Baptism By Fire: Taking Non-Romance Readers To A Romance Convention

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Mandy Trisha and Julie at The Rio

Trisha with her friends Mandy and Julie at The Rio in Las Vegas.

“Oh my gosh, what are you going to wear?”

“Are the conference rooms cold?”

“Are you going to eat breakfast?”

“What are we going to go to first?”

“I’m pretty sure we need to ‘Get Our Blaze On’.”

This is a sample of the questions and comments that came from my friend Julie on the morning before I took her to her first ever day at a romance novel convention. It’s important to note here that, aside from being a longtime Outlander fan, Julie doesn’t really read romance novels. Neither does my friend Mandy, but she too was looking with interest and a little confusion (and possibly a hint of good-natured skepticism) at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention schedule that morning in our hotel room at The Rio in Las Vegas.

A little background: Most of the readers I know who don’t read romance have never tried it, and the stereotypes around romance  and the incredibly insular nature of the community of readers and writers can make it a little difficult to get into it. As I made plans to go to RT, I started to wonder what it would be like to be introduced to romance through a 3,100-person convention focused entirely on romance readers, authors, and industry professionals. And then I went from wondering to calling friends and saying, “Hey, I’m going to Vegas in April and you should definitely come! And also…do you maybe want to spend a day at a romance novel convention?”

Mandy and Julie are two of my best friends, and both are very open-minded about romance novels as well as tremendously supportive of both me and of Vegas, which is how on a Friday morning in mid-April, the three of us ended up headed to a 10am session called “Get Your Blaze On!,” an hour full of games focused on Blaze, one of Harlequin’s imprints.

Trisha Mandy and Julie start the day

On our way to get our Blaze on.

And get our Blaze on we did. Armed with our $5 cups of hotel coffee, we joined a table of readers from Georgia and Ohio. We came up short in romance BINGO, but we crushed the sexy-items-from-your-purse scavenger hunt, and we walked away with books, gift bags, and the high that comes with knowing our purse contents had the Harlequin stamp of approval.

Julie with her winnings

Julie with her winnings

Unfortunately, soon after, Mandy and Julie encountered a darker side of the romance convention – long lines peppered with conniving readers. As we waited patiently to attend the “Sexy Spies and Secret Agents” session, my friends were hustled by an older romance veteran with her eye on their Harlequins. “Well, if you don’t even read romance novels, then I’d be happy to take your books,” she suggested. Luckily, Mandy is a New Yorker, and Julie works with high-school students, so both were too savvy to be swayed.

Trisha's failed BINGO card

Trisha’s failed BINGO card

Over lunch, my friend Heather (who runs Smut Matters) and I offered some background and context about the industry and genre, and Julie and Mandy shared their initial impressions. Mandy had talked with the husband of a fairly well-known author at the pool the day before, and had learned some things about the challenges of the publishing industry. Julie observed that the reader base she’s seen so far “is definitely giddy ladies.” Heather and I discussed our confusion over the current “breeding” phenomenon in romance. (Google at your own risk.)

Bloody Marys at lunch because Vegas

Bloody Marys at lunch because Vegas

Having done games and activities sessions before lunch, we decided to spend the afternoon in panel discussions with authors. The first panel was a bit of a bust for us, but the next was exactly the kind of conversation I’d love for all of my romance-averse friends to hear. The panel was called “Suffragettes & Alpha Males: Feminism in Romance,” and Eva Leigh, Victoria Dahl, and Tessa Dare talked about topics like the feminism inherent in being a part of the romance industry and why people who say that romance is “porn for women” are so off-base.

The day ended at Friday’s nighttime event: Cirque du Punk, which, as you have surely deduced, was a Cirque de Soliel/Steampunk crossover party, featuring amazing costumes and overpriced drinks. We chatted while people-watching, and we spent a little time in the photo booth. Julie also snagged a souvenir/centerpiece.

True story: Julie wore this on the plane back to Denver.

True story: Julie wore this on the plane back to Denver.

When it was time to leave Vegas and RT behind, Mandy reflected that the experience had given her a better understanding of the genre and a deeper interest in the industry. She also worked to fit almost all of the books she acquired into her bag for the return trip, and I don’t think she just did it to humor me. As for Julie, she might be a true convert. Within 48 hours of completing her RT experience, she texted and told me she’d finished her first non-Outlander romance novel and had started on the next. Seems Tessa Dare and I have made a “giddy lady” out of a romance neophyte.