Monday, July 13, 2009

Notes and thoughts from the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference '09

Last year I attended my first writer’s conference, and that was the Romance Writers of America conference in San Francisco. RWA was a baptism by fire, a huge event with around 2,000 attendees! Attending the Romantic Novelists' Association conference here in England was another new and different experience. With around 130 attendees, the venue was smaller and the timetable much less hectic, making it more manageable for me.

Even so, I was horribly nervous as I joined the conference, especially as I was attending this one alone. I needn’t have been nervous, because everyone I met was so friendly and welcoming! I've come away with new friends, and having met pals I knew from online but hadn't met in person before. I’d booked as a day visitor, attending part of the conference, and I would definitely hope to attend again. I have a really warm and fuzzy feeling about the whole RNA experience.

Amongst the people I got to meet was Helen Scott Taylor, who I knew online. (This photo of Helen and I was taken at the Total-E-Bound session.) I hadn’t even realised Helen was going to be at the event so it was a wonderful surprise! Helen and I have a lot in common. We’re both British authors writing for the American market, and we’re both writing paranormal that draws on British and Irish folklore. Helen’s first novel, THE MAGIC KNOT, draws on Irish and Cornish mythology. Helen made my day with her flattering comments about my heroes Zac (in Double Dare) and Nicolas (in Reckless.) I nearly blubbed, but luckily managed to keep my decorum (and my mascara) and gave in to a huge grin instead. Thanks, Helen!

I also got to meet online pals Sue and Graham Rix (who write as a team,) and Jill Reynolds, who had flown in from Spain for the event. I got to spend time with Claire Siemaszkiewicz, my Total-E-Bound publisher, and Victoria Blisse, a fellow Total-E-Bound author. Among the many authors I met was Jenny Haddon, who is an absolute legend with the RNA and a much loved writer as Sophie Weston. Jenny was so much fun to chat with, making me feel absolutely at home. I also had a chance to chat with the president of the RNA, Katie Fforde. Katie is huge name here and I was very nervous about meeting her, but she was so welcoming and adorable that afterwards I felt like a kid who’d met Santa. Katie’s novel LIFE SKILLS is a favourite of mine. I’d love to see this one made into a film.

I also had the chance to spend a bit of time with Harlequin Mills and Boon editors, Jenny Hutton and Meg Lewis, who are acquisitions editors from the London office. The Spice books sell from the Harlequin Mills and Boon UK site, and it was a great opportunity to introduce myself and ask a few questions. Jenny and Meg were so friendly, and I learned a lot about how titles from the US lines are selected to come over to the UK. E-books are only really taking off in the UK now, but Meg and Jenny reported that the Mills & Boon web site is doing exceptionally well, especially the sexy titles, and that we will see more of the Spice (novels and Briefs) titles coming over and being available to UK audience as downloads. This is great news for all Spice and Spice Briefs authors! At the present time a couple of the books have been reprinted for the British audience. (I think these are the Enchanted books by Nancy Madore, not totally sure on that point.) They’ve gone out as a trial, and if they do well there may be more Spice print books on shelves in the UK. This was very exciting to hear!

Just being at the event and getting to meet editors, big-name British authors, and friends from the Internet was worth the trip alone. I also attended several sessions, and I’ll give a brief outline of those next.

As part of the opening of the conference there was a panel featuring five authors from different genres answering questions from the audience. This was a great idea, because there was something in the answers for everyone present. The panel included Melanie Hilton (who writes hot historicals as Louise Allen) Liz Gill (a prolific saga writer) Veronica Henry (a vivacious rom com writer who was previously a scriptwriter on The Archers), Sue Moorcroft (short stories, magazine fiction, anthologies and a much respected writing tutor) and Helen Scott Taylor (paranormal author and winner of the Dorchester American title.) Questions had to be given in the format “how much is too much?” Questions ranged from back-story, research, revisions, advances, and of course how much is too much sex -- which is what we all thought "how much is too much" was about anyway, right?

Jenny Hutton and Meg Lewis from HM&B (who both edited books that are shortlisted for this year's RITAs!) gave an informative and thoughtful presentation about digging deeper and really knowing your characters. They also shared information on the common themes they see in the slush pile. They reported that submissions often fail because the writer has taken a popular storyline and tried to make their characters fit. Our characters must carry the story, rather than trying to shoehorn them into a plot. They are actively seeking new twists on popular themes, and pointed to your character’s emotional conflict and growth as the key way to harness your reader’s imagination. Examples of new twists on favourite themes included (and I’m doing these from memory so if you were there please correct me if I get these wrong!) a heroine who is a workaholic doctor, with her hero being a more laid-back male nurse who presents her with her secret baby and tells her to deal with it. (Got to love that!) There was mention of a playboy story where the heroine was on dialysis and the hero was a childhood friend. They also mentioned a historical with a courtesan heroine and penniless hero. Another featured a hero who is Autistic. Through the examples they gave we were able to see how popular storylines can be taken in new, intriguing directions.

**Updated to include the titles of two of the books mentioned: A Baby for Eve by Maggie Kingsley and Australian Boss, Diamond Ring, by Jennie Adams, which features an autistic hero.*

I also attended a talk by Texan author Jodi Thomas. Jodi gave a fascinating session entitled Romancing American markets, with lots of personal anecdotes alongside hints and general advice about selling your work. Warm, funny, and entertaining, I enjoyed this session immensely. Jodi's tips for the American market included researching the lines, looking at what’s coming out now and seeking new twists, thinking in terms of series, and collaborating with other authors to produce fresh new anthologies. Jodi also reported that her Berkley editor, Wendy McCurdy, spoke highly of submissions from British authors and actively encouraged British authors to send work to her, which (not surprisingly!) was greeted most enthusiastically by the assembled audience.

The Total-E-Bound session was well attended, and Claire Siemaszkiewicz gave a presentation on e-publishing in general as well as Total-E-Bound in particular, putting Total-E-Bound in context. (Photo of Claire and I just before the panel kicked off.) Claire highlighted the differences and advantages of epublishing versus print, and also explained a lot about the technology, handing out e-readers for the attendees to check out. This was enthusiastically and gratefully received by those of us who struggle with it. ;-) Ebooks have really only started to take off in the UK recently, but the feeling I got from both Claire and the HM&B editors was that this is really flourishing as a medium on our shores and it’s only going to get bigger and more accessible.

Claire’s background is in business, and this really shone through. She’s a warm, knowledgable and approachable person with a lot of business savvy, and I know that if I wasn't already working with her I would want to. The session went well and ran over because there was so much to cover. Fellow author Victoria Blisse invited people to e-mail her if they have any questions about going in to epublishing, and the same goes for me. (My email address is linked at the top of the right hand column here on the blog) (Photo of Victoria and I taken at the TEB session.) We didn’t have time for many questions, but we were asked our reasons for going into e-publishing. As we were cut short I’m going to say a little bit about that here. Perhaps with more clarity this time, ay? (As friends can confirm, I often communicate best when I keep my mouth shut. :o)

Ebooks were a way for me to move forward at a time when I needed to validate my attempts at writing a novel. I began as a short story writer and had several publications in anthologies. I had novel length ideas on the go and had begun sending out to publishers. As anyone who has done this knows, it often takes a long time to hear back, and the wait can be very dispiriting. I’d had various encouraging comments and one of my books was about to go to contract (it had been through revisions with the editor) when the line folded. At this time e-publishing was starting to flourish in America, where I’d had shorts and a novella published. The title that almost got to contract was erotic, and I decided to give epublishing a go. I’d heard that there was a fast turnaround, and I was at a point where I needed to know if I had the ability to sustain a whole novel or not. A lot of it was about me getting guidance and motivation to continue. I got that in a much shorter space of time with epublishing. Faster turnarounds and shorter lead in to publication meant that my novel writing career seemed like it might be a going concern. I badly needed that, otherwise I was going to throw in the towel.

Shortly after, a New York print publisher signed me as well. I continue to write for epub submission alongside print, because of the flexibility and the timetabling. I’m currently writing one big title a year for Harlequin Spice and the rest of my time is spent on smaller projects. Epublishing offers the opportunity to put varying length works out, which helps keep me ticking over and means that the few readers I have garnered don't forget me! With Total-E-Bound in particular, the fact that longer titles also become available in POD (print on demand) means that those my print readership can also get hold of my work in a format the works for them. The important thing here is about choice and flexibility.

I would have added that authors considering going into epublishing should keep in mind that your readership really grows in leaps and bounds the more titles you have out. Also, trying out different types of stories and different lengths means you find out very quickly where your skills are – you can see which of your titles is selling much quicker than you can in print because of the monthly statements, and that lets you as an author learn directly from the readers what they want and where your strengths are. What could be better than that!

While I was at the conference there was inevitably talk about the recent Black Lace news. I wanted to say something about this, because I don’t want new (or established) erotic writers to be discouraged.

The news that Black Lace was on hold was devastating for the BL authors and for fans of the line, but we mustn’t take it as an indication that erotica and erotic romance is not selling across the board. With the world recession the publishing industry is inevitably struggling and we have to work even harder to sell books. But Claire Siemaszkiewicz, the Total-E-Bound publisher, confirmed that sexy books sell, and for epublishing the market only seems to grow. My feeling is it’s important to keep in mind that a few years ago Black Lace were simply the only publisher offering women the explicit novel length reads we wanted. There’s a huge amount of competition in the print marketplace now – and that’s before we even get to ebooks. Many new print lines started up over the last few years to satisfy the demands of erotica readers. Our shelves were flooded with choice.

That competition meant the cake had to be shared out. We’ve seen several publishers decide not to move forward with their erotic titles/lines or downsize. Bantam recently decided not to publish any more new erotic titles. Kensington recently downsized from 4 new books a month, back to 2. This doesn’t mean it’s not selling, but perhaps indicated that the readership is capped, and at one point there were simply too many books out there for all of them to be a huge success.

At this point Black Lace acquisitions are going on hold for next year. There may well still be an ongoing BL shelf presence in reprinted titles, and new titles from this year. It’s also important to consider that Virgin recently branded itself as specialists in non-fiction, and that the BL editor, Adam Nevill, garnered a fabulous 2 book deal after his horror novels went to auction. (Go, Adam!)

I just think it’s important to keep all the factors in mind. The BL news doesn’t indicate the erotic market is in a downward spiral. Yes, there has been less being bought Stateside than there was a couple of years back, but that’s partly because of the recession, and partly because a lot of the houses that started lines have now got a core of authors in place. There is still some growth, with several of the houses actively seeking submissions of erotic romance and erotica. Over the time since I was signed at Spice they have signed at least 3 more new-to-them authors, each with 2 book deals. Slow growth is happening in both print and ebook markets, so please don’t be discouraged! I have my fingers crossed that all my pals at Black Lace will be able to find homes for their work AND that we’ll see more Black Lace titles in the future, perhaps (as someone suggested at the conference) under a different publishing umbrella. Black Lace is known and loved by so many of us readers and I for one would hate to think it’s gone forever.

And now for something completely different, to close my Penrith experience notes, I wanted to recommend an eatery! :} The Salsa Mexican bistro in the town is superb, so if anyone is passing through the area, do check it out. Seriously, we’re considering going back just to eat there again! We also had time to squeeze in a wonderful day trip to Keswick. It was heaving with tourists but a treat all the same. Mark, the Real Life Hero, covered a lot of miles on his mountain bike while I was at the conference, and all in all it was a wonderful trip for both of us.


Portia Da Costa said...

Wow, what a fantastic summary of the RNA conference. Thank very much for that low down, it's the next best thing to having been there. :)

That's fabboo news that there are going to be more Spice and Spice Briefs available over here in the UK. Both for readers and us writers!

Victoria Janssen said...

GREAT post. Thanks so much!

Charlotte Stein aka The Mighty Viper said...

Saskia, that was an absolutely fantastic post- really hopeful, full of excellent news, and some great points about Black Lace, the erotica/erotic romance market and the wonderful Total-E-Bound

Thank you so much for writing it.

Saskia Walker said...

Thanks, Portia! I'm glad you enjoyed it. You should have been there. People asked after you and sent their love. Hugs!

Thank YOU, Vickie. I'm so glad it was useful. Even though I wasn't at the whole event, I picked up lots of great stuff. Communing with other authors is always a good thing.

Charlotte, I'm so glad you thought so. I'm not very brave about stating how I feel but sometimes I just have to. ;-) There *are* opportunits out there and hpopefully we'll soon be out of this recession and things will really start moving again. Chin up, love!

Saskia Walker said...

I really ought to imbibe more caffeine before I try to type on a morning. Sigh. Sorry about the typos!

liz fenwick said...

Great summary and good to hear about some of the sessions I didn't attend.

Saskia Walker said...

Thanks, Liz! I'm enjoying your posts and tweets too. I wish we'd had the chance to meet at the event.

Jenna Byrnes said...

I've been wondering how this conference went and haven't seen any other write ups on it. Thanks so much for sharing details with us, great write up!

Saskia Walker said...

Jenna, thank you so much! You'll find some more reports linked here:

Jude Mason said...


Thanks so much for a peek into the goings on at RNA this year. I'm a Canadian author working with TEB, so you're all foreigners to me. LOL It's wonderful news about Brits finally getting into the eBook market. It's probably about the same here.

The news about Spice and Spice Briefs doing so well is very welcome news.

Really glad you had such a great time.


Saskia Walker said...

Hi Jude! Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the peek. :)

Sue Moorcroft said...

Hi Saskia,

Think we smiled in passing but didn't get to introduce ourselves... Great blog. And thanks for the mention! :-)

Glad you enjoyed your first conference.

Saskia Walker said...

Hi Sue! Thanks so much for calling by!

I should have been braver, I know, but I'm painfully shy. It's a wonder I got there at all. ;-) It'll be much easier next time around, and I hope we get to chat then.