Book Conventions and Hand Sanitizer
Many years ago, I let myself get coerced into seeing the movie Porky's with my husband's co-workers. I was the only person who knew in advance it was a sophomoric, raunchy, semi-pornographic (for its day) flick, but in a classic case of peer pressure, I let everyone else sweep me--taunted as the fuddyduddy--into a movie I didn't want to see. And for about ten minutes, the rest of the group roared with laughter. But eventually the co-workers fell into squirming silence as the action onscreen got more and more . . . well, stupid and icky. When the movie was over, nobody could look anyone else in the eye. Instead, the co-workers all mumbled good-night and split as fast as possible, trying not to think about what they'd have to say to each other Monday morning around the water cooler.
That's kind of how I feel about the Romantic Times convention. Sure, everybody looks like they're having a good time, nobody's getting hurt, and technically people are celebrating books (one friend spent $200 to ship home the books she acquired) but me, I just feel uncomfortably out of place amid all the erotica and the--sorry, I gotta say it--crudeness.
Which is my problem, not anyone else's. Hey, if you love man-on-man-on-woman sex with some shapeshifters and chocolate sauce thrown in, I give you my blessing.
It's just not for me. Mind you, I'm not a romance snob. I love romance novels. I've written enough to put my kids through college. And the first book sitting here on my "keeper" shelf is Anne Stuart's Catspaw. And I'm thinking that's the kind of book that's the mark of a true connoisseur.
But, as another friend says, "There's just not enough hand sanitizer to get me to go to RT."
But this particular convention has lots of other stuff going on--if you can look past the well-lotioned male models--and some of it is worth the attention of people in the book business.
First thing I noticed? Youth. At mystery conventions, there's a lot of gray hair and fixed incomes. The romance genre, however, seems to have ongoing appeal. At RT there were more twenty-somethings than sixty-somethings. This has to be a good thing, but draw your own conclusion.
Next: I noticed how many people were clearly good friends, but meeting for the first time in person. Okay, this is old news--that the internet is fostering communities of readers---but it's never more apparent than at the RT convention. (Here's the Publisher's Weekly blog report with plenty of video. She makes the same observation.)
Another thing that jumped out at me right away was how many readers were buying e-books. You could walk up to an author or bookseller and hand over your jumpdrive, and a minute later you'd have a novel for your Sony reader. Like magic. No printing, no hauling boxes, no gasoline tax--just a fast exchange and a satisfied--er, happy customer. Does this kind of movement start with an underground genre like erotica before it goes mainstream? Maybe so.
My daughter has a Sony reader and says she can download books from the internet onto her computer first, which she likes because she can keep a "library" on her computer as well as on the Sony reader in case one of them crashes. The only bad thing, she reports, is that she has to pretty much know what she's buying before she goes looking for it. There's no physical bookstore to browse, and the download sites are kinda clunky. (What she needs is a good old-fashioned informed, hand-selling bookstore clerk!) Maybe this is where those video book trailers are going to come in handy. (Does anyone here go looking for book trailers? Can you point us to some good ones?) Do book trailers prompt you to buy books? Just wondering.
This e-book thing is the wave of the future, folks. We can talk about how much we love the feel of a book in our hands, the crisp paper, the smell of musty pages. But our kids don't think that way. (Heck, they're text messaging each other now instead of telephoning! Of course they're ready to read books on a small screen!) E-books are coming--like a tsunami. We can either figure out how we're going to surf that big wave or get washed away.
How easy would it be for a bookseller to have a computer in the store for downloads? Pretty easy, I think. (Kudos, by the way, to Joseph-Beth Booksellers, a terrific indie chain--if there is such a thing--for their excellent management of the RT bookfair!) It just takes a tech-savvy person to get cracking on such a project, and my bet is that it would be up and running in a week. One way for the indies to out-fox the slow-moving chain stores, maybe?
Oh, wait. Here's a company that does the digitizing, and they're throwing a one-day event in NYC to show how it's done. And here's agent Andrew Zack's blog on the subject of e-books.
The other big talk among the non-erotica people at RT was the value of the book club. Even small book clubs are golden. They're access. If a writer visits a book club, the whole club buys the book, discusses the book, probably talks about the book with other non-club readers. It's the new-old-fashioned way of building readership by word of mouth. The big question is how to reach book clubs from the corporate standpoint. Should authors do it? (Add one more item to my resume--the masters degree in marketing!) Should publishers have somebody on the payroll who goes trolling daily for book clubs? Are there freelance publicists out there creating exclusive lists of book club contacts? The answer is: All of the above. And make it quick, please!
Here's what else I learned from table chitchat with authors, booksellers, librarians and readers:
Hardly anybody has the dough to buy hardcovers. (Have your hardcover-buying habits changed lately?) If the only reason to print popular fiction hardcovers is to get reviews . . . well, somebody needs to think of another way to reach reviewers.
It's unanimous: Author tours are just too damn expensive for too little return. Publishers don't want to pay for tours, and authors are already spending their advances on scattershot PR strategies, and besides, hardly anybody comes to the store to meet the author anymore. Yes, we're all buying the goodwill of booksellers when we show up at their stores, but hey---maybe we ought to be sending muffins instead. Or placing an order for $100 worth of books. As a reader, have you attended a booksigning lately? For a bigtime author? A midlist author? Or a celebrity who's not really an author at all, but selling books anyway?
Book festivals are where it's at. Plenty of people are saying so. Multi-author events with wide-spread advertising that brings hundreds, if not thousands, of readers--those seem to be efficient expenditures of resources. Here's a good one I've attended in the past. (Next Monday! Come one, come all to the Mystery Lovers Bookshop Festival of Mystery!) And another. And another one I've heard good things about. But at the colossal bookfairs, do midlist and genre authors get lost among the easier-to-market celebrities selling whatever the hell they're supposedly "writing?"
Radio is back. Here's Cathy Maxwell, a smart, witty, incredibly entertaining romance writer who doubles as a host of a radio show that discusses books. Now, here's a way to reach a lot of readers, folks. Are there other book-related radio shows out there? I've done a lot of radio interviews, but most of them were duds. (Remind me to tell you the story of the radio "talk show host" who before interviewing me, delivered the pork belly futures every morning at 5am to the guys who are firing up their tractors in Iowa. Are those farmers my core readership? No. So why am I spending my energy talking to them on the radio?) There's got to be somebody working on a list of prime book-loving radio shows. Call me.
Everybody's trying to find ways to make bookselling more interactive, more dynamic. More telegenic. (The local TV stations were at a loss about how to video the RT convention. They kept burying the RT story at the end of the morning "news" show because it's hard to make a TV segment about reading. Better to show cover models and readers in fairy wings because they make good pictures. But . . .that's not really the story we publishing folk want on television, is it? It doesn't sell books, only makes everybody look ridiculous.) Here are a couple of enterprising authors who've taken on the video challenge and are doing it very well. (Go ahead. Click over there to read about Liz Maverick and Marianne Mancusi. Watch their videos. Very smart and hip, right?) They were swamped by young readers at the RT bookfair. If their publisher would just keep their books in print, they'd be selling like hotcakes. If author touring is dead, I'm thinking publishing publicists ought to be making book trailers and video stuff intended for the internet.
What else did I observe? That many self-pubbed and "small press" writers are viewing their choice as a "stepping stone" to publication by a traditional publisher. Oh, dear. If a deal with a traditional publisher is their ultimate goal, here's my view: Quit promoting yourself. Stay home and learn to punctuate. At the very least, get the grammatical errors out of your titles. Better yet, take a class so you can at least recognize the howlers you've created.
Here's a new word I learned at RT: Mash-up. No, I'm not talking about vampires having sex with bulldozers. (Hey, great concept! Bet nobody's used that one yet!) A "mash-up" is a book that combines two or more genres. Maybe YA fantasy and time travel hybrid. Or, in my case, romance and mystery and women's fiction. It's not called a "sub-genre" anymore, you old fogeys. Young, hip readers want to hear it called a mash-up. Kewl, huh? Trouble is, I'm still not seeing publishers who've figured out how to successfully market a mash-up to two different audiences. (Exception: Anything Charlaine Harris.) Mystery readers don't cross the aisle to look at romance novels. And romance readers have plenty to read in their own aisle already. So how do we market romantic mysteries to both audiences? When you figure it out, let me know, because I think it's a job better left to professionals, not me.
Here's another question I'd like an answer for: Why are there so few publishers at this convention? This is Ground Zero, the place where readers and authors and publishers and booksellers and librarians collide. I'm telling you, it's a cluster fuck for book people. But we didn't encounter many New Yorkers there, putting their ears to the ground. In an age when a lot of publishers seem to be throwing anything against the wall to see what sticks--well, RT seems like a no-brainer to me. Am I wrong? Would they come if the ick factor was reduced a little? Maybe so. But would the readers back off? It's a conundrum.
Would I go back to an RT convention? Maybe not. It's hard to attract attention for mysteries when the focus of the event is so clearly erotica. But RT has good karma for the Tarts. It's where we came up with the idea for TLC! (And pretty soon you'll hear some Extremely Big News here. But we're sworn to secrecy a little longer.) And it's a great place to meet your friends for a hilarious couple of days. Plus it's an excellent venue for taking the temperature of the book biz. Good things happen at Romantic Times, so maybe we'll give it another shot.
But I'm packing hand sanitizer.