This past week about seventy or so authors descended on New York City for the PASIC conference (Published Authors Special Interest Chapter of RWA), a can’t-miss event that takes place every other year. In addition to affording us the opportunity to meet with our publishers (I taped a video interview for the new Simon & Schuster web site; will post a link here when it goes up!) and connect with our agents, this gathering also brings together industry luminaries who offer insights, advice, and opinions about the State of the Romance Publishing Industry. During these few days, there is a lot of discussion, laughter, commiseration, eating, drinking, whining and wining going on. And some sightseeing! Toni and I stopped to pretend we are Rockettes on our way out of the theater, when in reality we are simply headed back to the hotel after a memorable dinner with Allison and our agent.
It wasn’t all wine and limoncellos, however. Of course, the topic du jour of the industry discussion panels was the impact of the economy on books in general, and romance in particular. Authors may feel differently, but the wide consensus among those who publish, edit, promote, and represent romance novels and novelists is that our books are “recession friendly” if not “recession proof.” Yes, book sales — like car, home, widget, and soap sales — are down as wallets get clamped close. Yes, fewer outlets are selling far less books, giving a boost to brand name authors and squeezing the midlist more than ever. But, expert after pundit after editor after publisher reiterated that romance as a genre offers a greatly needed and highly affordable escape from reality. Moreover, romance readers, they reminded us, are voracious and loyal. Publisher/author/general really sharp and funny guy Lou Aronica of The Story Plant drew the comparison to the shopper who goes to the grocery story to fulfill her “must have to survive list” which might include a staple like chicken. To a dedicated romance reader, our books are on that list; we are her chicken.
To that I say, bawk, bawk, baaawwwk and hallelujah.
The audience is not just loyal and hungry, they are, according to Lou and many others, “targetable” via the internet. Time after time we were counseled to increase our presence on blogs (industry and our own), twitter (a resounding buzzword this past weekend), Facebook, Myspace and other cyber strongholds where we can brand ourselves with the reading public and reach romance readers directly. But this begs a question that I asked almost everyone. Given the finite number of hours in a day/week/year, is it more advantageous for a writer to use those hours creating a presence in cyberspace or writing another book?
The answers were not all the same. Some said book (all but one of the editors). Some said blog (the publicists, the publishers, many agents). Some, naturally, said both (but only one editor said this). All said whatever they said rather emphatically. Even among authors there is dissension on the matter. Loosely and unscientifically, my poll seemed to show that the paranormal/urban fantasy/YA authors felt the internet had a direct impact on sales, whereas those who wrote more traditional romance, i.e. romantic suspense, straight contemporary, and category romance disagreed. Perhaps its a matter of the age and mindset of the audience? So what’s a busy author to do?
This question plagues me. I have just started twittering, have a lackluster presence on Myspace, and haven’t ever been to Facebook. (I know, I know. Get. With. The. Program.) I do my level best to visit this and a few other blogs daily, and twice a month devote more than a few hours to writing something to post here that will inspire, educate, amuse, and entertain MSW readers. Of course I maintain a web site and update it monthly. Okay, almost monthly. But a “presence” the likes of which they refer to…not so much.
Neglecting to build a name brand on the internet through every possible portal to the romance reader, according to many who spoke to us in New York, is a huge strategic marketing error. And they were convincing, I tell you. My notebook contained a single action item, circled, underlined, and decorated with a few emphatic exclamation points: Create a Facebook page, stat!!! (And, luckily, I have this teenage son, and he likes money.)
But the fact remains that I want to write three books every year – three books I am proud to have published and confident will please readers. It takes about four months of full time writing for me to produce that book. Three times four…well even this blonde can do that math. Okay, I realize there are nights, weekends, holidays, and wee hours that can be given to blogging and tweeting and booking my face all over the web. But I have a family and a life, both of which fill my creative well and fuel my personal happiness. Writing much faster isn’t an option…as the other truth that came out of our meetings is irrefutable: every single book gets harder as we set the bar for ourselves higher. I refuse to compromise on quality. What good is it to reach a few thousand more readers if the book they pick up is forgettable?
So I ask you, writers…if you had to choose (and, honestly, you do have to choose!) would you write one more book or heavily increase your internet presence? And I ask you readers…would you rather read more fiction from your favorite author or get a daily dose of what they are thinking and doing when they are not writing?
I await your answers! In the meantime, I’ll twitter a little, stop by some blogs, tackle that Facebook challenge…but mostly I’ll be writing my next book. Guess that tells you where I stand on this debate!