July 31, 2014

The Future Is Here: Self-Publishing and RWA

Crystal ball with text: The Future Is Here, Do You Have the Right Attitude?

Most of us have probably had the experience of watching kids grow up at a distance. When we see young neighbors, nieces or nephews, or friends’ kids only occasionally, we notice the changes since our last visit far more than their parents who see them every day.

The same applies to the publishing industry. Living and breathing with our full-time or side career of writing means that in addition to the big announcements like Kindle Unlimited, far more changes happen gradually, and we’re not always aware of them.

Whether you write romance or not, authors of all stripes recognize the Romance Writers of America as being one of the premier writing organizations in the world. The RWA is exceptionally well-run and offers advocacy, networking, local and specialty chapters, contests and awards, local and national conferences, pitching with industry professionals, and educational opportunities for over 10,000 members.

In other words, they’re a powerful gorilla among writing associations, and what happens within their ranks can be a harbinger for other writing communities. So I thought I’d share my impressions of how the publishing industry is changing by viewing it through the lens of RWA’s recent conference.

RWA: Comparing 2012 to 2014

My every-other-year schedule for attending the RWA Annual Conference allows me to see the changes in the organization like a distant relative. I hadn’t attended the National Conference since 2012 and the differences from then to now were profound.

In 2012, there was no Self-Publishing Track of workshops for those thinking of publishing themselves. There was no Trade Show of vendors eager to discuss their products with independent authors. And there were no self-published books entered in the prestigious RITA contest for published romance fiction, much less any of them up for winning the award.

Last week, I witnessed all of those changes:

  • The Self-Publishing Track was jam-packed—enough workshops to fill every session time, plus some. (And that’s not even counting the many Career or Marketing workshops that often applied more to self-published authors who can take advantage of the flexibility their chosen path allows.) In addition to the workshops and traditional sessions “spotlighting” various publishers, this conference also included “focus” sessions on self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s KDP and CreateSpace, NOOK Press, Kobo’s Writing Life, and iBooks.
  • The Trade Show wasn’t huge (this was its first year), but I can see it growing fast. Vendors from editors, cover artists, ebook and print formatters, promotional companies, and distributors (like Smashwords and Draft2Digital) were all eager to talk to writers. Mark Coker, the head of Smashwords himself, was at the SW table to answer any questions.
  • Most tellingly, of the nine RITA Awardstwo were awarded to self-published works. Jane Porter won in the Romance Novella category (her publisher/imprint is her own company), and Carolyn Crane won in the Romantic Suspense category. Several more self-published works made it to the finals out of 2000 entries.

So…What Does This Mean?

All that evidence leads me to one conclusion: One of the largest and most powerful writing organizations in the world is not only welcoming self-published authors to the elite level of their ranks, but they’re also willing to support other writers interested in exploring that path.

Over the years, I’ve heard self-published authors debate whether to drop their RWA membership or attend the Annual Conference, often because they felt like outsiders within the organization. After this conference, I would suggest they reassess their assumptions.

I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that RWA has perfectly integrated the self-publishing path into their structure. The highest membership level, PAN (the Published Authors Network), still requires a far higher proof of earnings from self-published authors ($5K on one book) than from traditionally published authors ($1K on one book), but there’s a rumor that difference might narrow. Also, some local chapters are more welcoming and supportive of self-published authors than others.

But in general, the sheer amount of changes I saw from 2012 to now add up to an embrace of the current publishing reality in bright, blinking lights. There was no sense of self-published authors being less or not being real authors.

Why Traditionally Published Authors Shouldn’t Snub Self-Published Authors

Most importantly, many of the workshops on the Self-Publishing Track would be valuable to many authors, no matter their publishing path. If traditionally published authors have any sense of selfishness at all, they’d want to gain this knowledge for themselves:

  • Management of Multiauthor Indie Collaborations by Sarra Cannon and Marquita Valentine touched on co-writing and shared promotional efforts any author could do.
  • Your Books Have Taken Off! Now What? by Marie Force gave business advice applicable to any author experiencing success.
  • The Slow Writer’s Guide to Making a Living by Courtney Milan shared tips about how to take advantage of Amazon’s algorithms, even when we can’t release a book every 3 months (which applies to traditionally published authors just as well).
  • Etc., etc.

And that was just in the first half of the first day. There were two-and-a-half more days just like that. *smile*

Don’t Think “Us vs. Them”—Learn from All

My point with all this is not to express a neener neener attitude about the success of self-publishing in infiltrating RWA. My point is that authors who don’t fall for the “us vs. them” trap—on either side—will be better off.

I’ve long taken the stance here at my blog that there is no “right” or “best” path. There’s only what works best for us.

For some authors, the best path for them will lead to traditional publishing. Even so, if they can resist seeing self-published authors as “the other side,” they’ll find much they can learn about career planning, marketing, or promotion from those who successfully self-publish.

I think any traditionally published author who attended a workshop on the Self-Publishing Track would have been pleasantly surprised by the tips on making author newsletters more effective or making the most of a release. Advice for developing relationships with readers applies to any published author. Heck, the RWA PAN organization itself brought in self-published uber-author Hugh Howey to speak to its membership.

Likewise, for those authors whose best path is self-publishing, they’ll still find value in learning from the traditional publishing side. Good storytelling craft, research approaches, and training for software like Scrivener is useful knowledge no matter the path of the teacher. Self-published authors can watch book cover trends from publishers or study what publisher promotions elicit the biggest response.

All authors, regardless of their publishing path, struggle with time-management, life balance, and social media and branding issues. We all encounter writer’s block, or question the need to blog, or wonder how to best structure our new series.

In short, as writers and storytellers, we have far more in common than not. Our chosen publishing path is just one aspect of our writing career, and it’s not even the biggest aspect. Traditionally published and self-published authors alike said the same thing over and over at the conference:

It’s all about our story—and the next story after that.

Our ability to deliver great stories again and again is the biggest, most important aspect of our career. We can make mistake after mistake, but if we keep learning and growing, expanding our reach to readers, we’re succeeding in at least some measure. And that’s the best lesson from the RWA Annual Conference, no matter what path we take. *smile*

If you went to the RWA Annual Conference, what impression did you come away with as far as self-publishing? In what ways have you seen writing organizations embrace or dismiss self-publishing or those authors? Do you agree that there’s value in studying the methods of the other path? If you self-publish, have you gained insights from traditional publishers or their authors? If you traditionally publish, have you learned tips from self-published authors?

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Comments — What do you think?

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K.B. Owen

That sounds like a great conference and a terrific organization! Makes me wish I could join…alas, I’m a mystery writer, not a romance writer. Sigh. Fab post, Jami!

Stephanie Scott
Stephanie Scott

Well, if you wanted to spend the money, the conference is open to non-members, as are regional conferences. I have a friend who is not part of RWA who comes to the Chicago area Spring Fling held every other year.

Loni Townsend

I’ve never attended one of the conferences, but your write up was fantastic. It makes me really happy to see some acceptance and progress.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

As you know, I was at the RWA conference and loved the workshops, the networking and finally meeting you in person! I’m so grateful I got to see you, sit with you, talk to you. It was wonderful.
I’m also glad I attended the conference as a writer as well. I truly thinks it benefits us all to learn about self-pub and trad-pub methods. I’m also thrilled that two self-pubbed authors won a Rita. So very cool.
Thank you for this wonderful post and for your time at the conference. I enjoyed it!
Have a great weekend,

GM Malliet

I’m not a member of RWA although I’ve been a fan for years. Note to K.B.: Many of the RWA categories include mystery if the story has some romantic component. Think “Rebecca.”
I should join again myself but I’ve been trying to cut back on so many memberships.

Stephanie Scott
Stephanie Scott

I joined RWA in 2012; I write YA so a lot of the romance lingo and culture was very new to me. On the RWA web forums right when I joined there was pretty intense discussion of self-pub and some legitimate drama about how RWA viewed and supported self-pub. I attended nationals last year when they put together a self-pub track. Lots of buzz. A few successful authors I think have helped tremendously in bringing self-pub credibility: Bella Andre and Courtney Milan. I’m sure there are others, but these two in particular I heard people comment constantly on their workshops, how they learned things they never heard on their own or sometimes published authors confessed to not knowing. They are two very smart, savvy business women who have dipped one foot in traditional and in self-pub, and Bella Andre has a unique deal with Harlequin where they do some print runs and she retains the rights to her ebooks. Something that she was able to negotiate because of her tremendous self publishing success. My chapter did a video workshop with Courtney Milan, and she has fantastic, applicable advice whether you self pub or not. There are questions I now know to ask my agent if(when!) we approach a sale that I think many authors were afraid to approach prior to self-pub. Which is amazingly empowering! Plus, I think over the past two years, many published writers have crossed over to test out a self-pub book. Several published writers in my…  — Read More »

Anne R. Allen

Great piece, Jami! I agree 100%. Self publishing is growing faster than most people can keep up. It’s especially lucrative for romance authors. When “no-names” are making $100k a year, you have to pay attention. Thank you for going to RWA so we don’t have to . 🙂 !

A.C. Nixon

Thanks for the great blog post. I truly regretted not joining RWA and attending this year, but I announced my intention to hubby to go to New York for 2015.

The success of one helps us all. I’m glad to hear that you had a wonderful time, and I’m looking forward to meeting you one of these days.

Meg Justus

I wish I could have gone, especially for Courtney Milan’s program. I’ve been wrestling hard with the fact that it’s all I can do to write two books a year. Are any of the programs available for podcast or in print form that you know of? Conferences aren’t going to be in my budget for a long time, I suspect.

Sharla Rae

I couldn’t make the conference this year but I’m glad to hear RWA has finally come around to recognize Indies. It’s horrible to be snubbed and in the past that’s what if felt like if you even suggested you might publish on Kindle or one of the other outlets. What saddens me is the fact many other writer organizations saw the writing on the wall long “before” RWA. I was among the few you mentioned who wondered if it was an organization I should continue to be a part of. I remained because RWA has a lot to offer all writer no matter what.

Julie Musil

This is fascinating! I’ve heard that romance writers make lots of bank as indies. It’s nice to know that the official organizations are helping authors–indies AND trads–succeed. I’ve noticed that SCBWI is slowing coming around in this area as well. They have a new award for indies, which is a heck of a lot of progress. And I absolutely agree with you about the paths we choose. There’s no wrong or right…it’s just what works for the writer.

Kim Handysides

Excellent Post and recap Jami! Am directing my blog group to this post. xo


Hi Jami,
My last RWA conference, when I was a member, was back in 2001. Since then, things changed in my life and I gave up writing and gave up RWA. But, at the conference, e publishing was just an idea that was s-l-o-w-l-y growing. There were alot of skeptics and poos-poos. No one could believe that there would be e-readers and that e publishing would be something a reader/writer would do. Even I was a skeptic. Now I’m seeing that I was wrong! I am thrilled that E-Publishing is taking off like it is. I’m still learning about the publishing industry and hope that someday I can attend another RWA conference. Thanks again for your wonderful and informative posts.

Emily Hussey

Your review of the conference and the differences you observed certainly gave cause to think. I had subconsciously noticed the change in attitudes towards self-published authors but had not paused to consider the matter in depth. Well presented. It also gives good justification in attending conferences. I must try to get to the next conference in Australia.

Susan Holmes

Excellent article! And good for RWA for taking a step in the right direction, and recognize that the publishing industry is an evolving entity these days.

Here’s hoping the community of mystery fiction will follow RWA’s example!

Rose Meyer
Rose Meyer

I was glad to read that “indie” authors were included in the RITA awards. I agree that the quality of the story should be paramount, not the publishing platform. I look forward to future posts about lessons learned at the conference.


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