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And now for something completely different (Romantic Times)

April 24th, 2008 17 comments

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I have to warn you, this month’s post is going to seem a bit radical to some of you. You may even feel, well, horror, at what I’m about to tell you.

I’m going to talk about my secret favorite convention. And no, it’s not WHC, or WFC, or World Con or Horrorfind or DragonCon or any of those.

It’s the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention.

(I’ll wait for the gasps to subside…)

But I think it’s important for people in the mystery, thriller and, yes, even horror genres, to hear this because Romantic Times is a convention that probably is not on the radar for other genre writers – but it should be.

Let me make this perfectly clear. I never read romances as a kid, or any time after – I had less than zero interest, although looking back I can see there was some romance crossover in the Gothic thrillers I gobbled up in my endless quest for the supernatural. And it’s that crossoverness that definitely makes Romantic Times a more obvious bet for me than a balls-out horror writer, because paranormal is so huge right now – in romances AND mysteries, and though a lot of paranormal seems to be about warm and fuzzy werewolves and endless variations on quirky vampires, there’s also a significant segment of the paranormal readership that likes a good straight-up ghost story.

Now, if you are writing balls-out horror, this is not the place for you. But if you are writing comic horror, erotic horror, horror/mystery crossovers, horror/thriller crossover psychic detectives, ghost stories, fantasy thrillers or, bluntly, if you are a female author, period – you might want to pay some attention, here.

What you’ve probably heard about RT – if you’ve heard anything at all – is that it’s that it’s full of women dressed as vampires and fairies, and half-naked male cover models slinking around. Well, you would be right. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

I heard from almost the very beginning of my promotional efforts that I should go to RT because I write sexy and I write paranormal, and because romance readers simply Buy Books. In fact, they Buy Books voraciously, which I discovered when I went to my first romance-centric workshop in the fall, Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans and sold more books to an audience that didn’t know me from Adam than I had sold at several other genre conventions combined.

But the thing that stunned me from the very first moment of the Romantic Times convention last year was how incredibly professionally and logically organized RT is. It’s put on by the Romantic Times review magazine and it’s very adamantly a fan conference. Even though there are lots of aspiring authors there, and great programs for them, this conference is a goldmine for published authors because there are so many people there just to meet authors and buy books (well, okay, and attend the endless and amazingly fun parties, which I’ll get to…)

And here’s my main point. I think we all, admit it, can be a little snotty about our own genre, and look down on writers who write and readers who read things that we wouldn’t necessarily read or write ourselves. But romance readers buy more books than any other single group of readers and they do NOT have the same prejudices. They love reading, they love authors, they love books. Period. Give me THAT reader any old time.

I am frankly staggered at how smart this genre is about marketing and promotion. RT really works to recruit and organize a thriller track and a mystery track (track = a series of panels and events in that genre), alongside their bookseller track, a huge paranormal track, writing tracks, and breakout (how to get an agent/publish) tracks. ITW (International Thriller Writers) and various mystery groups work well in advance with RT planners to organize outside book signing at the truly lovely Murder By The Book bookstore bookseller events (last year the fourteen thriller writers chipped in to host a breakfast for all 75 booksellers in attendance at RT, where we did a meet and greet and gave out promotional material and books. 75 booksellers at once – think about it…).

The conference also features some unique ways of handling reader/author interaction. Apart from outside bookseller events, there is only one mass signing – that takes place in a HUGE convention room on Saturday, after all the authors have already done their panels. The book fair is heavily promoted to the community, on radio, TV and in print, and lots of readers turn up just for that. The authors are lined up alphabetically at long rows of tables, and the readers just walk up and down the aisles. There are drawings for dozens of author-donated gift baskets going on throughout the whole three hour signing, and video screens project book trailers through the whole event as well (THAT was fascinating, and this year I was excited to have both of my book trailers playing in the book room and on the hotel TV during the convention. And yeah, you bet that sold books for me this year, and beyond that, was putting my name and my book titles out there for the entire convention, so that even people who would never buy what I write are now aware of me as an author.).

Another cool feature of RT is “Club RT”. Throughout the convention, in the dealers’ room there are a couple dozen little café tables set up and authors are scheduled for one hour slots where they just sit at these tables and anyone who wants to can come up and chat, get books signed, etc. If I were an aspiring author I would have spent half my time at this conference just going around to chat with different authors in my genre. A truly unique and intimate opportunity for authors, aspiring authors, and fans.

Of course a feature of RT I really love and am thrilled to be able to participate in is Heather Graham’s Vampire Dinner Theater, an original musical review written by Heather and her longtime, comically brilliant collaborators, writer/director/performer Lance Taubold and writer/manager/performer Rich Devin, always featuring several of Heather’s charming and multitalented offspring. Last year the show was “Vampires of the Wild Wild West”; this year it was “Blood and Steel, a Pittsburgh Monster Mash,” in which I was tricked out as a kinky Bride of Frankenstein, and F. Paul Wilson played Riff Raff, the butler – belting out an insane version of Hotel Transylvania).

I also have to say, when women organize these things everything is just – prettier. The attention to detail is staggering. Promo Alley, where authors put out their postcards and bookmarks and giveaways, is a long aisle of covered tables on both sides, and instead of having people just throw their swag on the tables, all the giveaways have to be in displays or decorated baskets. Yes, that takes an extra hour of prep time, but oh man, is it worth it. You can actually SEE the promo stuff, and you get a feel for each author from the decorations of the boxes and baskets. Brilliant idea.

Ditto with the parties. RT has professional costumers/decorators who dress the ballrooms for the theme parties – Moulin Rouge, Midnight at the Oasis, Vampires of the Wild, Wild West, Immortals of Rock and Roll, the Golden Age of Hollywood and of course, the Faery Ball. There is lighting. There are trees. There are enormous Moroccan pillows. There are stage backdrops. There are mirror balls and candles. There are screaming mechanical skulls. And the level of personal costuming rivaled the Renaissance Faire events and special effects masters’ parties I’ve been to in LA (I never even dreamed there were so many variations on fairies. Seriously…).

And these women DANCE. All night. I’m sorry, but you can only talk so much. You get out on the dance floor with a bunch of readers screaming “It’s Raining Men” and you have made friends for life.

And the point of the parties, is, of course, that they attract fans. Boy, do they.

If this is all sounding a little estrogen-heavy, you’re right. But remember – women buy books. And male authors are catching on to the gold mine of readers to be – mined – at RT and are coming over to the decadent side. This year F. Paul Wilson and Barry Eisler were featured authors (Joe Konrath dropped out at the last minute… terrible drag) and I expect that more and more men are going to be realizing what an advantage that Y chromosome gives them in a situation like this.

And well, okay, I admit it – all professionalism aside – after years of having to put up with only female strippers at Hollywood events, I like the turnabout of having half-naked beefcake at a convention.

Sue me.

Crossing Genres, Part One (Left Coast Crime)

March 24th, 2008 5 comments

Being a cross-genre kind of girl myself, I seem always to be preaching to other authors to think more broadly about other genres their books might fit into, and about how to promote themselves in other genres. This kind of thinking and marketing is particularly important for authors in the horror genre because, let’s face it, horror is not exactly a popular book genre these days. In fact, I’m not sure it could be any LESS popular. I don’t know how many of the rest of you have considered the fact that with Borders potentially being sold and the most likely buyer being Barnes & Noble, there soon be be NO bookstore chain with a horror section. B&N maintains no horror section whatsoever, and even Borders’ horror section is rarely more than one shelf. Not one row, one shelf.

Yet you browse around in bookstores and you see rows and rows of, oh, science fiction and fantasy, paranormal romance, mystery and thrillers.

I’m sure eventually there will be a horror renaissance… we all know these things go in cycles. But I’m writing NOW, and I need to be making a living NOW, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s interesting to see how many cross-genre, cross-promotional panels that are scheduled at WHC – I’m glad to see it, because I think that’s a conversation all of us in the genre need to be having.

I’ll be doing a report on WHC with that slant next month (and also reporting on the Public Library Association, which is the reason I’ll be late for WHC, but for my money, in terms of promotion, PLA is unmissable.)

But this month I’m posting a report on Left Coast Crime.

I love conventions and maybe my cross-genre talk is really just an excuse for me to go to more of them. But since my books do easily fall into other genres (we don’t even use the H-word at St. Martin’s – I write “supernatural thrillers”) I spent a lot of time in my debut year exploring conventions in all the genres I fall into: horror, mystery, thriller – and (though admittedly this is stretching it) paranormal romance. And you can turn up your nose at the last all you want to, but guess where I sold more books last year than at any other convention – and I mean, ten times as many books, in hardcover?

Romantic Times.

Those readers buy books, emphasis on BUY.

But before I get all radical with the talk about the romance market, I’ll try what might be an easier sell to this crowd: the mystery conference.

This month I attended Left Coast Crime in Denver: http://www.leftcoastcrime.org/2008/

Left Coast Crime is primarily a fan conference, so if you’re writing dark and suspenseful and more psychological horror, or horror with a police procedural or investigative element, it’s a very viable conference for you to pick up new fans (and also get yourself into a Western market, if you’re based in the East). I’ve only been to two LCCs but I’ve been to a very wide variety of conferences in the last two years and I think LCC is probably the second best mystery con out there for me (Bouchercon is first – it’s HUGE and in Baltimore this year in October, really something dark suspense authors should think about attending…)

I love LCC because: it’s so casual and friendly, it’s very inclusive about sub-genres and again, it’s very, very, very fan-oriented. The organizers are great about putting all published authors on panels, so as long as you register in good time, you are guaranteed to have a nice spotlight.

I’ll set the stage: Denver is a fairly good-sized city in a great bowl of plains, surrounded by a ring of very high snowy mountains. Gorgeous. The airport is quite a ways away from downtown, where the con hotel was – a 45-minute car ride through a lot of open plain.

Downtown is very funky – there’s a Gold Rush feel to it and an instant sense of eccentricity – in the layout of the streets (narrow and veering wildly all over the place, coming to strange triangles everywhere), in the buildings (many of which are built in strange triangles to fit the strange triangular intersections), and the overall dress is Wild West: lots of cowboy hats and boots and fur vests. The people – well, the people were a trip. As in San Francisco (another Gold Rush town, come to think of it, Denverites cultivate their eccentricities. One of the first things I saw when we got off the freeway downtown was a homeless guy perched on a bridge with a sign that read: SPACESHIP BROKE DOWN – NEED MONEY FOR PARTS. And from the look of him, he wasn’t kidding.

So my top three things about LCC:

First – at the risk of beating this into the ground, LCC is a FAN conference. This was more true in Seattle last year, but the fans tend to outnumber the authors by a wide margin (more and more rare at conventions) and they are very much there to find new authors. They go to the new author showcases and all the panels and they take notes… then go home and report on the conferences and the authors to their book clubs. It’s fantastic word-of-mouth.

Here’s my specific tip: I’ve been to two LCCs now and for some reason the hospitality suite is the place to be. LCC is great about providing pretty full breakfasts and lunch, all complimentary, and coffee and snacks throughout the day. The suite wasn’t as packed as it was last year in Seattle, but I still had some of my best con experiences just sitting around drinking coffee, stealing coconuts from the catering decorations, and getting to know a lot of readers who I know will go out and get my books. It means that you will have to forgo some hanging and drinking with your author friends, but I really think you might have the most fun and useful conference experience just planting yourself in the hospitality suite and never leaving. It’s one-stop shopping, with free food and caffeine.

Second, if you’re an author, ALWAYS hit the local bookstores. On Friday, my friend Pari Taichert and I rented a car and drove around to eight Denver bookstores to meet managers and sign stock. It took about four and a half hours (because of Friday traffic and because Denver is much more spread out than you would think). We got to visit both Denver Tattered Covers, which are absolute cathedrals of books, each in their own way, one in a great old downtown building and another in a grand old theater – and the completely charming Murder By the Book, in a house in a funky little walking area – as well as make the rounds of the B&Ns and Borders. You get much more of a sense of the town driving around (renting a Garmin GPS helps!) and you are establishing a relationship with another book market.

Third – always try to hit the forensics panels, which are an entire track at LCC. You will always get your money’s worth in the forensics panels. Mystery Writers of America veteran and forensics expert Jan Burke did a stellar job assembling law enforcement and forensics professionals, and it’s always gold to hear her and Dr. Doug Lyle talk about their work – you can get a year’s worth of research in in an afternoon. And I love hearing forensics and law enforcement experts from the specific region – you get a much better sense of the whole region in general.

LCC is once a year in the late winter, and yes, always West of the Rockies… but I hope some of you will think about coming over to the Left side.

http://www.leftcoastcrime.org/2008/

- Alex