Romantic Times and the Cool Kids Table

Yesterday, I began seeing links to Hugh Howey’s piece Being Forced to Sit in the Backlist, in which Howey talks about the Romantic Times Bookfair, in which:

“…the planners of the RT Booklovers Convention decided to place self-published authors in a dinky room off to the side while the traditionally published authors sat at tables in the grand ballroom.”

Howey goes on to propose that:

“Twenty years from now, when a new generation of more tolerant and inclusive artists finds themselves in the position to organize events like this, let’s not be dicks like our forefathers … There’s room enough for everyone. And the days are numbered for those who don’t agree.”

Reactions have ranged from outrage and disgust that once again self-published authors were being treated as amateurs, wannabes, and “aspiring authors,” to anger at indie authors for trying to liken their plight to the civil rights movement with Howey’s choice of title and comments along the lines of, “It’s like shades of Jim Crow when blacks had to sit in the back of the bus…”[1. Yeah, don’t do that. Just don’t.]

Howey wasn’t actually at the RT Bookfair, so I tried find some first-hand information, because I very much agree that there’s room for everyone, and if indie authors were basically being hidden away in some maintenance closet, then that’s definitely uncool. Here are several accounts and discussions I’ve found:

In addition, the RT convention FAQs includes this bit:

“In the Traditional section of the Book Fair, you can only have up to three titles available. For the E-Book section, you can have swag for all of your available titles, as long as it fits within your space. For the Indie books on consignment section, you can only have up to three titles available.”

Both Courtney Milan and the RT FAQs mention the word consignment. Basically, consignment means you bring your own books to the event, and the event (generally) takes a percentage of sales. I’ve sold books on consignment before when a convention dealer didn’t have my stuff in stock, for example. Most of the time though, dealers are able to order and sell my books, because my publisher’s titles are returnable. In other words, if the books don’t sell, the dealer can send them back for a refund.

As I understand it, most self-published print-on-demand titles are non-returnable, as are some books by smaller publishers. And therein lies the problem, because dealers are much less willing to stock and sell non-returnable books.

It looks like there were almost 700 authors scheduled to be a part of the Book Fair. That’s a potential logistical nightmare waiting to happen. Imagine 700 authors all sitting there with stacks of their books, while approximately 3.6 bajillion readers maneuver through the aisles. For some of those books, the money goes to the dealer. For books on consignment, the money needs to go to the author. I’ve seen how confused readers can get with just a dozen authors when some are selling on consignment while others are selling through a dealer.

It seems to me that separating authors with returnable books from those with nonreturnable/consignment titles was an efficient solution to the problem.

That said, it sounds like there were real communication problems, from things like authors of nonreturnable books getting less space than promised to a volunteer mistakenly referring to the “aspiring authors” room to difficulties for readers who wanted to find a particular author and didn’t know which room to go to.

Like Howey, I wasn’t there, so I can only go by what I read. (Though it sounds like the overall convention was a blast, and I’d love to attend one of these days.) However, I’ve seen a number of people talking about this as a giant slam on self-publishing, and some over-the-top rhetoric about “intolerant dicks” treating indie authors like crap. As someone who has very little patience for the whole Us vs. Them worldview, I thought it was worth tossing my two cents out there to challenge that interpretation of events.

As with anything you read on the internet, I’d strongly suggest doing a bit of fact-checking and coming to your own conclusions.