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 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) 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. [Read more…]