Saturday was not my best day. It was the only day I tried driving myself to conference and naturally I managed to get lost, show up late, and miss the first workshop. I hit up the book signings instead, collecting huge numbers of free books from Ballantine Bantam Dell and Berkley, and that set the tone for the day: a little more self-indulgence, a little less self-improvement than the previous three. I swung by the Spotlight on Samhain, which was pretty fascinating. They were really transparent about their sales numbers and royalty rates. The editor who did most of the speaking on this subject, Lindsey Faber, seemed really excited to break down the numbers so I'll repeat them here.
She claimed that their "low-selling" authors, defined as books that sell under 1000 copies, are almost exclusively authors that only publish one book with Samhain, maybe two - authors who don't build and audience and gather the momentum necessary to see good sales month after month. ("Your frontlist sells your backlist," she explained)
Their "midlist" would include authors that sell between 1,000 and 10,000 copies.
And their "high selling" authors would be anything over 10,000 copies. Their m/m books tend to top out at around 15,000 sales, their non-erotic novels at 30,000 sales, their erotica in the 45,000 range. All of this over a period between 24-36 months.
(Since their standard royalty rates are 30% of list for digital, 40% of list for books bought direct from the Samhain website, and 8% of list for print, it's easy to get an accurate range of how much money low, middle, and high selling authors are making).
According to Faber, over 20% of US authors who write for Samhain make $10,000 a year or more, but only 3% make over $100,000. (Which simultaneously means that 80% of authors make under $10,000 per year). They have about 600 authors total, but only 400 were counted in the statistics that Faber quoted, and only 150 of those had new releases in 2011.
Content wise, they emphasized that they're not stuck on any particular genre; that as long as "story is everything" they can build new genres, or publish cross-genre books, and survive all trends.
Other interesting tidbits:
They have an author-friendly rights policy. They only insist on keeping rights to any book for 7 years; after that point, the author can request a reversion for any reason.
Their contracts are fully negotiable. There's usually a gap of 8 months or so between acquisition and pub date, sometimes more for newbie authors.
They're not interested in wading into the YA market, but New Adult is fair game.
I thought they gave the best answer I heard the whole conference to the "How much social media do I need to do?" question (and I heard that question asked, and answered, a lot). They said there are three must-dos for any author:
1. Have an easily navigable website
2. With a list of books you've published and the order in which they should be read
3. And clearly indicate what's coming next.
After the Samhain spotlight I...went to lunch. And then more book signings (Kensington, Sourcebooks, and St. Martins!). Once I'd gorged myself on free stuff, I took myself off to a couple more workshops.
The Girlfriends' Guide to Being a Debut Author: the Stuff No One Ever Tells You (Kristen Callihan, Miranda Kenneally, Roni Loren, and Sara Megibow)
Ok, so this one was a little aspirational but there's nothing wrong with that, right?
Like most of the panel-style workshops, this one started off with each member of the panel giving a quick speech, making whatever points she thought most pertinent.
Kristen Callihan's advice seemed...dangerous. Her first tip was to be casual and show personality with your editor, and then she admitted to sending a three-page letter with photo attachments to the art department to help them prepare her cover. She loves her cover!
Then she said that she collected a lot of her own blurbs. She said she wrote to a bunch of authors that she really loved, telling them with great honesty and enthusiasm how much she admired their work. She attached her manuscript to the emails and mentioned, at the end, that she'd appreciate if a blurb - and she got twelve blurbs from authors she really liked, including Diana Gabaldon.
I'm repeating all of this but...as a listener, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop because, man, all of her advice seems like it could backfire so easily. Lucky her, I guess.
I found Miranda Kenneally mesmerizing. She was like some sort of lady sheriff in the old west, with this very understated but cool demeanor and a gravelly voice. Someone would say something like, "Nobody goes on book tours anymore," and then she'd be like, "Well, my publisher sent me on a book tour..." and it was kind of like the book-con equivalent of winning a duel at high noon.
Kenneally made a couple of important points though. One is that she responds, even if briefly, to every email or tweet she gets - she thinks it's important to acknowledge her fans. Another is that she's not precious about her own work; when Barnes & Noble asked her publisher to change the title and cover of her debut, she did not protest, because she wanted to keep Barnes & Noble happy a lot more than she wanted to keep her original title.
Roni Loren had some great tips about promo. She regretted going overboard promoting her first book; she agreed to a 40-stop blog tour and it was exhausting and took time away from writing the next book, so much so that she struggled to meet her next deadline. Writing the next book is more important than covering the internet in promo.
The lesson from this experience? Be realistic about what you can commit to. She also suggested that 5-question interviews are about the right length (not 20!)
Loren talked about the post-publication crash, about a week after her debut, when the buildup is over, the big day is done, reviews have started to come out and inevitably some are bad. "You get over yourself real fast," she observed.
Loren also talked about making the shift from being a "writer" to a "published author" - she'd been a blogger for years but found that, all of a sudden, she had to be a lot more careful about what she said in public, especially about other authors; she cut back on negative reviews.
Megibow, the agent, chimed into say that it's important to celebrate every victory - there are so many frustrations in publishing, she said, so much waiting and being patient, that it's really important to grab onto a reason to be happy when you can.
Other assorted tips, most of them without attribution...
Editing is a partnership; you don't have to agree to every suggestion.
Build a support network early.
Don't be upset if people don't treat you like gold from the get-go.
Nobody cares as much as you about your career; take charge of it.
Make It Work! Getting Your Novel Down the Runway (Michelle Marcos, Deb Marlowe, Miranda Neville, and Heather Snow)
This was the last workshop of the conference, and my favorite of the Career workshops I went to.
The panelists first warned that advances on debut novels tend to be low ($10,000 and under), but went on to say that even books that make lists earn surprisingly little money. For romance, the panelists warned, 4 weeks is a long time on the New York Times list; 1-2 is more common. And books that only spend a couple of weeks on the NYT might earn something on the order of $50,000 (they were citing figures that Lynn Viehl posted on her blog; I googled the actual post and it is here); they further noted that advances have been trending downward, rather than upward, and Michelle Marcos chimed in with "$50k is the new $100k."
Rather than measure success in dollars, the panelists suggested, it's better to look at the overall trajectory of an author's sales, from book to book. It's better to sell 10,000 of your first book and 20,000 of your second, they warned, than 35,000 of your second if your first sold 70,000.
Just strive to be profitable, earn out your advance. And work really hard.
They noted that authors can't do much to affect their print sales, but can make a difference in their digital sales. Most of them regretted expensive promo efforts like sending excerpt booklets and postcards to independent booksellers.
They emphasized the importance of review copies (as did Patrick Brown of Goodreads), and when asked why an author would want to be reviewed they said: good reviews lead to library and indie bookstore sales. When asked about how to respond to bad reviews, Miranda Neville answered: "Drink heavily and shut up."
Miranda Neville had heard that one should hope to be living on royalties and advances alone after publishing 10-12 books.
Even though getting books into Wal-Mart and Target is a huge goal for most authors, it's important to remember that books only stay on the shelves at big-box stores for a month; huge numbers, yes, but a very brief window.
Michelle Marcos said she struggled with jealousy initially; "there's always someone higher up on the ladder, don't compare yourself." Others noted that it's helpful to your career to draw attention to other authors (the rising tide lifts all boats theory), and someone said, rather eloquently so it's a shame I don't have any attribution: "it's okay to marinate in your current level of success."
Miranda Neville advised befriending other writers a little further on in their careers, said "information is power" and also admitted to feeling the sort of post-publication crash that Roni Loren mentioned in the previous workshop; Neville described it as post-partum depression & lamented that "trumpets didn't play" when she entered the room (Neville has a truly enviable British accent and made this observation about the trumpets very wryly).
My final note, again without attribution, is: Protect the work - the joy of putting words on a page.
A good way to close out the conference.
After that came the Golden Heart & Rita awards ceremony. A list of this year's winners has been posted here; I'm just going to do a highlights reel.
First off...there were cake popsicles and carafes of hot coffee, along with plates of fruit, at all the tables. I liked that!
I only knew one of the Golden Heart nominees (Heather Nickodem, for "Cat on a Hot Steel Flight Deck" - we met at a previous conference), and the work isn't published, so I couldn't pick favorites or root for anyone. I did think the ceremony got off to a good start when the Paranormal Romance winner, Lorenda Christensen, gave her acceptance speech in the form of a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air parody rap.
A bunch of winners cried, naturally. One of them, Elisa Beatty who won in the Historical Romance category with "The Devil May Care" said she'd won in a previous year, thanked Diet Coke, and then developed an allergy to caffeine, so she wasn't thanking anyone or anything this time around; and Talia Quinn Daniels, who won in the Contemporary Single Title category, stayed for the conference and ceremony despite having a child with a health crisis at home.
Elizabeth Bemis won a Golden Heart in the Romantic Suspense category and used her speech to insult an English teacher who told her she'd never amount to anything; later in the ceremony, when Joanna Bourne's The Black Hawk (which is awesome - I love everything that woman writes) won a RITA for Best Historical Romance, she thanked all her teachers, and all the teachers in the room. I don't know if Bourne meant to issue a challenge with her speech, but if I were Bemis I'd have felt about two inches tall.
Thea Harrison won Best Paranormal Romance for Dragon Bound & had one of those impossible stories about getting a call from her agent when she was unemployed, only a couple of weeks before her savings ran out.
Cindy Dees' Soldier's Last Stand won for Contemporary Series Romance: Suspense/Adventure & she used her time at the podium to say "nyah nyah nyah" to her 1 star reviewer on Amazon.
And then Fiona Lowe's Boomerang Bride won for Contemporary Single Title Romance - she listed off her pre-pub stats, 32 agent queries and 12 print pub rejections before she ended up selling her book to Carina Press. For all the RITA awards, both the author and the editor got a chance to speak - but instead of Lowe's editor, the executive editor of Carina, Angela James, took a turn at the podium & she dedicated the award to all the e-presses, everyone who'd participated in the rise of digital-first publishing, and said "This one's for you!"
There weren't a lot of digital-first books nominated for awards, certainly not in single-title categories, and this was the first year I think it was even possible to nominate the digital first books, so Lowe's win is a real landmark for the genre.
Tessa Dare's A Night to Surrender won for Regency Historical; I, for one, was so, so thrilled to see a chaptermate stand up to accept an award on our home turf in Orange County. I'd been rooting her like crazy, and her speech was fantastic. She told an adorable anecdote about her children ("they just called me on my cell phone to ask if they could order room service ice cream sundaes and I told them no, but now I think I'll call them back and say yes...") and then said that she'd "always said romance is about finding someone who accepts you for your worst self and empowers you to be your best self," and that her husband had always done that for her.
Dear reader, I teared up a bit.
Ann Aguirre did an interpretive dance to accept her RITA for Young Adult Romance, and then J.D. Robb won for Romantic Suspense. La Nora had been invoked so many times at that podium during the conference (it was the same spot, and the same room, as all the luncheon keynotes) that it seemed only natural for her to be the last one to accept an award, the last thing we'd see before the conference ended. She was wearing a very, very sparkly necklace and chortled, "Nora's going to be so jealous," before leaving the podium.
And that's all. RWA12 was over, done, no more.