I'm off to Columbus today for the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention and – even though some of you have heard me sing RT’s praises before, I have to do it again.
RT is my secret favorite convention.
What you’ve probably heard about RT – if you’ve heard anything at all – is that it’s that it’s full of women dressed as vampires and fairies, and half-naked male cover models slinking around. Well, you would be right. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Really.
I think it’s important for people in the mystery, thriller and, yes, even horror genres, to hear this because Romantic Times is a convention that probably is not on the radar for other genre writers – but it should be.
I heard from almost the very beginning of my promotional efforts that I should go to RT because I write sexy and I write paranormal, and because romance readers simply Buy Books. In fact, they Buy Books voraciously, which I discovered when I was on my Harrowing book tour and I went to my first romance-centric workshop, Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans, and sold more books to an audience that didn’t know me from Adam than I had sold at several other genre conventions combined.
But the thing that stunned me from the very first moment of my first Romantic Times convention was how incredibly professionally and logically organized RT is. It’s put on by the Romantic Times review magazine and it’s very adamantly a fan conference. Even though there are lots of aspiring authors there, and great programs for them (including a slew of top agents and editors taking pitches), this conference is also a goldmine for published authors because there are so many people there just to meet authors and buy books (well, okay, and attend the endless and amazingly fun parties, which I’ll get to…)
Let me make this perfectly clear. I never read romances as a kid, or any time after – I had less than zero interest, although looking back I can see there was some romance crossover in the Gothic thrillers I gobbled up in my endless quest for the supernatural. And it’s that crossoverness that definitely makes Romantic Times a more obvious bet for me than a balls-out horror writer, or hard crime writer, because paranormal is so huge right now – in romances AND mysteries, and though a lot of paranormal seems to be about warm and fuzzy werewolves and endless variations on quirky vampires, there’s also a significant segment of the paranormal readership that likes a good straight-up ghost story.
But romance readers are even more broad in their tastes than that.
I used to tell people that if you’re writing balls-out horror, RT is not the place for you. But Joe Konrath/Jack Kilborn was there last year with his book, AFRAID, and while I did not check his actual sales figures, it looked to me that he was doing pretty damn well. And having a hell of a good time, too. (That's Joe dancing with me at the Faery Ball, getting into the spirit of the thing with his wings).
I think we all, admit it, can be a little snotty about our own genre, and look down on writers who write and readers who read things that we wouldn’t necessarily read or write ourselves. But romance readers buy more books than any other single group of readers and they do not have the same prejudices. They love reading, they love authors, they love books. Period. Give me that reader any old time.
I am frankly staggered at how smart and eclectic this genre is about marketing and promotion – and craft. RT really works to recruit and organize mystery and thriller authors to present workshops and panels on those genres. The conference also features some unique ways of handling reader/author interaction. Apart from outside bookseller events, there is only one mass signing – that takes place in a HUGE convention room on Saturday, after all the authors have already done their panels. The book fair is heavily promoted to the community, on radio, TV and in print, and lots of readers turn up just for that. The authors are lined up alphabetically at long rows of tables, and the readers just walk up and down the aisles. There are drawings for dozens of author-donated gift baskets going on throughout the whole three hour signing, and video screens project book trailers through the whole event as well (I love having my book trailers playing in the book room and on the hotel TV during the convention. And yeah, you bet that sold books for me last year, and beyond that, it was putting my name and my book titles out there for the entire convention, so that even people who would never buy what I write are now aware of me as an author.).
Another cool feature of RT is “Club RT”. Throughout the convention, in the dealers’ room there are a couple dozen little café tables set up and authors are scheduled for one hour slots where they just sit at these tables and anyone who wants to can come up and chat, get books signed, etc. If I were an aspiring author I would spend half my time at this conference just going around to chat with different authors in my genre. A truly unique and intimate opportunity for authors, aspiring authors, and fans.
Of course a feature of RT I really love and am thrilled to be able to participate in is Heather Graham’s Vampire Dinner Theater, an original musical review written by Heather and featuring the Slush Pile Players, a group of authors with with professional backgrounds in music and theater, and always featuring several of Heather’s charming and multitalented offspring. Last year the show was Blood Sucking Vampires; starring F. Paul Wilson as Van Helsing, leading a bevy of comic superheroes against Heather Graham’s evil but party-loving vampires from New Orleans. This year - well, I would tell you but Heather would kill me.
I also have to say, when women organize these things everything is just – prettier. The attention to detail is mindblowing. Promo Alley, where authors put out their postcards and bookmarks and giveaways, is a long aisle of covered tables on both sides, and instead of having people just throw their swag on the tables, all the giveaways have to be in displays or decorated baskets. Yes, that takes an extra hour of prep time, but oh man, is it worth it. You can actually SEE the promo stuff, and you get a feel for each author from the decorations of the boxes and baskets. Brilliant idea.
Ditto with the parties. RT has professional costumers/decorators who dress the ballrooms for the theme parties – such as Moulin Rouge, Midnight at the Oasis, Jungle Love, the Golden Age of Hollywood and of course, the Faery Ball. There is lighting. There are trees. There are enormous Moroccan pillows. There are stage backdrops. There are mirror balls and candles. There are screaming mechanical skulls. And the level of personal costuming rivaled the Renaissance Faire events and special effects masters’ parties I’ve been to in LA (I never even dreamed there were so many variations on fairies. Seriously…).
And these women DANCE. All night. I’m sorry, but you can only talk so much. You get out on the dance floor with a bunch of readers screaming “It’s Raining Men” and you have made friends for life.
And the point of the parties, is, of course, that they attract fans. Boy, do they.
If this is all sounding a little estrogen-heavy, you’re right. But remember – women buy books. And male authors are catching on to the gold mine of readers to be - mined - at RT and are coming over to the decadent side. Now that they’ve figured it out, I doubt Paul Wilson or Barry Eisler or Joe Konrath or Rob Gregory Browne will ever miss an RT again. I expect that more and more men (like Joe Finder and Brett Battles, this year) are going to be realizing what an advantage that Y chromosome gives them in a situation like this.
And well, okay, I admit it – all professionalism aside - after years of having to put up with only female strippers at Hollywood events, I like the turnabout of having half-naked beefcake at a convention.