Over the weekend I attended the Romance Writers of Australia annual conference which was held in Fremantle, WA this year and titled Riding the Waves. It was my first time at a non SF (and non science) conference and I have to say, my mind was totally blown. It was a completely new and entirely fantastic experience and I think I might be hooked (as I was promised by Peter Ball who also attended).
I’d had a few engagements prior to the weekend that were related to this event as Curtin organised an academic programme on the Friday, related to the conference, and Helen was here. I was part of a MasterClass for Curtin postgrads looking at publishing opportunities post submitting (that was weird, being probably the earliest on the PhD path in the room). We also went to Helen’s book launch for her new book, Beyond the Cyborg, which was a lot of fun. So by the time Saturday morning came around, I was really glad that my husband had kindly agreed to both wake me up in time to leave and to actually drive me to Freo for my 9am panel. I wouldn’t have got there otherwise. He also hunted around trying to get me something to be able to eat to stave off morning sickness, sadly to no avail. And I entered the conference.
First up. The conference swag bag. It rivalled the World Fantasy bag but even though it had maybe a third of the books, it beat the WFC one hands down by having a pen, a keep cup AND a BOX OF CHOCOLATES. Hey, I’m easily won over. This was a conference that had a lot of chocolate just lying around for you to snag. You gotta love that.
The programme was already running behind schedule when I headed in to the plenary session and I stood at the back to listen to most of the keynote speech by Julia Quinn. She spoke a lot about what it takes to be a writer and a lot about the journey of being a writer. She was funny and smart and a pleasure to listen to. But one thing in particular she said really stood out for me – “you will never hurt your career by helping another author”. She elaborated by saying you will never lose a sale by promoting someone else’s book. That the only way you can lose sales is through the quality of your own books. And it was the beginning of a bit of a revelation for me. Not the sentiment, but that someone said it out loud. That it’s not a zero sum game – readers will read your book and someone else’s. And reading someone else’s doesn’t mean they won’t read and like yours. Or better yet, someone else having success doesn’t preclude you from having your own success.
After the keynote, I realised the segment before our panel was to happen so I grabbed a seat – the room was set up like a big banquet hall, with large round tables rather than rows of chairs. It was the main session room and I think the only programming until break out sessions later on. So everyone at the conference was in this session. The segment that followed the keynote was a small presentation by two head honchos from Harlequin. I’m not sure I can even express what this experience was. They basically ran through all their imprints and lines and talked about upcoming initiatives at their publishing houses(s). Which sounds simple enough, like an advert. But the advert was to woo writers. It was about selling themselves as a market that *wanted* the writers in the room to want to be a part of them. And what was exceedingly clear was that they have a really clear and thorough understanding of their readership and how to sell their books to them. They understand the business and the market.
After this, I was on a panel discussing pathways to publishing, moderated by Alex Adsett. Because the session was running behind, our panel was cut short but we discussed the different expectations and processes for a range of presses on submissions and rights and so on. It was interesting to see how much more digital only publishing is accepted and being adopted in the romance genre.
We broke for morning tea then, which was fully catered. And I was able to appease my growing morning sickness. I also caught up with both Peter and Donna. Peter made a comment to me about how every writer knows what exact genre niche it is that they write in and for the rest of the day, I asked every person I met what it is that they write just to see. And every single writer I asked knew *exactly* what their niche is (like out of 27 or something different sub genres). It was deeply fascinating. Someone came up to me at morning tea to speak to me about TPP and a book they had and we had a nice chat. After that I headed into a breakout session.
I had intended to work or read in between my two commitments which were hours apart. I’m not one for attending panels and I’m a natural introvert. This would be the kind of thing I would do at a SF convention if none of my friends were there – I’d just take off to the cafe and have a coffee and work and be quite happy. Except at this conference that didn’t happen. Because people didn’t just walk past you and ignore you or look you up and down and judge you and walk on. They introduced themselves to you and started a conversation with you. And before you knew it, you’d met a new person. This, I discovered, is what it’s like to go to an actually friendly convention. And to be in an authentic safe space. Everyone there was there for the conference. They were dressed professionally. And they were there for the same, specific purpose, to network, to learn and to share what they knew.
I chose the “Buy This Book!” breakout session after morning tea. It was a workshop run by Abby Zidle, an editor at Simon and Schuster (NY). A writer from the audience was invited to present her novel as though she was an acquiring editor advocating the publisher buy the book. And the rest of the panel was made up of other members of the audience, each representing the different department heads that would sit in an acquisition meeting. And Abby, as the mock publisher, led the mock discussion that would happen in a press house meeting to consider whether or not they buy a manuscript. I learned a lot in this session, more than I expected to. I knew how this process works – that your editor has to convince all kinds of people that the book will sell, beyond just “but it’s a *really* good book”. What I really liked is the idea that almost noone other than the acquisition editor will have read the manuscript for a meeting like this. It’s both weird and obvious. I like the idea that all the way along the process of selling a manuscript to a book, you are constantly in discussion with people about how good it is where the person buying it will be buying it on the say so of the editor and then the bookseller. People hand over the cash, to produce the book, and then to buy it as a reader, without knowing how good the book actually is. There aren’t many other products out there that anyone buys without really knowing just exactly what it is. I guess movies are the same. I learned a lot of things in this session. Abby was very generous in sharing and explaining all sorts of aspects of publishing including print runs and profit margins and why publishers invest in what things and so on. I took a lot of notes. *I* took a lot of notes in a con panel.
Lunch happened after this session. Catered lunch. I headed over to the restaurant and grabbed some food and then was ushered over to the special seating area for the conference. I thought this was a bit odd. I got sent down to the end of a very long empty table and by the time I had put all my things down and sat, more writers had been similarly sent my way, had introduced themselves to me and we got involved in a long and fascinating conversation. I think I met more published novellists that day than I’ve met in my whole life. And most of them were multiple times published authors. We talked about feminism, we talked about the romance genre, its being snubbed by most on the outside, and on writing and so on.
The thing that really struck me being in and amongst the attendees at this conference was how savvy everyone was. Being able to write a novel and sell it seemed kind of a given – and I guess seeing as most of the people I met had successfully done that, perhaps it was? But that what they really knew was their business – they know what their audience wants and how to give it to them. And they know how (and want) to mentor upcoming writers so that they may know what their audience wants and how to give it to them. There was a genuine air of sharing – of knowledge and support and know how. That information and experience isn’t for guarding and protecting lest someone else also find out your secret to success but rather that by sharing and helping others to also be successful, everyone benefits by greater success. Rather than spending time fighting and competing with each other, and tearing each other down so noone really achieves greatness due to being so busy fighting and fending off (jealous) attacks, they spend the time teaching each other how to be great. Kind of sounds like a utopia doesn’t it? When I asked a few people about it – that there didn’t seem to be much ego or pissing contests going on in the room – they said that there was a little of it here and there if you scraped beneath the surface but that no, by and large, it wasn’t really that kind of scene.
I met many women, of different ages and walks of life, who totally got what I’m doing at TPP, what the point of my thesis was and a bunch of other things that are true in my world, like getting ready for a baby and balancing career and motherhood etc. It seemed to me that romance is a genre that has been snubbed by the rest of the “literati” and it has sort of shrugged its shoulders, thought “well that’s your loss” and just moved on to do what it does – nurture writer and readers and sell a HECK of a lot of books. And, you know, make a lot of money. And not care what anyone else thinks about what it’s doing. It reminds me a lot of when I talk about sexism with women who’ve been fighting and around the issue for a lot longer than me and tend to just say – yeah, I just don’t listen to that shit anymore and don’t hang out with people like that, it’s not a fight I’m gonna win and I’m done wasting my energy and time on it. It always seems so relaxing and liberating, really.
After lunch I headed to a craft panel with one of the writers I’d had lunch with and brushed up on all things writing dialogue. Then I headed off to my pitch session. It was the first one I’ve ever done in person and I was really nervous about it. How would I facilitate nervous people through 8 minutes of them trying to sell their manuscript to me? I prepped myself a bunch of questions as prompts and met a lot of really enthusiastic people. It was pretty nerve wracking but I guess enjoyable. I asked to see some manuscripts and I’m interested to see what comes in. I finished off with a lovely debrief with Alex and Peter before my husband came back to pick me up.
And, I have to say, SF, we’re doing it wrong. There was so much about how this conference was organised, including the emails that came out before the event (which had information for people who had never attended before on what to expect and how they could fill the time so as not to feel nervous or anxious), that it was advertised as a perfume free event ahead of time was of interest to me (both because it was considerate of others but also, the opposite of the ones I’m used to which need to remind people to shower!). But also, I am so interested in the active community building that was on display and evident by the friendships and by the friendliness. Other people’s success was not sneered at or envied, it was applauded and encouraged. After all, when everyone else looks at you as a group to sneer at, you don’t really need to spend time and energy doing that inside the group, do you? SF has much to learn from this genre – they are on the cutting edge of the digital revolution, they know how to market and sell their work, they know how to take a one book deal into a long spanning career. And I can’t help but think it has a lot to do with the positivity and encouragement within the community.
I took a lot away from this conference. And I also want to be part of this community. I’m considering joining the RWA and going to next year’s conference in Sydney. I think there is a lot more I can learn about the publishing business here. And I really really liked the people I met.