A History of Romance Writers of America
By Allison Grote
Romance is a billion dollar industry. It makes up 34% of fiction sales in the United States (“Romance Statistics”), a greater portion than any other genre fiction. Driven mainly by women who come from all different backgrounds, education levels, and interests, the romance industry boasts tens of millions of readers yearly (Sprackland), yet, according to a recent study, 51% of readers “feel they should keep their romance reading a secret” (Rodale). Nicole Peeler, Ph.D., an author of urban fantasy novels who doubles as the director of the “Writing Popular Fiction” program at Seton Hill University, elaborates:
To a certain extent, romance has always been so dismissed, but because it’s been so dismissed, people really bonded who read it…They felt like they had to kind of conglomerate, you know, for safety almost. Like it’s okay to read these things. (Love Between the Covers)
Romance Writers of America provides lovers of the romance genre a place to “conglomerate,” a place to openly love, celebrate, and grow genre romance together.
This report examines how, since its founding in 1980, Romance Writers of America has been a strong hub and support system not only for the writers of romance, but the entire genre romance community—authors, editors, agents, book sellers, and librarians alike. With 84% of romance readers being female, and a vast majority of romance writers being female (Sage), romance is a female-dominated industry. In the words of Maya Rodale in her book Dangerous Books for Girls, “It was just a woman, writing for a woman, about a woman”(21). It is important that these women have a group to rally around them—to be “The Voice of Romance Writers”—within a society that can be derisive of successful women. As several authors interviewed in the Popular Romance Project’s 2015 Documentary, Love Between the Covers, asserted, the romance community truly is a “pay-it-forward” community, and the RWA helps make that possible.
Foundations & Structure
In 1979, a group of writers—Rita Clay Estrada, Rita Gallagher, Parris Afton Bonds, Sondra Stanford, Peggy Cleaves—and editor Vivian Stephens met at a writers’ conference being held at the University of Houston, and they agreed that they saw a void in the vastly popular romance industry (“Our History”). With Mystery Writers of America being created all the way back in 1945 (“MWA History”) and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America getting its start in 1965 (“Who We Are”), a professional genre writers’ organization was certainly not a novel idea; however, a writers’ organization specifically for America’s largest form of genre fiction had yet to be conceived. Associations for predominately women writers of any sort, for that matter, did not yet have much of a presence in the United States, for Sisters in Crime was not founded until 1986 when female crime writers grew tired of being dismissed by their male peers (“Our Mission and History”). By 1979, The United Kingdom’s Romantic Novelists’ Association was already about to be celebrating its twentieth anniversary; the six women believed it was time for the American romance novelists to have a group of their own. They got straight to work. By December of 1980, the RWA had grown to thirty-seven writers—six-fold from the six original women in just over a year. They held their first official meeting in Houston and elected their first board of directors.
Today, Romance Writers of America has grown to a size larger than that of any other professional genre writers’ organization in America—by a long shot. Each member benefits from the conferences, workshops, and community offered by RWA, as well as the monthly publication of the Romance Writers Report. RWA boasts more than 10,500 members and 145 chapters (“About RWA”), a number that RWA’s Chapter Relations Manager since 2008, Leslie Scantlebury, explains, “has been quite consistent” (Scantlebury, March 23). This is a greater membership count than four of the United States’ other main genre writers’ organizations combined, with 3,800 members of Sisters in crime, 3,000 members of Mystery Writers of America, 1,900 members of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and 1,500 members of Horror Writers of America (More Protests) Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s Romantic Novelist’s association represents 700 members.
The 10,500 members of Romance Writers of America are all either published romance authors, aspiring romance authors, or other industry professionals—such as editors, agents, book-sellers, and librarians. According to Executive Director Allison Kelley, there are 114 “dues-paying” industry professionals and 98 “dues-paying” book sellers and librarians, but it is important to note that “individuals who are engaged in the industry as editors, agents, librarians and/or booksellers do not have to be members to participate in most of RWA’s programs” (Kelley); thus, many more than 114 industry professionals attend RWA’s conference each year. The writers involved in the RWA can be involved in either the PAN—Published Authors Network—or PRO community of practice. The PRO is for members who are seriously pursuing a career in romance writing but have yet to publish anything (“About Communities of Practice”). As of the end of March 2017, RWA reported 3,740 members who have published works in the romance genre and 3,565 members “who have submitted complete manuscripts of romance fiction to prove they are seriously pursuing a career as a romance writer” (Kelley). Through chapter events—provided by both online and local chapters—as well as the national conference, aspiring writers of romance connect with published writers of romance and industry professionals to learn about and improve their writing and genre romance as a whole.
Romance Writers of America’s 145 chapters consist of both local and online chapters. The local chapters are based solely on geography and hold monthly meetings, contests, conferences, and workshops for their members. “The largest numbers of members can be found in the Northeastern and Southern states as well as California” (Scantlebury); however, this includes members of online chapters as well, which are not based on geography, so it does not necessarily mean that the largest chapters are located in the aforementioned regions. In 2008, when Leslie Scantlebury started at RWA as the Chapter Relations Manager, it had its highest ever number of chapters at 150; that number has decreased since then mostly due to time constraints of chapter volunteers (Scantlebury, March 23). The majority of online chapters are based on special interests, i.e. sub-genres or achievements. For example, members of the Rainbow Romance Writers write LGBT romance (“Welcome to the Rainbow…”), and the Golden Network is open only to members who have been finalists or winners of the Golden Heart Award (“Welcome”). The first online chapter was formed a few years after RWA’s formation, and they have remained popular since then (Scantlebury, May 3). RWA’s two largest chapters are online, and they both have over 300 members. In fact, Leslie Scantlebury further elaborated on the large impact of the online chapters, explaining that, of RWA’s top ten largest chapters, seven of them are online chapters. Aside from the fact that online chapters are simply able to reach a larger membership base due to their lack of geographical constraints, this evidence points towards the conclusion that many writers of genre romance feel there are great benefits to be had from being surrounded by writers who share their more specific focuses within the industry.
Among other assertions that Romance Writers of America says it “stands for” is the following: “United, romance writers are a powerful community” (“About RWA”). This is something that the RWA clearly places significant importance on, for in June of 1981, Romance Writers of America held its first RWA Conference in the Woodlands (“Our History”), and it has done so in a different U.S. city every year since then. This conference serves to encourage a united, powerful community by bringing writers, librarians, book sellers, and editors in the same place, face-to-face, to celebrate and cultivate the genre they love. The conference holds educational workshops and networking events, such as sessions in which authors can give pitches to agents. Author Kristan Higgins speaks on the connection the conference builds between those within the romance community, saying, “your icons that you’ve been reading for years are now your best friends” (Love Between the Covers). Each year, the conference draws about 2,100 people (Crutcher) for four days of education, networking, awards, and catching up with friends. Maya Rodale explains in her book, Dangerous Books for Girls, “Qualities of the romance writing community allow it to try new things, grow its readership, and support its authors, which in turn promotes the overall success of the genre and industry” (68). The first of those specific qualities that she goes on to discuss is the “close connection” (Rodale, 69) amongst those in the romance community.
In addition to the connections between writers and other industry professionals formed at the conference, the book-signing event held each year facilitates connections between writers and readers of the romance novel. This writer-reader connection keeps readers involved, reminds writers for whom they’re writing, and grows interest in and entry into the industry. Prolific romance author Beverly Jenkins reveals in Love Between the Covers the impact that meeting and talking with her African American fans at the book signing event at the RWA Conference had on her, saying that it was “so life-affirming because here you’ve made a difference in people’s lives with just paper and ink.” “Life-affirming” moments like these are not uncommon among romance writers at book signings. For example, romance author Mia Hopkins recently wrote a blog entry about book signings, wherein she expressed, “it’s a thrill to see folks in real life who have read and enjoyed my stories. Stuck behind a screen all day, I feel always invigorated after getting out and meeting readers” (Hopkins). For authors who often do not receive the respect they deserve for their hard work, the RWA conference makes sure they do not go un-praised—be it through appreciative fans or official RWA awards.
Romance Writers of America has several awards they give out to those making a difference in the industry—be it through writing, editing, volunteering, book selling, or book loaning. The different types of awards have grown since the association’s inception in 1980, but the Golden Heart and RITA Award Ceremonies are still a big to-do every year at the conference, often being referred to as the “Oscars” or the “Grammys” of the Romance World (Fox). “The purpose of the RITA award is to promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novella” (“The RITA Award”), while the Golden Heart Award serves the same purpose with the exception that unpublished romance novels and novellas are recognized. In 1980 and 1981, the awards were simply given to the first-, second-, and third-place winners in each contest. Both contests were divided into six subcategories in 1983. These subcategories have been amended many times since they were originally established. Deputy Executive Director of RWA Carol Ritter explains, “Both contests have expanded to include more (and less) sub-genres” (Ritter). Currently, the RITA Award has twelve different sub-categories, and the Golden Heart Award has eight (“Awards”). RWA’s board of directors reviews contest statistics each year to determine which sub-categories should remain included in the RITA and Golden Heart awards (Ritter). Along with the RITA and Golden Heart awards, one of the highest honors the RWA can bestow upon someone is the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, which “recognizes significant contributions to the romance genre.” The award was first established in 1983 under the name “Golden Treasure.” In 1990, it became the “Lifetime Achievement Award,” and remained that way until 2008 when it was renamed the “RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award” (“RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime…”).
Advocacy & Outreach
Beyond providing those in the romance industry with networking opportunities and presenting them with prestigious awards, Romance Writers of America is ultimately an advocacy group—“The Voice of Romance Writers,” as their tagline proudly proclaims. More specifically, RWA’s website reads:
Romance Writers of America® (RWA) is a nonprofit trade association whose mission is to advance the professional and common business interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy and by increasing public awareness of the romance genre. RWA works to support the efforts of its members to earn a living, to make a full-time career out of writing romance—or a part-time one that generously supplements his/her main income.
Since its founding, Romance Writers of America has proven that they truly are here for their writers. The RWA strives to fight for romance writers’ “right to reasonable remuneration and preservation of authorial and intellectual property rights” (“About RWA”). In 2008, when the pirating of illegal downloads was at its height, RWA created a database that enables writers to see where romance novels are available for illegal downloading, so that they may stop their own work form being pirated. The database includes “contact information for each site’s administrators, links to each site’s takedown procedures, instructions for sending notice to these Web sites and a sample takedown letter” (Andriani). More recently, in January of 2017, the New York Times announced that it would be excluding mass-market and e-book sales in its assessment and creation of its New York Times Best Sellers Lists. Romance Writers of America swiftly issued a statement in which it “strongly urges the Times to reconsider its decision.” That statement, dated January 31st, was then followed up on February 6th with a joint statement by RWA and several other writers’ associations. February’s joint complaint reads, “On behalf of more than 20,000 members and their millions of readers, we strongly urge the Times to rethink its extremely limited definition of what constitutes a bestselling novel” (“More Protests”). Of the organizations listed in the joint statement, RWA consists of half of the overall membership numbers.
RWA strives to encourage academia surrounding the romance genre. Romance Writers of America awards a $5,000 research grant, which it has been giving annually to those endeavoring to perform academic research on the genre since 2005—four years before the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance even opened its doors. This has had a large impact on the romance genre, for Popular Romance Studies is as of yet an emerging field, and as more academic research and discussions are centered on genre romance, the industry will perhaps be able to rid itself of a long-held stigma. RWA states the objectives as the program as follows:
To support theoretical and substantive academic research about genre romance texts and literacy practices.
To encourage a well-informed public discourse about genre romance texts and literacy practices.
(“Academic Research Grant”)
Thus far, the program seems to have succeeded in its stated goals. For example, the second winner of the grant, Eric Murphy Selinger, created both a listerv network of international romance scholars, as well as the collaborative academic romance blog, Teach Me Tonight, which has an authorship that includes several past grant recipients (Frantz, 9). Sarah S.G. Frantz and Selinger write in the introduction to their collection of critical essays, New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, “the RomanceScholar listerv has proved invaluable in spreading the word about new scholarship, conferences, and calls for papers” (9), and this is exactly what the Academic Research Grant program is aiming to do.
RWA is also seeking to make a difference in the world on behalf of everyone involved in the romance industry. Every year, a component of the conference is dedicated to its Readers for Life Literacy Autographing, a massive book signing in which proceeds go to ProLiteracy Worldwide to help promote adult literacy. In 2016, ProLiteracy issued “A Million Thanks” to RWA in recognition of the fact that the association has donated more than $1,000,000 to literacy organizations since 1991 (“Community Involvement”).
Maya Rodale writes in her book Dangerous Books for Girls:
Through the extensive resources they provide and the connections facilitated between authors, agents and editors, RWA helps the genre get ahead by helping individual authors succeed in their dream of romance publication. According to my friends in the literary world, nothing like this exists for them. (70)
Romance Writers of America is has been a center for the romance industry for nearly four decades, providing and encouraging support, education, and academia within genre romance.
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