Even as I was watching this year's Rita/Golden Heart awards ceremony, I was reflecting that the competition's categories and formats don't mesh with the current reality of the romance genre. Going by Twitter comments, I was far from the only one.
For anyone reading this not already familiar with them, the Rita and Golden Heart are Romance Writers of America's annual contests designed to reward the best in published and unpublished romantic fiction, respectively. The changes I'd like to see concern the category descriptions and the entry format requirements.
Currently there are no categories for same-sex or erotic romance, which in the past decade or so have become a HUGE part of the genre. Of course, there's nothing in the rules that would prevent an author from entering, say, her m/m pirate adventure in the Historical category or her erotic space harem story in Paranormal, but I don't think such a book would have a fair chance of finaling. All you need is two judges out of your five who aren't comfortable with homosexuality or multiple super-explicit sex scenes but ARE comfortable expressing their value judgments through their anonymous scores, and you're sunk.
And looked at from the judge's perspective, I can understand wanting to limit the odds of being asked to judge a book you'd never choose to read of your own free will even if it was a perfectly written example of its subgenre. I almost never read inspirational OR erotica, for example (just to use both ends of the spectrum), and I wouldn't want to have to judge either category. For one, I don't feel qualified. I usually volunteer to judge historical, Regency, or YA because I've read enough of all three to trust my judgment of what's a perfectly executed example of a classic trope vs. a tired cliche, or what's a daring and inventive new experiment vs. a story gone off the rails. I don't have that same mental framework in place for subgenres I don't read. Also, hand me a stack of inspys or eroticas, and I'm thinking, "Really? I have to read these? All five from beginning to end? I can't skim?" Which is certainly not the attitude I want MY judge to have when she's handed my book, and while I may be too mainline a Protestant to be an ideal inspirational judge, I can certainly get behind "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
So. Two new categories. I'd treat them like Inspirational and Young Adult and make them a catch-all for any setting or tone and open them to anything meeting the broad romance/strong romantic elements definition of "romance is the main plot or major subplot, with a happily ever after or happily for now ending."
And these are lower priority, but while I was at it I'd tweak the existing categories a bit. I'd either make novellas eligible for Best First Book or make the first full-length novels of authors who've already published novellas eligible. It just doesn't seem fair that authors who happen to sell a novella first are never eligible, especially as novellas continue to gain market share. I'd add a novella category to the Golden Heart. And I'd probably merge the Regency Historical and Historical categories. Sure, that would leave only one Historical winner, but I don't think Regency vs. Not is the best way to split the categories anymore. Really, lately it seems like I'm running across more Victorians than Regencies, but five years from now the pendulum could swing back to Regencies, or even to Westerns or medievals or some setting that's rare to nonexistent now. So it seems simpler to just have a Historical category than to keep tacking to the trends as they inevitably change every few years.
This post has gone longer than I planned, so I'll save my thoughts on entry format (tl;dr version="why paper only STILL?") for later this week. Anyone else have thoughts on the categories? Want to tell me why my changes wouldn't work, and what you'd do instead? And yes, I know I should send my opinion to the Board. I will, I promise. I'm just thinking about it aloud in front of the whole internet first.