Is attending RWA or RT Worth the Cost? (Spoiler: YESSS)

Registration for RWA National opens next week (on Feb 2, according to the RWA website), and so now’s probably a really good time for me to blog about the pros and cons of attending big romance cons, specifically the cost. Really, for me, the only downside is how expensive it is to attend either of the two biggies on the romance calendar, RWA and RT Booklovers (often just called RT).
I mentioned in my email newsletter recently that I didn’t attend the 2011 RWA conference in New York City because I simply couldn’t afford to. But now in 2016 I can’t afford NOT to. Here’s why.

Deciding how to spend money on a writing career is something most writers I know struggle with. There are dozens of things we can be doing to “invest in ourselves,” but picking through what’s really going to pay off and what isn’t is tricky.
Deciding to go to a convention isn’t like deciding to run an ad campaign because it’s hard to figure out if it’s “worth it.” This is different from a cost, say, if I pay BookBub $500 to promote my 99-cent sale, I can do the math to figure out my breakeven point is at 1500 sales.
It’s not quite so simple to calculate ROI (Return On Investment) with what you’re likely to spend to attend a convention–any convention–and RWA is by far the most expensive convention I’ve been to in 25 years in publishing. The hotel in 2015 was $255 per night before taxes, and the registration for the conference itself isn’t cheap, either. (RWA 2016 will be $450 for RWA members to register and $269 per night hotel.) RT Booklovers in Dallas was a little more affordable than the 2015 RWA National, but only by a little, and the 2016 costs are announced to be. (RT Booklovers in Las Vegas was $489 for published authors when reg opened, but it has price jumps every few months. If you’re just registering as an attendee there are also per-day rates, and the hotel costs are much less: only $119-$149 a night at the Rio in Vegas.)
A quick breakdown of some estimated costs on for the 2015 RWA:
Registration: $500 (may vary depending on how early you registered, includes breakfast)
Hotel: $600 (assuming you split with a roommate)
Airfare: $450 (assuming you bargain hunted but couldn’t get dirt cheap)
Food: $375 ($75 per day. New York is expensive, but assume a free meal here or there)
TOTAL: $1925
And that’s not counting taxis, airport shuttles, buying a dress for the Rita Awards ceremony, or any of that–nor your regular RWA membership. Still. You’re in the $2,000 ballpark. I was lucky: I took the train for less than $200 roundtrip, and if I’d gotten more roommates I could have whittled the cost down to ~$1500. If I’d crashed on my agent’s couch I and skimped food I could have gotten it down to ~$1,000, but really not lower than that. The question to ask myself then is: is it worth spending one to two grand to go to RWA?


If you’re an unpublished, aspiring writer, the three things you need most are:
1) information about the industry
2) development of your writing skills and craft
3) access to the people who can make your career (publishers, agents, crit partners, bloggers, peers)
and guess what, even after you’re an established writer, you still need those three things, but let’s look at this as if you’re new.


As it happens, all three of these things you need are found in abundance at RWA. What would it cost to “buy” these services separately? Well, information about the industry is something we do get lots of from the RWA newsletter (annual membership fee $95), and the classes offered by RWA and its chapters (varying prices). I attended two craft master classes this RWA, one with Susan Elizabeth Philips on characterization and one with Jennifer Crusie on Conflict. I also attended a fabulous panel that was as good as a master class called “How Not To End A Series,” about writing ongoing series. (Blogged here.) Last time I took one on paranormal worldbuilding taught by Nalini Singh (blogged here). I also went to a stunningly useful panel on Writing LGBT Characters. If instead of attending those four sessions I had done those classes as online workshops or gone to a writing class at my local adult education center I would have paid anywhere from $20 to $100 a class.

So let’s round it to $50 a class, meaning that was $200 worth of writing education right there on the spot. I think most people attended more sessions than that: you could probably have fit in ten and still had plenty of time to attend parties, cruise the goody room, meet people, etc. 10x$50= $500.


I also went to a panel on “Hottest Trends.” Typically if one really wants to consult with a publishing expert on such a topic you’d be looking at minimum a $100/hour consulting fee. So let’s add $100-$200 to our money’s worth. If I’d gotten up a little earlier some days or if I’d taken sessions instead of meeting with people I could have easily attended more workshops. You can see how at a value of $50 to $100 per session in “replacement value” the cost of registration is quickly covered and likely surpassed.
I want to stress here that the quality of the craft and marketing sessions I have attended at RWA National have been off-the-charts excellent, and almost all the ones I’ve attended at RT Booklovers have been really strong also, like last year’s sessions on using bonus content.


Then we come to item 3, though. How much would you pay for access to all the top movers and shakers in your industry? In some genres you’d be looking at a long, obscure apprenticeship toiling in obscurity before you make the right connections, or before you’re deemed worthy to join the insider “club.” In romance, it sure doesn’t feel that way. And conferences like RWA and RT have a thing called pitch sessions, where as part of your registration you get to sign up to pitch your book idea to an agent and/or an editor.
You can’t get that kind of access just from sending your submission through the slush pile. You can’t pay for that kind of access any other way. Like they say in the credit card commercials: Priceless!
Making those connections can happen sometimes through social media, but social media is still not a complete replacement for meeting in person, especially in an environment where pitching is expected and supported, and where you can get feedback on your pitch. I still say the face to face meeting with an agent or editor is priceless, invaluable, but let’s put a price of $200 on the feedback you get on your pitch. That’s about what you’d pay a “book doctor” to evaluate your proposal and give you feedback on it.


There were a couple of other perks for attendees, too. For example, during the “Trade Show” on Saturday afternoon, when various companies and services for writers exhibited, Tom Smarch Photography did FREE author photo head shots. I’m so pleased with how mine came out! I’d been meaning to get new author photos but haven’t had the time to book an appointment and, of course, a pro photographer costs money. But these didn’t: free, courtesy of RWA. I was skeptical, given that I was convention-tired, but a good lens, good eye, and good lighting really does make a huge difference. You can get $14.99 portrait photos at Wal-Mart, but the going rate for a decent portrait photographer seems to range from $50-$200 per sitting. Let’s call it $50.
Oh and let’s not forget the swag bag and all the stuff you can pick up in the goody room. I haven’t had to buy office supplies since I started going to these conventions. Pens, notepads, Post-Its, eye glass cleaners, highlighters, hand sanitizer, lip balm: I’m now well stocked. And books. Tons and tons of free books. If you have relatives who love reading romance you’ll be stocked up for birthdays and holiday gifts! Since I actually use the post-its and pens I pick up let’s say I saved $25 in office supplies.
Now let’s add up all the things I could have gotten out of the 2015 RWA so far:
$500 craft classes
$200 consulting fee
$200 professional feedback
$50 portrait photo
$25 swag
$975 total
That’s pretty close to the grand I would’ve spent if I skimped and did the convention as cheaply as possible!
And that’s only the things I could put a price tag on.
Still, one to two grand is a lot of money. But if you meet the agent who gets you that five-figure book deal, or that editor who acquires your book or maybe even your whole series, the payoff is huge. And every other opportunity to interact with editors and agents in person also requires money and travel, i.e. other writers conferences, book industry trade shows, book business fundraisers or awards banquets, etc. Even if a publisher or agent in New York would give you a one-on-one meeting not related to the conference, you’d still have to pay to get yourself there, find a place to stay, etc.
So for the aspiring writer? To me attending RWA is a no-brainer and I wish I had borrowed money to start attending them sooner. If you’re going to put yourself into this industry, $1,000 to $2,000 is a pretty low startup cost to acquire knowledge, craft, and connections! I know I detailed RWA here, but the RT Booklovers Convention has many of the same features and also lots and lots of readers so has more of a promotional aspect, too. So once you’re established and want a venue to reach out to readers, RT Booklovers is one place to accomplish that, too.


What happens when you’re not aspiring anymore, though, but are established? I no longer need to pitch to editors and I’ve been with my agent 15 years. But I believe there’s nothing better than being able to interact with the people at your publishing house. If RWA were not in New York, I would probably want to make a separate trip to NYC to meet with my editor separately. It’s going to cost as much to get there for that meeting as it would for the conference.
But this trip was even better than that. Because of the conference, the entire Forever team held a party at their offices, so all their authors got to go and meet people who don’t usually travel to RWA, like the art director who makes our covers so beautiful. (Elizabeth, we love you!) We met all the publicists, many senior editors, and also got to meet a lot of our fellow writers.
I can’t stress enough that making connections with other writers has helped me immensely throughout my career. And so often the opportunities to help one another come along because we got a chance to meet. When I was looking for advice on who to hire as a publicist, I got the advice of Tara Sue Me because we’d met by chance at a cocktail party at RT. When I needed blurbs for my latest book: every one of them came from someone I met at a conference. And so on.
And just because I’m a veteran writer doesn’t mean I get to stop learning about my craft, or the business. The business is constantly changing and it’s important to keep up, and there are always things to learn about writing. And there are always new bloggers and librarians to meet, other writers to connect with, and so on. There’s no replacement for attending a conference and the serendipity of connections that get made. Attending RWA and RT is, for me, part of the cost of doing business. In the future there might be some years where I choose one or the other because doing both is going to be too expensive or too much time away from writing, but right now I have them both on my calendar for the foreseeable future.
(P.S. One more tip about romance conferences. A great way to get your feet wet for not as much money is find the regional conference near you. Many of the same folks who teach at RWA National do the same presentations at regionals, which have lower registration cost and may be less far to travel. Among the ones I’ve been to and found them incredibly valuable: Moonlight & Magnolias (Georgia Romance Writers) and Let Imagination Take Flight (New England Chapter of RWA). There are many others including the Emerald City Writers Conference, New Jersey’s Put Your Heart In a Book, as well as Texas, Florida, etc! YA, fantasy, and science fiction writers, I urge you to attend some of these to get a handle on a huge amount of stuff that is applicable to ANY genre.)

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