Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Author Joey Hill Talks About the Romantic Times Conference

Ready, Set….Time for the RT Conference!
Joey W. Hill

If you’re wired into the world of romance, you know many authors are deeply immersed in Romantic Times Conference preparations, integrating that with our usual deadline, email and promotional requirements. Oh, and family responsibilities – really, why DO pets and husbands require more than five minutes of attention a week? Eye rolling.

If you’re a reader, this post might give you some behind the scenes insight into the oh-so-relaxed looking author you meet there (which wouldn’t be me, btw – with my Type A personality, I always look like I’m jacked up on amphetamines). If you’re an author who hasn’t had the pleasure of RT, drop down to the last paragraph BEFORE you read the rest, so it doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you (laughter). And if you’re an RT veteran, you’ll likely be snorting in agreement – or jumping in to share your perspective, wholly unique from mine.

This is the biggest romance conference in the industry, and it’s all about the READER, which is what makes it such a blast. Readers get direct, informal exposure to their favorite and new authors, enjoy the constant pleasure of cover models wandering about, attend great workshops with games and fun, pick up bunches of free books (seriously, pretty much everywhere you turn around) and bags of promotional goodies to help them add to their TBR pile.

Authors, publishing professionals, the RT staff, etc. all put a lot of energy into this, because of course the reader is the key to their success. It’s a win-win. It’s astonishing, all that’s involved in getting ready for it. Yes, as an author, you could just throw something in a suitcase and go, hang out and recharge in the creative atmosphere, but midlist authors write multiple books a year, juggling that with a heavy load of marketing, and our budgets are often as limited as our time. The expense and preparation that goes into the Romantic Times conference, plus the week you take off to be there, means that this conference needs to grow your career. You’re making contacts, first impressions etc with other authors, agents, publishers, and that most important group of all – readers. You want to get your name and work in front of every one of them.

First thing to remember – it’s a lot like a wedding. SOMETHING is going to go wrong. Plan all you want, but a snafu will occur. Reconcile yourself to that and don’t let it make you crazy. That said, you also need to make sure you don’t screw up SO much that you leave the impression of “what a ditz!”

So enter preparation phase. Most of us, even on a limited promotional budget, begin preparing for RT months in advance if we want our participation to be effective and a worthwhile experience for the readers who meet us there. I know authors who start pretty much after the last one finishes. I’m not that good, but I start working on it about four months ahead. What are you preparing? Here are some highlights -

Packing – Lists are critical. I have an ongoing RT checklist on my Microsoft Notes as I draw together what I know needs to be in my car when I go. It’s important to know deadlines for having items shipped to the conference the RT staff or your publisher needs ahead of time (registration bag promo items, etc). Then there are costumes, additional promo materials, paperwork. I look at the schedule and determine what clothes might be required for each day and work that out. This includes workout clothes, because the fitness area is important for stress management. I doublecheck the panels I’m on and what props/paperwork/hardcopies I might need. All the promotional materials I haven’t shipped ahead are boxed, as well as display props for my signing table. Finally there are favorite small food/snack items and bottled water, because you never eat or drink enough at the conference during the day and can quickly dehydrate or let your blood sugar drop. That’s far more important than you realize until you’ve gone through one. Oh, and some cash would be good. Attend every meal or meeting with the idea you might need to pay for something, and be prepared with cash as well as credit. We had to pitch in for a tip at one meal, and believe me, it’s a bit embarrassing to hand about half a pound of change scraped from the bottom of your purse to one of your publishers (laughter). Fortunately, she has a dry sense of humor.

Scheduling – map out where you’re supposed to be when. This was the BIG mistake I made the first year. I was late to EVERYTHING. The most embarrassing moment? I arrived late at my publisher’s breakfast, and was so flustered by the 150+ heads that turned in my direction I plopped myself down at the first available table – which happened to be the speaker’s chair, at the executive management table. Ahem. Fortunately, I figured it out and slunk to the back when she was done speaking at the podium, hoping everyone would think I’d meant to sit there temporarily to minimize the interruption (of course now that I’ve told everyone…).

So now, lesson learned, a couple weeks ahead of time, I lay out my RT schedule. All my commitments, combined with the things I’d like to do there if I get a chance, such as panels I’m personally interested in attending. I’ll even pencil in get-togethers with author friends so I don’t miss the chance to do that – really, it’s amazing how quickly your time fills up at this event. I have this schedule not only on the computer screen but in hard copy to carry with me. It’s also not a bad thing to schedule a bit of quiet time for yourself each day so you don’t lose your mind.

Promotional materials – if you can, pay the extra amount to include your item in the registration bag that every conference attendee receives, between 1000-1200 people. You also want 300-500 items available for promotion lane, for random pick up. On top of that, if you can donate free books to the goody room and/or one of the evening events, that’s a plus as well. Then of course you offer a few promo items at the book signing, and carry some in a tote with you that you can give out. Obviously, you don’t want these items to be the same as what’s in your registration bag. Everyone’s going to have one of those, so you want to have something different to offer in the other places.

There are a lot of debates about these items. Determining what’s effective marketing is a shifting target, and what seems to work best in most cases (short of just dumb luck), is frequency and variety of promotional strategies. But one thing I AM sure about –choose what will inspire someone to read one of your books. Otherwise, what’s the point? My first year, I had these darling little pompom creatures with a ribbon tag of my website and little pill boxes. Cute as they could be, practically flew off the table. If I got even one extra hit on my website from them, I didn’t know about it, because nothing about that said “come read my book”. The general theory is that readers get tired of just bookmarks, so the next conference I laid out the money to make high quality free excerpt booklets and put them in a plastic sleeve with a piece of dark chocolate. The chocolate and the excellent cover (kudos to Berkley art department) helped them leave the table in a steady flow. At the book signing, I had a significant number of readers mention they’d read the excerpt booklet and would be seeking the book. I also received more hits and reader email after the conference that year. Mission accomplished. So the excerpt booklets may not have flown off the table like the cutesy items, but they accomplished my goal – more people reading my books. As much as I like giving out fun items, if your budget is limited, you want to make your promo items count toward increasing your reader base.

Panels – if you’re serving on a workshop panel, you need to prepare your materials, both oral and hardcopy, coordinate with your workshop captain, etc, so that those who attend the workshop come away with a worthwhile experience, and the sense that you’re an author with her stuff together. If you get invited to serve on a panel, or propose one that’s accepted (another thing you do way early in the year), it’s very worthwhile. Not just for your exposure to the other authors, but to be seen as an industry professional whose expertise is of value to the attendees. Now, if you have a problem with public speaking, like I do, you might worsen that impression (laughter), but workshop panels are nice. You’re sharing the light with other authors, not standing under a spotlight alone. If you can relax enough to get into the discussion, you can pretend you’re just hanging out with a bunch of fellow writers and readers, debating the craft you love.

Costumes/Wardrobe – I’m on the Faery Court this year, which throws the RT Faery Ball, so I’ve been pulling together an outfit for that, but even if I’m not on the official welcoming committee, it’s good to be reasonably prepared for the different balls and social events at night. There are jungle themed parties, street parties, pajama parties, 50’s parties, etc. Now, that said, the nighttime dance parties aren’t quite as important for authors to make a good showing – like a typical nightclub, they’re really loud events that are more about unwinding after the day’s schedule. You can cut loose a little bit more there, hang out in the lobbies and chat with other authors and readers, enjoy a mojito, etc.

Obviously, a hundred small details are involved with the things above. That’s why the lists are so important (yes, I’m OCD, but in this case, it comes in handy). I could go on for awhile, but as usual, my blog is too long, so I’ll wrap it up with a couple points.

If you have time, it’s a great idea to pitch in to help the conference staffs at RT. First, you learn a lot, working behind the scenes like that, and appreciate the enormous effort that goes into this conference. These folks honestly qualify for sainthood, because they handle so many last minute crises. My second RT conference, I didn’t realize I had to send my materials for a special giveaway bag in advance. I thought I was going to bring them and assemble them there, as I’d done before. So when I found out, I panicked. Jo Carol, the head saint, told me I could come in Tuesday when I arrived and put them in the bags. My mother and I arrived and quickly began to do that – 1200 of them, which takes a lot longer than you expect. There was a troop of RT staff/volunteers who’d spent a lot of the day assembling the bags, obviously exhausted. We of course did not expect them to help, but within 20 minutes, they were all pitching in, helping us. One of the RT staff told me he just “couldn’t stand by and watch us do it all alone.” I am of course NOT encouraging you to be clueless like I was that year – it surely goes more smoothly for you and them if you’re on top of things, but this is what I mean about appreciating what goes into this.

Volunteering for your publisher’s events is also a good thing if they need help, for many of the same reasons. And if you’re kind of shy, not the assertive marketing-yourself type, this gives you a way to interact with others in a functional way and make contacts.

So to wrap up, when I attend RT, I have three writing goals:

1) Interest new readers in my work
2) Meet existing readers and convey my great appreciation of their support
3) Improve my network of contacts–authors, publishers, editors, industry professionals

But there is one more extremely critical reason for attending RT. RT is just pure fun. Writing is solitary. I like that about it; I wouldn’t do it otherwise. But even the most hermit-like of us occasionally needs a connection with those who share our experiences and passions, and RT is the ultimate shot in the arm for that. A week with people who love romance means there’s lots of laughter and camaraderie to share. When you can combine that kind of pleasurable experience with your “job”, it’s worth all the planning, time and expense that goes into it. It’s an investment in your career not just on the professional level, but the inspiration level as well. I go home ready to write twenty more novels, my heart overflowing with love for everyone who adores this genre the way I do.
Short bio: Joey W. Hill is the author of nearly twenty works of paranormal and contemporary erotic romance for Berkley Heat, Berkley Sensation and Ellora’s Cave. Her newest release, A Vampire’s Claim, is the latest in the award winning, national bestselling Vampire Queen series. Free excerpts and more information about her work can be found at her website, She loves to hear from readers!