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:
- Thoughts on Indie Author Separation at the RT Convention Signing in New Orleans, by Elizabeth Hunter.
- RT’s Giant Bookfair, by Courtney Milan.
- An Absolute Write thread about Howey’s article, including comments by authors who attended RT.
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.
Patricia Burroughs [aka pooks]
May 19, 2014 @ 11:13 am
I was there in the indie-room, and I’m thrilled to see you link to Courtney and Elizabeth, who have brought information and ‘reason’ to the table in the aftermath of much confusion.
I plan to be at RT next year in Dallas. Heck, I live here, how could I miss it? And I hope that they manage to work out the logistics so that things can go smoothly. Jim, Dallas would be a great place and time for you to come to RT.
May 19, 2014 @ 11:18 am
Thanks for linking to my post, Jim! I appreciated Courtney Milan’s post on the consignment issue, which was obviously a consideration and something a lot of writers might not be familiar with.
That said, there were two things that bothered me about that. One, our books were already marked and counted, and readers already had to stand in a separate line for consignment books when they checked out. Two, there were many, many authors in the “indie room” who were not selling books at all (though I was), but were handing out bookmarks and promotional items and meeting with readers. Why were those authors not allowed in the main signing room if consignment/returns were the main consideration?
Those two factors led me and many other writers to believe that there were other factors that led to this division. Which was a disappointment in an otherwise great convention. I’m still a big RT fan, so I hope this issue can be figured out in the future.
Jim C. Hines
May 19, 2014 @ 11:19 am
Thanks, Patricia! Do you think I’m off-base with any of the things I wrote here?
Dallas, eh? You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Texas before… 🙂
Jim C. Hines
May 19, 2014 @ 11:21 am
Hm … good questions. Do you know if RT has said anything officially about this?
Patricia Burroughs [aka pooks]
May 19, 2014 @ 11:24 am
No I don’t. I was there and didn’t realize a lot of the issues until it was over, and only when I started seeing pictures of the traditionally-published signings did I realize our cramped table space was less than they had. I’ve followed all the suspicions and hurt feelings and understand them all. But Courtney and Elizabeth brought much-needed insights to the table that I, at least, hadn’t seen elsewhere. Many of the raging debates I’m seeing still haven’t addressed the issue of nonreturnable books which I think is the big culprit here.
Frankly, I’m glad to see the debates and the backlash, because hopefully RT will see what a big issue it is for most writers, and will find a better way to handle it in Dallas.
And yeah, Dallas. Come on down! The frozen margarita was invented here!
May 19, 2014 @ 11:30 am
I don’t. I spoke with someone on the day of the signing and I do plan to email the organizers after some of the furor calms down. By and large, RT has been VERY welcoming to indie authors, so I’m not interested in piling on blame. I have criticisms of how the signing was handled, but I want to be constructive, not accusatory.
May 19, 2014 @ 3:41 pm
Goodness, thank you Jim — I’ve seen people discussing this and looking at the causes and ways to improve, but I’ve also seen people howling about how RT ripped them off. In one case that’s getting linked around, I am pretty sure it is not RT’s fault they only sold 10 books and paid $500 for a table to do so… I think it was just hubris, or maybe a poor calculation of return on investment.
I absolutely think Howey is just trying to make this more of his “us vs them” spiel, because the only people he’s responding to are people who agree with him, he is busy pushing himself over people who were actually THERE and experienced it with his own agenda, and basically there is a whole lot of entitlement going on for the self-proclaimed spokesman of self-publishing. Plus nothing dogwhistles as well to people who have never experienced real oppression as appropriating the terminology of the oppressed. Reverse racism, anyone?
I attend, volunteer at, and work as an exhibitor at many cons throughout the year on a variety of subjects. I know how a surge in numbers can floor you — Gencon this year sold out of its housing block of hotels in under 10 minutes, which has never happened before, and it’s been a bit of a scramble to get housing this year. There are cons I attend as an exhibitor for work where we pay an arm and a leg because the return on investment is huge — so many target market eyes in one space specifically there to look at what we make. There are other cons we could have a booth at but don’t bother because it’s really peripheral to what we do and the numbers just don’t make sense.
From the very few pictures I’ve seen that ONE person was not getting what they paid for, there were really clearly massive displays from other authors crowding their space, and they had nothing but a tiny stack of books. The pictures I saw on my twitter feed from authors I follow showed they had their displays, they had their books, they had their swag, and everyone was having a good time. They were in the same ballroom, too. I am sorry someone had a bad experience, and I genuinely believe they had a bad one and that sucks a lot, and YES they should speak up about it, but to hold them up as all evidence ever that RT is clearly anti-self-publishing (how many jumps did it take to get to that conclusion?!) is… ridiculous.
I’d like to attend RT, but it’s generally at the same time as E3 crunch, and honestly the number of people vs space sounds like I might not go unless they wind up with a bigger venue. I’m glad they’re successful but huge crowds that are pressed close are hard enough when I’m an exhibitor and don’t need to move — they’re pretty awful for me as a con-goer. Oddly enough, something like Gencon which is an order of magnitude larger is fine, because they book so much space and there are so many places for things to be.
May 19, 2014 @ 3:42 pm
Sorry for the essay, too — I’ve had a lot of feels about this and was hoping it would be brought up somewhere I felt comfortable talking about it, and your site happens to be the first as everyone else is either still gathering information or screaming at each other or mansplaining like you wouldn’t believe.
Jim C. Hines
May 19, 2014 @ 4:24 pm
No apologies needed. I appreciate the essay, as I’m still gathering information and continuing to sort out my own thoughts. The comments here have helped, thank you!
May 19, 2014 @ 6:03 pm
It’s worth noting that there were ribbons saying “Published Author.”
You got them regardless of how you published, if you were published. I talked to plenty of self-pub authors with them. It was super-duper inclusive that way, and I thought RT did a great job on that.
The sales floor was a deranged madhouse, it was only four hours of the con, and I kinda suspect anyone expecting to make their money back on the event was out of luck, regardless of who they were with or how they were published. (I also would say “smaller ballroom off the same hall as the main one” is a pretty cushy form of exile, but eh.)
May 19, 2014 @ 8:25 pm
Like you I have been reading around the subject before coming to tentative conclusions; the only thing I’m absolutely confident about is that attempting to draw a parallel with Rosa Parkes is a slimeball move.
My impression so far, for what it’s worth, is that not only are there are a lot of people who simply do not understand the differences in the terms and conditions under which books are sold, but also some of them do not understand the difference between gross income and profit. At least one person commenting on AW apparently believes that RT ‘made over a million dollars’ on the convention.
I have a working knowledge of, but am not an expert on the terms and condition on books published in different ways, but I do have considerable professional expertise when it comes to the joys of the profit and loss account; I even enjoy looking at balance sheets, strange as it may seem.
Admittedly my primary specialisation was financial institutions, which certainly provides an unusual perspective when it comes to reading Charlie Stross’s ‘Neptune’s Brood’, but the basic principles haven’t changed much since the days when a letter simply addressed to ‘Fugger the Rich’ would reach him without need of anything by way of a physical location in the 16th century. He was really rich, but I digress.
So, the story started out by claiming that writers were being charged $484 to rent their tables to sit in the rooms for four hours; this turned out to be completely untrue because they weren’t. The $484 was for the entire six day conference, paid by just about all attenders apart from those on a day pass who paid separately. The conference provided a vast array of things to do; the signing was just one of them.
Nothing daunted by this rather substantial mathematical error the story morphed into multiplying the estimated number of attenders by the known entry fee and then claiming that ‘RT made over a million dollars’, which brings it fairly and squarely into my territory, the profit and loss account. It is possible that RT made no profit at all on the convention, though it seems pretty unlikely unless they are using Hollywood accounting, in which case all bets are off.
Assuming that it did make a profit, it will take some time to establish what the profit was; there will be further income – their cut on the books sold, for example- but there are a lot of large expenses involved in setting up large conventions, and those expenses don’t magically disappear when the convention finishes because more expenses are actually incurred in the process of closure. The venue would like it back and it wants it back the way it hired it out in the first place; establishing this can be a time- consuming and therefore expensive process.
None of this should come as news to someone who wishes to make money from their writing, or their artwork, but clearly there are a fair number of people who haven’t yet troubled their minds with thoughts of filthy lucre, and are therefore shocked and horrified that other people do, in fact, have to consider the bottom line. I certainly hope that R T do a better job next year in handling the hordes, but I’d suggest that a Money 101 session might be useful for writers, alongside sessions on the different terms of different publishing ventures. That way their own writing may benefit from the joined-up thinking they’ve acquired.
Jim C. Hines
May 19, 2014 @ 9:07 pm
With that many authors, I’m trying to imagine any way it could have not been a madhouse. It sounds like the organization and communication could have been improved, but with that many authors and books, you were bound to have some chaos.
May 20, 2014 @ 2:34 pm
This is a catch up problem, looks like. When the self-publish market expanded, in 2008, it was in electronic e-books and due to various companies — Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, etc. — setting up infrastructure for self-pub authors to simply plug into. Now, numerous self-pub authors are also returning to the print self-pub market, in an equally rapid way, partly so that they can hit conventions. The print self-pub market does not have the large sales and distribution infrastructure of the e-book market, with a lot of vendors helping out self-pubs. Consequently, conventions are dealing with a flood of self-pub authors they are happy to have. But they don’t yet have the infrastructure in place smoothly to handle that many authors doing direct sales instead of through vendors — publishers/distributors/booksellers. RT made an attempt to handle it by separating the sales process, but they should have limited how many authors could sell that way and the size of their displays better. (This would have also created outrage perhaps, but given them time to work out the kinks.) And the two room system obviously had a lot of problems for attendees looking to buy from both distribution channels.
What is probably going to happen is that the wholesale distributor groups that handle small press in print (and which have been rather moribund since the 1990’s wholesale market collapse,) are likely to step up to handle the self-pub author print flood, since they’ve done it before with self-pub authors. This may actually grow the wholesale market for books, which would be wonderful. But it’s in transition, and everybody is trying to figure out how to best build it, from the authors to the conventions to the booksellers.
We are already seeing a lot more print self-published books in bookstores. We’ll see a lot more. The self-pubs are not an “us” separate from the industry and never have been. They are a division of the industry, a sales channel. But the size and scope of the self-pub market is so large now that it’s a division under rapid renovated construction. A lot of authors are impatient, as they were with e-books, a full retail market now only about 6 years old.
And the conventions are also undergoing a large expansion, thanks in large part to the combo of Hollywood and the comics market. After again a decline in conventions in the 1990’s and partly in the early oughts, the established conventions are getting bigger and new ones are popping up rapidly. Romance doesn’t have a lot of conventions, unlike SFF, (or at least it didn’t — it’s expanding too,) so it’s not surprising Romantic Times got inundated, as romance has been at the forefront of e-books, self-pub romances, small press publication, shorter fiction publications (novellas & collections,) and author-reader interaction. Romance is a friendly market, by the large. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any more efficient than the rest of fiction and book publishing.
This is not unique to self-published authors. We have fiction authors who come from all sorts of businesses as their day jobs that operate like actual businesses. They get into fiction, with its lack of money, inefficiencies, dated technology, counter-intuitive word of mouth marketing factors, confusing returns systems, volunteer run conventions and events, and fickle, non-status-interested customers, and they start pulling out their hair. (Margaret Atwood talked about this, but I can’t find the quote.) But any new developments/massive expansions in book publishing and fiction publishing usually take 2-3 years of adjustments before they are fully up and working.
The screams of self-published authors over this, however, are not necessarily a bad thing. While it can be frustrating while conversing with them about real business factors instead of imaginary conspiracies, their screams do get things moving faster. It would be nice, however, if they did not try to appropriate the language of real political and social oppression to complain about business snafus. (Not every self-pub author is doing so, of course.)