Book Expo America is competitive; the RWA Conference is collaborative. At the Wednesday cocktail hour just before the conference's famed annual Literacy Signing (500 authors and their readers all in one room), small groups of (mostly) women -- authors, would-be authors, editors, agents -- gather with happy shouts and hugs.
All is collaborative on the surface. Beneath the cute haircuts, coordinated outfits, and recent pedicures thump jealous hearts. But I don't think that's a bad thing at all. Let me explain.
The romance audience feeds, as mega-star-author Debbie Macomber explained to me in a Thursday interview, on perceived intimacy between author and reader. Romance novels are about touching a reader's desires. Sometimes those desires are for a white knight; sometimes (O tempora! O mores!) they're for really hot sex. But when a reader feels as if her deepest darkest needs have been fulfilled, even for just moments, she feels a connection to the person who fulfilled them.
The romance-book industry capitalizes on this connectivity. The Literacy Signing madhouse is open to the public, allowing readers within a reasonable distance of each year's convention location to swarm in for the chance to tell any number of authors why their books are life-changing. (There were lots and lots of mothers and daughters, many of the latter being adolescents.) These readers are the consumers who buy books by the cardboard-cartonful, who pre-order titles in a series, and who will happily shell out for themed merchandise (t-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, you name it).
So why do I say that jealous hearts are essential to this clusterhug?
Because without sub-genres, romance writing wouldn't be as much fun -- and the more traditional writers at the top of the genre wouldn't be quite as motivated to keep connecting with their audience. As one colleague reminded me, the varieties of romance experience (pace William Empson) are like a kooky Venn diagram: Basic Love Story in the middle with bubbles reaching off in every direction (including the newest category of "sexual fluidity" -- romance stories about men who have had long, loving relationships with other men before learning that happiness lies with a heroine instead of a hero).
From my conversations, it seems to me that the collaborative nature of RWA interactions helps to fuel the cross-pollination of RWA sub-genres. While individual authors fiercely guard their particular brands and story types, each time a new author springs up, she's received ideas and encouragement from many others.
Romance is a formula that works, and I think that romance writers and editors and agents and readers have also found an interesting formula to work with: Collaborative competition.
I could write much more on this, but I'd much rather hear what you think -- especially if you're a romance reader!