit that takes our story from us to our readers, but publishing is merely a transmittal process – think of it as the mechanics of passing the story parcel from the author to the readers en masse.
And this part:
Publishers and Retailers, no matter who they are, can never be or make themselves essential – not unless they can take control of the internet. Not just a part of it, all of it….
How does a publisher succeed in our online world? Like retailers, publishers are non-essential, so, like retailers, to secure a place in our online industry publishers need to make themselves commercially desirable…to whom? Their customers. But in the online world, who are a publisher's customers? Who will pay for what a publisher offers – editing, production, distribution and management of sales channels, publicity and promotion? Authors. Only authors. Unless engaged by authors to act as publishing facilitators, publishers have nothing to offer readers or retailers.
One benefit to attending RWA for six years now (I can't believe it's been 6 years) is that I have met many, many editors, agents, publicists, marketing folks, and some of the other people who, in my opinion, do far more than “transmit” a book. They're not pieces of software or cogs in a machine. They're people. They're people working in an ever changing industry in corporations that are sometimes part of larger corporations that barely notice them.
Sometimes, the people who do the jobs daily of what Laurens called “transmitting” books do realize the changes that need to be made, but can't necessarily convince everyone up the food chain that the changes need to happen faster. But those changes are made incrementally – witness the digital imprints at different houses, for example. Even the way publishers interact with me has changed for the digital, sometimes exponentially, in only the last few months.
I don't agree with many of the decisions some publishers make. I don't understand raising ebook prices instead of lowering them. I think DRM is one of the worst ideas ever. I don't understand sometimes why one particular set of retailers who buy books to sell them seem to have more influence over what our books look like than the people who buy the books to read them. I wish there were less dinner plate man nipples on covers instead of more. I think interfering with and limiting the presence of romance in all formats in public libraries is completely ludicrous. I've got a lot of opinions. I disagree with many people in publishing who make decisions. I disagree with their decisions. There's plenty to discuss and debate in terms of how to help more readers find more books and help more authors reach more readers.
But I don't know I'd say that anyone who is involved in publishing or in retail is “not essential.” I don't think it's possible to make that estimation at this time.
The venue, in particular, of this speech, was really surprising to me. There weren't just authors there. A number of people from Laurens' publisher were present, and booksellers as well. I felt bad for the people I know who work hard at what they do – and do so because they also love books. Let's face it, no one works in publishing because there are buckets of money handed out annually. To say booksellers and publishers are “non-essential” is not only demeaning, but inaccurate.
To be told one is “non-essential” by an author while working hard unpacking boxes, shipping books for signings, arranging for signed bookplates, arranging meetings and dinners and parties and appointments to make the most out of an exhausting four day conference is also rather insulting. Booksellers cross the country and sometimes a few continents and oceans to be present at this convention, the one devoted to the professional development of the romance genre. People get up early and work late trying to make sure that every experience an author has at RWA while signing books for or interacting with their publisher is ideal. RWA is not as fun, I suspect, for those whose hours at the conference are long work filled days involving dirty shipping boxes, boxcutters, and a ton of logistical details.
Ironically, I thought there was a noticeable difference in tenor and tone to the conversations at RWA this year. In past years, there's been an almost adversarial relationship between print and digital, for example, with individuals choosing sides and acting as if the industry is a giant version of the movie Highlander and There Can Only Be One.
Now, a short time later, I think there's more understanding of what digital publishing means, and how it can be useful for an author to work with both options for her career.
That same adversarial relationship can be seen again in some discussions online of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. There can only be one! We must destroy the yadda yadda etc.
But this year, with so much to be learned from authors who have made self-publishing a successful option for their careers, I thought there was less battle cry and more questioning. I'm sure some have very specific ideas of The Right Way to Do Things, but I also think there are authors who have been so successful with self-publishing that they are role models for people who want to try self-publishing, and want to do it like that person did.
When I mentioned my sense of “curiosity not combat” defining the tone of the conference discussions, other attendees I spoke with said they'd noted the same thing. It's not Highlander, and there can be more than one. In another year, there might be more than ten different options. (I don't envy the programming committee that year.)
As was said during some of the podcast interviews, everyone there was trying to make a good book happen, whether to write it, buy it, edit it, sell it, and (for most of us) read it. There's a myriad of ways to do that now. There's not only one.
And, in my opinion from over here reading a lot of books, I believe it's nearly impossible to tell while things change so quickly what is and is not essential.
Given some of the books I'm sent for review, I maintain without a doubt that good editors, proofreaders, publicists, marketers, publishers, and booksellers are still all absolutely essential.
And now, other notes on RWA.
Speaking of changes, RWA has taken the Strong Romantic Elements category out of the Golden Heart for 2013, and next year will be the last year for the RITA for Strong Romantic Elements.
I can understand their motivation – why award books that aren't romance if you're a romance writer's organization? But alas, there are some fine writers and series that may not have a place to fit within the recognition opportunities now. Some of the SRE books were a far distance from romance, for example, most notably Beautiful Strumpet, which we discussed here. But some of the books are closer to romance, such as Deanna Raybourn's series, or even the JD Robb series, which is a romance told over 14,576,219 books (at last count). I can see both sides of the debate on this one and am curious what you think.
The RITAs also brought some firsts: Sarah Morgan's Doukakis's Apprentice ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ) won (I believe) the first RITA for a Harlequin Presents novel in the Contemporary Series romance category. Caroline Linden's I Love the Earl ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ) and Fiona Lowe's Boomerang Bride ( A | BN | K | S | ARe ) won best novella and best contemporary single title respectively, becoming the first digitally published books to win a RITA.
Enough seriousness. Time for Overheard at RWA!
“The guys from Storage Wars were in my car once. I took the long way. It was awesome.”
“Wait, is Nora Roberts going to be at this conference? REALLY? I LOVE her books. I had one in the car yesterday but I finished it too fast.” (said by the gentleman who drove me to the hotel)
“My family brought buffalo wings to the OC. Our claim to fame.” (A fine claim!)
“OMG. I just said BDSM to my GRANDMA.”
“May I tweet your shoes?” (I heard that more than once. I also said it to people, then tweeted their shoes.)
“Smartphone? Please. My cell phone has an ANTENNA.”
“Wait, are you saying there are no vampires?”
“It took me half an hour to cross the lobby. I kept seeing everyone twice and I had to talk to them both times.”
“EVERYONE in the lobby looks THE SAME now. I can't find anyone!”
“I'm by the pool. With a martini. You can't miss me.”
“Yes, I can.”