Speeches, Events, and Overheard at RWA

Tattered old book with cracked cover.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.

Highlander starring Christopher Lambert. He's standing on a hill with kilt and fur and a sword, hair blowing a bit. Kind of like a romance novel cover, only without O-face. 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.”

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    I wasn’t at RWA, but I read the text of the speech on Laurens’ site, and what I took from it is something akin to Clay Shirky’s now-infamous “Publish is a button” statement (found here http://www.teleread.com/ebooks… ). I don’t think anyone would argue that there are essential jobs that need to be done to “make a good book happen” (and I so need to frame that quote and do naughty things to it). It’s just that to date, the people holding the most essential jobs have had the least say in “the industry.” Opening the paths to making good books happen means that the essential jobs have a better chance at being the most listened-to voices.

    I wish the brainstorming committee on the RITA-revamp much luck. I know it’s not easy to administer a contest that big. I understand the GH has overhauled somewhat as well.

    Thanks for the update!

  2. 2
    Sandy James says:

    I agree totally about the change in the general atmosphere. I also believe that part of that is because of the upheaval in publishing. Normally, authors stalk agents and editors at national conference. We’ve all heard stories of authors sliding manuscripts under restroom doors to get the attention of the agent or editor they truly want. Not this year. Instead, industry professionals were able to mingle freely without the fear of being pounced upon by desperate authors. That air of angst was simply…gone. Sure, there were pitches and opportunities to connect with editors and agents, but in the spirit of Stephanie’s key note address, authors seemed to take to heart that they are “essential.”

    I truly enjoyed the conference this year instead of going back home and having to de-stress.

    I’m not a fan of RWA dropping the MSE category. I believe books in that genre still fit within the guidelines of what our organization represents. But that’s just my two cents…

  3. 3
    MissB2U says:

    I don’t know anything about the writing/publishing industry but I’m loving hearing all about the RWA.  As a reader I find the changes happening in the business really interesting. Thanks for giving us a peek around the curtain!  Great way to start my day:  SBTB and a big-ass cup-o-joe.  Life is good.

  4. 4
    Lauren Willig says:

    I am deeply distressed by the removal of the SRE category.  Even aside from Deanna Raybourn being the epitome of all awesomeness (which she is), the real issue is the potential readers that we lose this way. 

    Those SRE books have the power to be the gateway drug by which readers who claim they don’t and won’t read romance are drawn into the field.  It’s a short hop from women’s fiction to contemporary romance, from Karen White to SEP, or from historical mystery to historical romance, from Deanna Raybourn to Meredith Duran.  By closing off this category, by telling these authors that what they’re writing doesn’t count as romance, we’re also sending a message to their readers and creating barriers that don’t need to exist.

    But that’s just my two cents. 

  5. 5
    Flo_over says:

    Interesting.  That whole speech was kind of… hrm.  Not un-interesting but felt like she had a bone to pick in the business and was trying to do it subtly. 

    I can’t speak for anyone but myself but having eBooks is a boon.  All the bookstores closed in my area.  Target and Walmart don’t carry the actual books I wish to read.  And I’m not wasting gas money to drive 20 miles to the next bookstore only to be bombarded with toys, DVDs and other crap I do not want and STILL not find a copy of my book.  (Oh, was I MAD that day)

    I appreciate being able to instantly get a book release day.  For the authors I DO buy I almost (ALMOST) don’t mind paying the same as a hard copy.

    What I DISLIKE is the idea that publishers (upper echelons) are sitting around planning how much they are going to charge me for a digital version that may NOT have had as much work put into it as the hard copy.  That drives me batty.  Or battier…

  6. 6
    Carrie Gwaltney says:

    “even the JD Robb series, which is a romance told over 14,576,219 books (at last count)”

    LOL! I’m only on book 9 (going through them on audio) and it often looks this was for me. 8 down, 14,576,201 to go. ;-)

    I’m sorry they’re pulling this award, as well. I’m a late comer to romances, only finding them after decades of reading mostly mysteries. After mreading a mystery series with a definite romantic thread (Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper series) I moved over to more romantic mysteries and then onto other romance novels. Novels with a strong romantic element are a definite gateway to the uninitiated reader.

  7. 7

    I heard so many reactions to the speech in the two days following it that it made my head spin. From one person saying “Bravo,” to the woman sitting on the bench saying, “I walked out on that speech,” it was definitely a controversial topic. But at the core of it, I agree with you 100%. No one in publishing is non-essential right now, and I, personally, am grateful for every single person who worked on my behalf at RWA, and who work every day, to make my books the best they can be. (I totally know I sound like a bullshitter, but I mean every word. From my agent to my publicist to my editor and everyone in between—they’re amazing, and definitely NOT inessential.) Thanks for the speech breakdown. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one disappointed by the message.

  8. 8
    Robenagrant says:

    That speech left me stunned. Having kicked around the halls of RWA conferences for ten years, and finally getting a contract, all I can say is that nobody makes the journey from writer to author on their own.

    There are so many people working diligently behind the scenes to make your book the best it can be, and to think otherwise is not wise. While we all have the opportunity to indie pub our books, even then, if we’re wise, we don’t do that alone. Not if we want a career. We hire freelance copy editors, graphic artists, publicists, and the list goes on. To cut those middlemen out of the picture is a sure ride to disaster.

    I really don’t understand the “publisher as transmitter of books” but I think perhaps the author spoke in terms of backlist. If an author has already been through copyedits, taken the advice of talented agents and editors, had her book polished to a high gleam and then years later got those book rights back, and the opportunity to press a button and upload them, well that’s a different story. But, she didn’t JUST press a button and she needs to give credit where it’s due. 

  9. 9
    library addict says:

    Did the RWA give a reason why they are dropping NWSRE out? I aslo heard they are getting rid of the category suspense award (or whatever it’s officially called). Are they just trying to cut down on the number of awards or are they introducing new categories to take the place of the one(s) they are removing?

  10. 10
    library addict says:

    Maybe you and Jane could do another podcast with Sylvia Day about all this?

  11. 11
    Sandy James says:

    The rationale I’ve heard is that RWA is an organization promoting romance writing, not “nearly romance” writing. From what I’ve read and heard, they’re making a big push to stress romance this year, including asking members who are not actively pursuing publishing to drop to an “associate” status rather than a general membership. Dropping MSE from the Ritas fits that mold.

  12. 12
    The Other Susan says:

    OOOH!!! OOOH!!! A Highlander reference!!! Thanks Sarah!!!

  13. 13
    Olivia Waite says:

    Publishers and Retailers, no matter who they are, can never be or make themselves essential – not unless they can take control of the internet.

    Was I the only person who read/heard this part and had a little flashy light go off in my brain that said AMAZON AMAZON AMAZON? They bought up a lot of the online used-book business (Abebooks, Book Depository) before getting into ebooks (Kindle) and then publishing (Montlake etc.). They’re an enormous part of the book market and the reason why so many people consider self-publishing a viable route.


    Moreover, like Robinagrant above, I think it’s pretty brassy of Stephanie Laurens to talk about authors selling directly to readers, considering how many years she’s had the support of a publishing house. Yes, she’s in a great position to self-publish if she needs to—because she has had the benefit of years of professional marketing and advertising and editing to make her name very recognizable to romance readers. Not all of us are so well-positioned, especially these days, when publishers expect authors to handle much of the marketing legwork.

  14. 14
    Sandra says:

    Of course, publishers and retailers who push her to the top of the best seller lists aren’t essential. Laurens has become so formulaic the last few years, that she probably doesn’t need herself anymore. Pull out the sexy-times outline (1st base, 2nd base, score), change a few names (but keep the uber-alpha hero and the sexually curious heroine who has no desire to marry), add an almost non-existent plot, some purple prose, a bunch of one-word paragraphs, a few extraneous Cynsters and extensive improper use of the word “evoke” and she’s done.

  15. 15
    Xnightshade says:

    Personally, I didn’t consider Laurens’ speech to be personal. She was speaking to the veteran author who was uncertain and left adrift by the changes in the industry. She was speaking to the mid-list author who saw hope for their career outside of waiting to (hopefully) break out. She was speaking to the unpublished author who is anxious over where they fit in to this industry. She was speaking to the e-published and indie authors who took a leap of faith into uncharted territories. But mostly, she was speaking to romance writers, who, at the end of the day, create the product over which millions of readers love, laugh, enjoy, and sigh—and that this reaction is what we should strive for and focus on, not indie vs “legacy” or IP lawyer vs literary agent or agency pricing vs non-agency pricing. We as authors are to focus on what we can control—and continue to do what we love—which is our books and our readers. Editors, agents, marketing departments, art departments, booksellers, librarians, etc our are partners to bringing our novels to readers, but we can lose ourselves and our dreams when we focus on this segment of the publishing industry, which, point blank, does mostly boil down to hard, cold numbers over the book—->reader relationship. And most of all, Laurens was speaking at the annual conference for Romance Writers of America, for the benefit of fellow romance writers, so why shouldn’t her speech be directed towards that audience?

  16. 16
    Kaetrin says:

    “Laurens has become so formulaic the last few years, that she probably doesn’t need herself anymore.”

    LOLOLOL!!  Well played Sandra! :D

  17. 17
    Kerry says:

    Content creators (including industries other than book publishing) have been getting shafted for years by corporate interests which wouldn’t exist without the content, and they’ve been brainwashed into believing they should be grateful to get diminishing pay and diminishing services from those corporate interests for no reason other than the corporate interests are God and It Is So.

    It’s past time writers reawakened to the fact that regardless of who else may be involved in the production and distribution of a book, the person who writes it is the MOST important. Nobody else in publishing has a job without writers. If people who get steady paychecks and benefits because writers write get their fee-fees hurt by being told they play a supporting role, perhaps they should transfer to another industry wherein the credit is shared equally between the product’s creator and the person who cuts open boxes. Oh, wait…

  18. 18
    J Readsalot says:

    I quit buying Laurens and started borrowing from the library after 1 book a several years ago where I counted 7 instances of “evocative” over 3 pages. She also uses “drops (release/lets go/loosed) the reins” in just about every sex scene. I keep reading just to find out what my old fave characters are up to – sorta like reading Christmas letters from distant cousins…

  19. 19
    Romance reader says:

    Yeah for you, J Readsalot!  I’ve relegated some of my “favorite” authors to borrowing from the library after reading the same old plot, again, again, again….  Then I started reading only parts of those.  Then…well, there seems to be a newer authors out there who are getting my money. 

    Maybe Laurens is right but if she doesn’t start thinking more about creating no one at RWA will care what she thinks and neither will her publisher.  Disrespecting those who’ve keep you in crumpets and tea when you’ve been coasting along isn’t too smart.  No one is above market forces.  Ultimately those with power are those with the pocketbooks who buy (whether digital or print) and publishers and writers need to remember that they may come and go at the top but readers and libraries are at the base of the pyramid.

  20. 20

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the NSRE category, went back and forth, but I think what finally decided me was Deanna Raybourn’s awesome post on the subject (here: http://www.deannaraybourn.com/….

    While I understand the claim that we’re a romance outfit, what it comes down to for me is that I don’t believe that a romance needs to fit within one book. Can I say that Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniels series is not a romance, simply because it stretches over several books? No. Each of those books, individually, may not be a romance by the strictest definition, but to say that our genre is so crabbed that a romance can’t take several books seems to me to be pitching too small a tent. (And fellow romance writers—we want our tents pitched huge.)

    Are we saying there’s no romance to be told after the point when people commit to one another? Are we saying that a back-and-forth dance over the course of several books isn’t a romance? This isn’t a category for mere romantic elements—it’s for books with STRONG romantic elements, so strong that they are very often threads that add up to a romance, if you give them long enough. And NSRE has been one of the most robust and varied, of categories, with books entered ranging from historical to contemporary to paranormal.

    So yes, I’ve decided I’m not in favor of this change, and I will write to the Board at some point and ask them to change their mind before wiping the category in 2014.

    As for Stephanie Laurens’s comments…

    I hope that what she meant was “you do not need to go through a publishing house to get your book to readers” rather than “editors, go to hell!”

    But I do think that I’m hearing a lot of things that suggest to me that people are misunderstanding the business of self-publishing. If you’re truly publishing, instead of putting crap up there, all you’re doing is shifting the risk of loss (and the benefit of reward) from the publishing house to you. It’s not a matter of mere transmittal. All those things that you mentioned, Sarah, in your post—all those things, paid for by the publisher, all that time invested…that’s taking on risk. And every self-publisher chooses to take on that risk for herself instead of farming it out to someone else.

    I’m frankly astonished that so many people talk about self-publishing as purely a matter of royalties and middlemen without ever discussing author risk tolerance, stress points, or opportunity costs.

  21. 21
    Susinok says:

    Did anyone talk about the class action suit brought against Harlequin?

  22. 22
    Olivia Waite says:

    I found this paragraph of yours to be much more passionate and inspirational than Ms. Laurens’ speech, actually. I think it’s a good speech—but it doesn’t have quite the emotive punch I want in a national keynote.

    I mean, her last line is: “I wish you all the very best in moving forward into our new online business.” For the record, “I wish you all the very best” is how I end emails to people I never want to talk to again.

  23. 23
    Suzan Harden says:

    Since I wasn’t at Anaheim, I don’t know Ms. Laurens’ vocal tone, body language, etc. From a straight reading of her keynote speech, I took it to be (1) a validation to writers that ‘yes, we ARE important,’ (2) an acknowledgment that things in publishing are changing pretty d*** fast, and (3) we writers have a tendenacy to forget the most important person in the equation—the readers.

    Without the readers, EVERYBODY loses their jobs.

    And yes, any good gossip about Harlequin, Sarah?

  24. 24
    Vicky Dreiling says:

    Lauren, I was really stunned to learn of all the changes to the RITA and Golden Heart, and I definitely agree with you about the SRE category. Also, I’m very disappointed that the two historical categories were combined. If the point was to heighten the image of the contest, I think RWA just wasted a lot of money.To be honest, when I heard that the organization hired consultants about the contest, I thought of all the authors who struggle to pay the yearly dues in this economy. I really love RWA, but I am disappointed in this latest move.


  25. 25

    I took what Xnightshade took from it.  I understand how the wording of publishers/agents, etc. as non-essential could be hurtful, but I really understood her to be communicating that what was the absolute paramount thing was the story, and getting the story from the writer to the reader in the best way for that story and for that reader.  Which I thought was a very important message, and it reminded me of some neuroscience talks I’ve been to about storytelling.  (When a storyteller and the listener click, apparently the same parts of their brains light up at the same time.  And when they *really* click, the listener’s lights up just slightly in advance of the actual words out of the storyteller’s mouth.  That is my drastically simplified, layman’s version of what a neuroscientist was explaining.)

  26. 26
    Jami Gold says:

    I disagree. I attended RWA and heard this speech and came away with a different impression.

    Her speech was about the publishing industry as a whole, and how writers are in the business of entertaining readers, not working for the publishers. She also wasn’t saying that editors and other people aren’t necessary, but that there’s no “One Right” method to making that editing (that marketing, that whatever) happen anymore.

    In other words, the services publishers provide are essential, but authors have choices about where they will get those services. The publishers can’t dictate the terms of those services because it’s not essential that we get the services from them. Her speech was about the power shift due to choices, not about the services themselves being inessential.

    So I certainly didn’t see this as a slam on those whom she’s worked with over the years. Her tone of voice was impersonal to the extreme. This was about the business, not the people working in that business. I’m not sure if she warned her publishers first, but from Stephanie’s straight-forward attitude, I’d guess they’d heard about this power shift from her before. :)

    After hearing her speech–and I’m including her tone-of-voice here–she strikes me as a take-no-prisoners kind of woman, and I think anyone who assumes that she hasn’t already had this conversation with her publisher to give them the heads up that she wants the best contract terms possible is diminishing her and her business sense. If publishers in the audience had any reaction to the speech, I’d guess it was more a mixture of a) Damn, now we’ll have to deal with this issue from more authors, b) Ha! Let’s see a non-bestseller try to take this attitude with us, and c) *pshaw* There are always more desperate authors who are too stupid to realize this power shift, so we can keep doing what we’re doing.

    So I think the publishers already know about this power shift on some level, but some of them are still in various stages of denial. Yes, there are plenty of authors who don’t realize how the game has changed, so there are “more fish in the sea” for the publishers to feel they can say “no” to authors who make demands. But that tide is turning more every day, and with the self-published bestsellers list becoming a new slush pile, they will encounter more business-savvy authors than ever before.

    If you want to read my impression, I did a blog post about what I took away from her speech: http://jamigold.com/2012/08/th…

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