What I Learned at RWA 2016

It’s been just over a week since I came back from the Romance Writers of America National Conference. That means I’ve had some time to process, and I have some takeaways to share.

I’m not going to be wrapping up RWA. There are other people who do that much better than me (and if you read Lindsay Emory’s wrap-up you’ll get a pretty good idea of what my conference was like right down to the half-naked man posing on a bar because we spent a lot of time together). Instead, I’m going to share a few things that I took away from RWA both as a writer.

I Need a Business Plan

Here’s how I feel about business plans:



Clearly there are many things I’d rather do than write one including but not limited to walking over hot coals, being audited by the IRS, and eating pickles (ugh, can’t stand the things). However, after years of putting it off I’ve come to realize that it’s time for me to suck it up and act like the pro I think of myself as.

I’m still working my way through a formal business plan (hey, they take time to write and research), but I’ve done two things in the week since I’ve been back home from the conference. One was fill out Mel Jolly’s 2016 Game Plan Template. She breaks down professional, personal, and financial objectives for the year and then asks you to list the actionable steps you’re going to take to actually make your goals happen.

While it’s scary sometimes to write down concrete things that we want, it’s also really powerful. It helps focus what you’re doing and helps you bring everything you do professionally back to one question: “Is what I’m doing helping me meet my objectives?”

The other exercise — which was a lot more enjoyable because I got to shamelessly dream big — was Ally Carter’s lists from her blog post "A Letter to Baby Author Me (Circa 2004)." She advises writers to jot down five things that would make you really happy in your career, five "best case scenario" things that could happen in your writing career, and five of your wildest dreams. I did that, and now I’ve got the document living in my cloud storage so that I can pull it out once a year and check on my progress.

You Need an Author Branding Plan

One of the big, scary objectives on my 2016 Game Plan was “Create an author branding plan.” What I’m looking to do is develop a consistent look and feel for all of my social media and web platforms — including this website and blog — that reflects what readers will find in both my historical and contemporary books.

It’s harder than you’d think to narrow down the themes that run through your books and your online persona, but Alisha Rai and Courtney Milan gave a great workshop at RWA about starting to narrow down your brand. If you’re an author who attended and bought the conference recordings, their workshop was called “It’s All About the Audience: How to Find Readers and Build and Keep Your Audience.”

Focus Your Energy on Newsletters

Sarah Wendell and Mel Jolly did an excellent workshop on newsletters for authors. While a lot of the information was advice I’d heard before, getting it all at once in one session helped synthesize it and make things stick. One of my takeaways was consistency. It also helped to hear someone tell me that although I might feel like I'm pestering people with my newsletters once a month, these are people who've specifically asked to receive news.

I’m a believer in building and owning your newsletter if you’re a publishing professional because I’ve seen dramatic changes at social media sites in the last year. If you invest all your growth into sites where you don't have direct access to readers, you're risking losing control of your primary marketing tool. Facebook reach and page accessibility is completely dependent on what Facebook’s developers want to with the algorithm. Twitter and Instagram have also undergone changes recently. The only thing you have complete control over is your newsletter list (which you should be exporting once every three months to make sure you have all of those addresses in case your newsletter provider folds).

Sometimes Old School Is Better Than New School

I had a fantastic time signing books during the Pocket and Gallery open house at RWA. I got to meet a bunch of readers, and give away a lot of books which always makes me happy. However, I wound up with a stack of about 300 postcards left over from the signing.

Ready to sign @pocket_books #RWA16 open house!

A photo posted by Julia Kelly (@juliakellywrites) on

What I decided to do was to reach out old school. I bought a bunch of A7 envelopes, stuffed them with postcards, and mailed them to every family member, friend, romance reader, and giveaway winner I’ve ever run into. Now, as this post goes up, there should be postcards dropping into people’s mailboxes across the country as well as Canada, the U.K., Martinique, and the Netherlands.

I like old school snail mail as a marketing technique for a few reasons:

  • I personally love getting mail, and I suspect that it’s a nice thrill for readers to get something other than magazines, bills, and junk mail.
  • It’s another way you can touch readers and put your books in front of them.
  • It’s a reminder to people who haven’t preordered your book yet that it’s coming out.
  • It’s a way to make sure that all of that beautiful paper swag you have hanging around actually gets used!

I still have dozens of post cards, but I did send some along to Colleen Hoover’s Bookworm Box donation address. If you’re able to send books or swag, it’s a great program.

Lots of snail mail going out to readers this week!

A photo posted by Julia Kelly (@juliakellywrites) on

Connecting With Other Authors Is Worth the Conference Expense for Me

Probably the most important thing about going to conferences for me is getting to see the incredible, intelligent, talented women I only see once a year.

It’s hard to describe the reasons why RWA is so important to someone who isn’t a writer — not to mention not in the romance industry — because it’s such a foreign concept to most people. The best thing way I can try to explain it is that RWA and conferences like it is all about a community of readers, writers, and industry professionals who all speak the same language of books and genre coming together. I have a great group of core friends as well as many acquaintances whose friendship I value. They’re also unendingly generous and knowledgable, and it's good for my career to hang out with them.

Finally but Most Importantly

Romance and the larger publishing industry still has a lot of growing to do in terms of welcoming and respecting authors of color, different abilities, and sexualities. I was thrilled to see two LGBTQ romances win RITAs this year — For Real: A Spires Story by Alexis Hall and Him by Serena Bowen and Elle Kennedy — but I both heard about and witnessed microaggressions and outright hostility toward some members of the community.

Everyone should feel like they have a place at RWA and in the larger industry. That starts with welcoming people into the community; supporting authors of color and LGBTQ authors who tell stories about characters of color, LGBTQ characters, and characters with different abilities; and demanding the industry value those people in the way it currently values white, het, cis gender authors and stories.

Romance can do better.