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Friday, May 23, 2014

The RT14 Clusterf**k

I was going to avoid this topic. I really was. But I'm reading and hearing too much not to comment.

First of all, RT stands for Romantic Times. The magazine RT Book Reviews started in 1981 as a "tabloid newspaper" called Romantic Times that was for and about romance books and their readers. Over the years, RT Bookclub expanded to review other genres. In 1982, the founder of RT, romance writer Kathryn Falk, launched the RT Convention.

RT is NOT affiliated with RWA (aka Romance Writers of America). Personally, I'm annoyed that all manner of bloggers and commenters cannot differentiate between the two organizations. There is a lot of crossover simply because of the nature of the romance community.

For the record, I had an RT Bookclub subscription for five or six years, but I have never been to an RT Convention. But I've heard stories from friends who have gone.

Oh, boy, have I heard stories!

But this year, the stories that were normally private over margaritas and Tex-Mex went public. Well, that's not true. They went viral among the publishing industry. And for our size, we're really very small and insular so things get around.

This year wasn't like the time a well-known author did a striptease on a tabletop. (P.S. At business functions, limit your alcohol intake. And make no mistake, the RT Convention is a business function for writers.)

Nope, there were a series of problems that irritated both readers and writers:

1) Record attendance in a too small facility

RT14 had a record attendance (no official number yet, but I've been hearing unofficial numbers in the 2500 range). These were just the registered attendees, and does not include people off the street since the Book Fair was open to the public.

This means they surpassed the RWA conference which has had 1700-2000 attendees over the last ten years. And RT held its conference in the Marriott in New Orleans, a place RWA already knew was too small for them! (Remember, lots of crossover between RWA and RT people.)

FYI - RWA has had a contract with the Marriott chain for the last fifteen years, and there's a limited number of their hotels that can handle 2000 guests. Only one time in that fifteen years was the RWA conference held on a non-Marriott site. That was when flooding destroyed the Nashville Marriott a couple of months before the conference. Only Disney World could handle that size of a conference on that short of a notice.

The New Orleans fire marshal was at the Book Fair, keeping a close eye on the situation. Several attendees mentioned that he threatened to shut down the Book Fair, but hey, his job is to keep people safe.

Now, these weren't all people off the street. I had checked into attending RT14, and a month after registration opened, the Marriott was full, and the RT organizers needed a spillover hotel. It's not like all these people showed up the morning the first day of the conference, so RT had an inkling from the get-go that space was going to be a problem.

Possible solutions for RT:
- Find a bigger facility.
- Limit registered attendees.


2) Separation of authors and long lines at the Book Fair itself

So RT already has a space issue, and they knew it, but they didn't notify the attending authors that space had been reduced for their signing tables until they arrived. Many writers bring signage, displays, and swag to give away to readers, and there wasn't enough room for everyone's. A lot of writers were miffed because they would have been more conservative in their packing if they had known.

RT needed two ball rooms to accommodate all the signing authors, but they placed all the trad published authors in one and the small press, e-press and indie authors in another. There was also the major issue with the square footage of tables. Supposedly some authors got extra. If RT provided some authors less than others when every writer paid the same amount and was promised the same size of facility to participate in the Book Fair, RT is looking at a potential breach of contract lawsuit.

This bring us to the second major problem. A lot of writers are hybrids(TM Bob Mayer). RT organizers forced them to chose whether they wanted to sign their trad published books or their non-trad published books. Major fail here because readers follow authors. Sorry, Big 5, but it's true.

This made a lot of authors, including NYT bestselling writers, feel like second class citizens, which I'll get into a little more in Point 3 below.

The third major problem is the bookstore providing support for the Book Fair did not bring electronic scanners or POS cash registers to the conference. All paperwork was done by hand, which resulted in long lines in the hotel's hallways and rankled the fire marshal. This is the 21st century. Hand tallying went out with the horse and buggy.

I don't know which retailer this was. I've heard both Barnes & Noble and Anderson's mentioned. Either way it's no excuse for not bringing adequate equipment to a major conference.

Supposedly the separation of the two groups of authors was due to returnable vs. non-returnable books at the request of the bookseller. Makes me wonder how long this particular retailer will stay in business.

Possible solutions for RT:
- Writers need to be notified as soon as a potential problem is known so they can adjust whatever promotion they have planned.
- RT needs to research the booksellers they use during the Book Fair more thoroughly, i.e. can they provide adequate staff and equipment? If not, find someone else.
- Indie writers who publish print need to consider the return option since it can be a make-or-break deal with booksellers.
- RT should arrange signing seats alphabetically to make it easy for readers to find their favorite authors. The only authors who need a separate room are those whose lines are difficult to manage (Nora Roberts and Sherrilyn Kenyon come to mind.)


3) Issues with volunteers

I've done volunteer work for a lot of different organizations. It's an exhausting, thankless task at the best of times, but you need to keep a positive face because you represent the event.

There were several reports of the registration desk opening early late and closing late early. One writer who was trying to confirm something was bluntly told she couldn't ask anymore questions. And then there was the volunteer that raised hackles by stating the people in the small press/e-press/indie room were "aspiring authors."

Everyone who witnessed this particular incident agreed this was the only incident and the volunteer was quickly and firmly corrected. But with the pressure of the book signing, the feeling of packed sardines, and the long wait to check out, the comment was a match on the pool of stress oil.

That in turn set off a firestorm of blog posts this week, ranging from Hugh Howey, who didn't attend RT14, to Jennifer Bray-Weber, who did.

Steven Zacharius, president of Kensington Publishing, jumped on Hugh's blog and pretty much made an ass of himself. I understand he felt the need to defend RT CEO Kathryn Falk because he and his father have been friends with her for years. But Kathryn's a big girl. If she can handle her own company, I'm sure she can learn from and fix the problems for next year's RT Conference. But considering Stevie Z.'s own stance on the separation of trad and indie books, he's the last person Kathryn needs defending her.

Possible Solutions for RT:
- An apology to all writers for the muck-up that was the RT Book Signing.
- Full training for volunteers, preferably in person the day before the conference starts. Online training prior to the conference if logistics for in-person training are impossible.
- Hire an outside conference organizer who has plenty of experience with large events.
- A ball gag and fingercuffs for Stevie Z. With friends like this, Kathryn Falk doesn't need enemies.


Personally, I think RT needs to go back to the basics of what it did best, facilitate interaction between writers and cover models and their fans in a fun atmosphere. Leave the publishing politics out of the equation. If Kathryn and her people want to promote classes for the business side of writing and publishing, then make that a separate event.

But the writer/fan interaction? That's where I've always heard terrific things about RT.


P.S. Stevie Z., you really need to let go of your hard-on for Hugh Howey. I don't think he swings that way.

7 comments:

  1. Tim just walked in with supper, so I'll be back later to finish reading. He's done and now we start our 9 day staycation. Woohoo!

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    1. Hope you and Tim enjoy your staycation, Whisk! If you go see X-Men, don't tell me!

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  2. I'm back.

    It amazes me that no POS and that they didn't organize the writers by alphabet. As a reader, I don't give two craps and a hang bag about which way the author is published. Just make it easy for me to find the table I want to hit.

    Have a great weekend and boogie boogie.

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    1. "As a reader, I don't give two craps and a hang bag about which way the author is published. Just make it easy for me to find the table I want to hit."

      That was the second biggest complaint of readers behind the ridiculous wait to check out. Several groups of authors held private parties in hotel suites for their fans, and were told by the fans that had come specifically to get signed books that they couldn't find them in the chaos of the Book Fair.

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    2. Then maybe next go about the writers will be smart and band together to get things set right. No writers, no gig.

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  3. As someone who's worked a bunch of cons (professional conferences as well as SF cons) and run a couple, I'm side-eyeing the organizers here. They could have solved some of their major problems by having their ducks in a row.

    They have a certain amount of space for this event, to wit, two ballrooms. I'm sure they knew many months ahead of time (possibly a couple of years or more, depending on how RT manages its rotating sites) what space was available. You figure out the room layout you want, see how many tables that gives you. (Keeping in mind fire lane requirements -- I've run the autograph area at WorldCon -- this is a major issue, especially with wildly popular writers appearing.) With six foot tables, and each author promised three feet of space (that's what I heard, anyway) you count your tables and multiply by two. That's how many writers you have room for. With two rooms, and especially with the rooms differentiated by author type, you do this twice.

    You now know how much space you have, and therefore how many writers you can have, in each room. NOW you start taking sign-ups. When each room is full, that's it, you take no more sign-ups for that room. Sorry, folks, should've registered earlier.

    Then, at the event, you have an adequate number of well trained staff whose job it is to monitor the rooms constantly, making sure each writer ends up in the right slot, that no writer takes more space than has been allocated to her/him (I heard that was a problem), that Writer X's fans (or street team [cough]) don't hang out for hours in front of Writer X's space, also blocking the space of writers next to her (ditto a problem I heard about), and that as people line up for autographs fire lanes are maintained, which might mean having a gap in the line and staffers on hand to make sure that the gap is maintained and that no one line-jumps at that point. Or any other point. Plus enforces any other rules that might be in place.

    If the organizers had done these things, which are not rocket science to anyone with conference organizing experience, that would've eliminated a lot of the problems that are bringing them such negative attention now. These are con-running basics, and the organizers blew it.

    And if Marriotts can't hold them anymore, it's time to move. Hopefully their agreements are mostly verbal/pencilled in beyond a couple of years. It'd suck if they're actually stuck at too-small facilities for the next decade. :/ Very bad planning, too.

    Or you get creativve. BayCon, back when it was larger than it is now (used to run 2300-2500 people) was at the San Jose Red Lion, which is now a Westin. We used every square inch of function space, plus we had programming in a concierge level elevator lobby, outside on the secondary drop-off area (which is covered) and out on the pool deck (movies projected on the blank side of the building -- great fun), plus a chunk of the art show was in a storage room adjacent to the ballroom where the art show was officially held; they cleaned that room out for us every year. We used to say we used function space they didn't know they had, and it was pretty much true. :)

    If all you need are ballroom-sized spaces, though, then it's time to move to a bigger facility. Maybe a chunk of a convention center. (You don't have to rent the whole thing, which is good. :) )

    Anyway, yeah. I certainly hope they get their act together before next year.

    Angie

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    1. You have way more convention experience than I do, Angie. I bow to the master. *grin*

      Ironically, Comicpalooza is this weekend at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. In an interview with one of the local CBS affiliates, Stan Lee said it was the best-run con he's been to.

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