2:30 PM — Invocation
It is a scorching and bright July afternoon in St. Louis, and I’ve been released for the afternoon to attend a convention called Penned Con, which is being held nearby at the St. Louis City Center Hotel (which I’m going to call the Sheraton for economy’s sake). I am very familiar with this ten-minute walk because the hotel is right by the Metrolink station. To our right is the Scottrade Center which hosts St. Louis Blues hockey games; in the winter it features a large curbside grate that expels warm air, and there are usually two or three people sleeping or warming themselves on it.
There is no one on the grate today. It would be much nicer to lie down on the frozen hockey rink. There are no trees anywhere and there is something harsh and inquisitorial about the sunlight.
I am out here because the library received four complimentary tickets to Penned Con. Central Library’s director forwarded them to me with the typically witty quip that it sounded like “a convention for prison writers.” No one’s quite sure what Penned Con is at the library. This may be why I’m the only one going. Romance is what I’m thinking, because Penned Con culminates with a masquerade ball, and because of this program description:
Panel: Husbands of Authors 101 Find out what REALLY happens behind the scenes with the men who know your favorite authors best.
By the way, I am a writer of literary fiction. My latest and only novel is ranked #769,114 in Amazon’s Kindle Store.
2:40 PM — Lobby
The Sheraton is a pretty cool place. It was originally built as a J.C. Penney warehouse circa 1929. There’s a trompe l’oeil facade on the building with pointed obelisks and a depiction of Justice and some decorative arches that makes it look like there’s a hotel painted on the hotel.
There are no exterior signs of the convention but I see a group of women in badges getting on the elevator and figure I’m probably on the right track. There’s a concierge in the lobby whose face lights up when I tell him what I’m looking for. “The book convention?” he asks, and he’s either very happy that I’m attending Penned Con, or finds it secretly hilarious, I can’t tell. “Thirteenth floor,” he says. Tridecaphobes beware: not only does the Sheraton have a thirteenth floor, but they host conventions on it.
2:42 PM — On the Red … Coat
I approach the registration desk with trepidation. Having only recently submitted my request for a free librarian ticket, I am not very confident that they will have my name on file. Also, I did not get the chance to shower this morning, which is beginning to seem like a bad decision given the heat. In my scraggly, sweaty state, I’m probably looking indistinguishable from a rando off the street who attacked a librarian and stole his badge.
Somehow I also forgot to bring my new Adult Services Provider business cards. There’s a kind of small guild joke among A.S.P.s about how sleazy our job title sounds. These beauties have been literally months in the making and somehow I left my desk without grabbing some to take to the romance writers’ convention.
They do not have my name on file, but not only does the Penned Con staff quickly furnish me with a conference badge and a tote bag containing the official program, free swag, and a flash drive of free sample e-book downloads; I am quickly taken to meet Rick of Red Coat PR who brings me to meet his wife Amy, a mythological and fantasy romance novelist (Kindle rank #32,429). They are the organizers of this event. We talk briefly but enthusiastically about putting together a librarian panel for next year’s Con.
Red Coat PR is called such because Rick is British — not because Rick is my enemy or that he’s going to betray me, as I think for a paranoid split second. He is in fact very nice and his accent … well it’s mellifluous, everyone agrees. He gives me at least three of his excellent, rounded, pleasingly textured Red Coat PR business cards, and I scribble down my email on a piece of torn notebook paper.
Thus concludes the only conversation I will have in my two hours at Penned Con.
2:55 PM — Against the Grain
I step into a panel called “Against the Grain Open Q & A.” The program describes it as being about “what readers feel about killing favorite characters, happy endings, cliffhangers, bucking trends, smexy* scenes, writing for shock value and more.”
At the moment I walk in the panelists are agreeing that cliffhangers should make readers want to buy the next book in the series. Not an idea that will seriously trouble the Grain, but still a solid insight, and one that illuminates a key fact about Penned Con: pretty much every author here seems to have at least one series going. (One author with both a mystery series and a paranormal romance series is not unusual: it’s actually quite unfair to call Penned Con a romance convention, but romance does seem to be the most common element across the many sub-genres.)
As a marketing/PR novice, this strikes me to be as the closest thing to rock-solid beginner advice in the genre: get started on your series. Even in the literary realm, the multi-volume opuses of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard have been moving units in translation, a symptom of what has been dubbed the “box set effect.”
There’s a slim Asian woman on the end of the panel (paid Kindle rank unknown, but probably pretty high, I missed the introductions and her name isn’t listed in the program). She has done both romantic series and steamier erotic series. She says that “there’s a market for the more romantic stuff, but not like the steamier ones.” She also has this endearing quality of being unable to swear out loud, even though there seems to be plenty of swearing and much, much else in her books, which I hope are on the flash drive.
(N.B.: this woman is one of two people of color I see at the Con. On the whole there is a really pleasing democratic feel to the proceedings here, but Red Coat PR could work on bringing more diversity to the table and expanding their reach into urban fiction and romance. We move a ton of this stuff at the library: e.g. Joy Deja King’s Female Hustler: All I See is The Money … (#105,353)).
The final question of the “Against the Grain” panel asks about the hardest authorial choices the panelists have made. They all give pretty interesting answers. These authors have a very vital, intimate, complicated bond with their readerships, I realize, so that these choices are not just artistic risks but personal ones — with each new plot twist and character development they’re gambling, in a sense, with their readers’ love. That is a lot to put on the line.
Meanwhile, and I’m not quite sure how this happens, but one of the panelists (name, Kindle rank unknown) launches into a long and tearful monologue about her late grandmother and a lost high school friend. The pain is undoubtedly real but there’s also something treacly and fabricated about the monologue. It’s like trompe l’oeil emotion, laid on too thick. The moderator even looks a bit nonplussed as she leads us in one of those weak rounds of forced applause, because everyone feels awkward and needs to do something with their hands. The lone male panelist, Eric Asher (#5,762), passes his colleague a big stuffed frog that may be raffled off later, and this confirms the overall impression that Asher is a cool guy, a sport. It is undoubtedly a classy move by Asher, who has a trilogy going.
I leave still feeling testy and manipulated. Maybe I am just a dick.
“I didn’t expect it to get so emotional in there,” the woman behind me says. I feel a surge of gratitude toward her. I wonder if she has an escort to tomorrow night’s masquerade ball.
Confessional Interlude — Outside Author Signing Room
There is no way to finesse the fact that I am a book snob. In my younger, even snobbier days, I once said to my brother: “This might sound pretentious, but I don’t like to read bestsellers. I will read a bestseller, but only years after everyone has stopped reading it. When it comes to books, I just don’t want to have the same experience everyone else is having.”
“Um, that definitely sounds pretentious,” my brother replied.
Many, I am tempted to say most, of the featured authors at Penned Con are USA Today and New York Times bestsellers. I expected to see some but not so many. It’s an open secret that the robust sales of romance and other genre fiction titles subsidize other genres, such as literary fiction, that sell far fewer copies. In some sense, I owe my career, such as it is, to writers I’ve never heard of or read, such as A.M. Hargrove (#68,573) and Denise Grover Swank (#170 and Penned Con’s keynote speaker). Actually I should probably read them if they are included on the free flash drive, because they’re clearly onto something.
People love these books. Okay, mostly women love these books, but something like 70-80% of all fiction readers are women, across all genres. Penned Con authors often have like 400-500 customer reviews on Amazon, and very high average star ratings. (I don’t even have the energy to check Goodreads.) This level of reader engagement and support is almost inconceivable to me — I think I would find it almost paralyzing. There is a tangible sense of the closeness of readers and writers at Penned Con, but also the sense that being in this room together is only the physical culmination of an ongoing closeness through books and online. This is, in other words, a real community.
3:30 PM – Author Signing Room
This does not really explain or justify my failure to negotiate the Author Signing Room. This is pretty much just garden-variety social anxiety taking over. The Signing Room is dense and intense. Picking up the trompe l’oeil theme from outside, the wallpaper in this room is covered in very three-dimensional looking arched white ribbons. The overall effect is like being packed inside a towering wedding cake with fifty romance novelists.
I take a quick look around but, aside from admiring the booth designs — I mean there are jewels and little rock quarries and synthetic strewn rose petals among other things, a real step up from your typical booth at AWP — I realize I’m just not going to make it very long in here. I am a little dizzy, and the books all look like they’re underwater somehow, so although I intend to linger and speak to an actual romance novelist about the convention hustle, and get some speculation going about tomorrow night’s masquerade ball, I’m more or less viscerally compelled to get out of there. This is what I do.
I feel like I have failed all four readers of Scribbler, especially my mom.
3:45 PM — The Lesson of Wallbanger
The day’s last session and things are getting a little loopy and impromptu by this point. However, this panel features three of Penned Con’s marquee authors, Alice Clayton (#2,984), Denise Grover Swank (probably #100 by now), and Aleatha Romig (#2,628), so they have it set up in a big ballroom on the thirteenth floor of the Sheraton.
The ballroom is about 1/4 full with the audience clustered close to the raised platform where the three panelists sit at a draped table. Looking to keep a low profile myself, I find a chair about fifteen rows back in the deserted middle-back of the room, only to find that I have inexplicably seated myself in the same row as one of the few other dudes at this conference. He wears a Cardinals cap and a light beard and pokes irritably at his phone. I like to think he is perhaps a stray husband from the earlier panel “Husbands of Authors 101.” What kind of guy attends Penned Con? Including legit authors like Eric Asher, there seem to be about ten men total. There was another older man in a gray blazer lurking around the Author Signing Room — maybe a publisher or an editor. I haven’t seen many publishers at the Con, which seems to be mostly free of middle-men.
The answer to this question would seem to be: “You. You are the kind of guy who attends Penned Con.” And possibly my friend here. We’ve set up at a wary distance from the panelists, but my friend and I have made a miscalculation. Up close to the stage, it is dim and anonymous, but the row where we are sitting, while further back, seems to be directly illuminated. It occurs to me that, from the panelists’ vantage, there are about one hundred obscured female heads and then two male ones, caught like perverts in searchlight. Oh, never mind: when I turn to look for my companion, he has retreated into the shadows.
Alone under the spotlight, I have a stray egotistical fantasy. Someone gets out of their chair and says: “He’s not just a librarian, he is the author of a critically acclaimed literary novel.“
Just then, Red Coat PR Rick takes the stage. He is filling in for the scheduled moderator, he explains. The authors all seem to know Rick quite well (possibly from the UK Author Tour Red Coat PR has also organized) and they make mildly flirtatious jokes about his British accent. Rick proceeds to read a list of questions, the source is unclear, but I assume they come from the public, from readers.
Rick’s one substantial aside as moderator is about how busy authors are: they must be “their own CEO, their own CFO,” he says. He basically seems to view writing as a small business venture and this doesn’t seem to raise any hackles among the panelists or the audience. When I think about the fact that this is all taking place in an old J.C. Penney warehouse, it seems kind of appropriate, actually.
Two of the panelists, Alice Clayton and Aleatha Romig, trace the origins of their writing back to the recession. Clayton speaks about how her income was cut in half every year for several years until she had to sell her house. Romig began writing during a period when her husband lost his job; she wrote in the late hours after working full-time as a dental hygienist. “It was the one aspect of my life I could control,” she says. Denise Grover Swank’s ad in the Penned Con program strikes a similar theme: “I keep my sanity by creating characters to talk to and worlds to live in,” it reads.
The day’s best writing advice definitely comes from Alice Clayton, who talks about showing her first book — originating as a Twilight fan fiction called Edward Wallbanger — to a prominent, unnamed romance novelist. The writer told Clayton that she had to introduce the hero in the first chapter; in Clayton’s book, the hero did not even appear until Chapter 4. “But that’s the whole thing that makes my book unique!” she says. “My heroine spends the first three chapters of the book hearing him bang some other chick through the wall!”
Trust your instincts, in other words, and don’t let yourself be penned in by convention. The point has never been so vividly illustrated. There’s a nice payoff too: Wallbanger‘s success has allowed Clayton to buy a new house. When she says this, the whole crowd applauds, no prompting necessary this time.
Denise Grover Swank (surely approaching #50) casually offers a virtuoso dissection of Amazon and Kindle and Kindle Unlimited, the ways she uses them, and the limitations of the site (“Amazon is not your friend, they are doing what’s good for them”) while also being kind and nonjudgmental toward the many Kindle users in the crowd. She is an almost industrial-level producer of series, and casually refers to her free Kindle titles as “loss leaders,” but somehow she doesn’t sound smarmy while saying this, just like a smart woman who makes sound business decisions.
Aleatha Romig adds, at one point: “I’m a writer now. I used to write orthodontic prescriptions. That’s what I wrote.” There is a defiance about her: she tenses up when recounting the slighting remarks of relatives and friends, and you can tell that she’s still fighting these battles in her head, despite all of her success. There is an air of total determination about her. “I just want to become a better writer,” she says. “I want to get better with every book.”
I truly believe that she will.
There are some raffle prizes being given away, including a Kindle Fire, but a Kindle Fire holds no interest for me. The words have always reminded me too much of Fahrenheit 451. I’m half-tempted to enter the raffle for the big stuffed frog that Eric Asher deployed for comforting purposes at Against the Grain, but my wife says our stuffed-animal menagerie has reached its limits.
I don’t even get a picture, unfortunately. Sorry, mom.
On the way down the elevator with four or five other Con-goers, the doors open to admit a new passenger, and get stuck, continuing to open and re-open. Someone says: “Getting to know you guys way too well.” Everyone is relieved when the doors finally close, and we are once again enclosed.
As we descend, I pretend, for a moment, that I am Denise Grover Swank, watching my Amazon ranking rise toward #1. Then I take heart in the lesson of Wallbanger: just do what you do. Be yourself. There is an inevitable discomfort when your dream is turned into a product: it’s okay. I still don’t know what “smexy”* means, but I’m not sure that I need to know. I head back out into the heat, the sultry heat.
* – These Kindle rankings are highly unscientific and shoddily researched, based on highest easily available ranking of a recent title. They are here to illustrate a larger point. My Kindle rank was #769,114 at the time of this writing, and has begun a steady descent toward #800,000. Literally every single person mentioned in this article is outselling me, often exponentially.
* – Not a typo. “Smexy,” according to the Urban Dictionary, can mean “smart and sexy,” or just “super sexy,” and can be used in a sentence in the following way: Chris is a smexy guy — he’s got straight As and he’s ripped! I am still not 100% clear on what would constitute a “smexy scene,” though. We may have to wait for the editors of the OED to sort this out, or at least until next year’s Penned Con.
The very kind Rick and Amy Miles of Red Coat PR generously donate part of their earnings from Penned Con to Action for Autism, a St. Louis-based nonprofit which is dedicated to helping children on the autism spectrum find resources to improve their lives.