Graphic novels filled with shape-shifting, power-pulsing heroines, seminars on social networking, pirate treasure hunts, an intergalactic bar and grill and lots of quirky costumes.
It may sound like something straight out of Comic-Con — except for two things: first, all but a handful of the 1,200 registered attendees are women, and second, the dragon-shifters, immortal swordsmen and sultry sirens on whose behalf they've gathered, populate the pages of romance novels.
The 28th annual RT Booklovers Convention, which kicked off Wednesday at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles and runs through Sunday, caters to the readers, writers, editors and agents of romantic fiction. This is a publishing genre that, according to the Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2010, saw 9,089 new titles and $1.36 billion in sales in 2009 (the last year for which hard numbers are available). This makes the romance genre the single largest category in the consumer book market at 13.2% of sales. (By comparison, religious-inspirational books, the second-largest category, rang up the $770 million in 2009 sales).
Of the two major annual gatherings, RT Booklovers (the RT stands for Romantic Times, and the event is hosted by RT Book Reviews magazine) is considered more of a "readers' convention" — as opposed to the Romance Writers of America yearly conclave, which is more narrowly tailored to authors. As such, the four-day schedule is a grab bag of author chats, panel discussions and book signings (Dean Koontz, Gregg Hurwitz and Heather Graham among the notables), served up alongside seminars on e-books ("From Digital to Print") and tips on breaking into the business ("Stalking the Wild Agent"), and even a contest to choose Mr. Romance 2011 — a cover model whose beefcake body will the grace the cover of an upcoming title from Kensington Publishing.
For first-time attendees there was etiquette advice: "Hydrate, wear comfortable shoes, elastic [waistband] pants are great, and network while you're in line for the bathroom," advised author Jade Lee at the seminar called "RT Virgins." "But it's not OK to slide your manuscript under the stall door."
For the recently published, there were discussions about graphic novels (one speaker dubbed it "an exploding market" for the romance genre, spurred on by tablet technology), author branding (sage advice included: "You need to pick a good pen name early, and buy the domain name") and a panel discussion about the growing importance of social networking.
"There are only two ways to sell: the first is to write a good book and the second is word of mouth," advised author Kristen Lamb. "Today the author needs to do three things to achieve that word of mouth — blog, Twitter and [use] Facebook. Bloggers are your friend."
A bonus for any conventioneer who might be considering writing, buying or selling a romance novel that accurately depicts the life of a federal agent, the Los Angeles field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was on hand to offer a crash course in realism that included Q&A with female undercover agents, a display of 17 weapons (Ranging from an AK-47 to a .22-caliber, single-shot pen gun) and, in an acknowledgement of the mostly female audience, an interesting anecdote.
"I've been in this job for 27 years as of Sunday," said Special Agent in Charge John Torres. "And call it sixth sense or intuition, but in all my years of working undercover I've only been made as a cop twice — and both times it was by women."
The ATF's presentation ended with a demonstration by an explosives-sniffing Labrador retriever named Marianne, whose handler offered a stack of glossy trading cards emblazoned with her picture.
If Marianne had done her "show-and-smell" demonstration as recently as the 2010 convention in Columbus, Ohio, hers probably would have been the only trading card to change hands, but, in a marketing strategy right out of the anime and manga playbook, the tables lining the hallways of the Bonaventure's convention space are overflowing with glossy romance novel trading cards, most of which bear the familiar bodice-ripping book cover art on one side and a character close-up and details on the back.
Examples include Kit Frazier, 32, (a character from "Wicked Seduction" by Jade Lee) with the description: "Sandy hair, light freckling, has a way with animals," and best line: "I must insist that you stop bleeding on the earl. It really isn't done," and Steinarr the Proud ("Immortal Outlaw," by Lisa Hendrix): "Beast Form: Lion, Occupation: Bounty Hunter/Occasional Outlaw, Story Begins: Anno Domini 1290."
"This is the first convention that's had the trading cards," says author Joanna Bourne as she lays down cards for two of her novels on a conference room table (for her novels "The Forbidden Rose," and "The Black Hawk").
"We won't really know if they're a success until after the Romance Writers [of America] convention in June, but when I can give these to people, it helps make the characters transcend the book and feel all the more real."
As if on cue, nine shaggy-maned, hard-bodied men materialize as if from nowhere. The Mr. Romance candidates posed for photos with attendees — bulging biceps around sari-draped shoulders, flawless lips pressed to bindi-bejweled foreheads, as they mill about, waiting for the opening night's Bollywood-themed kickoff.
For a brief moment, it wasn't that the hunky heroes had transcended the bondage of their book covers, but as if the entire room had somehow tilted sideways and disappeared completely into the pages of a romance novel.
Day One had found its optimistic ending, and even someone who had never flipped any farther than the first page of a bodice-ripper could understand the magic.