Romance Writers of America National Conference

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Last weekend Rob, Toni and I were all at the Romance Writers of America National Conference in San Francisco.

Now wait, you’re saying to yourself. This is a MYSTERY blog, right? And you three are thriller writers, aren’t you? So what were you doing at a romance conference?

(Rob of course has an easy answer – it was 3000 women to maybe 20 men.)

People continue to look at me askance when I say that I attend the romance conferences and am a member of RWA, and that’s fair enough. I read Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin and Ray Bradbury while I was growing up and even though I did pick up some gothic romances because of intriguingly spooky covers, I never had the slightest interest in the Harlequins with their “clinch” covers.

But I read everything Anne Rice ever wrote for years. “That’s not romance,” you cry. Oh, really? I submit to you that that’s exactly what Anne Rice wrote. Romance is a huge umbrella for many subgenres, and RWA knows that that includes thrillers and mysteries and supernatural – and authors like Allison Brennan and Lisa Gardner and our own Tess Gerritsen. It’s the rest of us that seem a little slow on the uptake, here.

This was my biggest clue that I needed to investigate the romance community and business: Our publishers go to the romance conferences in droves. I have never seen such a presence of editors, publishers and agents at any other genre conference. And they put much more money into the events and giveaways and promotions – it’s very clear that THEY think RWA is important.

And it’s not so scary. Really.

Here’s a quick summary of my time.

Arrived Wednesday afternoon, not having completely realized that the conference STARTED on Wednesday, so raced straight from Oakland airport to the SF Marriott, arrive just in time for librarian/bookseller mingler (for my money, that in itself was worth the whole conference). My case of THE HARROWING disappeared in five minutes, and the rest of the time was spent chatting, fueled by copious amounts of iced tea and lemonade.

The mingler was followed by the mass Literacy Autographing – there must have been 400 authors there in that ballroom, lined up at tables in alphabetical order. Other cons could take a cue from this arrangement – it is a LOT easier to plan to come to just one or two huge signings where you know you can easily and quickly find your favorite authors and browse all the others at leisure. Plus a mass autographing can be advertised to the public – and believe me, readers come – the line to get in to the hall snaked down one whole floor of the hotel, up a staircase, and down another floor.

I was surprised at how many people I knew there – this was my first RWA but I did know a lot of people from Romantic Times, Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans, and even my Raleigh RWA chapter (now that was a trip, to see Raleigh friends in San Francisco).

It was a staggering program, really. There were sessions with the buyers of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books a Million, there were spotlights on all the publishing houses, all of whom had 4 to 6 editors in attendance, talking about the specific needs and policies of their houses as well as their personal taste in books, genres, queries and pitches; there was a half-day screenwriting workshop with Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat!, there were pitch prep sessions and agent/editor appointments all week long. The only thing missing was, well, men – which meant RGB and Matthew Shear were at a premium.

I went to a lot of the publisher spotlights, which I found fascinating, and got a lot out of Lisa Gardner’s rewriting workshop (she broke down how she took two years to turn THE PERFECT HUSBAND into a breakout, mainstream thriller when the book she’d initially written was a Harlequin… um… Silhouette? One of those lines).

Friday was party day – starting at 4 pm at the authentic SF speakeasy, Bourbon and Branch, for thriller author Kelli Stanley’s launch party (not part of the RWA program but a happy coincidence). What a fabulous venue and fabulous party, in the secret library (revolving bookcase and all), with its stunning tin ceilings, antique bars, Deco glass chandeliers that looked like enormous sea anemones (you wouldn’t want one of those things falling on you, let me tell you…). Suddenly I was surrounded by mystery writers our Simon Wood, RGB, Michelle Gagnon… Kelli was her noirish self and it was great to see Diane Kudisch of the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore and Janet Rudolph of the Mystery Readers’ Journal… Janet was skeptical when I kept telling her she HAD to come to the RWA parties but she was a total convert by the end of the evening.

Because RWA knows how to party, and publishers spend the big bucks to entertain there. The St. Martin’s party was at a very stylish Asian Fusion restaurant called the E & O. Mouthwatering appetizers and St. Martinis… way too good, but I knew the minute I hit the Harlequin party I’d be dancing all that alcohol out, and so I did. The HQ party was at the Four Seasons and it was fun walking into the ballroom with Rob and seeing his chin hit the floor – you really don’t get it until you see it, how all out Harlequin goes. And what I really love about the HQ parties is that they don’t even pretend it’s about anything else but the dancing. They’d brought up a DJ from LA who just GOT it – he happily spun his way through the classic dance songs – Raining Men, Play that Funky Music White Boy, Lady Marmelade, Brick House, Dancin’ Queen, and hundreds of women never left the floor for the entire evening.

Saturday was another signing with St. Martin’s (the publishers all donate cases of books to give away to readers…. think about it) and my paranormal panel with Heather Graham, and then Nora Roberts’ pre-RITA award cocktail party. Heather and I managed to sneak out and get into the Frieda Kahlo exhibit at SF MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, which was also worth the whole trip right there… they always publish the pretty paintings in those coffee table books, and Frieda is not about pretty. It was a knockout exhibit.

I had a great time seeing my brother, who lives in SF – one day for lunch on the pier, and again on Sunday (foggy and chilly) for a field trip to the Chihuly glass exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park – psychedelic, translucent pieces that made me feel I was underwater half the time and in Wonderland the other half. Then caught up with my friend Siegrid from Berkeley and ended the night in a biker bar, because SF is about nothing if not about contrasts.

All in all a wildly productive and wildly wild time.

Try it some time – you may find you like it.

So the question of the day is – what’s your opinion/impression about romance novels? Do you read them? Wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole? Have you taken any notice of how romance-driven the publishing industry really is?

– Alex

41 thoughts on “Romance Writers of America National Conference

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Alex — this post does come of a bit of an eye-opener to me. My long-time impression of romance novels has always been those paperback novels with th model perfect people and on the cover and the characters with the all-too perfect lives (The successful, yet lonely career woman, the handsome rogue who steals her heart, etc). however, my opinion is changing a bit.

    The RWA sounds like it’s one hell of a conference. Maybe I might try and attend one. I may get a lot out of it [And it sounds like the women to men ratio could work out as well 😉 ] In all serious though, it really does sound like a big thing, especially since you said that quite a few mystery and thriller writers were there.

    Speaking of conferences, I’m looking forward to meeting you and the others of the ‘Rati crew at B’con this year.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    RJ, how thrilling that you’re going to B’Con! Really looking forward to meeting you.

    Glad to open your eyes a little – it was an eye-opener for me, too.

    I think a good strategy for conference-going is to be aware of where ALL the major conferences are every year. Chances are there’s going to be at least one near enough to you or some friend or relative, and you can end up getting to more conferences by attending the ones where you don’t have to shell out for hotel AND transportation.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Sounds wonderful. Here I sit in rainy Cumbria (August, right?) wishing I’d been in SF last weekend instead.

    And I think you’re entirely right – the romance side of a story is so vital. My series is constantly driven forwards by the ongoing difficult love affair between Charlie and Sean. It’s as much a part of the plot as the thriller element.

  4. Lori G. Armstrong

    I read them. I write them. I love them. I have for years and I’ve always felt a little sorry for those people who sniff and claim the don’t read “those types of books” — especially when they think all that’s available is bodice rippers and they’re all the same. Yeah, and mystery hasn’t evolved since Agatha Christie, either.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, we had some sunny days in SF, Z, but you know what Mark Twain said: “The coldest winter I ever spent was one summer In San Francisco.”

    And it kinda was.

    Lori, you are my model of a romance writer! Thrills, sex, love, craziness – the whole enchilada.

    And I missed you dancing.

  6. ArkansasCyndi

    Thank you! What a wonderful tribute to the romance genre and the RWA conference. You nailed the conference spirit in your post…loads of parties, information and contacts. One word of warning though, get some sleep BEFORE you go. The days start early and go long. Exhausting fun.

    I’m in the “I read them, I write them and I love them” category. That doesn’t mean that’s the only genre I read. But there are few mysteries and thrillers that don’t have some subplot of a romantic relationship.

    I’ll look forward to seeing some of you at RWA national next year in Washington DC.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    It was a stellar conference. Alex nailed it. You can’t walk around that place without bumping into editors and agents and publishers.

    James Cameron was once asked what kind of story was “Terminator” — I think the questioner believed it was action and someone else believed it was S/F, and Cameron, without missing a beat, said, “It’s a love story.” And he meant it. I think the public’s general perception is as Alex described, and yet so many books have romance in the subplot. There are four or five “tracks” for writers going on at all times – the con is huge — and if you’re starting out, there’s stuff for you, if you’re midlist, there’s stuff, if you want industry panels, they’re there. There was a PI panel, as well as one on how fed agencies work together, (FBI, etc.)

    I did the same thing, though — arrived on Wed., only in time for the literacy signing, missed the librarian thing, and regretted it. Next time, I’ll go a day ahead.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    DC is going to be a GREAT conference, Cyndi – can’t wait for that one.

    That’s the thing about romance readers, too – they DON’T just read romance. It’s a voracious and eclectic readership, and they support the industry by actually BUYING books.

  9. ArkansasCyndi

    Just as an FYI – the Kiss of Death chapter of RWA (the mystery/suspense chapter) has a day long workshop on the Tuesday before RWA National conference starts. Historically, they’ve been able to get the group into areas not usually permitted. This year, the group went on a tour of the US Customs and Border Protection area at the SF seaport. One year, it was guns. Different types, etc. Afternoon was spent at a firing range. As someone who has a concealed weapon license, it was a hoot to watch women who’d never shot a gun, much less held a gun, go through the firing range exercise. They were so stoked afterward!

    I can’t wait for Washington. I’m sure they are working on something special for there!

  10. Rae

    I love romances and am always delighted to read a good one. My favorite books, of whatever genre, always have an element of romance in them.

    I think romances suffer even more from genre-bashing than crime fiction does, which is a bummer because there are some great romance writers out there. I’m thinking in particular of Nora Roberts, who writes, hands down, the best dialog I’ve ever read.

    And isn’t it true that romances make up the vast majority of books sold these days?

  11. JT Ellison

    I can’t wait until we abandon all the designators and realize that every book has elements of life in them, which means love, crime and discovery. So many of the “literary novels” have massive love stories centered around criminal investigations. I’ve never understood the looking down the nose aspect of reading. If it’s well written, who cares what genre it’s labeled?

    I’m looking forward to RWA this year in DC! And don’t forget, 2010 in NASHVILLE!!!!!!

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Rae, yes, romances make up the majority of books bought. I would have plugged statistics in to this post, but I found numbers ranging from 51% to 75%, and I didn’t know how to verify.

    And yeah, romance has been the pink ghetto. For a long time it allowed publishers to pay women authors far less than they were worth. RWA has made a huge and successful effort to change that.

  13. jude

    Great post! The RWA conference is an amazing experience.

    I never understood the derision that some genre writers express toward each other. When I went to a World Con a few years back, if the sf/fantasy writers weren’t bemoaning the lack of respect they got from the world of literature, they were giggling over how cliche and stupid romance novels were.

    Or so they thought, because it was obvious they were speaking from abysmal ignorance of the sweep of writing within the romance genre or the vibrant mixed genre work being published.

    Not all the writers were that bizarrely hypocritical, but it was pretty pervasive.

    Good writing is good writing.

  14. Louise Ure

    I’m so sorry I didn’t have a chance to attend this year. But it was great seeing you guys at Kelli’s launch party nonetheless.

    You’ve left SF blue without you.

  15. billie

    I think in some ways every novel I read is a romance novel. Some of my favorite literary novels are totally focused around love stories. But it’s interesting that they aren’t referred to as such, generally.

    The conference sounds terrific. You have just about sold me on getting a few writer friends together and going to the next one! 🙂

  16. Allison Brennan

    Great post, Alex, and you really nailed the feeling of RWA. I missed a lot of the parties, but there’s always so many things to go to that you have to pick and choose. One of my favorite parts are the PAN workshops (for published authors) and I missed most of those, too. But I had time with my agent and editor, met people I see once a year or only online, did our Ballantine book giveaway, and the literacy signing, plus a workshop with romantic thriller authors CJ Lyons, Cindy Gerard, and Jordan Dane, along with Jordan’s Avon editor Lucia Macro (called “Bad Boys and Naughty Girls.) I think your ideas about the book signing is fantastic, Alex, and I think I wrote something similar in my Thrillerfest survey about one big booksigning open to the public (for free.) I think there could be lots of potential. The literacy signing is where publishers donate books, people buy them, and all the money is donated to literacy. I can’t remember how much we raised this year, but it was over $60K and then many other chapters donate money and raffle baskets. The Kiss of Death (romantic suspense) chapter donated nearly $2,000 as well.

    As far as statistics go, romance as a genre is @55% of all mass market sales and 40% of all fiction sales. It’s the biggest selling genre.

    My mom has always read mysteries and collects many mystery series. She loves romance as well. Recently, she told me that she has been disappointed in some of the mysteries and thrillers because there’s no relationship, even a subplot. She now seeks out romantic suspense because there she gets the mystery and thrills, but also gets a relationship.

    Romance gets dinged across the board because people don’t understand, or they use one example and call it all trash. And I get that not everyone likes romance or even romance in their books. I get from some mystery readers that they love my books, but wish I’d close the bedroom door; I get from some romance readers that they love my books, but wish I’d spend more time with the relationship aspect. I file those fans as “you can’t please everyone” but I do appreciate where they come from. I write what I want to write, and it really doesn’t get any better than that.

    Oh, and I learned far more about publishing, querying agents, and the business from RWA than any other organization, most of which you can only join once you’re published. I’ve always believed I would sell, but I know that I sold faster because of what I learned through the generous members of RWA.

  17. tess

    Alex,so glad you enjoyed RWA! The Harlequin parties are always the most lavish, most jaw-dropping affairs, but they are for Harlequin authors and guests only. So everyone should be extra nice to a Harlequin author — she might bring you along for a peek at one of their extravaganzas.

    And thanks for pointing out that romance isn’t just a genre — it’s part of a good story, too.

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Louise, I can’t believe RWA was literally on your doorstep and you didn’t come, at least for a day! We should have kidnapped you.

    Billie, with the next RWA in DC, there’s no excuse for you not to go. You would love it, you clothes horse, you…

  19. Amanda Stevens

    The Harlequin party is always quite the shindig. I’ve been going since 1987 (yeah, I’m as old as dirt) and had become a little jaded, but your post made me see it through new eyes. Thanks!

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks for the stats and details, Allison. You brought up a point that I had intended to make – I don’t think there’s ANY author organization out there that preps its members better for the business. It’s just mind-bogglingly thorough, from web chapters to online worshops to the large and powerful state chapters on up to national.

    Tess, you’re my role model for combining thrillers and love stories. For me, you’ve got just the right proportion, and all your characters are quirky enough for me to really WANT them to find love… and keep me worried about how many different ways they’re going to blow it! 😉

  21. Fiona


    It was great to see you, Toni and Rob in SF.

    Thanks for your outstanding summary of the RWA con & organization. I had the opportunity to attend lectures by fabulous authors and meet with agents and editors. This was priceless experience for a newbie like me.

    I hope to see you next year in DC.

  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Amanda, I’m sure it seems like the same party every year after a while, but doesn’t every party? That’s the problem with having done it all… 😉

    But dancing never wears thin for me. Grab me for a dance next time.

    And Fiona, back atcha – DC for sure! I can’t believe we have to wait a year.

  23. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Just saw Toni’s post and that great example of TERMINATOR.

    Well, YEAH, that’s a love story. “I came across time for you, Sarah…”

    And that up against the refrigerator scene? Yeow.

  24. billie


    Oh lord, I’ll have to go shopping. My clothes horse self has gravitated to riding breeches and mock-turtlenecks! And get my eyebrows waxed – professionally, to be safe. 🙂

  25. MF Makichen

    Alex,This was an awesome post–thanks. I’ve been thinking a lot about the romance genre and all its sub-genres. It does make me wonder if the genre was populated by mostly male authors if it would dissed as much as it is.Mary-Frances

  26. toni mcgee causey

    To Fiona — I just wanted to add that it was absolutely lovely to meet you. I think I had hit overload already by that point, so I was probably a babbling goofball, but your smile and enthusiasm were such a welcome highlight of the trip!

  27. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Alex,I think I’m convinced. Wow. Every year you talk about this and I’m thinkin’ . . . well, maybe I’d better start paying attention.

    Plus, I’m an active member of Novelists, Inc. and much of its membership consists of hard-working, multi-published romance writers who are some of the most interesting, fun and smart women I know.

    BTW: I always thought that one of the reasons romances are so darn popular is that they, more than any other genre that I study, offer HOPE.

  28. Melissa

    I was intrigued by this comment, “But there are few mysteries and thrillers that don’t have some subplot of a romantic relationship.”

    I myself try to find a mystery/thriller that either has a subplot of romance, or more importantly developing relationships. For example, “Bear Any Burden” by Ellis Goodman, created a wonderful story describing historical events in such great detail that you live them with the characters and feel their emotions as the story develops.

  29. Kelli Stanley

    Thanks for the shout out, sweetie! Getting so many friends in one room (with alcohol) was the best way imaginable to launch a book!! 🙂

    I wanted to coincide it with RWA, and even though I didn’t get a chance to be at the conference itself, I felt the good feelings and elation from everyone who was attending. Next time, I plan to be one of them!!


  30. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Mary Frances, you are right on about this: ” It does make me wonder if the genre was populated by mostly male authors if it would dissed as much as it is.”

    I was fascinated to hear one editor say bluntly that publishing houses used to seriously underpay romance authors because the authors were women and the houses simply COULD.

  31. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari, I think that one thing RWA and RT – Romantic Times – do completely RIGHT is that they go all out for the readers – doing everything they can to make readers part of the whole romance community, and planning events with readers foremost in mind. I think other genres could learn a lot from that.

  32. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, Melissa, I agree. A thriller isn’t very thrilling without love and eroticism, and love and sex are the greatest mysteries, right?

    Kelli, you throw about the best party of all. Am loving NOX DORMIENDA – spectacular work!

  33. Toni

    Thanks for offering such a detailed, informative recap of RWA. As a freelancer and in former jobs, I’ve attended my share of conferences; some have big money behind them like this one and others don’t but the key is always in making it have value for you. I think it’s most significant that the publishers are all there, and that the organizers of the conference seem to have respect for both the readers and authors.

    As for romance novels, I’ve never read one. Well, I started one and could not get through it, though I think that reflected more on that writer than the genre for me; I’m simply a mystery & travelogue junkie who prefers not to stray.

    However, since I’ve started writing fiction this year, I’ve been told by more than one person that mine will probably be categorized as “romantic suspense,” and there does seem to be a stigma there. The novel I’m writing has a relationship at its core, but I’m telling other stories around that relationship, too. I’ll admit, I have worried about being pigeonholed–silly given that whole “Oh yeah, first I need to land a book deal” thing.

    My bottom line: I think good storytelling can and should be transcendent, but if it fits certain genres, then more power to both writers and readers if it gets our stories out there. If it’s plausible enough (even if larger than life), entertaining, and makes you laugh or leaves you feeling like you’ve just had a great ride with the characters, then I’m hoping that’s enough. And I’ll be keeping my eye on that RWA conference for the future. 😉

  34. Denise McDonald

    I am so excited to read your post! I actually attended the workshop you and Heather Graham did, found it so fascinting I went right out and got The Harrowing (which I read in a day and really enjoyed) and The Seance (just started it last night).

    Thanks for a great perspective on RWA!

  35. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hi Toni! I strongly recommend that you check out books in the romantic suspense genre – if other people are telling you that’s what you’re writing, then you need to get an overview of the genre so that when you start querying agents you can compare your book to successful books (that you like) and also target agents who successfully handle that genre. It’s a lot more inclusive than you think.

    And no, don’t worry about being pigeonholed. Many romantic suspense authors have gone on to bestselling careers – you’re in a good place!


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