2006 RWA National Conference
by Laurie Likes Books

My first RWA national conference was in Dallas in 1996. My second was in Dallas in 2004. The 2006 Atlanta conference was my third, made possible because it ended the very day my daughter’s camp – an hour outside Atlanta in Gainesville, Georgia – ended. While I sat in on the Avon spotlight with Robin Saturday morning, my husband watched the Firespark! end-of-camp performance and got a first-hand glimpse of the lighting techniques our daughter learned during her two weeks at camp (a fabulous jump start for starting in the Technical Theatre Magnet program when high school begins later this month).

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I covered the 1996 conference as a reporter. In 2004 and now again in 2006, attending RWA’s national conference was and is my main perk for running AAR. It offers me the chance to meet up with whomever from AAR is attending, and it affords me the opportunity to hang out with those authors whose writing I admire. I attended many of the conference workshops in 1996, but only two in 2004, and none in 2006. While there was no terrific bar in which to drink Diet Coke, people watch, and schmooze, luckily I’d emailed several authors prior to arriving on Wednesday, July 26th and set up a number of “dates.”

My husband and I flew into Atlanta Wednesday afternoon after four wonderful days at the shore in Cape May, and after cleaning up, contacted Marianne Stillings (formerly AAR’s chief reviews editor, now a Big Deal Author at Avon), and met her for a quick lunch before registering at the conference. Rather than offering a goodie room filled with books as well as promotional items, this year attendees received a tote bag pre-filled with books…the goodie room simply housed promotional items. I picked up a few things – including a red condom! – and then saw Mary Jo Putney talking with Linnea Sinclair outside the goodie room.

Because I am always asked for business cards, I’d designed one last month and stuck them in my Secret Language of Romancetotebag, along with several I’ve been DIK’d by AAR pins, and took the opportunity to present a DIK pin to MJP, who immediately put it on her blouse, explaining to Sinclair what it meant. I honestly never know how authors feel about “going public” in their affection for AAR, so her reaction to receiving the pin thrilled me. Putney, btw, has earned DIK status ten times at AAR. After meeting Sinclair, who went on to win a RITA later in the week, I met up with Sandy prior to the Literacy Booksigning.

My plan was to buy nothing on this trip because, as I like to tell authors, I am a total book whore. All books sent to AAR for review are mailed to Blythe in Colorado, so I buy 99% of the books I read myself and usually feel like the cobbler whose children have no shoes. While I devoted myself to meeting authors whose books I’ve enjoyed, talking to authors I’ve met at other conferences, introducing myself to authors whose books have earned good reviews at AAR, and offering good luck to RITA nominees whenever possible, in the end I bought just one book. But I handed out dozens of cards, received a similar number in return, and gave a handful of DIK pins (including those I gave to Elizabeth Vaughn, Teresa Medeiros, and Madeline Hunter), trying to save the majority for those authors I’d be meeting privately. The absolute high points of the evening were these:

  • Walking up to Meg Cabot’s stand-alone table, receiving a huge hug from her, and having her tell everyone in line that I was the first person ever to give her a good review. BTW, since first seeing Cabot in person at a YA booksigning in Dallas afterThe Princess Diaries hit, she’s gone through her own transformation and was one of the most stylish women at the conference.
  • Wandering over to Linda Howard’s table. She saw me (we’ve never met in person before), jumped up, gave me a hug, and declared, “Laurie…look…my first pair of Manolo’s!” Apparently she’d seen my photo on my blog, as did several other authors I came across during the conference.

Howard and I set up a time to meet the next morning, and I went off to find Rachel Gibson, who I planned to have dinner with Thursday night, and to confirm with Susan Grant our lunch the next day and Anne Stuart our breakfast on Friday. Although I spent much of the signing in “fan” mode, I did remember to wear my reporter’s hat for a while and can share these tasty tidbits:

Connie Brockway believes she could not have released two such disparate books as All Through the Night and My Dearest Enemy back to back in the current publishing environment.

Cathy McDavid, who wrote a well-reviewed Western for Leisure, doubts she will be writing any more Westerns in the foreseeable future as “there is no market” for them currently.

According to one author newly signed by Ellora’s Cave, her contract includes various “dirty words” she is obligated to include in her book.

The DIK review of Anya Seton’s Green Darkness that Barbara Samuel wrote for AAR years and years and years ago now appears as the foreward to the University of Chicago’s reissue. I’ll need to check, but although they asked Samuel for her permission, I don’t recall them coming to me.

Sandra Kitt, who has written both single title contemporaries and series-ish titles for Arabesque as owned by BET, will continue to write for the line now that it is owned by Harlequin.

Judith Arnold, whose Love in Bloom’s is beloved by Robin, has a new agent. She has no single titles for sale this year or next, although she continues to write series titles.

Susan Grant, who recently signed a multi-book contract with HQN, showed me the covers of her new book, and its sequel. The new book earned a strong review from Publisher’s Weekly, although the cover was panned. I thought the cover was fun in a campy, kitschy sort of way and look forward to reading my signed copy asap.

Mary Alice Monroe, whose The Beach House earned DIK status from me some years ago, will have published its sequel next year. She was nominated for the RITA for Sweetgrass, which I read earlier this summer. I recommend it to one and all, particularly those who enjoy Southern Fiction, and if you’ve already read it and loved it and would consider writing a DIK review of it for AAR, please fill out this form. I’m afraid to write the review myself…I don’t think I could do it justice. (When I ran into Monroe at Nora Roberts’ pre-RITA cocktail party later in the week, she indicated that other authors had definitely noticed her DIK pin and wanted one for themselves…next time I’ll buy them by the gross!)

Lora Leigh, best known for her very erotic Ellora’s Cave releases, is certain that Berkley, which published her most recent Breeds books earlier this year, will allow her to go as far out as she currently does for E.C. Given just how far out she goes in her Bound Hearts series, that remains to be seen.

Because of the popularity of romantic suspense, male romance readership has increased from 7% in 2002 to 25% in 2005.

And now…two rumors, heard from two different authors, neither of whom write for the effected lines: Bombshell is being “re-evaluated” and is in danger of being cancelled – apparently because too many readers do not realize that it is series fiction and not series romance and therefore does not require an HEA – and Harlequin Historicals may once again be terminated.

After the booksigning, my husband joined Marianne and Robin and me for an informal dinner, after which he met Megan Frampton, another former AAR reviewer turned fabulous published author.

On Thursday morning I met Beverly Barton when I went up to Linda Howard’s suite for coffee (yes…Linda Howard made me coffee, and Beverly Barton provided the Splenda!). My sense from our visit is that she’s had a number of bad publisher experiences. Harlequin, for whom she, Barton, and Linda Winstead Jones will be penning a Nocturne trilogy next year (Nocturne is Harlequin/Silhouette’s new Paranormal series line, debuting in October and featuring strong alphas and sexuality), owns the licensing rights of the books it publishes until they are out of print for some number of years, and when Loving Evangeline was made into a TV movie, even though she had a writing credit, Howard didn’t earn a cent. Perhaps worse, the movie, in her words, is “godawful,” featuring a “bumbling hero” and “nothing” at all recognizable from her book “other than the title.” And later, when already a NYT bestselling author, her contract with Pocket must have been very one-sided; she indicated she and her husband had to scramble for grocery money at times when royalties were withheld (against possible returns). The latter in particular is a cautionary tale; my sense is that too many authors who are offered contracts believe that the publisher is doing them a favor by signing them. When Robin and I went to an Avon spotlight later in the week and heard one of their chief editors talking about agents, I wanted to shout out to one and all assembled that having an agent represent an author seems very, very prudent.

Lunch with Susan Grant on Thursday was a lot of fun, as was dinner Thursday night with Rachel Gibson, but both were filled more with personal chit-chat than anything else. Still, I did learn a couple of things. Susan Grant is part of an informal RWA group with another 60 members, all of whom graduated from one of the U.S. service academies. Rachel Gibson, who looks as fabulous as Susan Grant (and both look great), doesn’t provide the final titles of her books, which are instead created by Avon’s marketing department.

I had breakfast on Friday with Anne Stuart, whose writing I’ve loved for years. I asked her about her next book, entitled Cold as Ice. It is a sequel of sorts to last year’s marvelous Black Ice, and it sounds as though the hero is every bit a Hero on the Edge as Bastien in the earlier book. As a matter of fact, the hero, a spy who slept with a man in Black Ice, has total control over his body, which allows him to have sex with men or women, whatever the job entails, without any emotional feelings whatsoever. At one point in the upcoming release, the hero informs the heroine that he kissed her to distract her in order to knock her out. When she asks what he would do if he needed to distract a man, he answers, “I would do the same thing.” Cold as Ice will be released in November. Given Harlequin’s sometimes old-fashioned reputation, I asked what the editors at MIRA thought about this. Stuart indicated hers loved it and that other editors who heard about it thought it was “cool.”

On Friday and Saturday, publisher signings were held. During publisher signings, authors sit down behind a table with previous, current, or upcoming releases provided by their publishers so that RWA members can walk away with oodles of free, autographed books. The lines seemed prohibitively long to me on Friday, so I didn’t go through them, but by Saturday I felt so deprived that I waited like a good girl for two major publisher signings and walked away with so many books I had to avail myself of the UPS station set up outside the signing rooms. I think I filled the largest box they had, and when I arrived home last night, all my books and assorted goodies were waiting for me.

Instead, on Friday, after meeting with Anne Stuart, I wandered into the Virgin Books/Cheek room and briefly met Kimberly Dean, whose E.C. ebook Fever was a favorite for me last year. Jo-Ann Power, who once wrote romances for Pocket, now does P.R., and one of her clients is Virgin Books. She took me by the hand and introduced me to Virgin’s chief Erotica editor, whom I plan to interview at length in the future. Virgin, which started publishing Erotica for women with the Black Lace imprint more than a decade ago, is trying to regain its place as a pioneer in this field. They believe they kicked off the Erotic Romance craze but that Ellora’s Cave gets all the credit.

Later on Friday I had a snack with Jill Marie Landis, an author with two DIK’s to her credit, including one I awarded her a decade ago. Hawaii certainly agrees with her; she has not aged one iota in the decade since I first met her at RWA in 1996. She was nominated for a RITA this year but did not win. Landis was very frank about the changes she’s seen in recent years and was one of a multitude of authors who asked what I thought of current trends. We talked about whether or not the P.C. climate has led to a watering down of male heroes, and further, if this might be contributing with a certain dissatisfaction among readers with today’s romances. Just as we were heavily into a very intriguing discussion about how going hardcover, as she did five years ago, affects a career, we were joined by her friend Elizabeth Grayson (aka Karyn Witmer Gow), and as a result of my conversation with Grayson, developed an idea you’ll be reading as a guest ATBF column later this month.

Friday night were the publisher cocktail parties, and Sandy, a friend of hers who just signed for her first book, and Robin joined my husband and me for the Random House and Berkley parties. Random House always puts on a great party, although this is the first year they’ve combined the Ballantine and Bantam, Dell parties into one. The setting was elegant, the food delicious, and I [re]metJulie Garwood, who, sad to say, does not remember any of our previous meetings. Gosh, what an impression I make! I also met, for the first time, among others, Suzanne Brockmann, Nicole Burnham, and Kimberly Raye, who lives in Texas. She was with a hunky guy dressed “cowboy formal”, so when we met, I said, “I see you brought your own cowboy,” at which point she introduced him as her husband. I grabbed my own husband and introduced him as “not a cowboy.”

By the time we left for the Berkley party, I was near overload, and overload hit shortly after we arrived at the second party. My husband and I lasted a grand total of ten minutes before I simply had to leave, and by the time we went back to our room, I was ready for bed…it was 7:30. (In Anna Quindlen’s newest essay for Newsweek, she talks about the sort of enervation that must hit politicians after a full day of meetings with other politicians and constituents…I’d say she’s right. It’s exhausting to be “on” for hours on end.)

After the Saturday morning booksignings and the Avon spotlight – I won three books in a raffle! – Robin and I had a quick lunch before saying goodbye to each other, not realizing we’d see each other at Nora Robert’s pre-RITA party later that evening. The party was fun…I met up with Anne Stuart, Jill Marie Landis, Mary Alice Monroe, and Jo Beverley again, and touched base with Jennifer Crusie (attending with Bob Mayer, who seemed lost amidst all the estrogen in the room) and Ruth Langan, who rooms with Roberts each year, for the first time since 2004’s pre-RITA party. Roberts looked fabulous, and everyone seemed far dressier than at the 2004 party. We left after an hour, returned to our hotel room, and took our daughter to dinner before packing and preparing for the third leg of our journey the next day.

This is a very lengthy report, particularly since I am not AAR’s “official” reporter for this year’s conference, and I’ve only hit on the highlights. Given AAR’s longevity and the current blog explosion, I think we’ve finally achieved a level of status so that we’re not considered the meanies on the block anymore. As such I was sought out during the conference more so than in the past, and though I can never tell who might be sucking up to me – although it would do absolutely no good given that I am totally uninvolved in the review process until it’s done – it was amazing how many authors, hopeful authors, and other publishing professionals visit AAR.

I had several impromptu get-togethers during RWA with authors who saw me wandering around, and one was entirely on background, with an RWA board member who felt the need to give her side of the story as regards last summer’s graphical standards/Romantica and RITA issues. Both are related to the stormy RWA presidency of Tara Taylor Quinn. According to my source, Quinn was asked to resign by every single board member for lying and trying to force a personal agenda on the organization. The un-named board member indicated that Quinn lied to them about the advice given to her from RWA’s lawyers on the graphical standards issue, which should only have applied to the RWA newsletter, and not to anything else. As for going to the general membership for input on how broadly or narrowly to define “romance novel,” this board member assured me that censorship was never the goal; instead it was leverage to be used against any narrowing of the definition by Quinn. Another complaint by this board member – also apparently shared by others on the board, who cannot speak as a group against Quinn under threat of a lawsuit – is that last year’s RITA ceremony debacle was entirely out of their control. According to my source, Quinn hijacked control of the ceremony’s script even though another RWA member had been given that responsibility, and refused to share with the board the script until the whole thing blew up in all their faces the night of the RITAs.

All that said, I did not go to Tara Taylor Quinn for comment, so the allegations of this RWA board member are just that. I include them because there was, is, and continues to be – particularly on blog sites – the view that RWA acts as a conservative monolith. This board member went out of her way to talk to me about this so that authors and readers alike would understand that the actions during Quinn’s presidency did not represent the board as a whole and that they were embarrassed and frustrated by her deceit, but could not speak out against her not only because of RWA guidelines, but because she threatened to sue them if they did.

If you’ve not yet read Sandy and/or Robin’s conference reports, I hope you will. They actually attended the conference in an official capacity…but I think I had most of the fun.

Addendum (August 30):

My RWA journal was intended to report to you what I heard during the conference. As far as my conversation with the un-named RWA board member – nicknamed “Deep Betty” elsewhere online – I included her comments not to become involved in a “she said/she said” debate, but because, as indicated earlier, I thought it would counteract the view that RWA acts as a conservative monolith. Since the original publication of my report on August 4th, I’ve been contacted by Tara Taylor Quinn, as well as a fellow former RWA board member, and a colleague of Quinn’s. Both the board member and colleague dispute Deep Betty’s comments. Given that this board member was part of the same board as TTQ and my source, it seems clear that Deep Betty overstated things to some extent. The truth in these incidents – the handling of the graphical standards issue, the 2005 RITA’s, and other stormy events that occurred during TTQ’s stewardship of RWA – remains a mystery to all but those directly involved. Regardless, these incidents and their aftermath do nothing so much as further my theory that no one board member speaks for the whole board.

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