The Value of Seminars at the Romantic Times’ Annual Booklovers Conventions from 1990 to 1995
By Sasha Gerber (2023)
Researcher John Bemrose claimed that “all through the western world, thousands of would-be [romance] authors are toiling away on manuscripts,” and hoping to be published (Bemrose, p. 58). In this paper, I will discuss the writers’ workshops and seminars that were offered at the Romantic Times’ annual Booklovers Conventions in the first half of the 1990s to help writers achieve this goal. I will argue that the seminars added value to the convention by providing attendees with opportunities to learn how to strengthen their writing and have a successful career in the romance industry. I will make this point by analyzing the role of seminars in conference scheduling, the common topics covered in workshops for several years, and the participants’ reception of the seminars. My evidence predominantly comes from issues of Romantic Times magazine, as well as newspaper articles that covered the conventions at the time.
Romantic Times’ Booklovers Conventions
According to scholar Anna Michelson, the community of romance readers stems from the specific expectations readers share “for what a romance novel should be and what the reading experience should be like” (Michelson, p. 180). According to scholar Anne Kershaw, in order to connect, “the romance community thrives on a constant whirl of conferences, conventions, workshops, trade magazines, and newsletters aimed at keeping writers abreast of trends in the industry and ensuring access to publishers, editors, and agents” (p. 43). This is certainly true in the context of Romantic Times magazine, which began hosting its annual Booklovers Convention in 1982 so that “everyone interested in the romance-novel industry,” could gather as a community (Goldsmith, p. 5). The attendees consisted of hundreds of published authors, booksellers, and readers of the magazine that were lovers of the genre or perhaps aspiring writers themselves (Goldsmith, p. 5). Kershaw claims that “romance authors have an intimate connection with their readers that is constantly nurtured” and the Booklovers Conventions could be seen as a way that the connection stayed strong.
The convention typically lasted four days and programming included book signings, a book fair, tea parties, a ball, an award ceremony, and a beauty pageant for aspiring male cover models (Falk, p. 22). Convention-goers could also attend the dozens of seminars or workshops about the industry that were led by authors, booksellers, publishers, and editors (Carlin, p. 20). Kate Friedman, a Canadian romance author, expressed that readers and writers of romance fiction take the craft and the business very seriously (Kershaw, p. 41). The popularity of the annual Booklovers Convention supports her point. The convention was such a big event that a local newspaper claimed the city of Baton Rouge would turn into “the romance capital of the world” when the Romantic Times’ Booklovers convention was held there (Goldsmith, p. 5).
Seminars in Convention Advertisements and Agendas
The high volume of seminars in each conference agenda and the prevalence of workshop advertisements in magazine issues illuminates the central role seminars played in convention programming. In fact, seminars and writing workshops made up the bulk of conference scheduling every year.
In 1990, the convention agenda offered separate schedules of seminars for published authors, booksellers, and aspiring novelists (Falk, p. 97). In total, there were eight workshop events specifically for booksellers (Falk, p. 97-98). For aspiring and published authors, the conference schedule was packed with twenty-nine workshops throughout the weekend (Falk, p. 99). The sheer quantity of seminars offered suggests that they played an important role in the programming of the convention by providing structure to the weekend.
In 1992, the seminars were grouped into three different tracks: historical research, writing, and marketing. Once again, they made up the vast majority of conference scheduling, filling the 1992 conference schedule with the exception of the bookfair on Saturday afternoon, costume ball on Sunday, and awards banquet on Monday (Falk). By separating the seminars according to subject area instead of by intended audience, the programming could appeal to authors at any stage of the publication process, whether they were about to start writing their manuscripts, in the process of writing, or attempting to market and publish their completed book. Structuring the entire agenda according to workshops being offered also supports the idea that the seminars were part of backbone of the convention.
The agenda for the Booklovers Convention in 1993 was so extensive that Romantic Times printed it as a sixteen-page brochure available separate from the magazine (Falk, p.33). That year, the conference held over thirty workshops and romance writing seminars (Falk, p. 32). In place of a conference agenda in the March issue, the magazine included advertisements for different seminars, including “in-depth” seminars and “special 3-hour workshops for story structure and self-editing” (Falk, p. 32). There is a full-page advertisement for an “in-depth research seminar” taught by Kristine Hughes, a historian with a focus on the United Kingdom (Hughes, p. 33). In her advertisement, Hughes promises to teach writers “how to effectively (and easily) research all periods of British history” during a two-hour workshop, which is thirty minutes longer than the usual seminar (Hughes, p. 33). The Romantic Times issue from March 1993 also included an advertisement for a workshop in the form of a “pop quiz” that readers could only learn the answers to if they attended the seminar. The large amount of space devoted to these advertisements in the magazine shows how prominent the seminars were. If they were of little importance to the conference as a whole, they would not receive so much space on the page.
In 1994, Romantic Times introduced a new kind of seminar. In addition to a program full of over forty seminars for readers, aspiring writers, and published authors, they also advertised a “two-day intensive writing workshop” for aspiring writers that took place in the two days right before the convention started (Falk, p. 86). In a half-page advertisement, the Romantic Times printed goals submitted by anonymous RT readers that had already registered for the intensive workshop. The regular conference schedule, with around fifty seminars for readers, writers, booksellers, and editors, was supplemented with pre-conference intensives again in 1995 (Falk, p.56). Back by popular demand, aspiring writers could register for intensive workshops as a beginner or intermediate-level writer (Falk, p. 63). The advertisements reveal that convention organizers decided to add more intense workshops to meet the high demand for them, further demonstrating the popularity of the seminars.
The number of seminar offerings continuously grew between 1990 and 1995, and the conference-goers could choose from a widening range of seminar intensity levels. This growth illustrates how the seminars were an integral part of the conference programming as the convention developed each year. The popularity of intensive workshops, and the fact that participants were willing to come to the conference two days early to participate, suggests that attendees valued the experience and information they gained from the seminars.
Common Themes in Workshop Topics
The writers seminars were organized in the conference schedule slightly differently each year, but some topics, such as how to launch a career in romance fiction, conduct accurate historical research, practice self-editing, and promote a book were covered consistently between 1990 and 1995. The consistent offerings of certain topics proves that the Booklovers Convention could be counted on to provide attendees with opportunities to learn and grow as writers.
The theme of kicking off a career in the romance fiction industry was covered under various titles over the years, including “Setting Goals for Success” (1990), “Surviving in Publishing” (1992), “Welcome to the Club! Or How I Sold My First Book” (1994), and “Building a Career Out of Writing Romance” (1995). The recurrence of this theme demonstrates that the conference reliably provided opportunities for aspiring writers to learn how to break into the industry.
A second topic that was reliably covered each year was how to conduct quality research. Caryn Radick found that “far more than many archivists may have thought, romance writers are a constituency, and quite often a passionate one” (Radick, p. 45). This constituency is demonstrated by the fact that the topic was covered in many different ways over the years, serving as an annual tutorial for how to conduct historical research in libraries and archives. The 1992 agenda had an entire section dedicated to historical research that was broken up by period. Authors and aspiring writers could attend a session (or several) dedicated to researching the Medieval period, the Elizabethan period, the Civil War, or the Old West (Falk). An advertisement for the 1993 convention promised “fabulous historical research experts [that would] explain how to build a personal library and network system to produce authentic novels” (Falk, p. 21). The 1994 agenda included an entire section of seminars deemed “research topics” and additional workshops specifically covering “On Site Research,” as well as “Using Research to make your Story Come Alive” (Falk, p. 88). The concept of conducting on-site research was covered again in 1995, with a seminar titled “Research: At Home, in the Library, & In the Field” (Falk, p. 60). That year, the conference also held workshops about individual historical periods, just as it did in 1992 (Falk, p. 60). The frequency of seminars on the topic of quality research shows how the Booklovers Convention supported writers in their efforts to become stronger historical researchers.
Another recurring theme between 1990 and 1995 was how to be an effective self-editor. Convention-goers looking to get published could attend a seminar called “Revising Your Manuscript” in 1990. A similar seminar titled “Self-Editing Workshop” was offered in both 1992 and 1993 (Falk, p. 24). One of the reasons an anonymous RT reader signed up for the “Two Day Intensive Writing Workshop” at the 1994 convention was because it would allow her “to learn revising and self-editing techniques” (Anonymous, p. 86). Two seminars about self-editing were offered in 1995, including an overview of editing insights and a workshop about how to form an effective critique group (Falk, p. 63). The fact that self-editing was such a common seminar topic exemplifies how the Booklover’s Convention equipped attendees with lessons they could apply to their own writing and revision processes to produce strong romance fiction.
Another pattern that emerges from the conference agendas is seminars about effective book promotion. In 1990, there was a two-hour long seminar on the topic, called simply “Promotion Seminar” (Falk, p. 97). In 1992, an entire third of conference programming was dedicated to marketing tactics, including seminars on garnering local publicity, staying up to date on new ways to promote a book, and building a strong relationship with an agent (Falk). In 1994, to support aspiring writers that were meeting with editors and agents, there were seminars about “The Ins & Outs of Book Promotion,” in addition to lectures about how to navigate the romance market (Falk, 89). The convention offered multiple opportunities to learn about book promotion in 1995, with a seminar called “Marketing Your Longer Book,” and another workshop about promotional agencies that covered “topics such as complete business planning, strategic public relations positioning, and developing marketing communications” (Falk, p. 58). By giving writers the chance to learn about how to market and promote their books effectively, the Booklovers Convention attempts to set attendees up for success in publishing their romance novels.
The recurrence of these themes demonstrates consistency in giving attendees the opportunity to learn about the industry through topical seminars that were relevant for writers at all different stages in the book publishing process.
Reception of the Seminars
In the April 1994 issue of the Romantic Times, there was an article titled “Seminars Promise Shining Moments… for readers, published and aspiring authors and booksellers alike!” that included dozens of reflections from previous conference attendees in anticipation of the 1994 convention (Falk, p. 76-77). The reflections offer insight into the value the seminars provided to convention-goers.
Romantic Times reader Melinda Helfer was quoted in the article and described the workshop environment as “a home away from home” (Falk, p. 76). Another quote was included from reader Kathe Robin, who said that she loves “the fun of getting together with other readers” (Falk, p. 76). Diana Saenger, a lover of romantic films, expressed how fascinated she was by the connection between romantic novels and romantic films, and how much she values the perspectives of other romantic film buffs (Falk, p. 77). There was also a quote from published author Janis Reams Hudson, who learned about how it is important for authors “to keep their heads up and keep writing” (Falk, p. 76). Mary Bullard, a bookseller, shared that every year she went to the Booklovers Convention, she “learned something that directly [helped] her business” (Falk, p. 76). These glowing reviews speak to the positive impact the seminars had on attendees.
Seminar leaders also weighed in to share what they hoped attendees would take away from their workshops. The Vice President of Marketing for Penguin USA, Maryann Palumbo, was quoted saying that she leads sessions to keep authors “aware of shifts in the market,” and informed about how to promote their books (Falk, p. 77). Georgina Gentry expressed that she would be “stressing the importance of authenticity” in her research seminar (Falk, p. 77). Similarly, the article included Jacki Whitford’s promise to “provide aspiring writers and published authors with the easiest, fastest way to research” (Falk, p. 77). Finally, a quote from Meryl Sawyer revealed that she planned to show seminar participants how the audience for “mainstream romances is growing every day” (Falk, p. 77). Workshop leaders expressed a passionate interest in making positive contributions to the conference program through their teaching. The combination of the participants’ excitement to learn, plus the leaders’ eagerness to provide value, suggests that the seminars were a significant part of the conference experience that gave attendees the chance to grow and explore topics in the genre.
The high volume of seminars offered each year illustrates their importance to the conference scheduling. As a central part of the convention each year, and with consistently relevant topics that were aimed at readers, writers, and booksellers, the seminars provided an opportunity for convention attendees to learn about the industry and how to have a successful career in it. The leaders of the seminars set goals to provide value to those who participated, and the reviews of participants indicate that this value was realized and appreciated.
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Carlin, Margaret. “Romance Abounds at Beaver Creek for Booklovers Convention and Fair.” Rocky Mountain News, September 15, 1991. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/0EB4D8F051C4371C.
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Michelson, Anna. “The politics of happily-ever-after: romance genre fiction as aesthetic public sphere.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 9, no. 3 (January 2021): 177-210. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/348463326_The_politics_of_happily-ever-after_romance_genre_fiction_as_aesthetic_public_sphere.
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