disney RWA 2012 was my fifth conference; I’ve been to the last three in a row, and before that was at Reno in 2005 and Denver in 2002. With that many under my belt I am learning that each conference has its own vibe, and some are happier and, well, lighter than others. This was an upbeat, optimistic conference. I wasn’t the only one that noticed; there was more than one comment to that effect on twitter, and several people made that observation to me in person.

Part of the reason is that last year the industry was in transition and everyone felt a little tense. Everyone knew that digital publishing was having an impact and no one was quite sure what that impact would be for traditional publishers – or for authors. In Anaheim, the general consensus was that authors (and readers, for that matter) have more freedom and more options than they ever have before. Anyone who didn’t know that when they came into this conference sure knew it by the time they left. Stephanie Laurens’ speech on Thursday really started the buzz. The basic gist was that the only absolutely essential parts of the book industry right now are authors and readers. Where we used to need publishers, distributors, and retailers, they are now non-essential. An author can self-publish relatively easily, using simple tools to make her work available to online buyers – who can snap up books without setting foot in a physical store.

That’s not to say that publishers are useless – far from it. But it did change the tenor of the publisher spotlights significantly. Two years ago in Orlando the tone was very much “don’t call us, we’ll call you”. The implication was that if you kept to very specific guidelines of what they were looking for, maybe you’d be lucky enough to get your agented manuscript accepted. I even heard an agent say that the only real future for authors was traditional print publishing (though even then I thought he had his head stuck in the sand). This year, most publishers seemed to be selling themselves to potential authors: “Here’s what ____ Books can do for you!” Some of them have specific slots they are trying to fill, and some take a more “we buy something when we like it” approach, but all of them were selling their marketing, branding, and editorial support to potential authors.

And nearly everyone who didn’t already have a digital first arm has one in development. Berkley is introducing InterMix. Pocket Star will now be digital first. St. Martin’s and Kensington are hopping on the bandwagon. And anyone who may have dismissed digital first as marginal had to stop sneering when Carina Press won its first RITA – in the Contemporary Single Title category, for Fiona Lowe’s Boomerang Bride. It’s an incredible achievement considering Carina was just getting off the ground two years ago.

What were people talking about besides digital publishing? Well, there was some grumbling about the elimination of the RITA category for “Novel with Strong Romantic Elements.” The field included some particularly strong competition this year, with lots of books that are romantic at heart and beloved by romance readers. Several authors (including one who was nominated this year) expressed some disappointment, but also had some ideas for redefining the category so it fit better with RWA’s mission statement.

As far as RITA highlights go, I couldn’t help cheering extra loud for winners Tessa Dare (Regency Historical Romance), Joanna Bourne (Historical Romance), and Barbara O’Neal (apparently the last winner in the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements Category, but as it’s her third win – and seventh RITA – she was inducted into the Hall of Fame). I also loved Angela James emotional acceptance speech for Carina, and Ann Aguirre’s celebratory interpretive dance.

As is my personal tradition, I took a picture of my RWA12 workout view. At this conference I split my workout time between the hotel fitness center and (because I am a huge nerd) walking to Downtown Disney. Despite my SoCal raised husband’s assertion that no one walks to Disneyland from Harbor Blvd., I did it. Repeatedly. And I found that his statement should be amended to “No one walks down Harbor Blvd. to Disneyland if they live in South Orange County.” Other people walk to Disneyland, and even run to Disneyland when they are excited enough. I’m running home now, feeling warm and fuzzy about our romance community and the authors, publishers, readers, reviewers, bloggers, and everyone else who makes it all possible. See you all next year in Atlanta.

– Blythe AAR