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Then and Now at RWA National Conferences

I’ve just returned from the Romance Writer’s of America conference, which took place in Denver last week. It was, as always, filled with friends and long dinners over exquisite meals and good wine, and workshops, and a few dramatic moments.

All the way through the conference, I felt both a sense of excitement for the future of romance novels and a tangling of nostalgia for the ghosts wandering through the crowds and the way things were.

I attended my first RWA conference in San Francisco, in 1990. I’d published two books with Silhouette Special Edition and sold a third, but I had barely enough money to make the trip and one really good dress to wear to my editor meeting (it was pale lilac, with a crisp, wide collar and dropped waist with pleated skirt—insanely beautiful). I found a roommate through the roommate service, all I remember about her was that she was from Canada and was very cynical. The RITA awards were so full that they had overflow tables in the hallway, and Night of the Hunter [1] by Jennifer Greene, a book I adored, won her category.

I also sat down at one of the lunches and sat next to a woman my age, who had also just seen her first category romance published. We had little kids. Neither of us were a blink past 30. Her name was Barbara Freethy and we had no idea what a ride we’d embarked upon.

A lot has changed in the decades since then, not just me, but everything about the business and the way we conduct it, and who holds the power and how we dress and greet each other and what we value.   

In 1990, the power was all in the hands of the publishers and their anointed few bestsellers and big stars. It was the only way to make it, to catch the attention of a great editor, one who had some power, and then write with a wise eye toward the market and hope for great covers and some attention from the tastemakers. It was easy to pick out the stars. We all knew who they were and watched with longing as they gathered with their powerbroker editors and agents in the main lobby to head off for expensive meals.

Okay, some of that still happens, and I’m glad.  I love great meals and the company of my powerbroker agent, but I also loved that several nights, it was gatherings of successful friends. We chose the restaurants and got ourselves there and bought ourselves those lovely bottles of wine. Successful writers are still feted by the people who are their business partners (ironically, one night I sat with a beloved editor-turned-friend and Barbara Freethy sat down next to us with a woman who was taking her out to dinner…the more things change…).

In 2018, power is distributed quite differently. Traditional publishing still exists and still offers glittering possibilities, but if you don’t sell well there, or can’t get past the door at all (I knew so many, many women who wrote for ten years or better without ever selling a word), you can publish your work yourself.  You can hire editors and cover designers and marketing people.

You also don’t have to sell all your books in two weeks or face failure. Nowhere close. Books can have very long lives indeed nowadays, and I have found that enormously liberating.  Books I wrote back then—even books that didn’t fare well (looking at you, Lucien’s Fall) [2] can go on to be big, big bestsellers over time.   

At the literacy signing this year, I sat between a Christian inspirational writer wearing conservative clothing and hairstyle and a younger woman with pale lavender hair who had a star on her face and tattoos on her arms who writes gay and lesbian romance from her Atlanta home. She’s a married mom of ten-year-old twins who works in the non-profit sector. 

This writer would not have had a career in 1991. It’s impossible to imagine it.  Now, she writes for one of the imprints of the formerly ever-so-conservative Harlequin.

And let’s not forget about clothes. I used to fret a lot about what to wear for conferences. It was Formal Female Business Wear in the 90s, which meant stockings and other things I didn’t do in my day to day life.  Every year, I sweated and tried things on and felt stuffed in and trussed and not myself.

These days, it’s much less formal. Writers still want to look their best, but it’s a creative kind of best. There are some costume aspects, and a lot of rainbow hair, and a ton of tattoos. And boots and sandals and jeans and tunics and dresses and long skirts and whatever you feel makes you look like you.

Which is great. I never wore those Formal Female Business clothes particularly well.  A lot of us probably felt that way.

The other thing that’s a really, really, really gigantic change is the diversity at the conference. In 1991, it was very, very white. There were a few women of color, nearly all of them African American. Beverly Jenkins published her first book, Night Song, in 1994, and so did Shirley Hailstock (Whispers of Love). Adam and Eva, by Sandra Kitt was published in 1984, ten years earlier, but AA romances in historical or contemporary were next to non-existent.

The organization is undergoing a shake-up in regard to diversity this year. It was past time, and it’s been painful at times, but it’s clear that Diversity Matters is a high-ranking issue, and many of the discussions and speeches addressed the matter, as well as GLBTQ inclusiveness.

But really, all you had to do to see how much RWA itself (rather than the publishing industry) has changed was to sit in the lobby for five minutes and you’d see the span of humanity wearing RWA badges around their necks. It’s cheering and invigorating.

This conference, I had a room to myself.  It’s the first time ever, and I have to admit that for all my sisterly longings, I liked it.  I had a ton of work to do for the release of The Art of Inheriting Secrets [3] and couldn’t afford to be distracted. I did hang out with my friends and listened to workshops and gave one. I signed books and met readers.

Friday night is always the big party night—publisher parties and writer gatherings of all ilks. I attended my publisher’s party in an old speakeasy and afterward came back to find my friends. Sitting in the lobby, I watched the young women in their scandalous dresses and mile-high shoes click-clack across the floor, light dancing off the brilliants on their bodices and in their hair.  I watched a pair of ladies in t-shirts and stretchy jeans lean their heads together in a corner. Tired women dragged themselves to the elevators, still talking and nodding. An old woman sat in a corner, bemused, watching.

Ghosts wove their way in and out of the crowds, too. My friend Jo Beverley, too soon gone. Friends who are not well enough to attend, and those who’ve drifted away or don’t come any more. I see their dresses from years gone by—the stuffed alligator purse worn carried by Jacqui  D’Allesandro, the boa sported by Anne Stuart, Jo’s beautiful chakra necklace that she bought at a retreat in New Mexico.  My own rayon dress, black with cabbage roses, that I wore to many, many of those ceremonies until it was too fragile to wear even one more time.

Somewhere, not far away was the Harlequin party, where women in their best finery danced to YMCA and declare their power—and their joy.

Upstairs in a hotel room packed to the gills were five or six women who’d left their children at home and packed up their finery to come and sit with snacks and drinks and talk romance novels all night long—theirs and all the ones they’ve loved.

An agent was wooing a client who would make her a ton of money over the years to come. An editor made her way to the elevators, hiding her badge.

Women, nearly all of us women, were gathered to glean more about our business, give time and money to our careers, to make a priority of networking and craft and make things happen for ourselves, each of us in our own way.

Romance novels take a lot of heat, but can you imagine anything more feminist than this?

I can’t.

Have you ever attended the RWA national conference?  Do you attend a different conference? Do you imagine RWA to be a feminist organization or not?  

About Barbara O'Neal [4]

Barbara O'Neal [5] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [6], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [7].