Why I Wish Romance Had a Readercon

Last month I attended two days of Readercon, an annual imaginative lit conference in Burlington, Mass. I read very little imaginative literature, but I had a great time anyway. The best part is always talking to fellow readers, and hanging out with Natalie of The Radish, Ridley of Love in the Margins, writer Victoria Janssen, and a few new friends was terrific. The vibe was very low key, and the focus was on books — not on writing them, selling them, promoting them, or blogging about them — but on what’s in them.*

Because of this, authors, readers, and bloggers came together as equals, as fans of the books. No panels on craft, sales, or marketing, so it was very different from an RWA or an RT. There were no signings and it generally wasn’t the place for author worship, despite the presence of some some pretty big names. Even bloggers tended to resist the urge to promote their own sites. There just wasn’t much energy directed towards self-promotion of any kind. The kind of frantic desperation in the air at an industry conference like BEA was totally absent.

No games, costume balls, sock hops, pajama parties, mechanicals bulls, photo booths, cover models, teas, swag, contests, or “chocolate mangasms.” Attendees got to meet authors at informal Kaffeeklatches, with up to 15 readers just chatting with an author. There were a couple of festive events, a dessert party, for example, as well as a good number of private parties, but they were the exception. So it’s very different from the atmosphere of letting loose and celebrating that permeates romance cons like RT, RomCon, Authors After Dark, or Lori Forster’s Author and Reader Event.

Readercon attendees pretty much … attended. I went to panels, listened, participated, and chatted with folks in the restaurant or lobby. There were readings. A few awards. A room with books for sale by booksellers. The tagline of Readercon is “We support the subversive notion that thinking can be fun” and that is some truth in advertising.

The panels were straightforward discussions, and plenty of time was always left for audience members to participate. These are some of the panels that grabbed me:

This Whole Situation Is Monstrous!: Supernatural Excuses for Abusive Behavior. Leah Bobet (leader), Liz Gorinsky, Catt Kingsgrave, Natalie Luhrs, Veronica Schanoes, Peter Straub. Paranormal romance for adults and teens often provides supernatural excuses for abusive behavior. For example, in Cassandra Clare’s The City of Lost Souls, a character’s abusive behavior as a teenager stems from his confusion over being turned into a werewolf. Years later the teens reunite, explanations are given, and the boy’s redemption story briefly takes center stage in the narrative. Instead of focusing on abusers’ redemption through human aspects overcoming monstrous aspects, and obscuring the unpleasant truth that abuse is a very human behavior, is there a better way to use the supernatural to talk about abuse?

The Difference Between Magic and Science. Max Gladstone, Lev Grossman, Andrea Hairston, Kenneth Schneyer (leader), J.M. Sidorova. In an interview with Avi Solomon, Ted Chiang proposed that “The difference between magic and science is at some level a difference between the universe responding to you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal.” How can we complicate this statement? Are there magic systems that are entirely impersonal, and if so, are they indistinguishable from science and technology? Is science only possible in an impersonal universe? How do we make allowances for the personal applications of science and the impersonal applications of magic, and where do the boundaries between them lie?

The Tension of Satisfaction and Subversion. Michael Cisco, Lev Grossman, Ellen Kushner (leader), Yves Meynard, Eugene Mirabelli, Kit Reed. When reading, we can derive pleasure from having our expectations met and the conventions of the genre or form satisfied. But we also derive pleasure from having those conventions and expectations subverted, exploded, and turned inside out. There’s a natural tension between those two drives which affects both a story’s artistic effectiveness and its commercial appeal. That tension is inherently tied to perceptions and definitions of genre, and to the criteria by which the reading public examines literary works. How then, does that tension work? How do stories strike a balance between conventions and reader expectations, while still offering innovation or subversion? How does our own understanding of that balance affect how the criteria we use to examine literary works?

When the Other Is You. Chesya Burke, Samuel Delany, Peter Dubé, Mikki Kendall, Vandana Singh, Sabrina Vourvoulias (leader). Being part of an underrepresented group and trying to write our experience into our work can be tricky. We might have internalized some prejudice about ourselves, we might not have the craft to get our meaning across perfectly, and even if we depict our own experience totally accurately (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”), we do so while struggling against the expectation that our experience is or isn’t “representative” or “authentic.” How do we navigate the pitfalls and responsibilities of being perceived as spokespeople? What potentially pernicious dynamics allow us that dubious privilege in the first place? Which works make us cringe with their representations of us, and which make us sigh with relief and recognition?

I don’t see this kind of discussion when I look at the schedules for romance conferences. I had even planned to go to RT this year, but I hated the idea of ignoring 90% of what I was paying $500 for. Having been to a number of academic popular culture conferences, Readercon is not academic, although a few of the panelists hold teaching positions. The level of discussion is just reflective and thoughtful, but no special knowledge of a body of critical works or academic degree is necessary to engage in it. Just a knowledge and interest and curiosity about what you love to read.

Don’t we have similar topics worthy of discussion in the romance genre? And don’t we have authors and readers who could be just as interesting when discussing them? I know we do, because I read their blogs. The first panel could be done in romance pretty much exactly as it’s written, and in fact a lot of romance came up in that discussion. The second panel could explore a set of close concepts that are significant in romance: “the difference between love and lust” or “the difference between friendship and love.” The third panel, again, could be transposed pretty neatly to any genre conference, including romance, but I think it’s maybe even more significant for romance, which is so responsive to buyer behavior and larger social changes. All all the fourth panel would require is a change in line-up.

There’s been a proliferation of new romance cons in the last decade, and while I am sure there are important differences in tone and approach, they all seem to stick to the same basic structure. When I see coverage of them I think they do a great job promoting one vision of the genre and its fans. But just as all SFF fans don’t fit the mold conjured by press coverage of ComicCon, there are different kinds of romance readers who read for a variety of reasons. I think it’s great that so many romance readers can now find a conference not too far away from their homes, and often one that’s not too expensive (with the exception of RT). And yay for all those romance readers who just love getting away from it all and partying it up while having a chance to thank and show appreciation for their favorite authors. I’m sure I could go to one of those conferences and be my most boring self, and even meet likeminded folks, and ignore all the rest of what’s not to my tastes and have a good time, but Readercon made me wish for a whole conference organized around a different kind of fan engagement.

Would it be possible to lure enough romance fans to a conference like Readercon? I don’t know, but it’s a nice dream. And in the meantime, I’ll definitely be back at Readercon next year.

*Edited to add: Thanks to a helpful correction from the program chair, I now know there were two marketing panels at Readercon, and a couple of signings in the book sales room, two authors at a time.

28 responses

  1. Well now I really feel like a complete dumbass for missing this conference! 🙂 And you know I felt horrible I had to miss our coffee date due to a miserable stomach thing. But I admit even though you said you thought I’d enjoy the conference itself, I was pretty much just planning to meet you for coffee and wasn’t really seriously considering Readercon other than being grateful it was bringing you practically to my backyard there in Burlington.

    But I agree, especially in light of my experience at RT in NOLA, I so wish there was a conference space that was less promotional and yet still exciting and fun. I had a wonderful time at RT, but it was because of the people I met, the city itself, and discussions that happened mainly outside the formal programming.

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  2. Oh boy, you had the reader and introvert salivation going here with this post. I think what you’re describing would be ideal. My own niggling feeling of dissatisfaction with what the two major conventions? conferences? are all about, RT and RWA, is that they’re not exactly what I’m looking for.

    Though I totally agree with what you say about attending and enjoying myself; I would, and be absolutely tickled pink if I got to meet the many lovely people I interact with on blogs, or Twitter. Nothing replaces the fleshy interaction: someone’s face and smile and voice. This would be my only motivation for attending RT, or RWA. (To me, they just sound so big and with too many people; also, their raison d’êtres being, I assume, fandom and professional interest, neither of which particularly describe my bond with the romance genre.)

    My ideal romance “con” is one where I get to talk about ideas in/about/around the books I read more than any others … throw in a cocktail and a coffee and muffin here and there and that’s all I’d need. I especially like the idea of the small discussion group of writers and readers. So, it’d be great to see a romance/con alongside what RT and RWA provide to the genre.

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  3. We did have a fabulous discussion of diversity in romance at RWA, facilitated by Farrah Rochon when Suzanne Brockman had to cancel on their panel. What goes on at RWA depends a lot on what people propose, so I hope some of your readers take the initiative to organize more of those kinds of sessions or the others you describe. I’d be more than willing to help anyone who does.

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    • Yes, definitely. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I don’t think anything at all happens at other cons like what happens at Readercon. I attended RomCon a few years ago, so I know it can. I’m just greedy. I want the whole thing to be like that.

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  4. I know there would be plenty of readers who would enjoy such a conference as much, if not more, than the more…flamboyant ones, but I confess that I’m not sure I see many authors agreeing to participate in something where promotion would be an after thought rather than the focus. Most romance authors don’t make all that much money, after all, and they have to put their conference money where it, presumably, will do them the most good.

    And, somewhat in reply to Nancy Holland above, if I’m a reader spending a grand or more (what with registration, hotel, food, transportation–plus time off work) to attend RWA, I’m going to squeeze the last drop of enjoyment of that conference, as that conference is. That means going to the signings, the panels on craft and publishing (even though I’m one of those readers who has no ambition to write, I love learning how things work), as many of the author events as I can cram in the time allotted. And that means braving the crowds, embracing the noise, the madness, the exhaustion. That is what I’m paying for–and it really isn’t pocket change.

    If I’m paying a similar amount of money to attend a romance-themed ReaderCon, then I would embrace that conference. I would look forward to a much slower pace, to not having to plan every minute of the conference, to focusing my time and my energies to discussions of the books I love, not the people who make them or the business they sustain.

    Personally, I think it would be almost impossible to have both types of conference in the same place. One can’t have the frantic promotion–to readers, to agents, to publishers–and the measured, reflective discussions centered on the books, in the same conference. One may manage to schedule a couple of leisurely chats somewhere, but that definitely would not be enough to entice the people who actually want a romance-themed ReaderCon to attend RWA.

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    • RWA really should have more panels like Readercon’s, to be honest. It’s a conference full of authors eager to learn to do better and sell better. Isn’t that exactly where people should be talking about race, rape culture, cultural appropriation, toxic relationship dynamics and the like?

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    • Azteclady — This is a very good point about authors’ motivations and needs. I wonder what attracts the SFF authors? I got the sense from what they said that they came for the exact same reason the readers came. But I don’t know how they stack up in terms of popularity. Were they at the end of successful careers? Newbies? Mid list? not sure.

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        • Readercon (3 day con): $75
          RWA (4 days): $385 (includes 2 continental breakfasts, 1 lunch, 1 dessert)
          RT (5 days): $489 (I think this includes some meals, but not sure)

          Of course, Readercon had 150 authors, critics, and editors. RT had probably 5 times that, plus gave attendees a thumb drive with 600 books on it. I think anything like Readercon for romance is going to be small and local/regional.

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          • Bouchercon is a 3 1/2 day con and it costs $175 this year. That includes some free books and I think at least one meal.

            Both the big romance conferences are way more expensive than any conference I’ve attended. RWA is $100 more than the most expensive registration for either of my big professional meetings, and those meetings have sliding scales based on your position and income (retired, students, non-political scientists all pay less, people who earn less pay less, etc.). And both are 4 1/2 day conferences with more attendees (and panels) than either RWA or RT.

            I know you get a lot of books at RT, but $489 just seems way beyond the pale to me. Even with the freebies and the parties (and the pubs pay all or part of the party bill), that’s a lot of money.

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          • Other things to keep in mind: the earlier you buy a membership to SFF cons, the cheaper they tend to be. So you could theoretically get in for as little as $55 for the whole weekend (that’s what I paid in years past).

            SFF conventions also tend to be volunteer-run and not-for-profit (conventions like the various Comic-Cons are for-profit entities, though)–so admission costs tend to be lower. The SFF community tries to put a priority on keeping costs as low as possible which is, I believe, another reason you see so many smaller regional conventions.

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          • Responding also to Sunita’s and Natalie L’s comments here, and to expand on my previous comment:

            I may be completely off-base here, because I am speaking simply as a reader, but here’s what I think.

            Most authors (especially those midlist/debut authors) going to RWA, and I believe this to be true of RT as well, are using that as their big promo opportunity, with the added perk of professional panels and industry contacts galore.

            I sincerely doubt those authors would be thrilled to spend too much time at a conference which has been earmarked as “the big promo push of the year” in their budgets in quiet, contemplative, promo-heavily-frowned-upon, panels or discussions.

            Would some of them go for it? I’m sure there would be some authors happy to be in one of those discussions, as participants or public.

            But let’s also look at the readers who attend these two conferences (as well as the other smaller, but also flamboyant, readers/authors get togethers). Most of the readers willing to pay the high fees (plus travel, accommodations, etc), enjoy the noise and the partying and the frantic pace. They know what they are in for, and are willing to pay for it.

            Would many if not most of them enjoy a romance conference similar to Readercon? I’m sure that many, if not most, would–but that is not what RWA or RT are, and I doubt that two such disparate concepts can coexist in any one conference, myself.

            The occasional quiet moments and thoughtful panels/discussions at RWA or RT? Absolutely. The occasional raucous party at Readercon? Surely. Both given equal space? Doubtful.

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  5. Great post, Jessica. This sounds a lot like my experience at Bouchercon, which is a mystery genre oriented convention. There were signings at Bouchercon when I attended, but they were in the booksellers’ room (or in the hallway for super-popular authors). They certainly weren’t the main point of the event, and the signings occurred at various time slots throughout the conference days (there was no giant signing event). I got a chance to talk to Lori Armstrong (Lorelei James) during her signing and she was terrific. Another day I had lunch with Patricia Rice and Eileen Dreyer (neither of whom I’d met before) and it was a blast. I’ve been wanting to go to another Bouchercon ever since, even though I don’t know that many people and it’s at a crap time of year for me.

    I wouldn’t put “craft” in the same category as sales and marketing. The last panel on your list definitely seems to be about craft (it uses the word in the description), and some of the others seem as if they encompass the topic as well. Which I don’t at all think is a bad thing. If you get a bunch of authors and other industry people together on a panel and they are talking about what they’re working on (in an interesting way, not a buy-my-book way), craft is inevitably going to be part of it, and like Aztec Lady, I find that interesting from a reader perspective.

    I’m not sure why romance doesn’t have a Readercon/Bouchercon. Maybe it’s something as simple as path dependence, i.e., no group has put such a conference together in the past and starting one from scratch is both a lot of work and dependent on who the initiators are (and what their interests are). Readers are a hard group to wrangle into a cohesive force for a new project like this. And the groups that have started new ones tend to have a particular focus. I don’t expect RWA to create something reader- and book-focused, given that it’s a professional association’s annual meeting. RT I don’t understand at all, even after having attended parts of it in two different years.

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    • Great point about craft, and I totally agree. I guess I should have said there’s craft and there’s craft. So, panels like RT’s “Workshopping Your Best Book on Book Country” or “Double Trouble: Writing with a Partner” hold no interest, but those with broader themes do. And thank you, as always, for giving us some lingo with which to describe one of the barriers: “path dependence.”

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  6. Great post. I’ve yet to go to any con. This one sounds interesting and alluring. I’m not a wild party girl (though the mechanical bull sounds fun) so I’d probably be a stick in the mud at a romance con.

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  7. For a conference like that, I might even cross the Atlantic. I’m not interested in attending a conference as a “fan”, but as a reader. I’ve no interest in interacting with authors as authors, but as fellow readers and lovers of romance.

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  8. I’ve attended RWA, RT and Celebrate Romance.

    I enjoy RWA, and like to attend when it is convenient. RT is overwhelming; i was tempted by New Orleans (location and the fact it was attracting a lot of people I know online), but most of the events don’t tempt me. The last time I went to RT was in Orlando in November 2001, and it was probably very lightly attended in comparison to other years. (The Monday before the conference, there was a plane crash that closed NY airports for the rest of the day, and I think a lot of publishers canceled.)

    I went to Celebrate Romance when it was in Philadelphia. That was a lovely, manageable conference. I don’t see why authors can’t use it as partly promotional, no matter what kind of events are there. Most people want to talk about books, so the more opportunities, the better. Schedule panels, chats about topics or with authors, even have a few (food-related?) events, such as tea or some kind of casual party (avoid the themes that require dressing up – no need for fancy clothes or costumes). No cover models, please, and no need for publishers to sponsor events (even if they provide books).Eencourage authors to put on their reader hats.

    One problem with CR was that, to keep costs down, they tended to stay out of the city they were near. Not sure how close the hotels were to the airports, but once there, if you wanted to visit the city (or go to dinner somewhere other than the hotel), you needed transportation. I’m not keen on flying across country as it is; to do so to go to an event where there’s limited time and opportunity to see the city is not particularly appealing. CR was held over a long weekend (starting Friday evening).

    I prefer conferences in my neck of the woods. Once you have to fly any distance, it costs more money, more time, and, I think, most people expect more for the conference. So regional conferences that focus on talking about books would be lovely.

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    • Lori, thanks for sharing your vast conference experience! I recall that RomCon was technically in Denver when I attended but not near anything, so that was an issue. That’s interesting that you enjoy RWA. Honestly, there are probably more panels at RWA that I am intrigued by than at RT, even though the latter is supposed to be partly fan event. And I agree geography is key. It’s nice when cons move around. It’s enough of a big deal for women to take time away from work and family, but to add hours of travel and flights makes it that much harder.

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      • I think RWA tries to move the conference around, so it alternates east coast, west, and middle of the country. It’s also during the summer because they want to accommodate women with families. They once had a conference in Hawaii. 😉 And yes, I see a lot more panels at RWA that interest me. I think I’m more interested in discussions about writing and books than I am in being a fan. I liked the idea of RomCon, but no longer have a good reason to go to Denver (I used to know two people near Denver whom I’d love to visit, but neither are there now.) I know some writers come to RWA simply to connect with other writers; they don’t even attend the panels.

        I’d like to clarify my comment about having a tea: I was thinking of a room with seating, maybe with tables, and with refreshments on the side (coffee, tea, fruit, cookies and/or chocolate, something like that) where people can mingle and talk. Not a formal Tea. 😉 (That’s more expensive.)

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  9. This post–and the comments–fills me with happiness! As you know, Readercon is my very favorite. 😀

    Readercon takes panel suggestions from anyone who wishes to submit one–you don’t have to be an author, publisher, or even member of the convention to do so.

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  10. I can comment on why this writer attends. I go to see other writers as well as readers, and to meet new people in general, or people I know from online, all of which works out very well since it’s a small con and the interesting-people density is high. So you could say networking is part of it, if “sitting in the bar chatting” counts.

    I enjoy presenting on panels as well as attending them, though I usually do more of the former than the latter; I like feeling useful and being a part of things. So far as money goes, if you’re a Program Participant, you do get free registration, but you pay your own travel, hotel, meals (tax-deductible if you’re there to network, present, etc.). And of course you are donating the time you spent preparing for the panel and participating in it. There is some promotion going on, most notably when panelists are introducing themselves, but you get looked down on if you promote yourself too aggressively in that context. I have definitely bought books by an author because they said interesting things in a panel, but I think that’s hit-or-miss.

    As for author “level,” attendance includes a full range. People who sold one story 10 years ago, full-time mid-listers, semi-retired big names, people like me who have dayjobs and sell a few stories a year, people who just sold their first story or novel this year, Junot Diaz. A lot of the writers know each other from being in the same workshop, attending Clarion or Odyssey or Viable Paradise or Taos Toolbox, or just from years of the same cons. A friend I was with (from my former workshop) got to see one of his Clarion classmates whom he hadn’t seen in about a decade. It can seem as if everyone knows everyone, which I think can be a problem if you’re really shy. I actually like setting up a few meal/coffee appointments ahead of time, so I can guarantee seeing certain people.

    This is getting long, but anyway, I would love a romance conference like this. Or maybe even just 20 interesting people staying in the same hotel and hanging out for a weekend.

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