Thursday, August 1, 2013

Romance & RWA: It Really Has Changed

Sometimes I get asked why I like to attend the annual Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference.  After all, it's not a conference geared towards readers and other than the half-assed ramblings I post on the Internet, I'm not working on writing towards publication.  My stock answer is, that as a librarian, I tend to get something out of the conference every year from a "professional" standpoint.  Also, I'll be honest, I've been kicking around long enough that over the years I have built up casual, as well as, genuine friendships with other readers and authors.  I like going to RWA every year (when it's possible) to hook-up and see these folks.  To hang out.  To get my yearly book-fix.  Because while it's fun as hell to talk books online?  To connect with people online?  It's a jillion times cooler to be able to do that sort of thing live, and in person.

Two people I always love seeing at conference are Blythe and Lynn from All About Romance.  I always admired what Laurie built at AAR, pre-social media days, and I do think the online romance community as we know it owes quite a bit to AAR's existence.  Blogging is, I think, an extension of that "at the back fence" vibe that AAR was built on.  Also, I'll be honest, Blythe and Lynn are as "old" as I am in terms of Internet years.  Collectively, I think, the three of us can truly appreciate and understand the changes that have gone through the genre (and the RWA organization as a whole) because dude - we remember what it used to be like.

RWA gets knocked down a lot for its rigidity, lack of change, and inflexibility.  And, you know, I can see that.  Their decision to do away with "strong romantic elements" at the RITAs is not one I embrace.  There's also a lot of discussion about RWA's lack of inclusiveness, its unwillingness to support diversity (LGBT, characters/writers of color etc.), it's inability to get with the times and see the writing on the wall (digital, self-publishing etc.).  Have these criticisms been fair?  Yes, in many instances they have been.  And I do think RWA and its membership still have work to do.  But the fact is, just chatting with Blythe and Lynn again in Atlanta last month, I was reminded of how much RWA has changed.  No really, it has.  Maybe not as fast as some of us would like, but it has happened.

I attended my first conference in 2002 (and then it was just for Librarians Day and the Literacy Signing).  I went back in 2005 (Reno), and I have attended every single year since 2007 (Dallas).  You know what has changed?  The reception I get.  Back in the early days (even as recently as 2008 in San Francisco), I wouldn't voluntarily tell a soul that I was a "reviewer" (back when I was with TRR and/or at my own blog).  My name badge said my name, and my real-life job title.  Why?  I'll be frank, I got way more love as a librarian.  TRR and AAR were "the enemy" for a long, long time - and while not all authors had their panties in a bunch over us - you just never knew what sort of reception you were going to get.  Most authors were, at least to me, cool about my reviewing when/if it came up (to my face anyway, I obviously don't know what was said behind closed doors).  But it's hard to know that going in blind, so yeah - it wasn't something I was actively broadcasting from the on-set.

I'm not sure when the shift happened for me, but maybe around 2009?  By that point I had been online for ten years and blogging for six.  I think that might have been the year that "Super Librarian Blog" appeared on my name badge for the first time.  It took a long (oh Lord did it ever!) time, but I think what happened is that the longer you're around, the more people get used to you being there.  After a while you become furniture. Wendy, Super Librarian and potted plant.  Also, there were a new breed of debut authors coming up through the ranks, authors who were readers first and who "grew up" with TRR, AAR, Mrs. Giggles, blogs, the online romance community in general. These days my blog is usually the first thing authors latch on to when they meet me in person, and this year was the first time I was recipient of a couple of squee'ing incidents (for the record, I paid those people to say things like "OMG, you're SuperWendy!").

And the fact that RWA collectively lost their minds and named me Librarian Of The Year in 2011?  Would have been inconceivable ten years prior to that.  I guess it's hard to explain unless you were around in "the early days" of the online community.  That someone (yes, I am a librarian but....) who reviewed for TRR ("the enemy") for 8 years would somehow worm her way into RWA's good graces enough to get that award.  It was mind-blowing.  Yes, it was a huge honor for me, but I also felt like it was a huge honor for everybody who has been kicking around online since "the early days."  It was a validation that we mattered.  That we built something.  That the tide had changed and we were no longer "the enemy."  That we loved romance too and we were OK.

There were several "big deals" that happened at the Atlanta conference this year that I want to highlight.  Were some of these changes long overdue?  Yes.  But like all things when it comes to change - it either doesn't happen fast enough to our liking, or it happens way too fast for our liking.  Totally depends on what side of the fence you're standing on.  These were all changes I saw that were most welcome and I hope a sign towards more awesome things to come:

1) Erotic romance will now have it's own category in the RITA.  I've been wanting to see this for years, mostly because while erotic romance is still romance?  Yeah, writing it well is not as easy as some may think. Trust me on this.  I've been reading erotic romance for well over ten years.  I've read books so achingly beautiful that words fail to adequately describe how those books made me feel.  I've also read more than my fair share of utter and complete crap.  It needs it's own category in the RITA.  Period.

2) Self-published works can now be entered in the RITA.  This is how fast things are changing, while it took erotic romance a good 10+ years to crack the RITA nut, self-publishing didn't have as long of a slog.  Why?  The big reason, I think, is that so many authors who have (and maybe still are) traditionally publishing, are also exploring self-publishing and finding success.  Plus, let's be honest, an author who has published traditionally is a "known commodity."  As a reader I'm going to be more willing to take a chance on a self-published work if the writer has also published via traditional routes.  And, you know, is obviously open to the editing process.

Side note: I find it interesting that both of these changes were implemented under the watch of current RWA President Sylvia Day - a writer who built her career writing erotic romance and who also found a lot of success in self-publishing before taking her Crossfire series over to Penguin.  But, you know what?  I think we probably should all thank E.L. James as well.  Money talks, and it will not be ignored.  An erotic romance RITA category has been talked to death for many years, Fifty Shades is a ginormous success, and now guess what?  We have an erotic romance RITA category!  Coincidence?  Yeah, probably not so much.

3) Self-publishing as a presence, in general, at the conference this year.  Holy cow - it basically had it's own "track" in the workshop schedule.  You could have been at the conference and attended nothing but self-publishing panels.  This is a huge step from previous years, when digital (let alone self-publishing) was either not mentioned at all, or there was maybe one workshop tucked away somewhere.  This year also marked the first time there was an "indie" booksigning.  Many recognizable names (Claire Delacroix, Barbara Freethy, Courtney Milan....) alongside not-so-known names.  It was a very well-attended signing and a great bit of networking for all involved.

4) eBooks.  Certainly one of the cool things about book conferences are the freebies, and RWA is no exception.  This year saw the first time where there was an increased presence of ebooks.  Samhain, for the last several years, has been beating this drum loudly by making available, at their free booksigning, both coupon codes for free downloads alongside print books.  It's typically about half-and-half for them.  Half the authors are just signing download cards, the other half are just signing print books.  This year though, juggernaut "old school" publisher Avon got in on the act.  Many of the authors at that signing were offering both print and digital copies, giving the attendee a choice.  Then they had a digital-only signing a day or so later - where authors used the software program Autography.  The attendee punched in their e-mail address, the author then made out an inscription, and viola!  Book, complete with autograph, was delivered right to your e-mail to download in various formats of your choosing. 

Yeah, publishers?  More of this.  I do still read print.  I love print.  But holy heck on a cracker, Atlanta is a long ways away from where I live and the less I have to ship home?  The more of your books I'm going to take.  The more of your books I will try.  The more of your books I can share with other readers not lucky enough to attend the conference.  At the end of the day it's about your books finding readers.  If I lived closer to Atlanta and had driven?  Yeah, I would have taken more print books - but you know what?  I don't.  So yeah, the ebook option was brilliant.

5) An increased presence of LGBT authors and publishers.  In years past I could count on seeing L.B. Gregg and K.A. Mitchell and?  That was pretty much it.  This year I met several more authors, many of whom were excited to talk to me about library purchasing, and Sarah Frantz from Riptide Publishing may have been the busiest woman at the conference.   But I also want to talk about something I overheard this year.  An LGBT author (who I won't name because I didn't ask them for permission) mentioned that some of the best connections she makes at RWA are with inspirational authors.  Yeah, inspirational authors.  Which you would think would make for strange bedfellows, but this author mentioned that the inspy folks she has met are all about "love is love" and tend to be very open and accepting people.  So yeah, pretty damn awesome if you ask me.  Certainly I cannot imagine that these communities mesh too much in the online sphere, but these authors getting together and networking at conference?  That equals a big ol' WIN in my book.

Like any large organization, I do think RWA has room for improvement.  But I also realize that as a large organization, change is often a slow-moving process.  It takes time, with a fair amount of agitation, and frankly it's up to the members of any organization to support and work towards change.  However I also do not subscribe to the school of thought that RWA is the devil incarnate.  From an organization standpoint, RWA either gives you something you need/want/desire - or it doesn't.  Membership is an individual choice.  What I do think RWA has always done exceedingly well is offer a sense of community.  It connects writers with other writers.  With other people who think like them, or heck - who even don't think like them (because there is benefit in that as well).  Is it a Polly Perfect organization?  Uh, no.  That many people, with that many opinions, under the same umbrella is never going to make for smooth sailing.  But that also doesn't mean it's not vital, that it doesn't serve a function for its members.  And ultimately, that's why I like RWA.  Not because I don't recognize the faults, but because for me the good outweighs any of the not-so-good.


little alys said...

I just go for the friends and authors. And of course, Super Wendy! <~squee free of charge. ;)

Laura K. Curtis said...

Let me add a Super Wendy squee, too! SQUEE! And I agree with you on all points. I've been online approximately forever (got a job working online for AOL in '93, started my first blog in '99, I think) and it's just astonishing how much things have changed.

Kathryn T. said...

As someone who doesn't understand the back workings of RWA, your post is very informative. Sorry the story with strong romantic elements is gone - would be my favourite probably.
I am not a bit erotic reader! So had trouble thinking of one for this month for the TBR . Decided to read first Psy/Changeling book by Nalini Singh. Mainly because also wanted to see what that series is like.

Kathryn T. said...

That should read "not a big erotic reader!"

azteclady said...

I remember reading about RWA back in...2005? or perhaps it was 2006? The one in Dallas, when Sarah and Candy of SmartBitches first met in person, and how the general perception of book bloggers was, "what are these interlopers doing here?"

However, my experience in 2009 and 2010 was amazing--so many of the authors I met and talked with recognized my handle and were happy to see me there, it was incredibly heartwarming.

And meeting other bloggers was just wonderful beyond the telling--KristieJ, you, Mai from Thailand, the ARR ladies, Rosie, Lisabea, SBSarah...

nath said...

Very interesting post, Wendy :) And while there is still room for improvement, it's nice to see that some things have changed. Then again, I don't think RWA had a choice. You need to adapt with how the industry, market grows.

I really hope to go again soon :)

Lynn Spencer said...

It was fun to meet you, too. You need to come back to RWA one of these years!

Lynn Spencer said...

It's true. It really doesn't feel like I've been reviewing online since 2003 but things have changed a lot in that time both in terms of technology and climate. I remember starting out as a baby reviewer and being told that we were "the enemy" because romance needed cheerleaders and apologists rather than critical review. I'm sure there are still some who think that way, but I don't hear as much of that now.

I agree with you that RWA is changing, but when I compare RWA with the online romance world, there's still a pretty big gap.

Re: "Their decision to do away with "strong romantic elements" at the RITAs is not one I embrace." I just have to say - you state that so much more politely than I can. :)

Blythe said...

I tried to comment yesterday from my ipad at Whole Foods - I guess that didn't work out. ;)

Wendy, I loved this. I think because I sometimes feel like I started reviewing online during the paleolithic era, I really, really enjoy the company of those who get it and know how much the landscape has changed. Meeting up with you is am RWA highlight for me.

Wendy said...

Kathryn: For the "not that into erotic" readers, I also suggest they can go with a "sensual" book. There's a number of authors who write "steamy" without going full-on into erotic territory.

I have NO idea what I'm reading yet for the Challenge this month. Right now I'm thinking a Sylvia Day title - but we'll see where my mood is next week :)

Wendy said...

Alys: And I love RWA because even if you do have a "core group" of folks you hang out with - you ALWAYS meet new people. Hey, we're all there because we love romance - so right there we have common ground and something to talk about.

Wendy said...

Laura: It was great seeing you this year! And yeah, it's shocking how fast the online world moves isn't it? I remember getting my first e-mail address in college and thinking, "gee, how cool is this?"

Wendy said...

AL: Yeah, I flew under the radar for a lot of years for just that reason. I never had any "bad" experiences directly, but certainly I heard the talk, and inevitably saw the snipping that would occur online after the fact.

Atlanta seemed (at least from my perspective) to be a very "happy" conference this year. Everyone really seemed to come away from the experience energized.

Wendy said...

Nath: Hey, they're heading back to NYC in a couple of years :)

Wendy said...

Lynn: We'll see how it plays out, but I'm hoping down the line they find that doing away with "strong romantic elements" is a mistake and they'll bring it back. Those books, to me, tend to be very strong "romantically" speaking, and are so often "gateway reads" for people.

Wendy said...

Blythe: I always love seeing you and Lynn!

Sometimes I look back and feel positively ancient. I started reviewing at TRR back in 1999(!) and looking at the landscape online, not to mention how the genre itself has changed, is mind-blowing.

nath said...

I know! You can be sure I'm going to be there LOL