Friday, April 20, 2012

The RT Experience – Or What’s A Con For?


Addendum: Why, yes, I am running a special promotion for SECTOR C, thank you for asking. How well is it going? Have a look from yesterday:


Once I’ve recovered from the shock, I’ll post more on what it takes numbers-wise to make it into the Top 100 – and how far and hard the fall is from those heights afterward :o).


Admittedly, it’s been a while since I attended my last writer/reader convention. The mid-1990s, I think, and it was a Science Fiction/Fantasy con not a Romance one. The same stuff was still there: panels, goody rooms, vendors, signings, costuming, parties and networking. Yep, none of that has changed, save for the whole industry-being-in-flux thing. But I apparently have changed.

I made the transition of going to cons as a writer not a reader in the late 80s. Wearing a “published author” badge and speaking on panels made me feel more legit then. At the RT con this year, however, it seemed authors outnumbered the other industry folk and the readers combined.

Jennifer Blake signing at the Ebook Expo (left) and the main book signing (right).
I sat with the "S" authors at the Ebook Expo.
Four or five years ago, I was a member of Romance Writers of America (RWA) for a year. That year, their annual convention was in Dallas, just a day trip away. I got caught up in the excitement and the envy of author-wannabes scheduling pitch sessions with agents and editors. Oh, the battle royales that ensued over jimmying for position at those sessions. In the end I elected not to go and amid all the gushing preparations and the mushy after-glow reports I was sure I’d made the wrong decision.

This year when I got the announcement that reservations for the pitch sessions at the RT con were opening up, I simply chuckled as I deleted the email. At the con itself, I didn’t even step foot in the pitch areas to ogle the agents and editors in attendance. My obsession with all things trad publishing was effectively cured. Not that I wouldn’t accept the right trad deal should one come around, but my days of stalking such a contract seem to be over.

I’m also older. Never one to enjoy crowds and schmoozing, this year I was officially wearing my “old fuddy-duddy” attitude. Gone are the days I’d spend the midnight hour watching a poorly dubbed anime film hosted in a small hotel conference room followed by filk singing into the wee hours of the morning. Last week it was all about hitting the parties early to scarf up the free food and drinks and getting back to the hotel room by 8 or 9 pm to check stats and chat with online friends.

Samhain's Western-themed bbq/party

This year, the RT con had a full workshop track devoted to e-publishing. I was excited about the prospect of learning new techniques and possibly figuring out new ways of thinking about digital publishing and marketing. Names I recognized and folk I’ve interacted with occasionally were hosting some of the workshops: Mark Coker, Joe Konrath, Blake Crouch and Bob Mayer. Those of you who know me will know that I am far from a fangirl when it comes to these gentlemen, but while I don’t agree with everything they preach, I’m smart enough to know something is working in their favor and to be open to acquiring and/or modifying new strategies for my own work and for helping Steel Magnolia Press. There was also a panel on how to manage a backlist, something Jennifer Blake and I will be looking at closely since she’s recently had 36 titles whose digital rights have been reverted, that I was excited about. I put myself in eager receptor mode and … was sadly disappointed.

Konrath and Blake are charismatic and motivational speakers. If you read their posts, know that’s pretty much them as panelists. Lots of energy and rah-rah self-pubbing. Lots of sharing of stats, but no real way of translating what they’ve done into solid strategies for what you can do. In fact, one of Konrath’s next ventures is into the Nook First program, which is by invitation only. Listening to him is like listening to Stephen King explain how traditional publishing can catapult you onto the New York Times Bestseller lists for weeks at a time. Interesting, yes; inspirational, yes; but grain-of-salt when trying to apply any of it to your own strategies.

My notes from the Joe/Blake session: Bundles seem to be working well for them and a scribble to myself to tell my friend David Gaughran that they mentioned his blog and his book, Let's Get Digital, as being great resources.

Bob Mayer’s workshops were also motivational but not overly informative for someone who’s been self-publishing for a while. His success has been built on an extensive backlist, but neither of his talks focused on how to capitalize on the backlist to build success. They sort of rambled from one industry point to another, calling out some of the basics along the way. Personally, I was interested in how he markets the other 8 or 9 authors in his publishing company and to see how being in his company affects their sales. Unfortunately, the presentations were all about him and his books, so it was impossible to determine if the strategies he was using to push his books was working for the other authors’ books too.

My one note from Bob’s two sessions: He’s just signed with AmazonEncore and 47North for two series.

Surely, then, Mark Coker, who’s been outspoken about Amazon Select and who recently had to do some quick negotiating with PayPal to allow certain erotica books to be transacted through PayPal on his site, would be a goldmine of information at a romance convention featuring a lot of erotica, romantica and digital-only authors. His session started out promising, with slides-full of brand-new data he’d just collected getting their public debut. Geek heaven! Real data! Sadly, raw data without appropriate context or the right slicing is pretty meaningless.

For example, he shared “breakout” statistics of a handful of authors who went from selling a few copies per month to suddenly spiking at Apple for a couple of weeks before tapering off. The takeaway from that was supposed to be that once spiked, that book was now poised to spike again since the spike validated the book had all the requisite ingredients of a quality read: cover, blurb and content. But what caused the book to spike to begin with? Now that seemed to be the great unknown. Do I buy that he and the authors were clueless about the trigger? Not really. I can tell you exactly why Spoil of War spiked in iTunes in December and continues to sell moderately well there 4 months later.  I can tell you precisely why SECTOR C spiked on Amazon in early January, then again in February and now again in April. Are people really so oblivious to the context that they don’t know why a spike occurs? Nah. Right?

And the PayPal thing? Never came up in the two sessions he presented.

So with only ¼ of the first page of my notebook filled with notes and doodles, I settled in to listen to 4 authors and an agent discuss how to put out your backlist and, presumably, market it.

Agent Kristin Nelson spoke about the services her agency offers her clients. Having read her blog posts here and here about it as well as Courtney Milan’s thoughtful follow-up, I was already well-versed in what she’s providing and respect the effort she’s gone through to make her agreements fair and meaningful. But she didn’t provide anything new in the way of how well it’s working. And, of course, her services are not available beyond her current clientele.

One author shared a venture she’s helping to spearhead to digitally publish backlists for others. Perfect! What strategies are they using to relaunch these books? Well, they’re covering the books, formatting them and putting them out on as many venues as possible because that’s how books get discovered. Um, could she elaborate on that? Elaborate? What was there to elaborate?

It takes time to gain traction, another author assured us. People who are earning thousands of dollars on their backlist titles are 1) not earning that overnight and 2) are earning it across many multiples of titles. Expect to hit the Amazon charts at a rank of 300,000 to 600,000 and stay there for a month or more then slowly work your way up. In fact, be prepared for it to take 6 months, 12 months, as much as 18 months to gain traction. It’s a slow but steady build.

Really? The authors invited to this panel are satisfied with building traction over more than a year and not earning a decent income from their titles until then? And the best advice they have to offer is to get your titles' rights reverted and the ebooks up in as many venues as possible and let them be discovered organically?

The main problem with workshops at a con, of course, is that audience and panelists are all over the place in regards to experience and knowledge. Many in the audience at each workshop were only to the point of just thinking about the possibility of self-publishing while I’m chomping at the bit for marketing data with validating results. Some of the panelists aren't really savvy about how to actually publish and market in the digital world. But then I don’t have the access to marketing promotions that folk a step above have and are using (Nook First, early entry into Amazon programs, etc.). In all, my expectations were set too high; therefore, I was disappointed. 

What I did come away with and what made the con worthwhile for me was validation that what I’m doing is on the high curve of where the self-pubbing industry is at today. We’re not setting any records (yet!), but we’re also well ahead of where most indies and indie-wannabes are at right now.

Getting to and from the con was an adventure!

I’ve never ridden the rails before, so was delighted when Jennifer Blake suggested we take an Amtrak train from Texas to Chicago and back again. The only drawback was the distance we each had to drive to get to a station. I drove 2 hours to reach the station at Mineola, Texas, which turned out to be a beautifully restored 1906 depot, complete with museum. I parked 20 feet from the station and waited with the only other passenger getting on the train there. Our host arrived minutes before the train did and we were whisked on in no time.

Jennifer drove about 2.5 hours from Louisiana to a station at Marshall, Texas, which was also a restored depot in a scenic downtown area. The Marshall station was a bit more bustling than Mineola but compared to Union Station in downtown Chicago, it too was a quaint way-station.

Leaving Union Station in Chicago

The roomette we shared was tight, but our facing seats reclined and converted into bunk beds, helpful since the trip lasted about 20 hours. Mifi reception was great, so I didn’t have to go through total withdrawal from stat-checking.

The neighbor who took care of my critters (horses, goats, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, iguana, etc) did a wonderful job, with only two minor scares about animals getting loose/not being found that worked out fine in the end. No one was missing and everyone was safe.

The St. Louis Arch as seen from the Amtrak dining car


lexcade said...


It would've been worth it to finally see you!

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Damn, lady! I met Jennifer Armentrout. I believe your name might have come up ;o).

Landra said...

Next year... we should all go. Me, you, Cate, it would be a meet up of epic proportions.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Kansas City here we come!

Landra said...

Did you say KC?? I'm only 3 hours from there. I can totally do that.

Erin Edwards said...

Loved your very honest reporting on talks at a conference :) and also appreciated the sharing of your stats in your later post!