Well, I’m back from Atlanta and the RWA National conference. As always, it was wonderful to see so many friends and to make some new acquaintances. I’m excited to have a list of authors-new-to-me to read, as well as a reminder to check back with my favourites. (There was, for example, an advanced reading copy of Mary Balogh’s August release, The Arrangement, which I inhaled one night. It’s a wonderful book and was a treat to read. I’ll leave a Goodreads review for it this week.) I’ll introduce you to those authors on my Facebook pages over the next few days.
First, though, I thought I’d share some impressions and observations with you. The tone of the conference this year struck me as subdued. This is probably a mirror of a very tough market, especially for debut authors. (It’s been a tough market for midlist authors for a while.) Writers seemed to be fairly emotional, and the sharing of war stories was a popular choice of topic in the bar. Fewer champagne corks were popping, and many writers seemed uncertain as to their futures. I had the sense that the majority of published authors in attendance were still working with traditional publishers but feeling a lack of enthusiasm from the house, and seeing tepid sales.
Given that, here are a few trends and focal points that stood out for me:
• the forging of new relationships
It was exciting to see new connections being made in the bar. There’s always some of this, of course, but it was more emphatic this year. A number of authors were talking about creating anthologies and collaborative series, about doing cross-marketing and cross-promotion, about sharing resources to gain visibility.
• the reassertion of existing relationships
To define the way forward, many authors are looking at their history. There was a great deal of discussion about the changing roles of agents, and how authors with good agent relationships can use that relationship to mutual benefit in future. There were similar discussions about editors and authors in good partnerships, and changing balances in their respective roles. I met a great bookseller from Florida who has a lot of Dragonfire fans amongst her customers (quite possibly because one of her employees loves the series and handsells it). We’re working on figuring out how to get my self-published Dragonfire novels (beginning with the Dragon Legion Collection) into her store. I know there’s a way to do this, but haven’t walked through it with anyone before. Once we have, I’ll have a pat answer for other indie stores. Since she sells Kobo readers, we will also be able to ensure that she benefits from her customers buying my digital books from Kobo, through Kobo’s program with the ABA. I’m excited about ensuring that the bookstores who have supported me in the past can be part of my future.
• the notion that print book sales are recovering
This was interesting to me. The indie bookseller I mentioned above has expanded to a second store. She sees uptick in print sales, and sees an increase in the number of indie booksellers in ABA which convinces her that her sales data isn’t unusual. She’s encouraged by the restructuring of B&N and sees print coming back. That was an exciting conversation.
• the disappearance of opportunity for debut authors in traditional publishing
The options for new authors in traditional publishing appear to have dwindled almost to nothing, particularly outside of hot genres like New Adult. There was a lot of talk about rejection and commiseration over ways to survive it. As I anticipated last year, new authors will need to prove themselves in digital-first, either in digital-first programs run by traditional houses (like Carina, Impulse or a host of others) or by self-publishing in digital and using indie success as a stepping stone to traditional publishing (if that’s the goal of the author in question). There’s an interesting twist on that strategy, though, which is my next point.
• the emergence of contracts for projects instead of contracts for authors
Once upon a time (i.e. two years ago, in the dark ages of digital-first) an author who found success in digital self-publishing could expect editors at traditional publishing houses to come knocking. That author could also expect those editors to want to buy not just the successful work in question but the next work(s). Essentially, the house would want to build the author from that point. About a year ago, we heard about the first splitting of rights, with print-only deals negotiated by several successful authors with traditional publishers, giving those authors’ books print distribution. At this conference, I heard about deals for specific projects—i.e. the title sells well in indie, so the house buys that title for digital and print distribution, and encourages the author to continue self-publishing. I’m not sure what exactly the house is contributing in these deals beyond print distribution, and I’m less sure why authors go for it, but it’s a strong trend.
• less acceptance of rebranding
It’s a typical strategy for midlist authors to rebrand themselves, at the request of the publisher, in order to continue to do business with the house. So, the author of one kind of work who hasn’t achieved success by the time that subgenre fades from popularity might be asked to try something different. This only happens if the house likes the author’s work or feels the author has missed their chance. Once upon a time, it was very common for authors to comply, probably because there were no other choices in terms of going forward. The assumption was that the current house was the only one likely to give the author another chance (and it wasn’t an unjustified assumption.) But this year, I met more authors at this conference who had declined to be rebranded and chosen to become indie authors instead.
• the language of collaboration
Editors said “we” when they talked about the process of bringing a book to market, even going so far as to say “we write”. Authors who are successful in traditional publishing talked about their “team” at the respective publishing house and the house’s support. I was interested by how quiet editors were overall, and how much they stood back from authors. They’ve always done that to a certain extent, but the postures were more pronounced this time.
• increased acceptance of self-publishing as a viable option
Previously “vanity press” was very much outside of the definition of “publication” for RWA. This year, self-published books could be ordered for the literacy signing, there was a new self-publishing track of workshops and there was an indie booksigning. On the upside, these workshops were standing room only and the booksigning was very well attended. On the downside, the fact that self-publishing was an option was such a revelation for so many attendees that the workshops tended to get bogged down with very basic questions. I didn’t find them as helpful as I’d hoped—even though the presenters had tremendous expertise, they had little opportunity to share more than the essentials. These writers who found the notion of self-publishing a revelation were excited by what they learned. Unfortunately, the over-riding talk was that they would “toss up some content and see what happened” which is exactly how digital self-publishing does NOT work. (The even more unfortunate choice of verb was “throw up a book”. Ewwww.) I suspect we will see a little explosion of DIY covers, edits and formatting in the near future, and then these authors will give up indie publishing.
• increased opportunities for some self-published authors at various portals
The various self-publishing portals are listening to requests from authors and have exciting tools in beta. (They didn’t get a lot of chance to talk about this, unfortunately.) Pre-ordering tools and merchandising options are going to proliferate over the next year, even for indie authors, and this is a good thing. Overall, I have a sense that digital-first publishing is becoming more like traditional publishing every day.
• changing role of RWA
RWA is in the midst of a number of bylaw changes which redefine their relationship with the individual local chapters. Of primary interest to me in all of this is the fact that Canadian chapters may not be acknowledged by the national organization in future, due to one particular suite of changes. Those of us from north of the border had a number of casual chats about this, but there’s not yet consensus as to how we will go forward. Will there be a new organization, Romance Writers of Canada? Or will we simply become local writers’ groups unaffiliated with any larger organization? Will we become cross-genre writers’ groups organized locally? And if our local chapters can’t be RWA chapters any longer, will we individually remain RWA members? At this point, it’s tough to say how it will shake out.
• changing role of writers’ groups and writers’ conferences
At the airport, another writer asked me if I would attend RWA’s National conference next year in Texas. My reply was an immediate no. I actually doubt that I will ever attend another RWA National conference. That got me to thinking about why. I have never found the workshops at RWA’s conference very helpful. There is a tendency to reduce strategies to a recipe “Easy as 1-2-3” which never made as much sense as people believed it did, and makes less sense in our current market. What worked yesterday is not going to work tomorrow in the rapidly changing digital-first market, so there’s no point in deriving a formula. RWA National is expensive to attend, because it is long and there are costly events included in the program. The most valuable thing to me is always the five minute conversations – but this time, those chats weren’t with editors and agents. I was most interested in talking to various vendors, booksellers, service providers, and other authors. Granted, they were available because they attended the conference, but I believe that in future, authors like me will be more likely to go to smaller conferences that facilitate this kind of networking instead of a large track of workshops and gala events. (No more convention hotel chicken!) Such conferences would also be shorter, I’d expect, as no one can spare an entire week. They also will have complementary WIFI for all registrants.
How’s that for a preliminary round of impressions? There’s a whole lot of laundry calling my name today as I play catch-up. In addition, Aura made a very interesting observation when I was working on hers and Thad’s story one day in my lovely hotel room. She stopped me cold, because I had to think about the implications, but now I have writing to do. Finishing Kiss of Destiny, #3 of the Dragon Legion novellas, is on the agenda for this week, even if the dustbunnies have to wait.
They’ve waited this long, so another couple of days won’t let them get that much bigger.
Did you attend RWA National this year in Atlanta? What were your impressions? What did you learn? Will you attend again?