11 February 2012

The More Things in the Romance Industry Change...

I swear, I didn't set out to be the BtV's voice of snark when I sat down to write my themed blogs. But every time I lay my fingers on the keyboard, I get smacked with another example of Edmund Burke's home truth:

"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."

This time, it's romance--in the sense of the romance industry, not the fizz and sparkle that makes life worthwhile.  I'm not talking about ancient history, either.

I covered my first Romance Writers of America National Conference in the summer of 2000.  It was like trying to navigate a demilitarized zone, complete with anti-personnel mines, barefoot.  On one side of the hotel were the "traditionalists", who were bound and determined to keep those nasty epubbed authors/erotica writers (the traditional camp couldn't tell the difference) from being entered into the hallowed ranks of the Published Authors Network.  On the other were the writers working for the first generation of electronic presses or exploring the possibilities of self-publication, and some far-seeing old school writers like Anne Stuart who favored a "big tent" policy.

The Annual Meeting got downright nasty, and the reactions to my reportage made me wonder if the some of the combatants had been taking their cues from Fox News.  What made it sadder was that this was only the opening salvo of a seven year fight to gain PAN legitimacy for electronically published writers.

With our wonderful 20/20 hindsight, it seems outrageous that the legitimacy of electronic publishing or erotic romance was ever an issue.  Within five years of that conference, every New York publisher had inaugurated an erotic imprint.  By the end of last year, self-pubbed authors in multiple genres had racked up sales in the millions, leaving their traditionally published colleagues blinking in awe and envy.  Now speculation buzzes around the question of whether the traditionally printed book will survive or go the way of Borders.  (Excuse me a moment.  I need to mourn while people still remember what wonderful bookstores they used to be.)

But being silly and fighting against the tide of ideas whose time has come seems to be what the romance community does best.  Witness Romance Writers Ink, which at the beginning of this month decided to bar same sex romance from their annual writing contest--within days of the US Court of Appeals for the 9th District upholding the ruling of the 9th District Court on California's Proposition 8, clearing the way to gay marriage in the nation's bellwether state.*

What were they thinking?  Didn't RWI remember what happened the last time a romance organization thought they could stand in the way of progress?

Apparently not.  I bet the contest poobahs thought the net's ubiquitious social media were a mirage, too.  It's an open question whether RWA would've been able to dismiss epubbed authors for as long as they did if social media had been as developed in the early Naughties as they are today.  Certainly RWI folded within days, forced by the outcry to cancel this year's contest entirely.

I'm glad this fight was short and relatively bloodless.  It proves we can learn, even if the larger lesson gets lost.  But I can't help wondering what the next bone of romance industry contention will be and how soon it will appear. 

After all, in the electronic world in which we live, yesterday is so 86,400 seconds ago.


Jean Marie Ward

*Corrected per Sandra Bryant. Thanks, Sandy!

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