US romance writers’ group seeks loving embrace of bankruptcy court

By Thomson Reuters May 29, 2024 | 2:33 PM

By Dietrich Knauth

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Hang up the ripped bodices, give Fabio the bad news and cue the lawyers: the Romance Writers of America, a nonprofit devoted to helping romance writers build their careers, is headed to bankruptcy court.

As with so many affairs of the heart, trouble started in a hotel, or more precisely with hotel bills for the organization’s flagship annual conference, which the group said it could not pay in its bankruptcy filing on Wednesday in Houston, Texas.

RWA membership has declined sharply due to recent controversies over diversity within the organization and the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented it from holding in-person events in 2020 and 2021, according to court documents.

Before 2019, RWA had 10,000 members, but membership has dropped to about 2,000. The organization’s declining membership meant that its long-term conference commitments were “threatening RWA’s ability to continue to operate,” according to its court filings.

The organization estimated that it owes roughly $3 million to the hotels that host its annual writers’ conference and about $74,500 in cash to other creditors. It plans to use its bankruptcy to eliminate the debt to the hotels, and instead institute a three-year payment plan that directs all of the organization’s disposable income to the hotels and other creditors.

RWA said in a statement it expects a “swift resolution” to its bankruptcy restructuring, which “will not impact its day-to-day operations” of providing training and other resources to its members.

The organization signed a long-term contract for its flagship annual writers’ conference in 2018, locking it in to agreements with Marriott hotels around the U.S. But as membership declined, RWA tried to cancel or renegotiate its now-excessive contracts, with only partial success.

The hotel that hosted RWA’s most recent conference has sought more than $700,000 from RWA because it sold fewer rooms than RWA had reserved, and the group expects to lose money on its upcoming 2024 conference in Austin, Texas, as well. RWA also faces a $1 million contract termination demand from the Philadelphia Marriott that is slated to host RWA’s 2025 conference.

RWA has been roiled by controversies over diversity in recent years, and it acknowledged that it had “lost the trust of our membership and the romance community” in a 2019 statement.

RWA reconstituted its board, canceled its 2020 awards program and pledged to improve its record on diversity after it suffered backlash for ousting a board member who had criticized other writers’ work for containing negative racial stereotypes. The organization also renamed its annual awards program to emphasize its connection to RWA founder Vivian Stephens, a Black editor who championed women of color in the romance writing community.

Those changes failed to prevent further criticism in 2021, when the organization gave an award to a historical romance novel with a protagonist who took part in the 1890 massacre of more than 300 Lakota men, women and children at the Battle of Wounded Knee. RWA rescinded the award.

(Reporting by Dietrich Knauth in New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Matthew Lewis)