A lesson in sex, romance and happily ever after

It was on Saturday night, the fourth and final evening of the Romance Writers of America Annual Conference, that I finally faced feelings of inadequacy.

In retrospect, it was an inevitable crisis, but not for the reasons I would have expected. It had (almost) nothing to do with that Friday workshop filled with more than 100 women discussing Alpha Heroes (strong, possessive men who love passionately) and why they – romance readers and writers – love them. Or with the tall, handsome cowboys who roamed Amazon’s party Thursday night while I stood in a corner, nursing a bottle of water.

The RWA conference, which took place this year in San Antonio, is a largely female affair. This year it attracted more than 2,100 writers, editors, publishers, publicists and anyone else with an interest in the (extraordinarily) popular book genre. According to the RWA, 91 percent of those who buy romance books are women, and so I, expecting to be marginalized to some degree, wasn’t surprised – or much disturbed – when I was.

What actually shook me were the sales numbers announced as various literary luminaries took the stage Saturday evening at the RITA awards – named for Rita Clay Estrada, the RWA’s first president. (The blow to my confidence came particularly from comparing these figures with the sales numbers from my own recent book.)

To offer just one example: Stella Cameron’s bio was read before she presented the RITA for “Romantic Suspense”: “Stella Cameron is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author. With over fourteen million copies of her books in print.”

That’s not the kind of number that you hear being thrown around at other conferences. In my genre of “serious” nonfiction, selling 1,000 copies of an e-book per month is respectable. In the hyper-charged world of romance, that’s barely a start.

None of this should come as a surprise. According to the RWA’s website (which cites “Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2013”), in 2012 romance fiction held the largest share – 16.7 percent – of any genre in the consumer book market. That amounted to almost $1.438 billion in U.S. sales in 2012. Romance fiction “was the top-performing category on the best-seller lists in 2012 (across the NYT, USA Today, and PW best-seller lists).”

But for all its commercial and cultural importance, the romance genre often feels as though it doesn’t get its due from mainstream cultural media.

Neither elite opinion nor sales numbers seemed to be an outward concern of those at the conference. Everyone seemed to be having too much fun talking about how to write and sell romance novels. The end goal is to achieve the Happily Ever After (a term of art in the genre). The hard work of getting there – taking two people and figuring out how to resolve their conflicts in a way that leaves the reader satisfied – is the business of modern romance writers.

It is, in fact, a more interesting and better written business than tired stereotypes and “Fifty Shades of Grey” might suggest. The standing-room-only “How to Write Hot Sex” panel was immediately followed by the more literary and historically based “Angst and Affability: Using Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice to Craft New Adult and Contemporary Romance.”

Romance queen Nora Roberts – 210 novels and millions of dollars to her name – summarized her decades of work during a “chat” for star-struck attendees: In the end it all comes down to “happily ever after, good overcomes evil.” It’s a simple message, but in a world that seems increasingly bereft of happy endings, it’s one whose appeal seems only to be growing.